By Randena Hulstrand, Vizient
After spending a brisk mid-March Thursday in Washington D.C. with legislators championing nurse workforce issues as part of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership Advocacy Days on the Hill, Nicole "Nikki" Gruebling hopped on a plane home to Wisconsin.
By Friday night, and again on Saturday, she jumped in her car and made the two-hour round-trip drive to the snowy slopes of Heiliger Huegel for her National Ski Patrol volunteer shifts scouting for injured skiers.
But that kind of bumper-to-bumper schedule is exactly what Gruebling lives for. She's the first to admit she loves a to-do-list, thrives on accomplishing goals and is most fulfilled when she's working to improve outcomes for others.
"I fundamentally really want to help people. That's what brought me to nursing and healthcare," said Gruebling, vice president of member connections, who develops and leads networking opportunities for the Vizient chief nurse, quality and medical executives national networks. "Having helped build Vizient's health system networks as a national platform for improving the quality of medical and nursing models of care is a huge source of pride for me."
Providing 'unstoppable' care
A nurse for 25 years, Gruebling joined Vizient in 2018 as a director with national networks. In addition to building system networks as an exclusive space where system-level nurse and medical executives could come together to problem solve, she spearheaded the Care to Lead podcast, among other clinical education.
"We bring healthcare leaders together in a variety of platforms — via our community, our online educational opportunities, virtual and in-person meetings — to help solve what feels like individualized problems for some by finding commonalities with others," she said, adding that Vizient has a unique vantage point in healthcare leadership. "The large, collective size of providers that we have in our communities and the data and analytics platforms increases our opportunity to leverage those insights with providers — a differentiator for us — so we can drive performance improvement."
And because of the numerous troubles facing healthcare that have only been exacerbated by the unprecedented past three years, pushing for change in the industry — including nursing workforce, care model redesign, health equity and revenue optimization — is more important than ever.
"Healthcare organizations are thinking outside of the walls of their systems differently," Gruebling said. "COVID increased the industry's flexibility and agility, helping to break down barriers. If they can carry those abilities through the industry's current struggles and be open to change, they are unstoppable."
Diligent work ethic
Gruebling grew up as part of a middle-class family in Casco, a small town of 500 in northeastern Wisconsin. At 12, she took on her first job as a babysitter and by 15 was waitressing at both of Casco's only two restaurants. After moving to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin, she paid for college by working full time each summer as the flag girl and in the gravel pit weigh station for a road construction company.
She applied that same work ethic to her studies, ultimately earning a nursing degree. She then worked full time in hospice and later in med/surg while she earned an occupational therapy degree. But nursing remained her first love — especially following the birth of her first son, who has a rare genetic disorder.
"He survived birth, but had seven specialists, and they weren't sure if he'd live beyond a year or two," she said. "I would work 12-hour night shifts, come home to sleep a couple hours and then wake up to care for him to keep him out of day care so I could be with him as much as possible."
Her son, now a 21-year-old college student, is thriving.
"I think people find me approachable," she said. "I enjoy jumping in to help problem solve, which made for a progression into a leadership role. But in all honesty, when I was first asked to be a formal leader, I thought, 'Do you really think I'm qualified for this?'"
The answer, it turns out, was yes. As Gruebling continued to work in traditional leadership roles, she successfully ticked off each step on her charted course to becoming a chief nursing officer (CNO) with the goal of a chief operation officer (COO) to follow.
But after earning a doctorate in systems leadership and healthcare quality, and at the encouragement of her husband to consider approaching healthcare leadership with a wider scope across a national level, she found herself on a different path.
"I took this quite different direction from my initial career goals and applied to a position with Vizient. I also was offered a CNO position. But in the end, I thought, 'You know what? Let's go out on a limb and see what this potential at Vizient holds.'"
The choice has brought her significant opportunities to create change in healthcare. Gruebling says she views leadership as a craft, and it's a role she takes seriously with collaboration as her compass.
"I approach leadership with a people-first perspective," she said. "I pride myself on being transformational, and I've been able to achieve that through servant leadership. I can get us to where we need to go, but not without giving space to each person on my team to share their opinions, perspectives and solutions. A team that relies on one another, built upon the skills of everyone, can really achieve just about anything."
Serving with impact
Gruebling's ardor for lending a helping hand also translates to her volunteer work. In addition to National Ski Patrol, she serves on the Board of the Wisconsin Organization of Nurse Leaders and contributes to the American Organization of Nurse Leaders Advocacy Committee. Also, through her work as a board member for Dementia Innovations, a not-for-profit organization in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, she's helping to create innovative approaches in improving the quality of life for those with dementia and their families.
"I have always had a passion for caring for our aging population, especially those with dementia. As a young nurse I connected with elderly patients and as my career advanced, I saw the limited care options for those aging with dementia."
The group is currently building a first-of-its-kind village in Sheboygan for individuals with dementia and their families to live a barrier free life, modeled after, Hogewey, a reduced barrier dementia village in the Netherlands.
And when Gruebling is not busily working or giving back to her community, she's skippering her family — a group of avid sailors, who, in addition to racing their sailboat in the Great Lakes as they do each summer from Chicago to Mackinac Island, is setting their sights even farther — crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a coming summer.
Approaching this expedition as an exercise in collaborative teamwork, agile navigation and vision forward exemplifies just how Gruebling is steering healthcare leaders with intention and care through current uncertainties — one water swell at a time.
"The scale at which I get to help bring people together to solve some of healthcare's most complex problems, leveraging Vizient’s data and solutions, drives me every day," she said. "I am super fortunate that my job is around building these relationships, making connections and then sharing those insights back with industry and our member providers. I'm grateful and privileged to be a part of it."