By Erin Cristales, Vizient
Margaret Steele has spent the past hour answering questions about her career accomplishments, and she's the first to tell you it might just be her least favorite thing to do. She was recently named to the Journal of Healthcare Contracting's list of the top "Women Leaders in Supply Chain" for her stellar performance as senior vice president of Vizient's med/surg, lab, blood management and distribution team, and while she says she finds the recognition "humbling and flattering," it's also "a little cringey."
"I want to do good work, I want to have great teams, and I want to be part of Vizient's success," Steele said. "But the spotlight is not my favorite place to be. I never want to be front and center."
So even though there's five minutes left – likely her only potential break in a day filled with back-to-back meetings – she still takes the time to turn the interview on its head. "Tell me about you," she says.
It might seem like a small gesture, but then again, she's built her reputation on easy-to-miss acts of generosity that add up to an unmistakable effect. Ask anyone at Vizient if they'd like to chat about Steele as a leader, a mentor or a friend, and the answer is, unfailingly, "absolutely."
"Every single day, whether you see her in the hallway or drop by her office, she makes time to talk with you," said Jack Gregg, Vizient senior director of contract services, who last spring asked Steele to be his mentor. "It means the world that she's always engaged and ready to help. You can't ask for more than that."
Even if you can't ask for more, Steele has a way of exceeding expectations. It's why, despite its reputation for being an especially challenging category, med/surg has become one of the company's most desired destinations. It's why she's a sought-after mentor for employees within and outside of her business unit. And it's why, after nearly 14 years at Vizient, her influence only keeps growing.
"Not only does she genuinely care about all employees, but she always looks for opportunities to improve," said Heather Mallinckrodt, Vizient associate vice president, contract and program services. "She has high expectations for the team and for herself. She's just really seen as a trusted adviser to everyone, from her colleagues to our providers and suppliers."
'You can't be afraid to fail fast and fail often'
When Mallinckrodt joined Vizient in 2004, her first role was as product manager in med/surg, which at the time was often referred to by providers as "materials management." Back then, the category was viewed more as an expense center than a strategic department – the work was largely a cycle of bids, feedback and awards decisions.
"It was totally appropriate for the time," said Mallinckrodt, who in 2007 moved into custom contracting and solutions. "But since then, Vizient has made huge strides forward with our data, our processes and the value we bring to hospitals."
So, in June 2020, at the height of COVID-19, Mallinckrodt rejoined med/surg as senior director. The category had long been considered a hub of sorts for supply chain, intersecting with everything from distribution to private-label sales to custom teams. And then, during the pandemic, it kicked into overdrive – the med/surg team was responsible for establishing Vizient's COVID-19 war room, ensuring critical products were distributed to providers and vetting thousands of supplier donations.
Just two years before, in January 2018, Steele had assumed the role of vice president of med/surg (she was promoted to senior vice president in 2021). Her primary goals were to ensure recognition for the sheer breadth of the team's achievements, help expand the strategic vision and make the department the most coveted within the organization – a prime landing spot even in a time as tumultuous as a global pandemic.
"If somebody is coming from med/surg, you know they have a solid foundation in hospital operations and how different programs work across the company," Mallinckrodt said. "And we've taken leaps and bounds into the future under Margaret's direction. We've become an advisory source where providers turn to us for direction and ask, 'Where do you think things will be in the next two to three years?' We're seen as proactive."
They're also seen as having an expansive portfolio with the most comprehensive contract coverage for medical, surgical, lab and related distribution products and services. Under Steele's leadership, the portfolio has grown to include 547 national contracts and 254 suppliers, 146 unique categories, $25 billion in annual spend and nearly 231,000 contracted products. Med/surg includes 35-plus team members who provide leadership on everything from competitive contracting to technology to analytics.
Additionally, Steele oversees Vizient's Impact Standardization Program, which improves procurement processes on commonly purchased products, reduces product variation and financially rewards standardization efforts – helping member health organizations realize maximum value in exchange for commitment. Impact Standardization includes 13 programs and more than 1,500 participating health systems, and it delivers over $216 million in annual rebates with $2.6 billion delivered to date.
"It can be hard to be innovative because it means you can't be afraid to fail fast and fail often," said Steele, who prior to her tenure in med/surg spent eight years in Vizient's purchased services category and 17 years at the sports publishing company Beckett Media. "But it comes down to developing trust with your colleagues and alignment across the organization. It's about keeping each other's best interests at heart."
'Someone has to be real with you'
Ask Gregg what he's gained from Steele's mentorship, and the answer literally lies at his fingertips. There's a document on his desk, updated by his team monthly, that details every contract within his category from the admin fee to the expiration date to the contract number. It's based on a tool that the med/surg team created, and Gregg spent two months duplicating it for his own area within indirect spend. It's a perfect resource for meetings where you could be asked – well, just about anything, he says. And now "it's an important part of how we do business."
Prior to their official mentor/mentee relationship, Gregg was well aware of Steele's reputation as an eager and exceptional adviser to staff across Vizient – in her time at the company, she's mentored more than a dozen employees. That's why in April 2022 he asked for her guidance, even though the request was accompanied by a rather sharp pang of guilt.
"I felt kind of bad, frankly, because I know she has no time at all," he said. "But she's so good with people. She's so good with strategy and putting the right people in the right place to execute that strategy. She's so good at measuring goals and results. I couldn't think of anyone else I'd rather have help me out."
Not only did she carve out time to meet with him, but Steele talked to his colleagues to learn more about Gregg and prepared ideas for how to address many of his most pressing questions.
"She'd really done her homework to make sure it was a valuable experience for me even though it took a ton of extra time on her part," he said. "She's just so genuine. It's not like she read 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' and is copying some technique. It's who she really is, and it's what draws people to her."
For Steele, mentorship, whether provided or received, is just a natural part of doing business – maybe even the best part. You have to invest in people, she says. And you have to give them grace.
"If you want to continue to evolve and grow, someone has to be real with you," said Steele, who also serves as a network champion for Dimensions@Vizient, a Diversity Networking Association that raises awareness around the multitude of identities in the workplace to engender a more inclusive environment. "Sure, you can chitchat. You can talk about presentations and give feedback. But we've all learned so many valuable lessons that if you don't bestow that on someone else, you haven't paid it forward. If I can help someone avoid the same mistakes I've made by sharing my experiences, then I know it wasn't all for naught."
'A leader whose actions you strive to emulate'
If you walk into Steele's office, you'll see a collection of items that represent her interests and day-to-day needs. There's a painting of a horse that hangs on the back wall, a smattering of tiny cactus magnets and a few artificial plants (all nods to her love of the outdoors). There's a small desk fan for the days when the sun streams in a little too aggressively and a phone charger to replace the one she somehow always manages to leave at home.
But those decorations and must-have supplies, she laughs, weren't brought in by her. In December 2020, her team – who were "embarrassed by the random assortment of junk in my office" – surprised her with a full-on office makeover.
"It was so sweet and hilarious," Steele said. "They are just amazing, amazing people."
Intentional or not, the metaphor is hard to miss. Through her years at Vizient, Steele has made it her mission to create a comfortable space in which others can learn and thrive. Her team was only too happy to gift her one in return.
And though it may also double as a retreat from center stage, she's more than happy to wait in the wings.
"You know, I'm always amazed at how many people go to her for advice and by the incredible relationships she's built across the company," Mallinckrodt said. "When you have a leader whose actions you strive to emulate, that truly is unique. It's something special."