Jennie Lucca, is the incoming chief executive officer of the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health, a Bethesda nonprofit residential facility for seriously ill children. (Randy Sager)

Jennie Lucca

Position: Incoming chief executive of the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health, a Bethesda nonprofit residential facility for seriously ill children who are participating in medical treatments at the biomedical research center and their families.

Jennie Lucca always knew she wanted to help people. Early on, she thought that meant child psychology. But an informational interview with an executive director at a hospice organization helped her realize her passion was program development rather than clinical social work. For the past 11 years, she has worked at the Children’s Inn. In January, Lucca takes over as chief executive at the Children’s Inn from Kathy Russell, who is retiring.

You grew up in Alaska. What was that like?

I didn’t realize how unusual it was until I left because I came from what felt like a very normal, typical childhood. It wasn’t until I went to school, and still on a regular basis now whenever somebody learns I’m from Alaska, I get this perplexed, “Wow! I didn’t know people actually lived there.”

Why did you want to be the CEO of the Children’s Inn?

It feels like such an honor and a privilege to have been selected for the position. This is a mission that I feel so connected to and so passionate about. I almost have this personal responsibility to ensure that the Inn continues to be successful, and I felt that I was the right person to do that. Certainly it follows also what my goals have been for a very long time, which is to continue to learn and develop as a leader with the hope of one day having a position like this. The icing on the top is to be in a job that I already love so much. That’s not say it won’t be challenging, because it’s certainly going to be incredibly challenging.

What made it your dream job?

It was a few different things. It combined my interests of family support, grief and having this direct impact on children. It also was an opportunity for me to spread my wings and gain more knowledge in management and operations of a nonprofit. Working within a public-private partnership was something that I had never experienced before. The clinical research aspects of what the NIH does was really mind-blowing to me. What’s special about the Inn though is you can do all that, but then you walk out of your office and you can sit down with a family that’s enduring a very difficult journey, and have that impact on that level as well.

Your other jobs were such hopeful ones, helping people with disabilities create better lives for themselves. This job seems less hopeful, being around families of children who likely will eventually die.

The Children’s Inn is actually a very hopeful place, even for those children who might be near the end of their life. If a child is very ill and likely won’t survive their illness, they are often coming to the NIH for that last hope, and it’s still a very hopeful place. We at the Inn do everything in our power to really support the family through that. That’s not to take away the difficulty, but it’s certainly to ease the burden.

What are the challenges of a public-private partnership?

The NIH is a public, government entity. The Children’s Inn is a private, not-for-profit. I think we probably are a model for success because we do work so well together. But you’re right; we function differently, we govern differently. One of the difficulties for the Inn is that not everybody understands that we are a public-private partnership and that the Children’s Inn actually has to raise upwards of $9 million a year to operate. People think that we are part of the government and that we are funded by the government, which we aren’t. I would say that’s our biggest challenge.

Can you explain how the Children’s Inn differs from a Ronald McDonald House?

The biggest difference is that we are free. Families who come to the Children’s Inn stay free of charge, which is why those donations are so incredibly important to us. Ronald McDonald House typically provides lodging and the Children’s Inn provides lodging as well as a whole variety of supports and services, programs, financial support, caregiver support, spiritual support. We really try to be holistic in the services that we provide. The NIH takes care of the medical side, and then through programs and services, we provide everything else.

What do you hope to achieve in your new role?

I’m following an exceptional leader, so I’m in a fortunate position where I think I’m coming into a situation where there are no major problems to fix. Really, my job is to ensure that we continue this trajectory of excellence. Where I see right now a couple of areas of focus for me is on the awareness side, which I just mentioned to you. The other is ensuring that we understand the current burdens of illness that our families are facing. When I reflect on my 11 years at the Inn, I think those burdens change and are certainly influenced by what’s happening in the world. Some of my work in the first six months will be to really evaluate all of our programs and services, which is something I’ve already started to do.

How has having mentors helped you get to where you are today?

I’ve benefited from exceptional mentoring, and I would say it’s in large part the reason behind why I am in the CEO position today. Having people see my potential, and then taking the time to invest in me and develop me professionally, has meant everything to my career. I think as a leader it’s one of the most important things that we can do, if we have been mentored well, is to continue to pay that forward, to continue to look for high potentials, high-performing people and invest in their success. It’s very important to me. It’s something I will do here at the Inn, something I already do.

What is the best advice you’ve received in your career?

Some of the best advice that I’ve received and something that I practice regularly is self-reflection. After a difficult situation, it could be a successful situation, but more so after a difficult situation or a difficult interaction, thinking about why something worked or didn’t work and what I would do differently the next time. That has been very powerful for me in terms of taking personal responsibility, which I think is really important in leadership. In any situation that doesn’t go well, the leader probably has some responsibility in it. And then being able to think about what I would do differently the next time for me promotes a resiliency and an ability to move forward. Taking that one step further for me, share some of those self-reflections with my team from time to time because I think people then see that people in leadership positions make mistakes. They recover from their mistakes and also are accountable. I think that also inspires resiliency in others.

I often draw to on my Alaskan upbringing, which was so simple. Alaska is a very simple state. When I approach complexity, I often draw upon those sort of simple upbringings and simple exposure to this beautiful environment to move through those complex situations. It’s almost grounding. I think that upbringing anchored me in some way.

— Interview with Kathy Orton