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Published on May 24, 2022

Lori Popkes with her daughters

Mentor, Mom and More: Nursing Leader Blends Many Roles

As the chief nursing officer at Avera’s largest hospital, thousands of registered nurses look to Lori Popkes as a hands-on leader, one with copious experience and skill. Nursing is her calling.

She also partners with senior leaders within a health system that has more than 20,000 employees. Yet her plate also includes:

  • A family of seven daughters, along with Greg, her busy entrepreneurial husband
  • A dozen grandchildren
  • Many formal mentees she regularly sees

A zeal for self-improvement, lifelong learning and foundational faith that guides all these many threads in the right direction

“I always wanted a big family,” Popkes said. “I’m blessed to have their love and support. My family lifts me, every day. Our togetherness is priceless.”

Her success begins with her faith in God, she said. From there, family and her calling are next, and together, they create bonds she knows are invaluable – and interconnected.

Popkes says she’s not sure about the idea of a perfect work-life balance. “Sometimes work requires much, and other times my family needs me,” she explained. “I’m a passionate mom, grandmother and leader. I’m privileged to do these things I love.”

Nursing Career and Lifelong Learning

At the same time she was raising multiple little girls, Popkes earned her degrees in nursing. She’s had a broad career that touched almost every facet of nursing. Her family grew alongside her career. This mirroring is a key to success.

“When you develop yourself personally, you’re developing yourself professionally,” she said.

To be a good mentor – and mom – Popkes said there are vital skills at the root of her efforts. “Listen more than you talk, and read to lead,” she said. “I find myself learning from my daughters, my grandchildren and all of our nurses.”

She likes to “learn as she teaches” and does the same with her daughters, including Deann Matthiesen, a nurse practitioner with Avera Medical Group Neonatology Sioux Falls.

“She’s a servant leader at heart, committed to glorifying God,” Matthiesen said. “Her selfless nature is genuine. Christ calls us to put others first. She can do that like no other person I’ve met.”

A Foundation Based in Spiritual Conviction

Keeping a focus on faith means Popkes can remain grounded, even during a COVID-19 pandemic, when she encountered challenges every day, shoulder-to-shoulder with care teams in the fight to save lives.

“I like to think about our modern world, and all it includes, and ask: how would Jesus go about his life today,” Popkes said. “In my work, I use my gifts … with His help guiding me.”

She mentors to help protégées see possibilities and understand timing, as she stands on the shoulders of the mentors who guided her. They encouraged her when she stepped away from nurse leadership for a few years to be home with her girls.

“I didn’t dream of being a CNO – but my mentors saw in me possibilities,” she added. “Good leaders don’t always have to be the boss.”

Bonds at Avera, Fun at Home

Ideas from home follow Popkes to work. Two of her daughters did the same, and now are nurses. Her daughter, Kristy Mickelson, a registered nurse at Access Health & Avera Medical Group Worthington, said the gifts that make good leaders just seem natural in her mom.

“She certainly delegates and asks us for help,” Mickelson said. “Simple things – listening, counting blessings instead of burdens, patience – she instilled them in me, and I think all seven of us.”

Those traits are the tiny cinders that can lead to creative and caring fires, Popkes said. Being a good mom – or a competent leader and mentor – often starts without pageantry or flourish.

“Be a light to others and make the world brighter,” Popkes said. “You can do that in many ways if you’re positive and passionate, and you strive to make connections that count.”

Learn more about careers and development opportunities at Avera.

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