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One-on-One with Lillian Montoya

Christus St. Vincent President and CEO Lillian Montoya, right, talks with Jessica and Jose Sandoval in the hospital in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Lillian Montoya likes to cook. A lot.

In fact, if her guest list ends up including 150 names, she’s OK with that.

“Because it’s in my nature that you feed people,” says the 52-year-old president and chief executive officer of Christus St. Vincent health care system in Santa Fe. “I don’t want people to ever not have enough food.”

Montoya, who became Christus St. Vincent’s first female CEO last year, has had a varied career that has included leadership positions at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education, Flywheel Ventures and the Regional Development Corp.

She cites as one of her achievements the development of the North Central Regional Transit District, the first of its kind in the state and an effort that required her to work with the Eight Northern Pueblos, three counties and two municipalities over 18 months. The district provides free bus service throughout the area.

In that effort, she brought to bear one of her signature talents: giving life to someone’s idea that an organization “really, really wants but has put on the shelf for a long time (because) there wasn’t readiness for it with the right people, the right community, the right timing.”

Christus St. Vincent President and CEO Lillian Montoya outside the hospital in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Enter Montoya. Her job, she says, is figuring out what will motivate people enough to get the long-delayed project off the shelf.

In the case of the transit district, “The mantra for the northern New Mexico community is they wanted to be the first at something, and they wanted to be first before Albuquerque,” Montoya says. “It was so sweet because it motivated them in a different way.”

Montoya has broken a lot of ground as a Hispanic woman: She was the rare female involved in venture capital, one of two women in her job category at LANL and while at the Regional Development Commission, she worked with elected officials who were mostly men.

At Christus, there are many female employees “and a lot of our leaders are women, but we hadn’t had a woman at the helm here,” Montoya says. “There’s still some work to do, I think.”

In every case, this has been her strategy: “I don’t enter a room thinking, ‘I’m a woman first,'” Montoya says. “And I don’t enter a room thinking, ‘I’m a Hispanic first.’ I enter a room thinking, ‘I’m going to get stuff done. Who’s going to do it with me?'”

What were you like as a kid?

I grew up in Albuquerque, graduated from UNM, undergrad and master’s (degrees). Someone asked me the other day, ‘When did you find your voice?’ And I thought about it, and I thought, … ‘I’ve always had my voice. I had to learn how to modulate it.'”

You were the first in your family to go to college?

Yes. Three out of four of us (siblings) did end up going to college, but the one who didn’t got to a six-figure salary before the rest of us. She will be reading this, and she’s going to want to make sure I bring you that first. She’s in fashion. She was, still is, in California. But she was the kid who would steal my dad’s tube socks, my letterman jacket and cut them into Barbie doll clothes.”

Do you have any hobbies?

“When I have down time, I really like to read, and I probably am reading three or four books at one time. I do like international travel or extended travel in the states. I travel a lot… every 18 months.”

What are you reading now?

” I am reading the ‘Happiness Factor’ (by Kirk Wilkinson). I am rereading ‘Tribes’ (by Seth Godin.) I am reading my Bon Appetit magazines, which is funny because I’ll look at that while I’m on my spin bike, and there’s something weird about that.

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

“I’ll tell you the funniest moment. I made this huge presentation … one of my very first to the workforce at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and there they televise their team meetings. … I don’t even remember the subject any more, but I was up there for 10 minutes to talk about something, and I was all proud of myself. And I get back to my office, and I had two phone calls. I thought, ‘wow, they’re calling about the town hall I just presented.’ And I take the calls, both of them, and they’re both ladies and they both want to know where I got my hair done. It was a good reminder to me. It was very humbling.”

How do you motivate people to get things done?

“Being incredibly visible throughout your organization, and actually taking the time to talk not just about safety issues or concerns or feedback but just to get to know your people. I’ve known this my whole life having worked up here: we are a highly relational community, and we’re familial. There are no secrets, OK? We’re a community that we’re going to trust you more if we see the whites of your eyes, the look on your face and that you show up and engage. That’s 50 percent of (it) is showing up. You can’t start with an email or a phone call. If it’s really, really important, it starts personal.”

What are your pet peeves?

“People who use too many words and should just get to the point.”

What’s something no one knows about you?

“I really feel like everybody knows everything. But I can think of one thing because my son would bring it to my attention: that I’m one of the few women he knows who actually likes action flicks and all the Star Wars, Star Trek, everything. Every time there was a new episode of Star Wars, my son and I would be the first to go. The Terminator series, Indiana Jones – I introduced my kids to all of those.”

What gives you hope for the future?

“I am very excited about the future and very hopeful. Just in this (hospital) setting alone, you get to see what people do every day and who they care for and they still come to work the next day to do it. The integrity, the intention. I’m hopeful when I go into the community, and people tell me what they’re trying to create or do. There’s a lot of optimism and a lot of enthusiasm for creating things and doing things. I think New Mexico is quite special because we’re not in the wave of what’s happening in a lot of the national politics, and so it allows us to have conversations that are about the issues and not about the people. And we’re blessed in that way.”

Why do you think that’s the case?

“What’s that Kevin Bacon movie? “Six Degrees of Separation.” We’re like two or three degrees here, New Mexico-wide. And that’s why I think we’re special. You really can’t get too far right or too far left because you’re probably talking to someone you know or someone, someone you know.”

Describe yourself in three words.

“I love being.”