Shari McDonald: A Leadership Odyssey of Resilience, Empowerment, and Authentic Excellence in Healthcare

Top 10 Empowering Women Leaders in Healthcare to Follow, 2024

Shari McDonald, the Chief Nursing Officer at Rochester General Hospital, articulates her profound belief in the significance of fostering the growth and development of those around her as the essence of success. In her own words, “My definition of success is the growth of those around me. And it’s their growth and their development and overcoming where they were and where they want to go.”

For Shari, witnessing her colleagues fulfil their dreams is the ultimate gift she can offer. As a trailblazing female executive in what was a predominantly male-dominated field, Shari recognizes the transformative power of leadership. Reflecting on her journey, she acknowledges that her understanding of leadership has evolved over the years.

“When I started in nursing, I didn’t identify myself as a leader. I was a caregiver to those who were less fortunate  and needed care,” she explains. Shari’s trajectory into leadership was shaped by her mentors and past leaders who recognized her latent leadership traits, ultimately inspiring her to aspire to guide and develop others in return.

An Unconventional Career Path from Business to Caring

In exploring Shari’s professional journey, one discovers a unique evolution from a passion for business to a profound commitment to healthcare. Reflecting on her past endeavours, Shari shares,  and a passion for business inspired me to have the courage to be a sole proprietor in elder care.  Homecare introduced me to business and healthcare. During the process of building my business, I have learned that business was not my passion but part of my journey.  My advice to others is, do not be afraid to adjust your strategy and change,

It was through introspection and a retrospective examination of her life’s journey that Shari realized caring had always been an integral part of her narrative, from family to personal health experiences. She narrates, “I had multiple hospitalizations when I was younger, and I reflected on what inspired me, and it was the care, especially by nurses.”

Determined to merge her passion for business with nursing, Shari found a seamless fit, allowing her to run a business proficiently while making a difference in people’s lives. Describing this harmonious blend, she notes, “Nursing worked out to be the opportunity that empowered both my nursing and entreneurialship skills. It afforded me to be able to do both the business and the caring and then to teach other leaders that you can do the same.” I learned versatile set of business skills and attitude that led to success in various aspects of life. The business aspect encouraged innovation, problem solving, adaptability and resilience, which are all vulnerable traits in a rapid changing world. Whether you’re a nurse or business owner or not. Cultivating these qualities can enhance your personal and professional life.

Shari’s journey with Rochester General Hospital has been marked by growth and a commitment to effect positive change. Having previously served as a Director over emergency services and women’s services system-wide, she returned to RGH after a successful stint in Buffalo. Reflecting on her return, Shari explains, “When I had retired, they had reached out to me from RGH because they were undergoing a culture change here also and asked me if I was interested in coming back.”

Drawn by the sense of community, teamwork, collaboration, and a shared commitment to growth and development, Shari played a pivotal role during a crucial period of unionization. Her focus extended beyond contracts, emphasizing the need for empathy and addressing burnout among leaders. Shari remarks, “I saw that the leaders were really lacking empathy and were burned out. And that became my priority as much as trying to get a contract because leaders needed to find themselves.”

Now a year into her role as Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President at RGH, Shari reflects on her contributions and aspirations for the future. Her commitment to cultivating empathy, fostering growth, and developing future leaders remains unwavering. Shari concludes, “I’m passionate about growing and developing future leaders.  The new leaders are pivotal to being change agents in healthcare. Healthcare is dynamic and ever-changing, we need nurses and nurse leaders to smooth the way for change and work to ensure positive outcomes. I see change as a “gift, or opportunity” to provide better outcomes. Mentoring and developing leaders shaping our future leaders has been something I have been gifted with.

Transformative Leadership: Elevating Quality, Patient Experience, and Morale

When asked about the impact of her leadership on the growth of the organization, Shari emphasizes the significance of listening to the concerns and aspirations of the team. She reflects, “I think in the last year, it was having an open door and listening to team members, patient care services, and other leaders throughout the organization. Listening to them on what they wanted to accomplish and what were their obstacles or their barriers.”

