Corner Office: How Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders' nursing background gives her an edge up

Candice Saunders, BSN, has served as president and CEO of Marietta, Ga.-based Wellstar Health System for nearly a decade. But her healthcare journey has origins at the bedside. 

Ms. Saunders began her career as a critical care nurse, before becoming president of Marietta-based Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in May 2007. She became executive vice president and COO of Wellstar Health System in 2013, and took over her current role in 2015. 

She told Becker's Hospital Review that empathy and compassion are two attributes that have shaped her throughout her career. She discussed her career trajectory, Wellstar's culture and more in her responses to Becker's seven Corner Office questions. 

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity.

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

Candice Saunders: From a young age, I always felt a calling to serve others and my desire to help people led me to pursue a career as a critical care nurse. I was intrigued by not only the critical role nurses play in providing high quality clinical care but the important role they play in honoring and elevating the voice of the patient, as well as providing emotional support to patients and families as they walk their healthcare journeys. 

My calling to serve others has remained with me since the start of my career and helped me transition from direct patient care to leadership and to this day, guides my work at Wellstar. Today, my focus has expanded to include serving Wellstar’s physicians, caregivers and team members and ensuring the Wellstar team is supported and has the tools and resources they need to be engaged and committed to carrying out our mission to enhance the health and well-being of every person we serve. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about Georgia?

CS: If you have ever visited Georgia, you will know it is a special place from the Blue Ridge mountains to the Georgia coast and the cities and towns in between. Over the past 15 years, I have enjoyed traveling around the state and spending time with and learning from fellow Georgians. I have been inspired over the years by the pride Georgians have for their state and the way we come together, in good times and bad, to care for and serve one another. 

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be? 

CS: Health systems across the country are currently facing many multifaceted challenges. One challenge that is personal to me is the workforce shortage, especially that of physicians and nurses across the country, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Our healthcare system relies on physicians, nurses and other caregivers serving on the front line to provide high quality, compassionate care to our patients and their families every day. While there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, I am passionate about finding creative and innovative ways through public and private partnerships that support the education, recruitment and retention of current and future physicians and nurses, as well as other key healthcare roles that drive the advancement of healthcare delivery models through technology and support the evolving healthcare needs in the communities we serve. 

I am very proud of Wellstar's partnership with Kennesaw (Ga.) State University and the Wellstar School of Nursing to create funding for annual nursing scholarships and to support the hiring of additional nursing faculty and staff. We are also looking at innovative models that allow community-based health systems to work with academic medical centers to expand opportunities for students to train and learn in the medical field. Additionally, we are partnering with our academic and community partners and thinking beyond the traditional clinical workforce needs about how we can help prepare individuals for future roles in healthcare. At Wellstar, we are investing time and resources in youth programs and working with our partners to develop career pathway programs to help prepare high school students, as well as individuals who are wanting to make career or industry transitions, as we look to expand the potential pipeline of future healthcare workers. 

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite? 

CS: At every point in my career, I have found that honoring every voice through active listening is at the heart of serving and leading as it keeps my focus on what is most important — people. To truly honor a voice, you have to create environments and spaces where people feel safe, respected and valued, and one where they feel empowered to share their voice because they know it matters. 

I believe that everyone's voice is shaped by their personal story and their perspective, based on their life experiences, adds value to any conversation and discussion. As a leader, I strive to model the way by genuinely listening to the people we serve, whether a patient, physician, caregiver or team member, and ensure that all voices are heard, at every level of care. 

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

CS: As a leader, I believe our most impactful legacy is centered around the relationships we establish and the investment we make in others. We have the opportunity to sponsor, mentor and support the continued growth and development of those around us and I find great joy in watching individuals gain confidence and wisdom in pursuing their personal and professional goals and aspirations and exceeding their own expectations for what they are able to achieve. 

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

CS: While I was in nursing school, I learned the importance of serving our patients with empathy and compassion. This was critical while I was at the bedside, and has continued to remain relevant during each stage of my career. Now, as a leader, empathy and compassion are more important than ever. Everything we do as a system and every decision we make from the boardroom to the operating room is centered around people — our patients, physicians, caregivers, team members and the communities we serve. My career journey from nursing to healthcare administration has not been a shift away from caring for people, it's been a transition in support of people. 

I have carried the importance of that advice throughout my career, and it is now one of Wellstar's values — I hope that all our physicians, caregivers and team members continue to serve our patients and one another with compassion. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievements at Wellstar so far? 

CS: I am incredibly proud of the culture we have built at Wellstar. Our ability to deliver on our mission to enhance the health and well-being of every person we serve depends on a talented, dedicated workforce, and that is why it has always been one of my top priorities to take care of our people — especially in the pandemic and post-pandemic environment when many of them are exhausted. 

At Wellstar, we bring our commitment to our people to life by focusing on their whole-person well-being and investing in a holistic suite of resources to support them. Through our efforts, Wellstar has become known as a great place to work, which I am extremely proud of. We have also been listed as one of Fortune Magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work for three years in a row. We strive to make Wellstar a place where physicians, caregivers and team members want to grow and advance their careers. 

The recognitions and awards we have received are a testament to each and every Wellstar team member answering their calling to serve and their commitment to the Wellstar team and carrying our mission forward. Our team members operationalize our values of serving with compassion, pursuing excellence and honoring every voice each day based on their genuine desire to care for our patients, communities and each other. 

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