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Catholic Health CEO Sullivan learns while leading

In his wallet, Mark A. Sullivan still carries his ID card from his internship at Sisters Hospital in 1993.

"It keeps me grounded where I started and never to lose sight of being a good listener," Sullivan said. "So I always want to have that feeling of an intern, where I want to learn. I don't want to assume anything."

Sullivan, 50, has come a long way from his internship. In early 2018, after a long career at Catholic Health System, he was named president and CEO. Sullivan oversees a $1 billion organization with about 10,000 employees and a major impact on health in Western New York, through its hospitals, nursing homes and home health care services.

The Orchard Park resident speaks with pride about Catholic Health's quality rankings and mission of patient care. But even at the top of such a complex organization, he tries to maintain a personal touch.

At his request, photographs of Catholic Health caregivers at work were hung on the walls of the downtown administrative offices, to remind everyone what their work is really about. Sullivan attends employee recognition events when he can. And when he meets with the CEO of a Catholic Health facility, he goes to that CEO's workplace, and they walk the floors together after the meeting.

"Typically in an organization, when the CEO shows up, there's a concern," he said. "When I show up, I want it to be, like it should be, where they say, 'Oh, Mark's here, let's show him what we're working on here.' "

Mark Sullivan, the CEO of Catholic Health, speaks with some of their home health care staff members, from left, Joseph Meighan, Rosemary Boerschig, Cheryl Adrian and Monica Bryant. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Sullivan took over as Catholic Health's CEO last March, following in some big footsteps. His predecessor, Joseph McDonald, retired after 15 years in the job. Sullivan has built his career at Catholic Health, including 11 years as COO. He said McDonald provided valuable guidance.

"When we met about the COO job, he said, 'From today forward, you're going to see health care through a different lens, and I want you to be a good student of that,' " Sullivan said.

Sullivan made the most of his opportunity to learn. McDonald, now retired and living in Tennessee, said Sullivan was one of a few executives who Catholic Health developed for advancement. It wasn't assumed Sullivan would be his successor, McDonald said.

"The deal I made with (Sullivan) is, 'I'm going to give you as much experience as I can, good frank, opportunities to be successful,'" McDonald said. "'You may or may not be the next CEO here at Catholic Health but you will be a well-prepared CEO somewhere.'"

When Sullivan met with the CEO search committee, "Mark kind of wowed us with regard to his preparation, his stream of ideas and his energy," said Robert Greene, who is chairman of Catholic Health's board.

Greene said Sullivan has an "encyclopedic" knowledge of health care. "He's very good at reading people. I would say he's a sensitive human being and he's got superb people skills." Sullivan was awarded a three-year contract.

Even though Sullivan knew Catholic Health inside out, from working in different operations, he decided to see the organization through fresh eyes as the CEO. He met with a range of people in the community, as well as employees, to gather their impressions. He even attended an orientation session alongside new workers; his identity wasn't disclosed until near the end.

Sullivan, second from right, speaks with, from left, Bart Rodrigues, chief mission officer; James A. Dunlop, Jr., chief financial officer; and Joyce A. Markiewicz, president and CEO of Home & Community Based Care. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Sullivan said the meetings were informative. Talking with people outside of Catholic Health, he found "a perception that Catholic Health doesn't like to collaborate and partner. That's kind of a misnomer."

"It has to be the right partnership for the right reasons, and we owe that to the community," he said.

Sullivan said Catholic Health has collaborated with partners like D'Youville College, among others. But what about partnering with Kaleida Health, another major force in the region's health care?

"Hats off to Kaleida and their business plan. It's a very different health care delivery model than where health care is headed," Sullivan said. "For us, we would partner and work on things where health care is headed."

Sullivan sees an important role for Catholic Health in public health. It's an area he says he wants the system to be known for in the long run, in addition to its own quality rankings and patient care.

"We're still on those lists," he said. "With all the health care we have, we are still one of the sickest communities in the country and one of the poorest.

"So how do we get after that? I think being the CEO of a $1 billion corporation, my obligation is much bigger than building health care of bricks and mortar, it's about how do we get out and take care of the community."

Catholic Health faced a backlash in 2017 – before Sullivan became CEO – over its plan to open a methadone clinic in a location in Amherst bordering a residential street and park. Catholic Health ultimately chose a different location in the town, in an industrial park.

Sullivan said the health system considered the clinic vital, amid a wave of opioid-related deaths in Erie County, but learned a lesson about listening to the community. "We were trying to save lives, but we were disrupting the neighborhood," he said.

Another element of Sullivan's job is spearheading Catholic Health's relationship with its unionized workforce. Four-year agreements between the health system and the Communications Workers of America, representing more than 2,500 employees, are set to expire in 2020.

Sullivan was involved in the labor talks that led to the 2016 contracts. And until he became CEO, he served on a labor management task force that meets monthly to hash out workplace concerns outside of bargaining.

"The more time you can spend making deposits of good intention and understanding each other's position, the easier it is when you come down to having to deal with a contract, because you're already building a relationship," Sullivan said.

Sullivan called the union a "wonderful collaborator with us" in building for the future. "There were concerns with workplace violence and associate safety," he said. "We worked together and have seen a 50 percent reduction in associate safety issues in the facilities."

Deborah Arnet, president of CWA Local 1133, got to know Sullivan from the monthly labor management meetings. "I found him to be very approachable, sincere, very interested in actually working on some of these collaborative issues," Arnet said.

Talks on a new contract will are set to get under way in 2020. "That's always the true test, isn't?" Arnet said. "I don't know what his leadership style will look like through contract negotiations, because that of course is untested."

Contract talks by nature are different circumstances, she said. "It doesn't mean we can't collaborate on other things, just because when push comes to shove, I have a job to do, and he has a job to do. And as long as we both remember that, I think we can find common ground on other issues."

McDonald said he believes Sullivan is well prepared for what lies ahead.

Joseph McDonald was CEO for 15 years and was a mentor to Sullivan. (News file photo)

"I think the biggest challenge is going to be able to continue to recruit and develop new talent in the organization," McDonald said. "There's always going to be the challenge with reimbursement and changing health policies at the national and state level. Now we say, that's the given. That change is always going to be there, so you have to be able to respond to it."

While McDonald stays in touch with Sullivan, he said he is not looking over Sullivan's shoulder. "I told Mark the best thing about it is, I moved 800 miles away from him," he said. "I'm not getting in his mess every day, too."

Greene, the board chairman, said McDonald left Catholic Health on solid ground, allowing Sullivan to build on that foundation.

"Mark is an excellent manager," Greene said. "He delegates, but he is also available to his direct reports. And he's transparent, which has certainly built up the confidence of the board in him. He's not afraid to lay matters out candidly. If something isn't the way it should be, he doesn't duck and doesn't assign blame to anybody else."

Greene has gotten used to Sullivan's style. He recalled a meeting where Sullivan was speaking, with ideas "spilling out." Greene asked him to pause. "I said, 'Mark, I can't hear as fast as you can talk,' " Greene said. "He's so energetic, he wants to keep the ball rolling. It's very refreshing."

Sullivan has a lot on his plate, including a five-year strategic plan about to be developed. He said his faith, his family and his leadership team give him the confidence to serve as CEO.

"For me, health care is really about, it's a humble honor to care for somebody during their most vulnerable time," he said. "And what other way to wake up each morning and know that that's what you're doing?

"And you don't have to be at the bedside, but if I keep that internship mentality, I'm always appreciative of the people that are doing that."

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