Paula Carynski has attained success by raising her hand, confiding in mentors and practicing empathy. Step into her journey from living a modest life in a small town to serving others as the President/CEO of a major Rockford health care provider.
Paula Carynski is a caretaker to the core. It’s why she initially felt drawn to work in health care, why she’s well-suited for her role as President of OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, and why she has dozens of framed photos of her family throughout her office.
“Our mission at OSF is to serve the community with the greatest care and love,” Carynski says. “I think our 13-hospital system does that really well. The mission resonates with me, and it’s why I’ve stayed here as long as I have.”
Carynski grew up in the unincorporated community of Eleroy, Ill., in a family of nine children – she was the seventh born. She remembers a “busy and lively” household where organized chaos was the norm. Her father, who was one of her biggest mentors, worked for the State of Illinois as an investigator for the Department of Agriculture. Her mother was a federal employee, working for the United States Postal Service.
“I thought I had a really normal childhood,” Carynski says. “I remember Eleroy being very small – there were actually only two teachers at our school, one for first, second and third grade, and one for fourth, fifth and sixth. I think back on that and wonder how those teachers managed. But it was a great experience.”
Eventually, the school closed, and Carynski found herself taking a bus to Lena, Ill., to go to Lena-Winslow Junior High School. Not that Lena was a big city by any means, but just being there broadened Carynski’s world.
“A moment of enlightenment came for me when I realized, in junior high school, that we were a family of modest means,” Carynski says.
“It was the first time I saw other kids who had new jeans instead of jeans with patches handed down from older siblings. But that being said, it always felt like we had the essentials we needed at home.”
Carynski’s parents instilled a strong work ethic in their children. All of the siblings were expected to have their homework and chores done before their parents came home from work. Family meals were important, too. Carynski recalls all 11 members of her family regularly sitting down to dinner, praying before they ate.
Out of necessity, Carynski’s mother taught her children how to sew and can vegetables from the garden. To this day, gardening and canning are two of Carynski’s favorite hobbies.
“I just remember not appreciating it at the time – having to pick a row and weed the garden. But now, it’s a big love of mine,” she says. “I can tomatoes and make salsa and spaghetti sauce to have throughout the winter. It’s a stress reliever to be able to go home from work and dig in the garden and cook in the kitchen.”
But all throughout her childhood, Carynski never once thought about college. It just wasn’t a common subject to talk about in her household. “My parents didn’t have the financial means to send us to college,” she explains.
When she graduated from high school, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to be, or do, when she grew up.
“But, I had a strong work ethic,” Carynski says. “One of my first jobs as a kid was detasseling corn in a field all day. We’d get up at 4 a.m. and my mother would take us to a bus, which would take us to a field. So, I’ve never been afraid of hard work, and I’ve never thought a job was ‘below me,’ if you will.”
After some reflecting, Carynski decided to take advantage of a vocational program funded by the government and offered at Highland Community College, in Freeport. She learned how to work in an office, type quickly on a keyboard, file papers – basically everything essential for administrative work. Through that program, she acquired the necessary skills to work as an executive assistant at Microswitch, a division of Honeywell in Freeport.
“It was actually really interesting and fun,” Carynski recalls. “Microswitch is a global company, and the sales force would service companies all over the world. So, I really learned a lot about how to set up conferences and correspond with people internationally. It was a great education for me in the business world.”
But all along, Carynski felt like something was missing. “I didn’t know what it was. I was doing OK. I was efficient. But I was still pretty young at the time, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
So, much to her parent’s dismay, Carynski decided to leave Freeport and do some soul-searching.
“I moved to Lakeland, Fla., and lived there for almost four years,” Carynski recalls. “And you know, obviously, I needed to find a job right away, so I found one as an office manager at an oral and maxillofacial clinic.”
Even though she was behind a desk, that job was her first exposure to the health care field.
“No one else in my family is in health care, so it wasn’t necessarily something I ever thought about,” Carynski says. “It’s pretty crazy, but I swear I woke up one morning, and I don’t know where it came from, but I just said out loud, ‘I think I want to be a nurse.’”
