Dynamic Leader, Donna Sollenberger
It’s Wednesday, and Donna Sollenberger, ’71 LAS, MA ’74 LAS, has a brief respite from her typically jam-packed schedule.
The vice president and CEO of the University of Texas Medical Branch Health System spent most of the day juggling meetings with the dean of the hospital’s school of medicine and its executive leadership, reviewing progress on a new health education center while also finalizing plans for the upcoming year. This is all before working on her weekly staff blog and consulting with the health system’s chief communications officer about an upcoming employee town hall meeting. At one point, she swears she was supposed to have a free hour—but her time was again needed elsewhere, dealing with a pressing employee issue.
Suddenly it’s 5 p.m., which means Sollenberger gets to respond to an inbox full of new messages and prepare for the next day before finally heading home.
Somehow, she finds time in that hectic schedule to reflect on her years in the health-care industry. Her mind then wanders to a speech she gave as UIS commencement speaker in May 2016.
“Do what inspires you,” she recalls from her speech. “Do what ignites the fire of your passion for life and for work.”
For Sollenberger, 67, that fire is ignited every day in her role at UTMB, where she oversees strategies and operations for five hospitals and 90 clinics as well as care for roughly two-thirds of the inmates in Texas’ prison system. It’s a tough job, and the culmination of a life of hard work and opportunity. But it’s a job she’d never trade on her worst day.
“You realize that everything you do, the decisions you make, are going to impact what kind of care that person may get,” she says. “It’s such a challenging and dynamic industry. I get bored easily, but I have not been bored in 41 years because there’s always something more we can do. Always something we can do better. Always a challenge.”
From literature to politics … and beyond
Sollenberger is the first to admit she did not take the typical road to her position. The Springfield native grew up the oldest of four children and the daughter of an adoring father who stressed the importance of education in his kids’ lives. Going to college was non-negotiable, but it wasn’t something she had to be forced to do: Sollenberger loved to learn and was inspired to take classes at what was then called Sangamon State University.
Where she and her dad did disagree was in what Sollenberger should study in school. At the time, she says, it was typical for women to go either into education or nursing. Her father, whose friend owned a pharmacy, wanted her to become a pharmacist.
Sollenberger took prerequisites for the major—lots of math and science, in which she did well—and even interned at a local drugstore chain in Springfield. But something didn’t sit quite right. So at the beginning of her junior year, she went in another direction: literature. And while her life eventually may have taken a different path, it was in this field of study that she learned important skills that would help her forever.
“I loved thinking about how, in literature, you read through a book or an essay or a poem, and you really look for the theme,” Sollenberger says. “It’s intriguing for me to try and figure out what someone is trying to say and the main point they’re trying to get across to us.”
Sollenberger graduated in 1971 with a degree in literature and a minor in chemistry, and later obtained a teaching degree, going on to teach high school for four years while pursuing her master’s in literature.
But she soon found yet another calling: A politically oriented friend got her involved in a local campaign, and before long, Sollenberger had a job in state government, working for the Illinois Dept. of Transportation’s public affairs bureau. From there, she moved on to the Dept. of Conservation, where she helped with strategic planning, events and constituent services.
Eventually, another friend came to her with a new opportunity: The Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, which had opened its doors just a few years earlier, needed an administrator. Sollenberger was urged to apply and she did, scoring an interview with the chair of surgery. Once the job duties—budgeting, recruitment, helping to plan a new clinic building—were explained to her, she became enthusiastic and eager to put her best self forward. But it seemed clear to Sollenberger that lack of experience would be her downfall.
“It was a great interview, and I loved meeting him, but I left thinking, ‘Well, I’ll never hear from him again,’” she remembers thinking. But she did get a call back, and thus began her first foray into the health-care field. During 15 years in that position, Sollenberger, who now has three children, gave birth to a daughter. She grew both personally and professionally, and learned
crucial career lessons.
It was when she was about to leave that job in 1991 that Sollenberger learned a lesson that would inspire her even today. She was in contention for a position as surgery administrator at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; as Sollenberger looked ahead to that role, she asked the hiring manager why he had decided to take a chance on her.
He responded that while she may not have been the most qualified person on paper, her time studying literature and working as a teacher meant that she had other important skills: communication, organization and writing.
“‘I just figured I’d teach you the rest,’” Sollenberger recalls him saying. “That served me well, in terms of thinking about when I was hiring other people—to not just look at the traditional candidates, but at some who were different.”
The ability to take new approaches has paid dividends at MD Anderson. Within two years of her hiring, the vice president of hospitals and clinics left, and Sollenberger was put in charge on an interim basis before being offered the position full-time.
She would grow into a strong leader. Current UTMB President Dr. David L. Callender, who met Sollenberger while working as a young faculty member at MD Anderson, remembers her as a “marvelous person” with a keen ability to deal with different kinds of personalities and troubleshoot complex problems. “She was so poised and thoughtful,” he recalls. “She was very good at bringing together diverse thoughts and perspectives.”
