Lillian Montoya is circulating through Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, chatting with employees, asking about their kids, listening to their concerns.
She calls it “rounding,” and by now the word is a commonly used term at the oldest and biggest hospital in Northern New Mexico.
But Montoya isn’t a doctor, and this isn’t a weekday.
It’s the weekend.
Getting to know many of the 2,200 people she works with has been a familiar calling card in Montoya’s first 12 months as president and chief executive of Christus St. Vincent — an anniversary she marked Saturday after stepping into the top slot June 15, 2018. But the billboard of her rookie year has come in a succession of notable recognitions and partnerships never before seen at the hospital, once beset by labor issues and other problems.
In recent months, Christus St. Vincent received a four-star rating (out of five) in an overall hospital quality report from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, an “A” in the nationally recognized Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade and in late April joined the Mayo Clinic Care Network that gives St. Vincent doctors and patients direct access to that institution’s world-renowned physicians.
But Montoya, 52, places equal importance on Albuquerque Business First naming Christus St. Vincent last year as one of the area’s Best Places to Work, an award based entirely on employee surveys.
“You can’t transform a culture unless you engage your workforce,” Montoya says anytime someone asks how Christus St. Vincent achieved these improvements. “None of these recognitions would have been possible if we didn’t come to appreciate or understand the importance of engaging our workforce.”
If Montoya, friendly and personable, came to rounding naturally, she also does it habitually: She said she started cruising the hallways not long after joining Christus St. Vincent in 2013 as vice president of public affairs, marketing/communications and advocacy.
Struck by a far different atmosphere than the one that currently exists, she made it a point to get to know her colleagues, even if they didn’t work on the hospital’s administrative side.
“It was heavy. It felt tense. It felt anxious. It felt out of alignment,” Montoya recalled. “I spent the first three months talking to people: ‘Why are you here? Why do you stay here? Why do you do the work you do?’ People want to feel seen, they want to feel heard, they want to feel they matter.”
She continued the getting-to-know-you routine through her promotions to chief administrative officer and chief operating officer. And now, she makes the rounds a couple of times a month — often in tandem with Monica Leyba, Christus St. Vincent’s chief nurse executive.
At a hospital that admits some 13,000 patients per year and has more than 200,000 outpatient visits, Montoya requires all her managers to meet individually with each of their team members on a monthly basis. When new employees come on board, leaders have to set a time to meet with the employee after the first 30, 90 and 180 days.
“Everybody needs to get a meeting with their boss,” Montoya said. “We monitor key behavior for all of our leaders. We focused early on that our leaders were accountable to their teams.”
She also instituted a hiring process by which managers select finalists but team members make the final decision on whom to hire. Her reasoning: Team members are the ones who work most closely with the new hire.
Those moves, and others, have created a bottom-up, rather than top-down, management style, Leyba said. She said employees know the inner workings of the jobs better than the managers and that employee input is crucial to improving the hospital.
“It’s about them feeling comfortable to speak to leaders about any concerns they have,” Leyba said. “At every level of this organization we have people that hug [Montoya], that call her mijita. If you include them in decisions, they know how to do it. We want them to tell us what works and what doesn’t.”
Montoya sees describes her role as boss as someone who sets the stage.
“My job,” she said, “is to find their possibilities for what they can create. I enjoy putting the building blocks together and let people own it, do it and celebrate it. I can see a lightbulb blink over their head. People want to know they matter.”
Still, if you’re talking about classic career arcs, Montoya acknowledges she probably shouldn’t have been in the medical field.
Though as a teenager she thought about working in health care — “Back in the day in high school, I started pre-med, believe it or not,” she says — Montoya gravitated to communications and political science at the University of New Mexico, from which she graduated in 1988.
“My dad [Dicky Montoya] said, ‘Mija, who’s going to hire you with that degree?’ ” Montoya recalled.
Her answer: “With that kind of degree I can talk people into hiring me to do anything.”