Her soul-searching in Florida had worked out. Now, it was time to come home.
Carynski called her parents, who had moved to Cedarville, Ill. She nervously told them her revelation, and much to her delight, they were 100% supportive.
“They actually said ‘Why don’t you come home, since there are two amazing nursing programs in Rockford?’ They were in a position where all the children had moved out of the house, so they could help,” Carynski says.
At first, she was hesitant to move back home. It seemed like a step back. But after thinking about it, she knew it made the most sense. “I thought, ‘Well, what’s more important? Getting through school and getting on with my profession, or taking twice as long by doing it alone?’ So, I made a decision to move home, and it was a good one.”
Carynski was accepted into both nursing programs in Rockford, but ultimately chose OSF Saint Anthony College of Nursing. During her interview with Sister Mary Linus, the dean of the program, Carynski was told, “Paula, you need to come here. You will do very well.” It left an impression.
“I thought, ‘Maybe she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,’” Carynski says.
So, she began the three-year Registered Nurse Diploma Program at OSF Saint Anthony. During her second year, the program just so happened to develop a bridge with Rockford College, now Rockford University, for students to obtain their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
“I just really feel that God has watched out for me in many ways,” Carynski says. “After I finished my diploma program, I was able to move right in and get my bachelor’s degree. Otherwise, I’m not so sure I would have done that. I was a hungry nursing student, tired of eating ramen noodles, and I wanted to get going and make some money. But that collaboration between programs helped me to think ‘Why not? Why shouldn’t I do this?’ OSF even helped with tuition. So, I became part of the very first cohort of the nursing program.”
Carynski graduated from Rockford College in 1987, but technically, she’s been working at OSF since 1985, when she started picking up nursing shifts in the evenings so she could finish her bachelor’s degree during the day.
“I was just so driven and so hungry to learn,” she says.
Of all her clinical rotations, Carynski loved cardiac nursing the most. Not only was she fascinated with the cardiac system and all its complexity, but the other nurses in the unit were caring mentors who invested in her. It was a great place to start a professional career.
Carynski thought she’d be a bedside nurse for the rest of her life. So, when her manager asked if she’d ever thought about going into leadership, Carynski resisted.
“I was torn and thought, ‘No, I didn’t go through all this training and nursing education to not take care of patients anymore,” she recalls.
But, she mulled over the idea with her father, who always seemed able to provide wisdom when needed. After talking it out, he helped Carynski to see that a manager’s role is to take care of the people who are taking care of the people. Carynski would still be a caretaker, just in a different capacity.
“Right then I made a commitment that if I ever lost focus of the patient, or if I ever lost focus of the people who take care of the patient, then I’m not doing my job,” Carynski says. “That’s why I make an effort to be as visible as possible – to create forums where I’m actually sitting down with the frontline staff to see how it’s going, because they give you information that’s unfiltered. I think that makes me a well-grounded and connected leader.”
Before long, Carynski was the manager of the unit she started on. And it wasn’t easy. Now, she had to be a leader to nurses who were her friends, and nurses who initially took her under their wings and “showed her the ropes.”
“It was that philosophy of ‘It’s hard to be a prophet in your own town,’” Carynski recalls. “As I made advancements and grew within the organization, a lot of people had to adjust how they viewed me.
“Just because you have the title doesn’t mean you’ve earned the respect.”
Carynski had to prove herself. But one thing she learned from her parents, who successfully raised nine children, is that you have to be consistent and fair with everyone. Carynski embodies that in her leadership strategies and prides herself on treating everyone fairly, whether they’re a new employee or seasoned talent.
As more opportunities opened up to Carynski, she recognized her lack of education may hold her back. So, in 1995, she earned her Master’s in Nursing Administration from the University of Illinois-Chicago. Most of her classes were at the Rockford campus, which was a relief, since Carynski had a hectic work schedule.
Not to mention, she was also eight months pregnant with her first child when she walked to receive her diploma.
“It really worked out great, and I just kept getting further advancements from that point on,” Carynski says.
