Kimberly J. Commins-Tzoumakas: “Leaders need to learn from people with different knowledge and life experiences”

Learn from people with different knowledge and life experiences. As a leader, you need to understand that not everyone is going to respond the same to your management style, so it’s important to find ways that diversity can thrive in any organization. Encourage people on your team to work together. Ten years ago, I often […]

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Learn from people with different knowledge and life experiences. As a leader, you need to understand that not everyone is going to respond the same to your management style, so it’s important to find ways that diversity can thrive in any organization. Encourage people on your team to work together. Ten years ago, I often thought I could do it all. Today, I recognize how important collaboration is in being respected as a leader.

I had the pleasure to interview Kimberly J. Commins-Tzoumakas J.D., Chief Executive Officer of 21st Century Oncology. Kim was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer in 2018, responsible for all U.S. and International operations. Since 2014, she served as part of the leadership team for the company working closely with the equity owners and bond holders to transform the company. Prior to 21st Century Oncology, Ms. Commins-Tzoumakas has over 20 years of health care leadership expertise, including working as part of a team with national health care companies faced with financial and regulatory challenges. She has also advised boards on strategic partnering, growth and sale opportunities. She has served as a counselor and advisor to several non-profit and for-profit boards throughout her career. Ms. Commins-Tzoumakas’ expertise centers around strategic planning and growth, physician relations and strategic partnerships. She also served as the Managing Partner of the Michigan Office of Hall Render and as a board member for many years. 21st Century Oncology is the largest, physician-led provider of integrated cancer care services, dedicated to providing patients with the best technologies available. Founded by a group of dedicated physicians, the vision of the company remains to be the industry leader in cancer care. Our first radiation treatment center opened in 1983. Through our growth from a single radiation center to an international network, we have successfully developed an operating model that enables us to consistently deliver the highest quality, most compassionate and cost effective patient care.

Thank you so much for joining us Kimberly. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I spent 25 years championing healthcare from a legal and advisory standpoint — always passionate about making a difference and helping others. For a long time, I wanted to find a deeper way to channel my passion and energy. When I was presented with the opportunity to lead 21st Century Oncology and turn around an organization that helps patients beat cancer and thrive, I couldn’t pass it up. I have a strong connection to the cause, having lost family to cancer. For me, it’s a mission to bring the very best care to patients and their families, champion our physicians and support staff with the very best innovation and culture so that together we can make a difference.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I took over leadership, one of the first things we did was unveil our new mission, vision and values that stems from our philosophy: We fight for you like an army and care for you like a family. I believe that culture has a huge impact on the health of an organization, and frankly our culture was broken. We couldn’t change this alone, we needed every member of the team to “Be the Change you Seek”. We also came out with our secret sauce, we “Hug our Patients Every Day”. After several months of relentless work on this transformation, I received a letter from one of our patients saying that he saw an article about how we’re changing our culture and he wanted to let me know that “it’s working”. Another one followed, the patient wrote, if BE 21st Century were a galaxy, the dream team would be the stars. When I read these, it brought tears to my eyes. It means so much to know that patients are experiencing the positive changes we’re putting in place.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have had a few of these. One that comes to mind is my efforts to multi-task gone wrong. As any mom knows, we are often trying to do it all at once. I was at my son’s sporting event while on a significant call with a number of important people. Following some very intelligent comments that I was proud of, I failed to put the phone on mute when I started cheering loudly as my son scored. As a new CEO, I was mortified. A strong mentor later said — actually, it was great — it shows your “human side”. Maybe, but not sure that was the best context for me to display that!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are many but a couple I would highlight. First, our platform — which is the place physicians want to be. The integrated nature of the cancer care we provide close to home for our patients is unique. We provide academic-level world class comprehensive treatment — everything from surgery to radiation to medical oncology — all as part of one organization which is a unique platform that others are scrambling to duplicate. Second, the human touch and the personal relationships that our physicians and team members have with their patients. A few months ago, one of our physicians dressed up in a costume to celebrate a patient’s 90th birthday. You won’t see that in a big institutional setting, but moments like this are so important to helping people cope with an otherwise scary medical diagnosis.

