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Published April 27, 2013, 11:40 PM

Engaging and approachable: Mentoring, finding solutions a large part of Karen Tobin’s influence as Fargo’s Sanford Medical Center COO

FARGO - Karen Tobin’s mother told her not to take home economics in high school. They could cover that at home. Instead, she encouraged Tobin to study foreign languages.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

“Women of Influence” is an ongoing series exploring the women in our community who have the most impact and influence. Each profile will explore a different element of influence and redefine what it means.

FARGO - Karen Tobin’s mother told her not to take home economics in high school. They could cover that at home. Instead, she encouraged Tobin to study foreign languages.

Today, as chief operating officer of Fargo’s Sanford Medical Center, Tobin jokes she still can’t cook, but can count to 100 in German.

In her new COO position, Tobin’s influence will permeate throughout Fargo-Moorhead through the culture she creates for Sanford’s 10,000 employees, their families and patients, says Becky Nelson, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Sanford Health.

Tobin describes her leadership style as consultative. It’s framed with a philosophy of living each day filled with joy. That attitude filters down, she says.

“I think influence is earning respect from people for how you make decisions, how you support them, and how you care for the people around you,” she says.

Tobin, 58, started her career as a nurse. It was a viable career path at the time.

“Women were really just beginning to emerge as that equal,” she says.

Nursing also provided a springboard. After her marriage ended, Tobin went back to school while also single-mothering two young children. In the evening, the three of them would all pull chairs up to the table to study.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in administrative studies. Tobin says she sometimes pauses to think which of her three degrees she used in certain workplace interactions.

Tobin has worked as director, manager and clinical consultant for nursing services at a number of health care facilities in South Dakota, vice president of clinical operations and chief nursing officer for Caritas Health Services in Louisville, Ky., and program administrator for the state of South Dakota’s Correctional Health Services.

After more than a decade with Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, most recently as vice president of Heart, Vascular, GI and Surgical Services Center of Excellence, Tobin last month became chief operating officer, overseeing the medical centers on Broadway, South University Drive and a new facility under construction in southwest Fargo.

Tobin says her job is to make sure any patient and family member’s journey through the medical center is safe and satisfactory. She oversees quality of care and serves as a fiscal steward.

“We have to be very perceptive of what our community’s expectations are for us,” Tobin says.

She tells of meeting a couple while waiting for a sandwich. When she told them she works for Sanford, they expressed a recent unpleasant experience with the organization. Tobin made note of their concern, and pulled together an impromptu group for discussion and follow-up on the situation.

Nelson says Tobin focuses on the objective while keeping personal relationships at the forefront.

Tobin possesses skills “so unique and pronounced, it makes her an extra special leader,” Nelson says, including her technical experience, ability to mentor and a fearless approach to management.

“She’s never afraid to take on an issue,” Nelson says. “She’s not afraid to admit she made a mistake. She allows those around her to make mistakes, but she expects them to learn from the mistake. She helps teach them what can be learned from the mistakes and what can be done differently.”

Tiffany Lawrence, chief financial officer for Sanford Medical Center, Fargo, has known Tobin only a short time but already looks to her as a mentor, citing her knowledge base.

Lawrence says Tobin expects high accountability from the people she works with, “but she can easily say she’s walked in their shoes and roll up her sleeves and work with her teams.”

She describes Tobin as engaging and approachable.

“One of my first encounters, the first thing she did was come in and give me a huge hug,” Lawrence says.

Tobin says she receives much personal joy from serving as a mentor, and helping people find their gifts. She wants her employees to feel the same Monday morning as they do Friday afternoon.

“It happens when you align the gifts God gave you with the expectations of your job,” she says.

In her spare time, Tobin enjoys an eclectic list of hobbies, including riding one of her three bicycles (sports, dirt bike and recumbent), designing children’s clothes and listening to music.

She considers her two dogs, gifts from her children, extended family.

Her son Ryan, a lawyer and former Olympic wrestler, and daughter Nealy, a marriage and family counselor, now live in Denver. Each has two children. The initials of Karen’s four grandchildren are tattooed around her wrist, and she says she has other tattoos that match her children’s.

Tobin describes them as an “airplane family.” Before accepting the position in Fargo, she made sure there was a direct flight to Denver.

She says the support and pride of her children over the years as a single parent was significant and inspirational.

“When you have to live single again and you have young children, it’s like you all grow up together,” she says. “You have to learn what you’re all about again.”

While geographically not far from her upbringing on a South Dakota cattle ranch, she’s come far from her “west river” roots.

“I no longer put on my résumé that I know how to rope cows,” she jokes.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556.