In just a short time, Shari’s approach has led to remarkable improvements. “Besides gaining a contract, we’ve been able to improve the quality, we’ve been able to improve the patient experience,” she states. Shari identifies a need for focused leadership guidance to address challenges arising from past organizational changes and the impact of COVID-19.

She describes her strategy as “structure, engaging the team members and listening to their,  vision and needs for future growth.. My job is to remove the obstacle and support their efforts.” The results speak volumes, with notable improvements observed in various aspects. “From minor issues like hand washing  compliance, the numbers surged to over 95 percent in the last six months,” Shari proudly highlights. The positive transformation extends beyond statistics, encompassing a profound change in the overall quality of patient care and staff morale.

A key aspect of Shari’s leadership philosophy is her commitment to being open-minded and receptive to ideas from all levels. She asserts, “The best ideas come from the boots on the ground, and I truly believe that sometimes they just need someone to open the door for them and listen with intention.” Shari’s energetic and collaborative approach stands out as a beacon of change, fostering an environment where individuals feel heard and valued. “Being somebody open to change and listening, trying their ideas, not just mine.

Acknowledging the challenges of effective listening, Shari recognizes its transformative power. “Listening can be challenging. It’s not easy for a lot of people to do,” she admits. Yet, Shari’s commitment to this essential leadership skill has played a pivotal role in shaping a positive and dynamic culture at Rochester General Hospital. As the organization experiences notable enhancements in quality, patient experience, and morale, Shari’s leadership continues to be a driving force for positive change.

Turning Challenges into Opportunities and Thriving as a Leader

Reflecting on her remarkable journey, Shari delves into the challenges and setbacks that have shaped her perspective. “I never looked at setbacks as an obstacle or a failure. Anyone who’s ever met me would tell you that. I see that as opportunities or gifts,” she asserts, emphasizing her resilient outlook.

For Shari, facing obstacles, whether in the boardroom or a business function, is an invitation for innovative thinking. “Any time we come up against a wall, those are really opportunities and gifts. You have to be able to open your mind and listen and think outside of the box,” she advises.

Shari’s approach involves transforming perceived obstacles into stepping stones for progress. “I don’t see obstacles or barriers. Everything that I’ve ever encountered, I’ve seen as an opportunity and challenged it and taught those around me to challenge it also and be able to move past that. And then you see success.”

Shari’s success as a woman at the table is evident, with only occasional challenges that she diplomatically addresses. Addressing the question of thriving as a woman in leadership, Shari acknowledges the inherent difficulties others may face. However, she underscores her proactive stance, stating, “It is challenging as a woman to be at the table, but you can’t let that be your obstacle. I mentor others to not be a “place setting at the board table” You have to be at the table participating”

As a female executive, Shari recognizes the stereotypes and biases that women often encounter. She emphasizes the importance of clear thinking and intention, stating, “A lot of times women are labelled automatically as speaking  with emotions, and the clearer you are and the clearer you think with intention and don’t react to the emotion, people will listen.”

Shari emphasizes the significance of women not merely being present at the table but having a voice devoid of unnecessary emotion. I mentor  my leaders that too because they’re predominantly female. Do not speak with emotion. You can have emotion. I want you to have empathy, but you have to have that courage to sit, listen, and have the emotional intelligence when to react and when to speak.”

Embracing Change and Diversity in the Evolving Landscape of Healthcare

When asked about the transformation of the healthcare industry over the years, Shari reflects on the profound impact of COVID and rapid technological advancements, offering a candid assessment, “It’ll never be what it was prior. COVID changed everything. Technology changed everything. Technology’s come a lot faster since COVID, but it’s always evolving, it’s dynamic. We have to accept the changes and we have to be able to think differently.”

In the ever-evolving healthcare environment, Shari notes a departure from traditional hierarchical structures. “In healthcare prior, it was always very hierarchical, it was always a much defined role, and we can’t think that way anymore.” She acknowledges the global nursing crisis and underscores the importance of embracing technology to adapt to changing practices at the bedside and in acute settings.

