Profile: A conduit for excellence

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Mary Tellis-Nayak, president and CEO, ACHCA When she was growing up on Chicago's Southwest Side, Mary Tellis-Nayak had no idea she'd eventually be running the nation's pre-eminent association for long-term care administrators. Or that she'd be turning the organization into a "conduit of excellence" for its 3,400 members.

She just wanted to become a doctor.
But if her career path looks more like a lightning bolt than a straight line, it's evident that each stop along the way gave her tools and lessons to build on. Then again, some characteristics -- like bravery, loyalty and empathy -- either are or are not in your makeup.
"She's a very courageous woman, and this field doesn't make room for courageous women too easily," says Bill Keane, director of Dementia Services for the Mather Institute on Aging.
Keane has known her since her days at the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. He says while Tellis-Nayak may give tough decisions a lot of thought, she's fearless about doing what she thinks is right.
This can be seen in her advocacy for resident care, her ability to see administration in terms of emerging needs and even in her willingness to testify for providers who have been needlessly picked on.
But perhaps it's most obvious in the way she has helped energize and focus the American College of Health Care Administrators.
"Our job is to help administrators be the best administrators they can be," she says. It's hard to argue with her logic: better administrators run better facilities, and better facilities deliver better resident care.
Toward that goal, the College conducted a thorough investigation to identify the key traits long-term care administrators need now -- and will need in the years ahead. The result is the College's Principles of Excellence: 40 characteristics framed by six pillars:
• Articulating a mission and vision for the organization.
• Creating a culture of quality within the organization.
• Affirming that resident's care and quality of life must be person-centered.
• Understanding that caregivers and staff create quality for the resident.
• Realizing that many residents experience long-term care as their last home.
• Knowing that financial viability is essential to provide care and services.
The College has also put programs in place to help members gain mastery in these key areas. Help will be available through the Web site ( and at the organization's upcoming conference April 16-19 in Providence, RI. In addition, the College will be making mentors and centers of excellence available for first-hand looks.
Someone who is hardly surprised by what is happening is Anna Ortigara, who has worked with Tellis-Nayak in two different places and is now a vice president with the Life Services Network, an Illinois chapter of both the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging and the Assisted Living Federation of America.
"She has an amazing ability to articulate and communicate a vision with passion and excitement," says Ortigara. By empowering others, giving them credit and taking a real interest in their lives, Tellis-Nayak is able to generate genuine buy-in, Ortigara feels: "I see her as a role model of how to be a leader."
Tellis-Nayak is well grounded for her current role. A former nun and grade school teacher, she said she experienced a turning point in her life while working as a nurse in an intensive care unit. There, she saw an elderly patient, who was about to die, needlessly endure an amputation. The reason the limb was cut off? So medical students could practice the unusual procedure.
"I wanted to to be in an area where I was helping people to have a good death, and to grow old with dignity. I made up my mind at that time to go into gerontological care," she says.
In a classic case of one thing leading to another, she quickly found herself in a master's program in gerontological nursing. After transferring to the University of Illinois to earn a master's degree in public health, she headed up a home health agency and then soon found herself becoming the director of nursing at a rundown nursing home the university had just purchased.
During her two years there, she learned that being a DON often had less to do with gerontological care than surviving inspections and fig