From engineering intern to Executive Director of a medical center, Timothy Cooke has grown as an engineer, global problem solver and executive leader during his career at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Based at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center in West Virginia for the last 14 years, Cooke worked at the VA Maryland Health Care System, before lending his expertise to the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System. He also served as Chief of Engineering at the Jamaica Plain Campus during the VA Boston Healthcare System integration. He said he has valued the opportunity to mentor others throughout his career and appreciated the sense of mission that serving Veterans gives him every day.
In this installment of our #ChooseVALeadership Careers blog series, Cooke shares his views on servant leadership and the importance of mission.
What is your primary job at VA?
I serve as the Medical Director for the VA medical center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. We provide healthcare to more than 72,000 Veterans in our 467-bed medical center including our residential rehabilitation program for Veterans. We see Veterans from four states and get referrals from even beyond that for our residential programs.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I started off as an intern in 1990, just out of college, at the VA in Baltimore before being hired to work there (I am an electrical engineer by training). Then, I went to Tucson, Arizona, and progressively worked my way up the ladder and became Chief of Engineering at Jamaica Plain in Boston. I was made Martinsburg’s Chief of Facilities Management in 2005, promoted to Associate Director in 2010 and named the Medical Director in 2014.
What was appealing about a career at VA?
My father is a U.S. Army World War II Veteran. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He didn’t speak much about his service and I don’t think I had a true appreciation for it at the time. When I came to VA and got to know more about its mission and service to Veterans, I really found a way to connect to what my father did. My sister is also a Veteran. She served in the Air Force during the Gulf War. So, through VA, I got to give back in a way that I never anticipated. To be able to help my family — and those like my family — satisfied me in many ways.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I very much enjoy interacting with people. I like the leadership, motivation and operational challenges. I’m a problem solver by background. I like pulling things apart piece by piece to see whether or not they work well and then being able to put it back together to make it run better. That’s the exciting part. Human engineering, process engineering, organizational development, mentoring new leaders — those are the things that really drive my passion right now.
I love the fact that Veterans consider me a trusted advocate. They want to know that somebody in a leadership position knows their issues. And I get to reassure them that I have a great team, and we are happy to help.
How has VA helped you grow in your career?
I was hired as a trainee but that grew into a full-time government position. VA was very generous with learning. I came in and had a preceptor (i.e., mentor) immediately, along with plenty of other people that just let me work with them every day in different disciplines and areas of the medical center. I got to learn the big picture right out of the gate. They sent me for trainings and paid for them. That amount of interaction early on was truly valuable. When I became Chief Engineer, I also became a preceptor to hire new engineers and help move their careers along. I’m happy to say I’ve been very successful keeping those people working throughout VA. Now they’ve reached positions to mentor their own new staff members. They’re having “mentee grandchildren.” It’s been a blast.
What do you find most surprising about working at VA?
VA is one of the most innovative companies out there — public or private. It’s absolutely one of the most innovative places to work anywhere. People are given the opportunity to bring forth some of the most brilliant concepts. Sometimes, the most obvious things can be overlooked. There are so many things that make it easy to improve. What you need is fresh eyes!
What would you tell other leaders interested in choosing a career at VA?
Working at VA is absolutely the most rewarding job I could ever think of. When we think about what our mission is, it’s unquestioned. Sometimes, in healthcare, there might be a competition between care and profit. Not in this case. The Veteran is first. What we do and the healthcare we provide give us a True North every day.
What else would you like us to know about your work?
The passion for service to Veterans is a common thread for nearly all of the people who work here. There is a passion for excellence that is very present. No matter what the role, everyone is part of the care team. No person is ever singled out as just having a support function. We are all part of the care team and that’s what I think is most vital to the success of VA.
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