One college road trip was all it took for Yelena Cunsolo to switch her major from marketing to real estate development. On an annual vacation down south the summer before her junior year, everything finally clicked. Looking out the window, Cunsolo noticed a former farm that had been converted into a subdivision strewn with beautiful townhouses. She wanted to know whose job it was to create those idyllic communities in the middle of nowhere. Even more so, she wanted to be the one doing it.
Now as the director of design and construction at Northwell Health, Cunsolo has helped build far more than just residential homes. New York state’s largest healthcare provider and private employer, Northwell’s portfolio includes 23 hospitals and 830 outpatient facilities. The nonprofit integrated healthcare network has been Cunsolo’s base of operations for nearly eight years.
The director handles shared services as well as commercial real estate, including corporate offices. While it may not be hospital construction, Cunsolo still encounters significant clinical projects in her day-to-day life along with the always ongoing administrative facility construction.
A Pandemic, Veterans, and Spending Smart
Two huge projects, a maternal-fetal medicine center as well as a cutting-edge nursing institute, were both slated to begin construction just before the entire world was put on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID has been a big challenge because along with everything else, the cost of materials went up and the accessibility to those materials became extremely limited,” Cunsolo explains. “This has been my biggest challenge to date. It’s all about making sure that we stay on schedule and deliver what we’ve promised.”
In addition to the challenge of the pandemic, Cunsolo says she is always keenly aware of budgeting, because she wants to ensure that her spaces can be filled with the very best of medical equipment and technology, as well as provide spaces that people would enjoy being in.
“On our side of the business, we don’t see a lot of those dollars, and we have to make those that we do have go a long way,” the director says. “We want to improve the clinical spaces for our patients, our families, and our visitors, and we obviously want those dollars going to the equipment that is going to serve our community.”
Most recently, Cunsolo is excited about a new program created to address the special needs of veterans and their families.
“The program didn’t previously have a space to meet and work, and I’m so proud that we were able to provide them with a dedicated space to aid people who have given so much to this country,” Cunsolo says. “There is a big campaign now with commercials and print ads promoting this space, and I’m so happy to have been a part of making it happen.”
A Little Bit of Both
When it comes to the director’s leadership of her team, Cunsolo admits that she has always been a bit of a risk-taker. “I realize how this may sound, but I have learned to just go with my gut,” the director says. “This is a role where you have to make decisions, and you don’t always have the time, and you just have to go with your intuition. Fortunately, it hasn’t gotten me into trouble yet.”
Cunsolo isn’t afraid to speak her mind, nor is she afraid to lay down the law. But it is a quality that she has endeavored to pass on to her team as well.
And while that may paint Cunsolo as a bit of a maverick, she says that former bosses and mentors have provided a full range of leadership experience that she draws from. “I had two very different managers early on in my career,” the director explains. “They were complete opposites. One micromanaged and redlined absolutely every product I put out. The other gave me carte blanche to use my own imagination and my own style and got me the resources I needed to make an informed decision.”
In the former situation, Cunsolo felt like she might go crazy with the nitpicking. In the other, she, at times, felt as though she were jumping off a cliff with a parachute that she needed to build on the way down. Both styles of leadership had their peaks and valleys, and now Cunsolo says she’s hopefully a good mix of the two.
“I think of myself more as an advisor to my team,” Cunsolo says. “I’m going to jump in the trenches with them when they need [me] to, and I’ve worked very hard to create an open dialogue between us.” Her team may incur her “redline wrath” from time to time, but she also gives them the opportunities they need to expand their skill sets.
What You Can’t Control
In a year filled with some of the most unknowns of unknowns, Cunsolo says she has learned one lesson throughout her career that has helped her sleep better at night. Given a disposition that she explains bluntly as “a worrywart,” Cunsolo says she’s had to learn to let go of the unknown.
“There are so many things in the business that we have no control over,” the director says. “I’ve tried to develop a mindset of ‘OK. We cannot control this. Why are we stressing? Let’s put our heads together and make the best out of it instead of sitting around and worrying.’”
While there may still be some sleepless nights and a husband who needs to remind his wife of her mantra, Cunsolo has gotten more comfortable with the unknown. Maybe it’s because given a year dictated by the unknown, she was still able to build so much.
E4H Environments for Health Architecture proudly serves Yelena Cunsolo and Northwell Health with a shared mission to shape the future of healthcare, elevating hope through transformative design. Working collaboratively with Northwell Health we create custom, innovative environments of care to serve its diverse communities. Learn more at e4harchitecture.com.