Susan Stuart, President and CEO of the Center for Organ Recovery & Education (CORE) in Pittsburgh who joined the board of directors of the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance this year, was one of 12 national leaders to receive a Baldrige Foundation Award for Leadership Excellence at a ceremony earlier this month. She was honored as the nonprofit sector designee for providing exceptional support to Baldrige and the Foundation’s mission and promoting the positive impact of Baldrige on organizational and community success.
Dennis Wagner, principal and managing director of Yes And Leadership and one of the founders of The Alliance, notes that CORE is the third Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) to receive a Baldrige Award. “It is really quite amazing that three out of 57 OPOs (Mid-America Transplant, Donor Alliance and CORE) have achieved the Baldrige designation since 2015,” says Wagner. “I believe that many of the forces that created The Alliance (like Dean Kappel’s leadership) are among the same forces that have caused such an emphasis on systematic quality improvement in the OPO community.”
Stuart’s involvement with the Baldrige Performance Excellence program began more than a decade ago. “I was at a Quest conference, and many of the presenters were from Baldrige Award-winning organizations,” says Stuart. “I was very impressed and thought wow, this would give us a nice framework to really look at what are our key processes and a way to know that we are achieving those key processes.”
But it was an “aha” moment at dinner with her leadership team that cemented the decision for CORE to pursue the Baldrige Performance Excellence program. “We were saying, okay, should we go on this Baldrige journey?” says Stuart. “Now, it’s just the way we do our work. But early on we had to retool how we were doing our jobs and really rethink things. So initially it felt like it was a big commitment of additional work, and we were asking do we have the resources, capability and capacity?”
“And then said, ‘Wait a minute, this is really going to help us to work more efficiently because we were doing so many things. But do we need to be doing all those things versus truly identifying what are the key processes that really will drive us to success in carrying out our mission? So it really refocused us. It allowed us to say, ‘This is what’s important for us to achieve our mission. This is how we’ll measure those processes to know that we’re achieving the results that we’re hoping to achieve.’”
Stuart said her leadership team was on board from the get-go. “I have just an amazing leadership team,” she says. “They bought into it. Everybody here is so committed to the mission, and they want to save more lives. They want to care for more donor families.
And if there was a way in which we could improve those objectives, then they were on board.”
When Stuart arrived at CORE in 1987, there were six employees; now there are 165. She characterizes her leadership style as authentic. “I would never ask anybody to do anything I’m not willing to do,” she says. “I think that just being present, being visible to your team is very important and making sure you’re listening to them. They are really out there on the front lines, and I make sure they know they’re valued, they’re appreciated, and that I depend on them to help me to lead this organization.”
Stuart went on to complete the Baldrige Executive Fellows Program in 2016. This year, CORE’s Director of Public Affairs, Colleen Sullivan, is enrolled in the program. In Sullivan’s nomination of Stuart for the Leadership Excellence award, she wrote: “Results show the transparency around the Baldrige standards pays off, with reported satisfaction levels above 90 percent and back-to-back record-breaking years for organ donation within CORE’s region. In 2020, those numbers represented 324 organ donors (28% more than the prior year) and 792 life-saving organ transplants.” In 2021, CORE set another record with 325 organ donors.
Stuart grew up in Darlington, Pennsylvania, a borough 45 minutes north of Pittsburg that she says had two stop signs but no stoplights. “I had parents that taught us a very strong work ethic and they expected all three of us girls to have a strong work ethic. We all worked from very young ages, and I appreciate my parents for that very strong work ethic that they taught us.” One of her first jobs was waitressing. “I think nothing teaches you service better than being a waitress,” she says. “It was in a small little diner in my hometown where everybody knew everybody. So, it was a lot of fun.” She went on to bag groceries and stock shelves at the supermarket among other jobs.
Stuart’s mother was a nurse, and her father was an engineer. “My dad was going to make sure that his family had a much better life than he did as a child and he worked really hard,” says Stuart. “Frequently, he was working full time and going to school full time; he was a continuous learner.”
“The big things in my mom’s life were religion working hard and family,” she continues. “That’s what she instilled. Every Sunday we were at Grandma’s house for dinner and all the aunts and uncles would come in and my grandma would have a five-pound roast beef that somehow fed 25 people around the table. I had a really great, great childhood.”
All three sisters pursued nursing careers. Stuart received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Duquesne University and a master’s degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University. She began her career as a registered nurse in the trauma ICU at Allegheny General Hospital. In 1987, she joined CORE as an organ and tissue procurement coordinator, and over the next decade she rose to become the assistant executive director. She left CORE from 1999-2004 to serve as director of clinical operations at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In 2004, she returned to CORE as president and CEO.
Stuart is married to Rich Pietroski, who recently retired after 33 years as president and CEO of Gift of Life Michigan and now is the president of Lung Bioengineering, which is a subsidiary within United Therapeutics. Their Bernedoodle, Max, is the ‘joy of our lives,” she says.
Stuart loves to read ‘anything — fiction or nonfiction’ and going to the symphony. She and her husband are big bicyclists and rode from Pittsburgh to Washington on the Great Allegheny Passage trail. On Sundays, she usually attends Mass and then goes out to brunch.
Stuart serves on the board of Donate Life America and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and is a member of the International Women’s Forum. She volunteers with the Salvation Army, is a member of the Fox Chapel Rotary, and is an honorary member of the Team Alleghenies Transplant team for the Transplant Games of America.
She became involved in The Alliance when several colleagues recommended her for a board position. “I felt extremely honored that I would even be considered and of course, very honored when they accepted me onto the board,” she says. “The Alliance team is doing exactly what we need in today’s learning environment. Through all the good learning that’s provided, we will all become better organizations because of what The Alliance is doing.”
Stuart is emphatic about sharing CORE’s success in using the Baldrige Performance Excellence program. “We try to pay it forward by making sure our leadership team participates in as many councils and committees to share our experiences,” she says. “I think we do have a responsibility to help any program to reach for excellence regardless if they’re in another state or if they’re in our donation service area. If there’s some way we can share our best practices, we do not hesitate to do that at any time.”