By Aaron Gregg, Thomas Heath, The Washington Post
JUNE 21, 2019
Two Washington Post reporters recently met at a downtown steakhouse with three leaders from the region’s business community who have wildly different backgrounds yet share common qualities: a recognition of the complicated role empathy plays in business, a high tolerance for risk, a relentless drive to achieve and a keen ability to recognize potential in others. All three are self-critical and able to learn from their mistakes.
They include a beverage distribution executive who began by doing “grunt work,” a Colombian immigrant who fled civil war before becoming a nurse and a health-care executive, and a lawyer and later governor who acted on an unfilled need in elder care.
We found them using our annual survey with partner Energage. The study asks employees at hundreds of Washington-area companies to evaluate their bosses and selects the highest-ranked leaders from small, midsize and large companies.
The Post brought the winners together for a conversation about leadership.
The winner in the large-employer category is Maria Gomez, 63, founder and chief executive of Mary’s Center, a nonprofit that provides health-care services. A nurse by training, she oversees 625 health-care professionals at eight Washington-area locations. The organization started out serving those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but its patient base has expanded as it has grown.
Dominick Johnson, 43, is president of Premium Distributors of Washington and Maryland, a local beer distributor operated by the massive family-owned food and beverage wholesaler Reyes Holdings. Johnson, the midsize winner, started at an entry-level job at a Reyes company in California and worked his way up. He moved to the D.C. area with his family two years ago.
Mark Parkinson, 61, president of the American Health Care Association, a national trade association for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, is the small-employer winner. A lawyer by training, he served as a Kansas state senator before founding a chain of assisted-living facilities in 1996. Originally a Republican, he switched parties in 2006, and became lieutenant governor and then governor of Kansas. He left politics for the second time in 2011.
While this year’s winners come from different backgrounds, they have more in common than you might think. Here’s what they had to say, lightly edited for clarity and brevity:
Q: How did you end up in charge?
Maria Gomez: I came here when I was 13 from Colombia, and I felt privileged.
There was a civil war in Colombia. And I was promised by the government that I was not going to get any further education beyond what I already had, because my parents taught people how to read and write. And in that era, that was thought of as communism. My father was killed. My mom had to flee.
I had a mom who worked all kinds of jobs. She worked day and night to make ends meet, and I hardly ever saw her. I went to Georgetown and started in biology pre-med but couldn’t afford that because my mom got sick. I ended up being a nurse. I was a fairly good student, and nursing was a calling after that.
I went [to California] and got my master’s in public health, and when I came back to [Washington], I worked in the health department here. I was seeing a lot of the aftereffects of immigrants coming in with lots of trauma. That’s not very different from what’s happening today.
We were seeing a lot of patients only getting health care — health care is not sufficient for a lot of people that are disadvantaged. Giving them medication for blood pressure is not sufficient if they don’t have a house, if they don’t have a place to eat, if they don’t have a job, if there’s an immigration issue.
I understood very well as an immigrant that we needed to create something that was much more comprehensive, where we could provide health care but also provide the social work.
So I [set] out with some friends and started Mary’s Center. We just put a piece of paper on the basement wall and said, “What do you want to create?” — and hence Mary’s Center. We just wanted to do something temporarily and then have the city take it over sometime soon thereafter. But here I am 30 years later.
Dominick Johnson: I started 23 years ago as an entry-level merchandiser, and I didn’t know anything about the beer business at all. I needed a job, and a friend of mine who worked for the company told me to go see a guy.
It was called merchandising; it’s grunt work. We would build the displays that fill shelves [at the grocery store]. If a delivery driver drops off eight pallets, say 300 cases of beer, it’s the merchandiser’s job to get the beer from the bag and put it on the sales floor. You’re pulling pallets of beer, stacking beer, unstacking beer, taking down displays. That was me. And over the next 23 years, I progressively moved up.
I learned a lot, and in a lot of ways it steeled me. I think it helps me deal with the people who are doing that now. It helps me talk to a driver and understand what they’re dealing with. It helps me talk to a merchandiser, because I know the job. I’ve been there. I can understand it. I can empathize with them and understand the things they’re dealing with out there.
And at the same time, I can understand what the job takes. I know what it takes to be successful. I know what success looks like in that role. And nobody can say, “Well, it’s a hard job, or it’s this, or it’s that,” because I’ve been there and I’ve done it.
Mark Parkinson: My wife and I met in law school and practiced law together, and we thought we were going to do that for the rest of our lives. I was also in political life, and we were raising three kids.
But I happened to tour an assisted-living facility, which is a level of care between an older person living at home and living in a skilled-nursing building. I was in the [Kansas] state Senate at the time, and [an assisted-living facility] wanted to be licensed by the state. They had a facility, but it was unlicensed, and they were at huge risk.
Their lobbying strategy was to bring state senators in so we could see how cool it was so that we would then license it. And it had that impact on me. I thought: “Wow, this is phenomenal. We need to figure out a way to make this possible.”
But as I was touring it, I was also thinking, “We could really change people’s lives for a positive way if we do this ourselves” — plus it’s a good business. So I called my wife, Stacy, and said, “I think we should build an assisted-living facility.”
So we quit practicing law. I quit politics and didn’t run again for the state Senate. And we basically spent 10 years working in our buildings side by side with our certified nurse aides. We ended up building 10 buildings. We opened up our first building in 1996 and sold it in 2006.