And that’s sort of what happened. Montoya’s path to hospital CEO, having zero professional health care experience, is a neck-snapping journey through state, federal, private and nonprofit work. She has worked for the state Commission on Higher Education; the Department of Finance and Administration; the Regional Development Corp; Los Alamos National Laboratory; the United Way of Santa Fe County. She even ran her own strategic consulting firm.
In all, she managed to base her entire 31-year career in Northern New Mexico. Her parents remain in Albuquerque, but siblings and her son and daughter have scattered around the country.
“I’ve wanted to remain in New Mexico,” Montoya said. “I was willing to take professional risks. I wanted to cobble together a career here. To move up and learn you have to be willing to try new things. I didn’t want to leave New Mexico.”
Staying put had its benefits, allowing her to make friends, develop partnerships, create connections, attract professional alliances.
Katherine Freeman, president and CEO of the United Way of Santa Fe County, observed Montoya early in her career and ultimately hired her as program manager for the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership. Together they wrote and secured passage of the New Mexico Early Childhood Care and Education Act and the New Mexico Visiting Accountability Act.
“Lillian has enormous expertise in governance and how to make that work,” Freeman said. “There is no question she is a pretty smart generalist. We always talk about continuous learning. She really is about continuous learning. She digs in so deeply and doesn’t consider herself an expert until she is.”
Writing legislation was nothing new for Montoya. While at the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education in the mid- to late-1990s, she wrote the legislation that became New Mexico’s 529 education savings plan, the Lottery Success Scholarships, the Allied Health Loan-for-Service Program and the New Mexico Health Professional Loan Repayment Program.
She made her mark in public transit, too, while she headed up the 2002 Development Corp. from 2000 to 2004, an economic development entity that covers Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, Taos, San Miguel, Mora and Sandoval counties.
“I launched the Regional Transit District — the bus vans across Northern New Mexico,” Montoya said. “I started that.”
Says Sayuri Yamada who met and served with Montoya on then-Santa Fe Mayor Larry Delgado’s economic development review committee in the early 20o0s and now is director of public affairs for PNM Resources: “What attracted me to Lillian was her long-term vision to see the potential for the community and the state. She has always been about New Mexico and Northern New Mexico. It was important for her to make improvements in New Mexico.”
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber adds: “Lillian has done an exceptional job in cultural and behavioral changes in a very short time. Her leadership is imprinted on this hospital.”
In 2010, Montoya joined the board at Christus St. Vincent and within 1½ years was named board chairwoman.
During that time, Montoya impressed her peers with her ability to connect with people while thinking big.
“She was super brilliant, somebody I knew who really cared about the community,” said Kathy Armijo-Etre, then a hospital board member tasked with recruiting Montoya to join the board. “I could feel it right away. I told her, ‘This is our hospital, and we want to make it better.’ She had all the business development experience that was very critical as a board member. She had a very active career.
“The most important thing for me was she cared about the community,” continued Armijo-Etre, now the hospital’s vice president of mission. “She immediately rose as such a strong leader on the board to take on the big issues.”
Karen Wells, a Christus St. Vincent board member and board chairwoman at the time Montoya was elevated to CEO, believes Montoya was the choice for the top position 1½ years before she got the job. Irving, Texas-based Christus Health System, which has a 50 percent ownership stake in Christus St. Vincent, is responsible for selecting the CEO, but the Christus St. Vincent Board of Directors has the final say.
“She convinced me way before we knew she would be CEO that she had vision and mission,” Wells said. “She had a good handle on how to handle all those people. … She’s very smart. She has great instinct on handling difficult situations. She projects great warmth with the people she works with. She is very well spoken.”
The people element is all-important to Montoya.
“When people ask me what my job is, I say we open pathways and bring down barriers so people can do their job,” Montoya said.
Within her vagabond career, Montoya notes she’s had an extended tenure at Christus St. Vincent.
“I’ve been here longer than any one place,” she said. “I’ve been here six years.”
A few moments later, she remembers she also spent six years at the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education — but then left.
This is different. A departure from Christus St. Vincent isn’t likely any time soon, in part because she said she has not finished transforming the hospital.
“There’s more to come,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “All of our hard work has paid off with the recognition. I would like for us to move beyond maintaining the gains and surpass where we are.”