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

We have many projects underway involving innovation and transformation. One invigorating initiative we’re working on is expansion of our research and quality programs, designed to bring best practices across all specialties and locations — all 15 states. Our goal is to ensure that physicians benefit from 21st Century Oncology’s collective knowledge rather than being siloed. This will give patients world class expertise and insight from 1,000 experts each time they step into one of our offices, right in their own neighborhoods.

Secondly, we believe that cancer treatment needs to treat he whole person, not just the disease. As part of this approach, we’ll offer the opportunity to eliminate anxiety and feel better through things like dance therapy, yoga and aromatherapy, to name a few. We’ve just started to roll out these initiatives and patients have already offered a lot of positive feedback. We have many physicians and teammates who bring their passions to help patients thrive — from setting up puzzles in waiting rooms to exercise to celebrations for the completion of treatment.

Finally, we’re enhancing our focus on patient navigation, connecting the patient with a navigator who can answer questions and guide them through the process through the establishment of our new navigation line, 21C-CURE (1–855–212–2873). A cancer diagnosis is unique in that the patient is dealing with many different treatments — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation — and if they don’t have a strong family advocate, it can feel overwhelming. It’s important for us to be able to offer that experienced guidance to our patients.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be collaborative and engaged. Be open to suggestions and look for opportunities to improve, including taking criticism when warranted. If you surround yourself with the smartest people you know, you’ll have a much better chance of being successful. There will be roadblocks and bad days — step back and look at the bigger picture, and always remember what one of my favorite doctors told me “you can’t change the events, you can only change your response”.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Learn from people with different knowledge and life experiences. As a leader, you need to understand that not everyone is going to respond the same to your management style, so it’s important to find ways that diversity can thrive in any organization. Encourage people on your team to work together. Ten years ago, I often thought I could do it all. Today, I recognize how important collaboration is in being respected as a leader.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been fortunate to have several. First and foremost, my husband. I couldn’t be CEO of a billion-dollar company and raise two children without the support of a partner who is always there to pick up the slack at home, despite juggling his own career, and has consistently encouraged me along the way.

Professionally, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have several mentors who have helped take me from one phase of my career to the next. I’m grateful to have worked with a lot of talented people who encouraged me to take that next step throughout my career.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe that leaders have a responsibility that goes beyond being a good steward of their organization. They have a duty to the people who work for them, to guide them and help them grow professionally. I was fortunate to have colleagues who were strong role models for me along the way and now I try to do the same for the team at 21st Century Oncology. When I joined 21st Century Oncology, I wanted to create a more inclusive culture. I wanted everyone — from the accountant in the back office to the health care provider — to feel like they are contributing to the health and well-being of our patients. I’ve been heartened by the response. Recently, I had a team member who has been with us for 16 years thank me for what we’re doing to improve the culture and end with “keep up the good fight”. It made me feel like what we’re doing matters.

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?

I want to bring people together to work toward a common goal rather than behave as adversaries; to show that the best way to get ahead is to lift others up, not cause chaos and controversy. Leaders should lead through positivity. If more leaders ascribed to that belief, we’d be in a much better place as a country.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

We have a saying at 21st Century Oncology that I think is such a great life lesson: “BE you.” No matter what each day brings you, you have to BE alive, BE epic, BE unstoppable, BE happy. While we believe in this notion as a way of helping our patients thrive, it’s a life lesson for sure. BEing in the moment when I’m at work or at home. Life is demanding so I make sure I schedule time to enjoy my family — whether it’s a swim meet or a mom-son trip with my youngest to California.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Bill and Melinda Gates. I have long admired their ability to take what was incredible success through innovation, vision and leadership and use that success to change the world for so many. I can only imagine how fulfilling that kind of philanthropy must be. They are an inspiration for all to follow in their footsteps.

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