In 2011 [after serving as Kansas governor], the CEO position of the trade association for our sector came open, and I was recruited. I’ve been here for eight years and I absolutely love it, because now we have the opportunity to work on behalf of all 15,000 nursing homes in the United States as well as all 10,000 assisted-living facilities. We’re really trying to help them in D.C. but also help them get better; we’re very focused on the quality of facilities all over the country. And so I have the perfect job. It combines my interest in politics and my interest in long-term care.
Q: What can other managers learn from you?
Maria Gomez: I think in health care you really have to have empathy; you have to have the ability to identify with the people that you serve. If you have empathy you become a much more open-minded individual, and the opportunities sometimes come to you.
I’ve had mentors every day who have walked through our doors. Whether they live across the river in Southeast [D.C.] and are hearing gunshots all the time, or whether they crossed the Rio Grande in the South and spent a year in a shelter. It’s incredibly amazing to me how resilient a human can be after having gone through so much trauma. The resilience that some folks have who walk through our doors — being knocked down every day and without a lot of hope — and yet they keep that optimism.
Dominick Johnson: One thing that has been important has been my ability to connect with people at all different levels from all different backgrounds.
D.C. is a very diverse city. It has the politics, the lawyers, the doctors — a lot of highly educated people. And you also have a big portion that’s inner city. Almost two different worlds.
And so for me being somebody who grew up in Compton, [Calif., I can] relate to and connect with people from the inner city. That’s where I grew up. There are a lot of things that I’ve seen in life that allow me to understand where people are coming from. There’s experience working, and there’s experience growing up in certain areas.
With the position I’m in now, it’s important to be able to sit and talk with drivers and be comfortable around our drivers or anybody from a certain area, and to also be comfortable talking to our owner or CEO about business and financials. As a manager you need to be able to connect all these different worlds, all these different people, all these different backgrounds, and be comfortable dealing with them.
I don’t think you should shut people down at the door without fully understanding what they can bring to the table. When you bring people from different backgrounds together and put them all in one room, great things come out of that.
Mark Parkinson: To me it’s all about combining mission and metrics.
The not-for-profits get the mission part, but they often miss on the metrics part. So what we’ve tried to do at the American Health Care Association is be very metrics-driven. All 90 employees have a set of metrics-based goals that they strive to achieve every year, and the organization also has a set of metrics-based goals. Our compensation is tied to those.
Half of our bonuses are tied to their organizational goals, and half of our bonuses are tied to our individual goals. So we’re all working on the same things. And the most important metric, in my opinion, is employee engagement and satisfaction, because if employees are engaged and satisfied, you can achieve your other goals.
Q: What's your biggest disappointment?
Maria Gomez: It is disappointing when people lose optimism and lose compassion for the work they are doing. When you lose optimism, you are losing that focus for the future. The switch has been turned off, and it’s hard to turn the switch back on.
Dominick Johnson: If I can point to a disappointment, it would be that I saw potential in somebody and couldn’t help get them where they needed to go.
I got my first experience managing people when I was probably 24 or 25. I don’t think I had as much empathy back then.
I had one employee who wasn’t performing well. He was struggling; wasn’t doing his job. He wasn’t showing up when he should have, wasn’t doing what he needed to do. And instead of trying to talk to him to try to get answers, I just knew that he wasn’t performing well and he probably needed to go. He actually ended up quitting, and I think it was because of the way I dealt with him.
My boss at the time pulled me aside and said, “You know, Dom, you can’t treat people that way,” and I learned from that. From that point on I asked more questions, tried to understand things a little more. In some cases you have people that just aren’t working out. But for me as a manager, as a leader, I have to ask myself: Have I done everything to help this person? Is it me? Is it the leadership team? Or is it the employee?
I manage very differently now.
Mark Parkinson: When [our assisted-living facility] went from two buildings to three, our third building was in a remote location. We cared more about our residents and our employees than anybody could possibly care, but we just hadn’t figured out how to do it when we weren’t able to have our fingers into everything.
When you run a facility, you get an annual survey [from the state]. And we had a terrible survey — a survey that was so bad that we were prohibited from admitting new residents until we cleaned up the deficiencies. And to make matters worse, CBS was doing a national exposé on how terrible nursing homes were, and they had their cameras in front of our building, like, “Here’s this terrible building.” Nobody got hurt — it wasn’t like we dropped a resident and they died, or we didn’t feed somebody. But it was all stuff where somebody could have been hurt.
A lawyer by training, Parkinson served as a Kansas state senator before founding a chain of assisted-living facilities in 1996. (Sean Scheidt)
We were completely crushed, but it ended up being a good lesson. Our thought for the first 48 hours was, “These state surveyors, they’re terrible, they’re unfair, they don’t understand how much we care about the residents.”
And then as we reflected on it, we realized it was our fault. We had screwed up. We didn’t have the right systems in place. We had the mission part down at that point, but we didn’t have the metrics part down yet. Instead of looking out the window and saying, “Who caused this?,” we looked in the mirror and realized we had caused it. We recovered, we got better, and we became a much better operation.
Q: What's next for you? What's your biggest goal at this point in your career?
Maria Gomez: If I had a dream job, it would probably be being the dean of a university, where I could actually decide the kinds of things that our community really needs to train people for; getting real jobs and livable wages for folks.
Mark Parkinson: My personal mission statement right now is to have a meaningful relationship with my kids when they’re in their 40s. That means I have to stay healthy, because our youngest is 24, so I’ve got to make it to 77 for her. That’s my personal mission.
Dominick Johnson: What’s important is the people that are working with me. I want to continue to help them grow and continue to see more people be in my position. I have a long career ahead of me at this company, but I want to make sure that I have people who come with me, too.
Editing by V. Dion Haynes. Design by Audrey Valbuena.