Joe Ferreira of Nevada Donor Network: “Set lofty goals and constantly drive towards them”

Set lofty goals and constantly drive towards them. When we began our transformation from worst to first we talked about how we were going to be the best. We felt like we owed it to the heroic donors, their families and the recipients who desperately wait. Whether you are in a performance crisis or not, […]

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Set lofty goals and constantly drive towards them. When we began our transformation from worst to first we talked about how we were going to be the best. We felt like we owed it to the heroic donors, their families and the recipients who desperately wait. Whether you are in a performance crisis or not, challenge yourself or your team to be the best.

As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Ferreira

Joe Ferreira, the ForbesBooks author of Uncomfortable Inclusion: How to Build a Culture of High Performance in Life and Work, is CEO and president of the Nevada Donor Network. Ferreira speaks and consults worldwide about establishing and improving organ donation and transplantation systems he’s helped pioneer in the United States. He holds a bachelor of science in microbiology and immunology and an MBA with a specialization in healthcare administration and policy, both from the University of Miami.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

After I graduated from college, I thought I would become a doctor like my father. I began studying for the MCAT while working as an orderly at the hospital where my father still practices to this day at the age of 81 as an OBGYN surgeon, delivering babies and seeing patients in his solo medical practice even throughout the pandemic. One day while I was working in the hospital, a call came in that a team would be visiting from the University of Miami Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) to perform an organ recovery later that day in the operating room. My job was to help set up the surgical room to facilitate the procedure. When the OPO personnel came in that night to perform the procedure, I was mesmerized and inspired by the process and the heroism of the donor. I asked several questions and showed great interest. During the conversation with members of the team someone shared that they had an opening for an entry level perfusion technician. I jumped at the chance, submitted my resume and they interviewed me several weeks later. I got the job and spent 14 years at the OPO at the University of Miami where I eventually became the Director of Clinical Operations. I was also fortunate that the University of Miami provided me with a scholarship to get my MBA while serving in that leadership role. In 2012, after many years of experience and an MBA under my belt, I jumped at the chance to be a part of the Nevada Donor Network as its President and CEO where I have been ever since. Although I didn’t become a doctor like my father, I serendipitously found my passion in the field of organ, tissue and eye donation and I am grateful, humbled and honored to be a part of this beautiful mission.

Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.

Our organization at Nevada Donor Network (NDN) received an imminent shutdown threat from the regulatory agency which controls our ability to operate as an Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) the same week I was hired to be its President and CEO. I moved across the country from Miami to Las Vegas to join this organization without knowing what to expect or exactly how bad things were. For most of my adult life I was surrounded by loved ones, friends and my professional network in South Florida and now I was jumping into a new community to join an organization on the brink of failure with a terrible track record and reputation. I was a first-time CEO and the team at NDN was demoralized given the intense scrutiny and criticism the organization had been under for years due to underperformance and several instances of regulatory non-compliance. Times were desperate for the team and they needed inspiration and leadership; otherwise, a meltdown followed by a takeover by another agency would have occurred. Because things were so far gone and desperate I was concerned we were not going to have time to turn things around given that the organization had been given so many chances to remediate the problems. I didn’t sleep much and I lost so much weight in the first few months of our journey that a friend from the industry actually asked if I was OK out of genuine concern. Things were so uncertain I rented a car during my first year at NDN and I stayed in month-to-month corporate housing just in case the regulators did not provide us more time or in the event we could not turn things around quickly enough.

What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?

Our mindset was that we were going to be The Best OPO in the Universe!! Because why not? From worst to first. Out of 58 organ procurement organizations (OPO) in existence in the country at the time, NDN ranked 57th in terms of performance on most metrics. We were not going to be just a compliant OPO or increase our productivity to just “good enough.” We were going to fight for those we serve!! The resolve for this goal came from several times in my life that I faced adversity and challenges (mostly because of my own doing) but prevailed in the end by setting lofty goals to begin the process. In NDN’s case it was also self-imposed because of how toxic the culture had become. This circumstance was our own doing. Even though I was not part of the organization when this happened, we took accountability for it. We derived our energy and drive from passionate people within the organization who believed in the mission and our ability to succeed. It was important to “double down” on those who had a shared passion to turn things around on behalf of the heroic donors, their courageous families, and the transplant recipients we serve. It was also important to hold those accountable who were not acting in the best interest of the team and mission we serve to help save and heal lives through the act of donation.

Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?

