Perspectives

Making Change

Mercy Hospital’s Sara Criger is reshaping the delivery of health care

By Sue Hawkes

Sara Criger, president of Allina’s Mercy Hospital, is a serial change agent. Her leadership has impacted a number of hospitals in the metro area, including Fairview Ridges Hospital, the University of Minnesota Medical Center and St. Joseph’s Hospital. Criger grew up planning to become a nurse like her mother, and while attending college, worked full time to pay for school. To gain experience in the medical field, she began working as a certified medical assistant. She soon realized she was interested in the leadership side of health care, switching her education focus from nursing to management. The move paid off. Early on, the president of the practice she was working for recognized her leadership potential and promoted her to operations manager and subsequently chief administrative officer. Despite this early success, it was difficult for Criger to establish a clear career path because her husband’s job at General Motors required that they relocate every few years. She would find a new job in each new location, and, it seemed, just as her career was gaining traction they would need to move again. 

Eventually, Criger and her family settled in Minnesota, where her career has flourished. She credits her success to her commitment to, “help make things go better for patients, as well as for the staff and physicians who are trying to fulfill their callings every day.” This commitment stems from her earlier experiences as a medical assistant, where, she says, she was, “seeing people receive bad news about their diagnosis, having them heal or sometimes die. I knew what it was like to experience care on the frontline. I know there are people here that I need to support, and they’re counting on me.”  

Criger shares how she’s become the leader she is today by accepting input and support, learning from others and managing change. 

Gaining confidence through support
Criger believes much of her success can be attributed to the support of others, and this influences her leadership style. She mentions battling “Imposter Syndrome” early in her career, wondering, “When will they figure out I don’t know what the hell I’m doing?” She says what helped most “were people who believed in me even when I maybe didn’t believe in myself.” Criger remembers when the Fairview Ridges Hospital president position became available, and a number of people encouraged her to apply.  “I thought, ‘Who, me? Are they talking to me?’ ” When she was offered the position, she was “shocked” but pleased to know that her leadership was valued. In fact, the man who would later become her mentor wrote “I believe in Sara Criger” on the interview form. 

“That statement was a defining moment for me, and as I look back, it was probably the first time somebody had said that specifically,” she reflects. “But I look back at the actions and opportunities other leaders gave me and see they had believed in me as well.” Criger now strives to display this type of leadership. “You take people who have that potential, support and stretch them, let them be in the limelight and give them the opportunity to shine, and you sit back and smile. You feel rewarded by what they are able to do.” 

She has also learned the importance of looking for support as a woman in business. “My mentor Joel Suzuki used to say, ‘when you believe it, you’ll see it.’ I decided to focus on inclusiveness and openness, not gender bias. That worked for me.” 

Learning from others
Sara sought out teachers and mentors throughout her career, as well. “I think everybody’s a role model in different ways,” she shares. “So I often look to multiple people and say, ‘I value how they do this.’ It might not be everything about them, but if you take advantage of looking at the strengths of various people, you can find a lot of different role model behaviors, competencies and skills in multiple people.” 

Seeking out role models was especially important when Criger became CEO of St. Joseph’s, a Catholic hospital. She is Lutheran, but says, her religion “didn’t matter at all to the nuns.” In fact, the nuns became her community “board,” and she found a mentor in Sister Marie de Paul Rochester, who sent her a congratulatory note for becoming the first female chief executive officer since 1978 — a position Sister Rochester held herself before retiring 30 years ago. “Sister Marie mentored me through being the CEO of a Catholic hospital and all of the cultural and religious practices and norms. It was a really special place.” 

Criger also enjoyed building a team she could rely on and learn from during her tenure at Fairview Ridges Hospital. “One of the things I was most proud of was the team of leaders that came together there, and that has been true in each of my executive teams since.” 

 

Leading through change
Criger’s role as Mercy Hospital’s president requires her to evolve the health care system proactively. She recently led the bold decision to merge Mercy and Unity hospital campuses into a single entity, to strengthen the programs of each and allow much-needed growth in mental health care on the Unity campus. She has always embraced change and is an experiential learner by nature. “I do like to throw myself into something completely different and say, you know, let’s see what I can do with this,” she says. 

To lead change, Criger notes, “You’ve got to believe in it. Then you can see how it will work. And then you’ve got to be able to articulate it to a whole lot of other people to help them feel the same level of confidence and possibility.” She acknowledges that change is hard and even painful at times. “If you’re not feeling a certain amount of discomfort, you’re probably not doing enough,” she says. 

It also requires standing strong in the face of those who are not yet on board with the change. Criger has acknowledged that she has experienced this. “If you initiate change before others see the need for it, they may blame you for the problems. But making difficult decisions is the burden leaders bear for the organization. So, face the brutal facts and figure out what you need to do with it,” she says. 

“We have to improve our systems related to health and wellness while continuing to make sure we serve those who are ill and injured.”—Sara Criger

Part of change is also identifying what’s working. “You have to start with asking, ‘what about this is workable, and how do we work on the good things about this?’ so people can begin to assimilate and handle the change in pieces.” While the health care system is too big to revolutionize all at once, she is committed to evolving it. 

She also works hard to make sure her team does not fall into the “victim mentality” she says is common with change. “Saying, I’m sorry, I know this is really hard, is not going to help. My message became telling them how courageous I think they are (because they are) for hanging in there and going through this and for leaning into it while saying, ‘We’re going to be a part of what is necessary change and we’re going to stick it out.’ That’s my motto right now: ‘I’m proud of you for leaning into it and being an important part of how health care has to change.’ ” 

Criger has become the incredible change agent she is today by learning from others and supporting her staff the way she has been supported throughout her career. She thrives on driving change, not just for the challenge, but to create a positive impact on how patients are cared for and staff and physicians practice their calling to save lives. It’s her humility, strong belief and desire to help others that have created her success. “My husband laughs when he sees the technical college commercials on TV for medical assistant trainings. He always says, ‘You can be a medical assistant, and then you can be a hospital president someday!’