The two kept in touch over the years, seeing each other at various medical conferences, and Callender often would call and ask for advice, which Sollenberger would happily pass along.In 2007, after stints in Los Angeles and Wisconsin, Sollenberger accepted a job at the Baylor University College of Medicine. The school was planning to build its own hospital in Houston, where she would work as executive vice president and CEO. But after two years, the project never quite got off the ground. That turned out to be a lucky break for Callender, who by then had become president of UTMB. He reached out and offered Sollenberger the position of vice president and CEO of the UTMB Health System in Galveston, Texas. Sollenberger accepted.
In 2007, after stints in Los Angeles and Wisconsin, Sollenberger accepted a job at the Baylor University College of Medicine. The school was planning to build its own hospital in Houston, where she would work as executive vice president and CEO. But after two years, the project never quite got off the ground. That turned out to be a lucky break for Callender, who by then had become president of UTMB. He reached out and offered Sollenberger the position of vice president and CEO of the UTMB Health System in Galveston, Texas. Sollenberger accepted.
“She’s one of the finest health-care executives in the country,” Callender says. “Donna could oversee and manage just about any health system, anywhere, at any time.”
‘Straight, no chaser’
In her time, Sollenberger helped rebuild UTMB after the devastating effects of Hurricane Ike and spearheaded a number of important projects. In 2014, UTMB won the Texas Hospital Association’s Bill Aston Award for Quality, after instituting a comprehensive new system that helped identify and treat sepsis, lowering mortality rates by a dramatic 70 percent.
Sollenberger played a crucial role in the effort, Callender asserts. “My admiration and respect for her, which was really very significant since the first time I met her, has only grown through the years,” he says.
Those sentiments are echoed by others she works with. Dr. Danny O. Jacobs—executive vice president, provost and dean of the school of medicine at UTMB—says part of his decision to join the organization was Sollenberger’s impressive background.
Jacobs, who previously served as Duke University’s chair of surgery for 10 years, came on board at UTMB in 2012 and says Sollenberger’s track record boosted his confidence in the decision.
“It was really impressive to see her vision,” Jacobs recalls. “Not only to read about her many accomplishments, but what struck me as important, especially for a person considering taking a job here, was that she seemed to be the person that did more than talk the talk. She also walked the walk.”
The two now work closely together as a part of the president’s cabinet, meeting weekly to tackle problems. Sollenberger’s style as CEO helps foster teamwork and puts the patients first, Jacobs says. At the same time, she realizes the importance of education and research, he notes, and always thinks about how best to improve both, developing strategies and recruiting staff.
Perhaps most important, Jacobs says, is Sollenberger’s transparency, as well as her direct, no-nonsense approach to getting things done.
“One of my favorite expressions is, ‘Straight, no chaser,’” Jacobs says. “You’re able to have a very open, direct, non-confrontational and non-threatening conversation with her, which I think is not [always] easy to do in academic medical centers. When we’re one-on-one, I feel like she will tell me what’s on her mind, I can tell her what’s on my mind, and we’re aligned.”
Your choices are your story
A member of SSU’s first graduating class, Sollenberger was asked to deliver the commencement speech for UIS’ 45th graduating class. She marvels at how far the University has come. When Sollenberger attended, there was no real campus life to speak of—there were barely classrooms: She remembers one course being held in a local hotel during her first year. In subsequent years, many of her classes took place in trailers.
UIS obviously has grown since then, as has Sollenberger. In her commencement speech, she spoke of her time as a student of literature. The liberal arts graduate still loves to read, though she’s recently turned to non-fiction; Sollenberger also has been on a college basketball kick, devouring stories about the University of Kansas and the great rivalry between legendary coaches Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano.
Her trajectory has been full of hard work and some fortuitous help along the way. Sollenberger’s journey taught her how to be an effective leader, stay open-minded and, above all, to always keep her passion alive. For the one-time lit major, health care is a calling: Since breaking into the industry as an inexperienced 26-year-old, she has built a resume that any executive would be proud of.
And because of that, she’s even been able to help advocate for her profession: Two years ago, Sollenberger joined the board of America’s Essential Hospitals, a trade association for safety net hospitals such as UTMB. This year, she was asked to serve as chair of AEH through 2018, enabling her to further help hospitals that treat the neediest patients.
“That voice needs to be heard,” Sollenberger says. “The voice of the safety net hospitals and, I would say in many respects, the voices of patients who have many other challenges.”
Every experience, from Sollenberger’s time at UIS until now, has trained her to become the professional she is today. She’s faced unique challenges, learned on the job and risen to great heights in her industry.
One of the themes of Sollenberger’s commencement speech was about choices and how each one contributes to the story of your life. That’s certainly been true for her. And if her life up until now has been a story, looking back, it’s been a happy one.
“Not everybody can say they’ve actually loved what they’ve done for 41 years,” Sollenberger reflects. “It’s why I get up every morning and come here. Because I love what I do.”