October 6, 2006

Lyons savors role helping VUMC celebrate its own

Featured Image

Susie Lyons in her customary spot — the middle of the action during the Employee Celebration Grand Finale.
Photo by Anne Rayner

Lyons savors role helping VUMC celebrate its own

Susie Lyons gives a DVD player to Della McIntyre at this year’s Night Owl Howl, which honors those who work the night shift at Vanderbilt.
Photo by Anne Rayner

Susie Lyons gives a DVD player to Della McIntyre at this year’s Night Owl Howl, which honors those who work the night shift at Vanderbilt.
Photo by Anne Rayner

Family ties — Lyons with her children Daniel, 18, and Mary Kate, 15.

Family ties — Lyons with her children Daniel, 18, and Mary Kate, 15.

In her two decades at VUMC, Susie Lyons has had several jobs, but the thread that runs through them all is the respect she has for staff and faculty.

Her current job is manager, Employee Programs, a title which blandly conceals the fact that Lyons is a moving force behind Employee Celebration Month, the Leadership Development Institutes that are at the heart of the Medical Center's elevate program and the employee recognition program that allows managers to reward staff and faculty with gift certificates for jobs well done. She is also the co-chair of the Quality of Work Life task force, which seeks to help staff and faculty balance work duties with family and personal life.

What that means is that a lot of the institution-based encouragement for praising good people doing good work comes from Lyons' windowless, eternally cluttered office on the third floor S corridor of Medical Center North.

“I'm looking at recognition being a foundation toward really developing employee engagement — turning on the hearts of people so that they will take actions that make us a great place to work and a great place to receive health care,” she says. “It's extremely powerful.”

Spend any time with her and it's obvious she believes in what she does and she has a way of making that belief infectious.

But nobody grows up wanting to be a “manager, Employee Programs,” however inadequate the title is to describe what she actually does. Lyons, who grew up as the daughter of a veterinarian and stay-at-home mom in Florence, Ala., says that as a little girl she had a simple career goal: “Wife and mother.” She had a small-town Alabama girlhood; when high school came along she stayed involved in many things — Spanish club, guitar lessons, dance lessons, ball games, dances, parties.

“Every chance we got we were heading out to the river on somebody's boat or to somebody's lake house to go skiing or swimming. The only time I skipped school in my life, we left to go to a lake house.

“We didn't get busted,” she adds with a smile, still savoring the memory.

When it came time to go to college, the vet's daughter signed up to major in nursing at Auburn University, but a visit to her hometown dentist changed the course of her career. While she was home on a visit from college she went by for a checkup, and sometime between the cleaning and the complimentary pack of floss he advised her to major in Health Care Administration instead of nursing. When she returned to school she looked into the suggested new major, and decided to make the change.

After graduation she moved to Nashville and caught on in Human Resource Services (it was still called Personnel then). She started as a clerk entering payroll action forms into the university's computer system, and a few promotions later was an employee relations specialist — which meant she spent a lot of time listening to employees and supervisors and looking for common ground when there was disagreement between the two; seeking solutions that, on a good day, made everybody happy-“win-wins” she calls them. She loved it.

“At the time, it was the best job,” she says. She did it so well that she was hired by the School of Medicine to become its dedicated HR person in 1998.

But in 2002 — how's this for irony — a reorganization at the school eliminated her job. “I remember walking to my car that last day and thinking, 'What if I never walk across this plaza again?,” she says.

From that stressful time came several bright spots. One is that Lyons remembers the way her situation was handled by people in her old department, Human Resources.

“They treated me fairly. That situation shapes how I think today about how we let people leave the organization.” In other words, respect and a sense of fairness are important all the time, but especially so in times when people are leaving, for whatever reason.

It was only a few weeks later when she got a call from Jane Tugurian in the vice chancellor for Health Affairs' office, with the news the University was creating a new event, a monthlong celebration to recognize employees, and that somebody was needed to organize and manage it. So Lyons was called back from her layoff status to help create this new event, one she has now produced for five years and takes great pride in.

“What's great is to see how many people appreciate it,” she says. “It's pretty cool to see how many departments are now having their own celebrations.”

Molly Hopkins, who works in Human Resource Services and has known Lyons for more than 20 years, says that a job recognizing the achievements of employees is a natural fit.

“Long before Employee Celebration Month and elevate, Susie knew that employee recognition was a vital part of organizational success,” Hopkins said. “When she was asked and agreed to take the leadership role for ECM, I knew we were in good shape.”

While the job creating Employee Celebration Month started off as temporary, it became apparent that it would be more helpful to the Medical Center if somebody was in charge of thinking about how to recognize and reward employees the other 11 months of the year as well.

Lyons wrote a description for her job, sold it to her bosses, and got to work. In a way, it sounds like her old HR job, listening to concerns and making recommendations.

“Sometimes people say, '[Our department] doesn't have a lot of money for recognizing employees,' and I can say, 'Well, here are some ideas.'”

She even has been able to take some ideas from work home to help with raising her two children, Daniel, 18, who is a senior at David Lipscomb High School, and Mary Kate, 15, who is a sophomore. “I have put both on written performance evaluation counseling, and I've given gift cards for good behavior,” she laughs.

But while taking some lessons from work home is good, the heart of what helps staff and faculty is what Lyons brings from home into her job.

Her original career goal of homemaker is coming true, it's just that the “home” is the Medical Center. She is building her career around bringing the metaphor of a good home — a place where people are comfortable, respectful and productive — to the whole Medical Center.