March 4, 2019
WBJ Hall of Fame

McGuire is a rare leader in a challenging environment

Photo | Matt Wright
Toni McGuire

It didn't take long working in a hospital as a cardiac monitor technician for Toni McGuire to find inspiration for a career in health care.

"I was there for about six months before I decided this is what I really want to do," McGuire said. "You see people at their truest and most inner self when they're in a hospital situation."

McGuire has grown patient volume by 42 percent at the Edward M. Community Health Center in Worcester since she took over as CEO, serving 28,000 annually. Now she has time to reflect, as she prepares to retire in July.

"I've always worked with people who really care about the work that they do," she said. "It's a nurturing environment because everyone is a caregiver, so they care not just for the patients but also those around them."

Before she was the head of 350 Kennedy employees, McGuire enjoyed working directly with patients. She spent the first decade of her career as an ambulatory nurse before working her way into administration. Her career has taken her to Worcester insurer Fallon Health and Boston Medical Center before leading what was then the Great Brook Valley Health Center.

Ground level & high altitude

McGuire can manage a large and diverse operation and be an advocate at a much broader level for health care for the underserved, said Valerie Zolezzi-Wyndham, chairwoman of Kennedy's board and a consultant with the Mass. company Promoting Good LLC.

"Some CEOs are really good at one or the other, and I think she's managed to do both," Zolezzi-Wyndham said. "She has built a really strong team and helped staff both at a high level of management and throughout the organization to lead in whichever role people have. It has been really impressive to watch."

McGuire's colleagues at the state's 50 community health centers chose her to back-to-back terms as chair of the board of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

"She's a sought-after mentor and advocate," said James Hunt, the group's president and CEO.

"I see Toni as someone who, in particular where I've been with her in groups of business leaders, when she speaks, people listen," Hunt said. "She has a commanding presence, but it's not through tone or asserting behavior. It's through content and being able to speak to what she sees as patients and community members in need."

McGuire can make sure patients' and workers' needs are met, but not at the expense of the broader wellbeing of the organization, Hunt said.

"That's not easy," he said. "Balancing mission and margin sometimes requires making very difficult business decisions."

At Kennedy, McGuire noticed some patients were traveling great distances. So the center expanded a site in Framingham to offer primary care, optometry, dental and behavioral health needs. A primary care site was opened for the first time in Milford. Staff is in place at Worcester school-based centers.

Community needs are so great the health center has had to keep growing and continually investing in its staff. That has required support of foundations and donors.

"It's always challenging," McGuire said. "The financing of community health care is always challenging."

McGuire said the time is right for her to step aside now, having given a search committee time to find her successor.

"Sometimes leadership is hard, and leadership jobs are not one that someone takes for a lifetime," she said. "As a leader, you have to know when to hold and when to fold. I think I've taken this organization to a very good point, and I think they're ready for the next leader."

Directors at the health center, meanwhile, don't expect to exactly replace its longtime head.

"We're not looking to find another Toni because we're not going to find that," Zolezzi-Wyndham said. "We're not going to be able to replace the personality she has and the special energy."

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