She’s held many roles with OSF over the years. She’s been the Director of Nursing Operations, Director of the Regional Heart Institute, Director of the Neuroscience Institute, Director of Cardiac Services, and Vice President of Patient Care Services. In 1999, she achieved what she considers to be her most critical role: Chief Nursing Officer (CNO).
“When I look back at each transition, I realize that you really have to be open to the fact that you don’t know everything,” Carynski says. “You have to be willing to learn from your mistakes, to recalibrate, and to be open to accepting criticism.
“I think my emotional intelligence has increased tremendously with each promotion that I received. It’s easy to get impatient because you want to get things done, but it’s not about taking things off your list,” she adds. “Your team needs to be behind you, so that when things do get done, everyone is in complete understanding and can help drive the change.”
At first, Carynski’s boss was nervous about making her a CNO. Not because she wasn’t qualified for the job, but because she had two young children at home. Hannah was born in 1995, and Connor was born in 1997. But Carynski thrived in balancing it all. “I have an incredibly supportive husband, Guy, and he has always been supportive of my career,” Carynski says. “It wasn’t always easy. I remember sometimes coming into work with spit-up on my shoulder. But somehow, as women, we make it all work out.”
One of Carynski’s proudest professional accomplishments is when she spearheaded OSF into receiving its first designation as a Magnet hospital, meaning the hospital satisfies a set of criteria for nursing excellence.
“I wrote a business plan for the board of directors and the CEO about what it would take to become a Magnet organization, and it didn’t take long before they said ‘Go for it!’
“It’s hard to put into words the tremendous amount of work it took to get the organization to that point.”
Because of her, OSF achieved its first Magnet designation in 2005. Each designation is good for four years, and now OSF is on its way to achieving its fourth designation.
“It’s something that’s been sustainable, so that’s why I’m really proud of it,” Carynski says.
She’s also proud of successfully surviving the OSF Leadership Academy, which was a rigorous multi-year program that instilled leadership skills.
“There was a simulation day where you were flown out to Pittsburgh and spent the day responding to scenarios,” Carynski recalls. “The phone would ring, and it might be an upset physician, or a community board member might knock on the door. And the whole time you were on camera.”
The feedback was monumental in helping her grow as a leader. “It really groomed me to become the President,” she says. “I think it’s remarkable OSF invests in its leaders.”
In 2013, Carynski reached the peak of her career when she became the President of OSF in Rockford. Since then, the hospital has especially concentrated on its quality of care, particularly in the areas of trauma, stroke, cardiac, oncology and orthopedics.
“We made a decision that we may not be the biggest hospital, but if we’re going to do something, we’re going to be the best at it,” Carynski says.
Outside of work, she volunteers her time with the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, Rockford Area Economic Development Council and American Heart Association, since she believes in making the community a better place.
In addition, Carynski also believes in making OSF a better place for employees. Right now, OSF is in progress toward becoming a Blue Zone certified work site, meaning employees will have an easier time when it comes to choosing healthy options.
“I’m excited about this because surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, health care workers are often the worst at taking care of their own well-being,” Carynski explains. “They get so focused on taking care of others that they neglect their own health. And if you don’t have your health, then you don’t have anything. So, to build resiliency, we want to keep our workforces as healthy as possible so they can continue to do the good work they do.”
Although Carynski’s parents aren’t around anymore, their lessons are still integral to her. For anyone hoping to grow as a leader, Carynski delivers the following advice: “Believe in yourself. Women typically have a more difficult time with that – I know I did,” she says. “I would always self-doubt and question if I was prepared or not. Don’t let self-doubt be a barrier.
“It’s interesting to read the book ‘Lean In,’ by Sheryl Sandberg, and I’d advise people to read it,” Carynski continues. “The author advises raising your hand. Volunteer. Do extra. Don’t say no or sit back. Sign up for something you might not be successful at because it’ll help you learn more. Find a mentor, because we all go through moments of doubt. Lean in, don’t hesitate.
“Believe that you deserve a seat at the table.”