Bringing it Together: A Journey of Servant Leadership

Phyllis Sockwell

Often, Pfeiffer University launches a journey in servant leadership, a core principle of the school’s mission. In Phyllis Sockwell’s case, though, that journey was well underway before she pursued a Master of Health Administration at the school, graduating in 2018.

Sockwell’s journey has certainly been eventful. It has entailed serving as a healthcare administrator in various capacities at Cone Health System since 1992, most recently as the Lead Senior Project Manager of its COVID-19 Command Center. It has included transformative stints as a patient: About 13 years ago, Sockwell survived breast cancer – an experience that strengthened her resolve to make a difference in healthcare.

And it has occasionally included teaching healthcare reimbursement at Pfeiffer. Sockwell sees this as a way of giving back to a school that “brought it all together for me, enabling me to fulfill several goals.” She added: “The goals included exploring international healthcare systems, advancing in my career with Cone Health and serving on boards for other national and local organizations, including a local chapter of the American College of Healthcare Executives and my family’s non-profit organization, which provides opportunities and scholarships to students interested in healthcare.”  

Sockwell’s journey began in an exceptionally remarkable way when, in 1987, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. She began receiving intense treatment during her high school years, at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem. Against all odds – the survival rate for her cancer was low – she was cured.

A clean bill of health wasn’t all she received as a result of her time at Brenner. Her experiences there also became educational, inspiring her to pursue a career in healthcare administration. She often spent more time in the hospital than she did at home, unable to attend school or even receive homeschool instruction. Her life was all about treatments. To keep her mind off them – and, in general, to stay motivated through a very difficult ordeal – she began asking Dr. Allen Chauvenet, her oncologist, and his support team lots of questions about her disease, the treatment procedures, and other healthcare scenarios in a hospital setting.

Chauvenet would talk her through chemotherapy, lumbar punctures or bone marrow tests, offering explanations about the treatments and procedures, the equipment involved, and the chemotherapy drugs. Sockwell became a guest speaker for Q-and-A sessions at lectures that Chauvenet delivered to medical students on the patient experience. And because her cancer was so rare, she became a case study assigned to many residents who visited her during their rounds of her unit. She realized that she loved “coaching” the students on their way to becoming physicians.

Nurses also played the role of teachers. They took Sockwell on a “field trip” to hospital labs. They explained the bags of drugs they were hanging and the equipment being used for medications. They taught her about the monitors that watched her heart rate and O2 levels. The providers and staff were not only teachers but also lifetime friends.

 “They answered every question I had,” Sockwell said.   

These days, Sockwell is still asking questions on her journey – and helping to answer many more.

Phyllis SockwellSince May 2020, she has served as the Lead Senior Project Manager of Cone Health’s COVID-19 Command Center, at which several administrative executives and physicians work to develop COVID-19-related policies and processes and to answer leader and employee questions that arise. The center is housed in the Innovation Lab for Cone Health and is operated by teams from several areas within Cone Health, including Reinventing Care, where Sockwell serves as System-Wide, Senior Project Manager, and works with teams on various other projects on all the campuses, requiring time outside of COVID-19 Command Center.

“Phyllis and I worked well together in previous roles – more than 20 years ago – and we’ve both grown in experience and leadership during that time,” said Anne Macner, Vice President, Reinventing Care at Cone Health.

“When Phyllis joined our Reinventing Care team two years ago, her servant leadership and ability to balance strategy and operations while teaching and enrolling others made an immediate impact on our success.” (In this case, “enrolling,” a common Cone Health term, refers to conversations and other interactions designed to influence an individual to support or participate in an initiative or project.)

The COVID-19 Command Center’s aims are many, including shielding hospital staff from the Coronavirus and optimizing support for patients. The center also shares information and provides services to the communities that Cone Health serves through outreach programs.

Above all, the center “is an effort to centralize information and to ensure that best practices occur consistently,” Sockwell said. “We’re also looking at future needs and at operationalizing processes as COVID-19 presents different scenarios daily, scenarios that can affect such health system areas as supply management, the patient and visitor experience and financial management.”

Sockwell facilitates numerous conversations that are held at the center, prompting participants to clarify issues and the hoped-for outcomes for addressing them. She builds relationships and facilitates discussions to explore how a situation looks now, how it might look in the future, and whether more than one response should be considered to determine teams and workflows for processes that often have overlapping work streams. 

“This is done in a way that enables leaders and staff to define their work with the response and in a way that eliminates duplicate efforts while providing a consistent response system-wide,” Sockwell said.

The questions that the center answers come in from hospital committees and from such individuals as nurses and lab technicians. The answers draw on information gathered from numerous health system sources, from research on regulatory and industry standards and from feedback that center and other leaders have gathered on fact-finding tours of various departments.

The questions run the gamut. Some examples: How might restrictions on visitation be eased for family members of a terminally ill patient? What kinds of features are required for a waiting room of an outpatient service? What’s the safety protocol for a repairman who fixes machinery on a hospital floor?  

“There are so many variables that can occur,” Sockwell said. “The multidisciplinary teams and the COVID-19 Command Center have done an excellent job with the pandemic and continue to strive for the level of excellence that is Cone Health’s Legacy and Brand Promise, to be right there with our patients, staff, providers, and communities. I am very proud to have been a part of the work and to work alongside so many healthcare heroes!”    

Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at​