Addressing the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in healthcare, Shari expresses her belief in the industry’s receptiveness. “It’s very receptive. I believe that it is. “Our communities are diverse and our organizations need to be diverse in order to care for our patients “she states. Recognizing the global nature of their workforce, Shari emphasizes the careful selection of professionals who align with the community’s values. “We have people that work here from all over the world provider-wise. We have nurses, international nurses seeking to join us, and they were rigorously interviewed also. This is not just a warm body to put in the hospital,” she explains.

Shari highlights the importance of diversity in addressing the global nursing shortage. “It’s important that our community and we meet their needs through people who share the same values and morals that they do.” The inclusion of nurses from various countries such as Ukraine, Africa, Haiti, the Philippines, and Jamaica, among others, reflects a commitment to building a workforce that mirrors the diverse backgrounds of the community served.

Shari acknowledges the predominant presence of Caucasian and African-American nurses, and that diversity extends beyond ethnicity to encompass a variety of cultural and national backgrounds. Amid the industry’s ongoing evolution, her insights underscore the vital importance of adaptability, inclusivity, and a forward-thinking approach in shaping the future of healthcare.

Proud Moments as a Leader in the Competitive Landscape of Healthcare

In assessing the competition in the healthcare industry, Shari offers a resounding affirmation: “It’s very competitive, especially at this time.” Highlighting the intense competition for nurses and providers, she acknowledges the added pressure on residents, exacerbated by the increasing influence of artificial intelligence.

Shari points to the stringent quality metrics in New York State, mandated by the Department of Health, which further intensify the challenges faced by nursing professionals, providers, and administration. She recognizes the overarching goal of improving patient outcomes as a driving force behind the industry’s competitiveness.

Shifting the focus to her journey as a leader, Shari reflects on her proudest moments. “My greatest achievements are growing leaders,” she affirms. Her satisfaction emanates from witnessing past leaders she mentored ascend to prominent roles, with some now serving as co-OS and directors of nursing. Shari emphasizes the importance of cultivating leadership, stating, “It’s opening that door for them to be able to teach the next generation coming in. Leadership is essential in leading in health equality.”

Shari’s commitment to mentorship and guidance underscores her belief in the continuous development of new leaders to navigate the challenges of the industry. Her leadership legacy extends to notable recognitions and awards. “I’m very proud of the work I do for the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” campaign,” she shares. Her involvement in initiatives supporting heart health aligns with her commitment to community well-being.

Shari’s achievements are further highlighted by her induction into the Alumni Hall of Fame, starting as an Associate Degree Nurse and rising to the position of VP of Nursing. Her recognition as a Woman of Influence in Western New York and as a Nurse of Distinction underscores the impact of her work on both quality outcomes and the development of future leaders.

Navigating Responsibilities, Building Relationships, and Striking a Work-Life Balance

When delving into her role as Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President, Shari offers insights into the dynamic and multifaceted nature of her responsibilities at the organization. “Our meetings are focused on quality and outcomes,” she describes, emphasizing the ongoing commitment to maintaining the facility’s Magnet status and preparing for redesignation.

Shari’s role involves extensive collaboration with other Chief Nursing Officers (CNOs) to streamline processes, reduce spending, and enhance nurse-to-patient ratios and provider capabilities across the system. Educational responsibilities form a significant part of her role, with approximately 72 schools sending students for rotations at the facility.

Leadership councils and innovative meetings exploring Tele nursing and virtual sitter platforms contribute to the comprehensive scope of Shari’s duties. Staff engagement is a priority, with regular staffing committees fostering discussions on improving workforce management and financial stewardship while ensuring appropriate resource utilization.

Weekly senior leadership meetings provide a platform for discussing organizational goals and transformational leadership initiatives. Shari highlights the organization’s commitment to the full continuum of care, addressing topics ranging from behavioural health to infant safety. A crucial aspect of these discussions involves devising strategies to ensure the safety of staff in the city environment.

