At the conference, Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis, at right, was interviewed by reporter Jensen Werley of Denver Business Journal (Photos by Tom Sandner)

When you ask the universe to challenge you, says Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis, you’d better be ready for what you get. A former practicing OB/GYN physician, the now-president and CEO of Denver’s Craig Hospital calls herself “a warrior for the vulnerable.” Over the years, she’s moved from delivering four babies on a single Friday at Kaiser Permanente to leading a world-renowned spinal cord and traumatic brain injury (TBI) rehabilitation center.

At the From Day One conference in Denver last week, she spoke with reporter Jensen Werley of the Denver Business Journal about what it means to provide care that’s focused on the patient and the family, the unique challenges of a specialized hospital, and her own journey from bedside to boardroom. She opened the conversation with a bit of a koan, relating her career change to that of a leaf in a stream. “It isn’t passive,” she explains, “It takes intention to stay still. And one day, you end up as the CEO!”

There is no presumed self-importance when Dr. Allen-Davis speaks. The importance, rather, is focused on the human lives she is charged with protecting. The culture she fosters at Craig is open and accessible. The employees are “family,” and past patients are “grads.” She talks about accountability, gratitude, and transparency.

Dr. Allen-Davis is careful not to marginalize Craig’s patients, but to empathize with their difficult transition. “These are people who woke up with one reality and went to bed with a very different one,” she said, typically the result of accidents. She notes that 60% to 70% per cent of people living with disabilities are unemployed.

Craig is one of only two hospitals in the U.S. to specialize in TBI and spinal injuries, but Allen-Davis was mostly unfamiliar with the hospital about two years ago when she got an unsolicited call from a recruiter asking her to apply for the CEO position. She was hesitant at first, but warmed to the culture at the hospital. “Not just the mission and the focus on patients, as as [the recruiter] talked about the openness, the accessibility and the warmth. They call themselves a family,” Dr. Allen-Davis told Werley.

The CEO acknowledged that Craig needs to tell its remarkable story more widely, but needs to be sensitive about how it does that. “If you’re not careful,” she says, “You look like a ghoul.” Her working motto for Craig is, “This should never happen to you. But if it does, you should come here!”

As an African-American woman, Dr. Allen-Davis has risen to her position past all the obstacles presented by a largely white, male profession. She’d like to see more diversity at Craig Hospital too, where “there’s a smattering in the middle of people of color, with a lot in food services and environmental sciences,” she said. And then there’s her—seated at the top, but spending a lot of time walking around the hospital, asking you in all sincerity how your day is going.

Having worked in healthcare since 1984, she is painfully aware that her way of thinking may have more in common with the old establishment than it does with women of color. “I am like an old white man,” she said. Because of this, she actively promotes diversity of thought in her hiring practices.

“We are wired to hire people who think like us,” she cautions, joking, “I want you to call me the B-word if I deserve it.”

Perhaps it is this type of irreverence that allows a woman of color to take a seat formerly occupied solely by white men. The need to push STEM education and opportunities for women and minorities in otherwise neglected communities is imperative if we are to have the diversity of thought that Dr. Allen-Davis champions as the future of health care, she said. “It actually starts with a pipeline at kindergarten,” she said. “This is a grade school to grad school problem … We’ve got to open more doors and got to push STEM education a lot more than we do.”

Calling out her own peers, she explains that—for all the talk about putting the patient first—the health-care field is still set up to benefit physicians. From office hours to appointment lengths, the structure is there to benefit the existing system, she said.

To counter this, her leadership policy is open-door. “I’m not buttoned up,” she says, stressing that real and honest feedback is something she yearned for during her days at health-care giant Kaiser Permanente, where her roles included VP of government, external relations and research.

Brittany Hill, co-founder and CEO of Accelerist, conducted a workshop

But what Dr. Allen-Davis really wants to do as a leader, she says, is “bring back spontaneous joy.” She speaks with pride about writing her monthly “CEO Reflections,” and how much she welcomes opening an email dialogue with the replies from hospital employees—each of which she answers personally.

Alongside more serious and immediate concerns, such as diversifying the hospital’s board of directors, Dr. Allen-Davis has chartered “Project Rubber Ducky,” a community-building effort that involves mentoring and sharing moments of gratitude. In fact, Craig Hospital has a “gratitude bowl” in which employees can deposit thank-you notes to other employees. “If I had my way, there would be gratitude bowls everywhere,” she said.

In an earlier breakout session, Abby Cheesman, founder of Skill Scout, talked about easy ways to use video in recruiting, and Brittany Hill, co-founder and CEO of Accelerist, spoke about how “the next generation is the bridge you need to integrate your team and your company’s purpose.”

Kyria Abrahams is a Denver-based freelance journalist