Chief Officer Awards Finalist Brian Sandager: ‘Don’t Look for Next Role, Job or Career — Look for Someone Who Needs Help’

Editor’s Note: Brian Sandager of Cerner is the winner of the Chief Officer Awards Public Company Chief Operating Officer Award announced June 17.

On June 17, WashingtonExec will be virtually celebrating the most impactful and innovative C-suite executives in government and industry. These chief officers work in technology, security, data, operations, finance, business and more, excelling on both sides of the government contracting sector. Our team of judges have chosen the finalists for the inaugural Chief Officer Awards, so before we announce the winners during the event, we wanted to get to know the finalists a bit better. This Q&A series highlights their careers, successes, proud professional moments and notable risks.

Brian Sandager, Cerner Government Services

Brian Sandager is chief operating officer at Cerner Government Services and a finalist in the Public Company Chief Operating Officer Award category.

What key achievements did you have in 2019

In 2019, we were privileged to expand the number of military health facilities using Cerner solutions with successful go-lives. We also had the privilege of serving the U.S. Coast Guard as a new client. While we delivered great business results, I am most proud of how the team grew and how many great associates and leaders joined the organization especially with the integration of AbleVets in late 2019.  

What has made you successful in your current role? 

I have been fortunate to have great mentors and a breadth of different roles around the world throughout my career that have positioned me well for new and challenging opportunities.

What was a turning point or inflection point in your career? 

As the geschäftsführer or managing director of Cerner’s Central European business in Germany, I quickly learned to find good people and empower them. We conducted business in numerous languages, and I did not speak any German, so I had to learn to trust the team!

What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?

I am most proud of the work the team is doing to serve our clients and to help transform health care on behalf of veterans, service members and their families. It is a privilege to serve those who have bravely served our nation.

What are your primary focuses areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?  

Our focus will remain on the transformation of health care. The coronavirus pandemic highlights just one of many reasons why health care is too important to stay the same. Our veterans, service members and caregivers deserve the best health care possible.  As a nation, we need to evolve how we deliver health care as our economy and future depends on it.  

How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders? 

I am blessed to be in a leadership role at a company and in an industry where we’re seeing unprecedented change and opportunities.  This means we need more leaders today and tomorrow to deliver on our mission and those leaders need support to be successful. Giving the next generation of leaders an opportunity to take on new challenges is critical, not only to Cerner but to the future of the federal government and the industry.

It’s critical to take the time to talk to new leaders, to bring them with you to industry events, dinners or other opportunities. It’s also important to share where you have struggled in the past so you can guide emerging leaders in areas where the stakes are high and where we must be successful.     

What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?   

Trust your instincts but get multiple data points. Surround yourself with people who are willing to challenge the way you think about things and who bring different perspectives.  

Which rules do you think you should break more as a government/industry leader? 

It is important to understand why rules were created and question if they are still serving their purpose and then work to change them, if needed. As a government partner, it is important that we look for more ways to collaborate in open and transparent ways.

What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken? 

I moved to Germany from Australia on two weeks’ notice to take over the management of five countries and only knew three words in German, two of which I didn’t even know were German.

Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?  

I am most proud of the young leaders I had the privilege of working with who have gone on to do great things both personally and professionally. It’s been exciting to watch these young leaders pursue their passions. When I asked an early mentor of mine what I could do to repay the chance he took on me, he just said, “Pay it forward.” I am most proud of the times when I have been able to do that. 

What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it? 

When I was a young leader, I was overprotective of my teams. I never wanted them to fail or deliver disappointing results. I would often step in to help them and what I failed to realize was that I was hurting them. By sheltering them, I was stunting their growth.

When I started working in Southeast Asia, I had to quickly learn a lot of different cultures. I had to sit back and let the teams do their work even when I instinctively thought they might be going down the wrong path. I watched them fail and learn from it faster than many other teams I had worked with and realized there was a better way to lead.  

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t look for the next role, job or career. Look for someone who needs help. Most of my career opportunities started by just noticing that another team or organization needed help. I just asked if there was something I could do so they could get home a little earlier or get to their goal a little quicker. I learned a lot from teams and leaders I never officially worked for or with but was just helping “after hours” once I had gotten my work done. Those learnings turned into leadership opportunities.  

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