Striking a balance between personal and professional life is a skill Shari acquired over the years. “It took many years of learning to do because I was very much about getting the job done,” she admits. Shari shares her realization of the importance of work-life balance, emphasizing relaxation, trips, and quality time with family, including her 12 grandchildren. Learning to detach from work and prioritize personal well-being has become integral to her approach to maintaining a healthy balance.

A Leader’s Passion for Mentorship and Excellence

In discussing her daily motivations, Shari emphasizes the significance of personal interactions with her staff and underscores her commitment to an open-door policy. She finds fulfilment in witnessing the professional growth of her team, expressing, “When I have leaders who aspire to be an Associate, Chief Nursing Officer, or Chief Operating Officer coming in and asking questions, doing the hard job, keeping me informed so I can remove barriers, and then seeing the success on their face or with the title that they’ve earned.”

Reflecting on the intrinsic rewards of her profession, Shari shares, “And nursing as a profession, gaining back that sense of why I became a nurse is rewarding to me.” She highlights the satisfaction derived from her team’s accomplishments, expressing that personal fulfilment surpasses the need for external recognition. Shari’s decision to retire was driven by the accomplishment of these goals, and she looks forward to the excitement of a new journey.

Addressing the future of the organization, Shari outlines a roadmap focused on financial strength, quality improvement, safety, wellness, engagement, retention, teamwork, and operational excellence. Recognizing the organization’s recent achievements, she emphasizes the importance of her nurses and leaders taking pride in their work and reconnecting with the profession’s core values.

When asked about her message to aspiring female leaders, Shari advocates staying true to one’s purpose and upholding integrity. “It’s to stay true to your why and never compromise your integrity and do what’s right for the patient first and then for your staff,” she advises. Shari shares a profound belief in the purpose of life, stating, “The meaning in life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life is to give it away.”

Achieving Dreams, Embracing Authenticity, and Nurturing Healthcare Excellence

In a retrospective gaze over her career and whether she has achieved everything she aspired for, Shari affirms, “I have. That’s when I retired.” Her decision to retire was rooted in the sense of accomplishment she felt at that stage. However, driven by her love for her workplace and a profound connection to the community, Shari returned, emphasizing, “I need to do it one more time because I love where I work.”

Expressing the essence of her commitment to the community, Shari underscores the importance of standards of excellence, symbolized by the facility’s forthcoming fifth Magnet redesignation. She envisions her ultimate achievement as reaching quality metrics and fostering the growth of leaders to their full potential. “That will be my final; that will be my exit. I’ll be very proud,” she asserts.

When asked to define herself in one word, Shari responds with “Authentic.” This one word encapsulates the core of her identity, highlighting her genuine and sincere approach to leadership. In reflecting on the current challenges in healthcare, Shari emphasizes the need for nursing to reconnect with its roots while embracing change. Nursing has been recognized for

Shari calls for leaders to embrace and guide their teams through the inevitable transformations, recognizing the importance of preserving the foundational traditions while adapting to a changing landscape. As she concludes, “It’s also time to embrace change and see things differently. And then we’ll all be successful for our community and our patients.”


Shari’s narrative stands as a compelling saga of transformation and the profound influence one individual can wield in shaping an organization’s culture and success. Her remarkable journey embodies resilience, innovation, and a resolute dedication to empowering women in leadership roles.

Beyond the confines of the boardroom, Shari’s leadership extends to education, collaboration, and a steadfast commitment to fostering a secure and forward-thinking healthcare environment. Her advocacy for mentoring and leadership development resonates strongly, urging aspiring leaders to stay engaged, encouraging, and true to the core values of their profession.

In navigating the competitive and intricate terrain of healthcare, Shari McDonald’s leadership journey serves as a powerful illustration of the pivotal role played by mentorship, continuous learning, and an unwavering commitment to authenticity and excellence in shaping the future of healthcare leadership.