The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 13, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Dec. 8.
Next is Government TEAM Program/Project of the Year finalist Susan Burke on behalf of Cognosante’s Community Care Referral and Authorization Program at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Burke serves as program director of CCR&A, and shares key team achievements, investing in the next generation of government and industry leaders, career advice and more.
What key achievements did you have in 2020/2021?
The Community Care Referral and Authorization program at the Department of Veterans Affairs recently celebrated two major milestones. The first was processing our 10 millionth referral for care in the community. This means that over 10 million times, veterans have been able to obtain care in their local community, when it made more sense than visiting a VA Medical Center. With a 350% increase in the number of monthly referrals processed since the end of 2019, CCR&A is having a clear impact on the veteran experience.
Second, we now have more than 3 million veterans that have sought care in the community, an increase of more than 2.25 million veterans since the program began. Being able to touch that many veteran lives, knowing that they’re getting care faster and closer to home because of our work, is the best achievement we could ask for.
What has made you successful in your current role?
The entire Cognosante program team has realized success with CCR&A by creating and maintaining a collaborative atmosphere both amongst the team and with our VA stakeholders. With 10 different partner companies supporting the program, working together is key to our ability to bring solutions to community care within VA.
Since day one, Cognosante, as the prime, sought to instill that there is only one team, and that team wears the same jersey — the CCR&A jersey. The concept was started by our initial VA contracting officer representative, and we’re all proud to continue that mindset.
In our daily interactions, we don’t use words like prime, subcontractor, contractor or government; we are simply “the CCR&A team” that works together to improve health care for veterans. It truly has been a catalyst to our success, and as a program leader, I could not be prouder of VA for how they have adopted and helped us lead the “one team” mindset.
How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders?
Giving back is not only a core tenet of Cognosante’s mission and social responsibility programs, but a core value of many professionals on the CCR&A team. Though we are all busy with the business of the program, we take time to teach, train and coach others on the program, at our companies and within our broader industry.
As program leaders, we encourage our team members to obtain certifications in their areas of expertise, and seek training on current industry processes and methodologies, especially as they relate to our clients’ priorities.
We also work to cultivate intangible leadership skills in our team through formal training and everyday activities. Investing in the next generation not only makes the current team stronger but also creates valuable contributors that will impact any number of critical government programs across the span of their respective careers.
As the program director, I believe in leading by example. Personally, I have deepened my commitment to training new project managers since 2020. New project managers are the future of tomorrow. Helping them get started on solid ground now will only benefit the stakeholders they work with later.
I have been running projects, programs and portfolios for more than 15 years now and it’s my hope that my skills, experiences and lessons learned can be a model for a generation that will continue my chosen career path.
By encouraging others on the CCR&A project to also give back, we’ve been able to build a group of people who are spending time sharing their talents and skills with new or less experienced team members. Far too many times, we look at continuous quality improvements for our processes and operations, but we forget about how important it is to continually help the people running those processes grow and develop.
What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?
Early on in my career, I was terrified of failing, as most new managers are. What I’ve learned is that any time you’re working to change, improve and innovate processes, you are going to fail. We should all expect some aspect of failure to be part of the journey to success. Fail fast, learn from those failures and grow and improve from them.
Early in the project, we were developing a solution that aligned to requirements provided by stakeholders in management roles. We quickly realized that we had also missed listening to the system users who were working with veterans daily and were overlooking key features that would impact the final user experience. We used human centered design to deeply understand those users’ pain points, and then developed improvements to reflect a more holistic set of stakeholder needs.
Our first prototypes and ideas were not the best solution and did not work well. But by not being afraid to learn from those failures, we used continual feedback loops in the HCD process that allowed us to improve the solution until it solved the problem.
All too often, people are afraid to fail. The challenge is to fail gracefully, fail quickly and then use those failures as part of your future success model.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
Without a doubt, the work we’re doing now has been the most rewarding part of my career. I’ve spent a lot of time working on different projects and opportunities in the health care industry, but the CCR&A project has afforded me the opportunity to improve health care for such a special segment of our population — veterans. I can’t think of a more deserving group to be working daily to help.
And the great part about the CCRA project is that we have tangible results that we can see. Each time we add a new feature or improve a current one in our process, we can directly see how many veterans we are helping. We have become passionate about ensuring that there is veteran value in everything we do, and then celebrating those successes when the hard work turns into tangible results.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Do what you’re passionate about. There’s an old expression that, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” and there’s a lot of truth in that. Our focus has always been to improve health care for our nation’s veterans. That’s always been our mission, but also our passion, and we do that by finding new and innovative ways to affect change. It’s not always easy, but even when it’s challenging, you can’t lose sight of why you’re doing it.
We have been able to directly improve over 3 million veterans’ lives, by allowing them to get care closer to home, in most cases 75% faster than they used to be able to. Those are the results that keep us motivated.
Now, the next challenge is to figure out how to make the referral and authorization faster and expand the number of veterans that it helps daily. The CCR&A project team works incredibly hard to achieve those successes, but the common denominator is always their commitment and passion that serves as our motivating force.