Culture, culture, culture!! Based on similar turnarounds in the business world I was aware of, our culture became the focal point for everything we were going to accomplish. While I was in business school at the University of Miami earning my MBA, I was also the Director of Clinical Operations for the OPO in South Florida called Life Alliance Organ Recovery Agency at the University of Miami. During that time I was being recruited by the dialysis company called Davita. Part of the Davita recruitment process was to read the Harvard Business Review case study on the incredible Davita turnaround. I recommend everyone read that blueprint for success architected by the CEO at the time named Kent Thiry. After several interviews I decided not to pursue the role with Davita further when the recruiter asked me if I thought I would get the same level of satisfaction working for a dialysis company rather than a life-saving organization like an OPO. Although I thought dialysis was also life saving and an important mission, I decided that I would rather stay in the OPO field I loved and wait for a chance to lead an OPO in the future with the same intense focus on culture like Kent did at Davita. In just a year and a few months after completing my MBA that opportunity presented itself to me at the NDN, the worst OPO in the industry at the time.

We were going to accomplish our turnaround by being “uncomfortably inclusive” at every level. What that meant was that we were going to share the good, the bad and the ugly with our team so that they could help guide our decision making and strategic plan. This would ensure we were involving the experts and the people doing the actual life-saving work. We owned up to what we needed to do radically different and declared it to the world. It was not going to be business as usual. This change in mindset of NDN became a transformation to social entrepreneurship by being very inclusive. Because we relied on our community and hospital partners so much to succeed, we were also going to earn their trust and be a valued partner who would contribute to their success while they were helping us save and heal more lives. Within a very short period of time the results were remarkable. We restored our regulatory compliance and we doubled the number of lives we were helping to save and heal through organ, eye and tissue donation.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Focus on the things that are within your control. Don’t beat yourself up even if the adversity you are facing is self imposed. In order for you to overcome adversity you must resist the urge to blame factors outside of your control or things you can’t change. In the case of NDN, members of the prior administration blamed the regulators and other regional organizations for the accountability being imposed on the organization to improve. They propagated conspiracy theories that an outside organization wanted to take them over and that is why they were facing regulatory scrutiny. Under new leadership we owned how bad things were and we took accountability for our poor performance. We began to turn things around. The quicker you transition to solutions rather than what led to the problem, the faster you will begin to succeed and overcome what you are facing.
  2. Set lofty goals and constantly drive towards them. When we began our transformation from worst to first we talked about how we were going to be the best. We felt like we owed it to the heroic donors, their families and the recipients who desperately wait. Whether you are in a performance crisis or not, challenge yourself or your team to be the best. You may not be able to fathom how that would happen in the darkest days, so it is up to you to see the vision and constantly reinforce the possibilities.
  3. Be uncomfortably inclusive. Like the title of my book Uncomfortable Inclusion, it is critical to include others in the solution. Be inclusive to the point of discomfort. I like to say that if it is not uncomfortable, you are not being inclusive enough. During our transformation we made sure that our team was fully informed and engaged in the problem along with potential solutions to the problem. We even reached out to our critics and we were completely transparent with the regulators who were threatening to shut us down. When we decided we would be inclusive and transparent others conspired to help us to be successful.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are?

Without a doubt all the credit for where I am both personally and professionally goes to my parents.

Can you share a story about that?

My parents instilled the values of humility, hard work and perseverance no matter how challenging the circumstances may be. My father immigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life in the 1960s and my mother joined him a short time later. They both left a country they loved and dove into the uncomfortable. My mother was a school teacher in Brazil and began raising their children in temporary housing and motels while my father finished his medical training. He was in a country he didn’t know and while still learning English he managed to complete his credentials in the U.S. to obtain his license to practice as a physician. He became a successful OBGYN and at the age of 81 he is still practicing. As a matter of fact, through the pandemic my father did not stop seeing his patients and delivering babies despite the risk to him and even as he lost colleagues to the virus. My parents are my heroes.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are building a transplant institute in Nevada. This institute will serve to complement the astounding success of our team at NDN on the organ-donation side of the equation. Because we have built one of the most successful OPOs in the country we have decided that we want to help drive more robust transplantation. Currently, many of the organs we help facilitate from heroic donors are exported to other states because we do not have the ability to transplant organs other than kidneys in the state despite the hundreds of potential recipients from Nevada who are currently waiting for a life-saving transplant. It is especially difficult for multicultural communities of color and those with challenging socioeconomic circumstances. Through this transplant institute we seek to mitigate these disparities by providing assistance to families in need while saving lives through organ, eye and tissue donation and transplantation. If you wish to learn more about this initiative or would like to donate to the campaign where we have started to raise the needed funds, please contact Steven Peralta [email protected] .

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A movement that would result in every person in the country is a registered organ, eye and tissue donor. It is the greatest legacy and gift you can bestow to humanity by giving Hope*Strength*Life to those who desperately wait! Register to be a heroic donor today @

Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?

No matter how defeated you may feel or how bad the circumstances might be, don’t give up. Shoot for the stars. One of my favorite quotes is from Earnest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are stronger at the broken places.” Be patient and don’t give up!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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