Top 25 Emerging Leaders
Associate VP of Heart and Vascular Services,
Duke University Health System
A native Upstate New Yorker, Sean Sondej came to Durham, N.C., in July 2003 to attend the administrative fellowship program at Duke University Health System and has never left.
“I thought I would come here for a few years and eventually go back to New York,” Sondej says. But he adds that, now he thinks he'll “stay at Duke a while,” as long as he's doing the best he can, likes what he's doing and continues to enjoy the academic environment.
Duke University Hospital President Kevin Sowers says he cannot think of anyone more deserving of Modern Healthcare's Up & Comer Award than Sondej, 33, who's gone from administrative fellow to associate vice president of heart and vascular services—a service line that drew $795 million in gross revenue for the most recent fiscal year and employs more than 1,200 people.
“Sean is an incredible and articulate leader and has demonstrated that with his ability to take complex problems and think through new solutions,” Sowers says. He says key to this has been Sondej's vision, patience and flexibility where he adjusts to “moments in time when what you thought was going to happen doesn't.”
The testament to these qualities is the new $596 million Duke Medicine Pavilion, which opened in July with 150 beds and 16 operating rooms. Preparation for the new facility began in 2007 when Sondej was administrative director of strategic operations and wrote the business plan for the new facility. After economic circumstances changed, he wrote it again—over the course of a weekend—and came up with a better plan that resulted in a better project, Stowers says.
Sondej recalls how there was concern about the project's cost, but this was at a time when he says Duke was turning patients away because its beds were full, so the expansion was vital to setting the hospital up for continued long-term success. “We needed to bring these licensed beds into existence,” he says.
He says rewriting the business plan was just a small part of reconfiguring the project, explaining that reworking financial projections and redrawing architectural plans required more heavy lifting. “It was a major effort, but we all believed in it, and I'm proud to have been part of that team,” he says.
“All of the change, all of the complexity is fascinating to me,” Sondej says about his job. “I do not mind that change is constant; it allows me to work with different people.”
Sondej has been in charge of executing long-range strategic plans, plus working on quality and process improvements. He diverts the spotlight, saying such tasks are part of the Duke culture and he finds a lot of volunteers who provide assistance. “There's never been a situation where I can't find people who are interested in taking an issue on,” Sondej says. “There's always someone who'll ask, 'What can I do to help?' ”
To keep momentum going for long-range projects and for constant improvement, Sondej says the important things to do are provide data on why change is needed, distill complex ideas into simple actionable chunks and celebrate early victories.
“None of the things I work on is me in isolation,” he says.