Everyday Remarkable: Behind the Scenes with Division Administrator Jae Werndli, MS

Jae Werndli

Imagine a corporation with layers of complexity in its organization and structure: a highly specialized workforce, geographically dispersed workplaces, partnerships with several other entities and units, and finances that reflect this intricacy.

Such corporations often have dedicated positions to provide detailed and targeted administrative oversight for finances and personnel. Thus, when Jae Werndli, MS, describes her work as division administrator for the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, she draws an analogy to these roles.

“For each division - which constitutes a specific medical specialty - it’s similar to a combination of chief operating officer (COO) and chief financial officer (CFO) or a controller in the private sector. You're trying to keep everything running the way that you want it, and in the black,” she said.

Spanning different clinical specialties – Allergy and Immunology, and Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine – Werndli’s division is larger than many departments on campus, with 44 faculty members, 17 advanced practice providers, 15 fellows, and 36 staff members. “The two biggest responsibilities for division administrators tend to be recruiting and [administratively] managing the faculty workforce and overseeing all of the financial operations within your sphere,” she said. Due to the three missions of the school – clinical, research, and medical education – adept oversight of the financial operations requires fluency in the details of factors such as clinical revenue, physician compensation, grants, and expenditures.

In short, serving as a division administrator is complicated. And yet, says Werndli, it also comes down to a simple concept: making a difference. “I think that because we have so many good people working here, and our mission is honorable and strong, it feels good to be working for an organization that is really trying to make the world a better place. We're working toward goals that are important,” she said.

Because of the nature of her division’s focus, those goals are as essential as breathing. Division members are dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of allergies, asthma, and immune deficiency disorders (allergy and immunology) or lung disorders (pulmonary medicine), and the management of patients requiring life support and close monitoring in intensive care units (critical care medicine). The division’s research portfolio exceeded $17M in grant funding for fiscal year 2017, reflecting the international reputation of UW-Madison for asthma research as well as strengths in pulmonary and critical care research. The work is intense, fast-paced, and rewarding.

And as the health care system changes and grows, so do the administrative details at the division level. “The finances are one big part of it, but to a large degree the role involves administratively managing the workforce in the division. [Division administrators] work with the division heads to figure out what the workforce needs are [for that specialty] across the organization, how many people we need, where will we need to be when, and how will we deliver that service without causing provider burnout,” she said. They also serve as point-of-contact for employees on administrative and procedural details relating to dual appointments in the clinical (UW Health) and academic (UW-Madison) components of the academic medical center, and help them navigate processes at partnering clinical entities such as the William S. Middleton Memoral Veterans Hospital, Unity-Point Health-Meriter Hospital, Select Specialty Hospital, and other regional locations.

The process of hiring physicians involves coordination between UW Health and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. When both sides of the organization approve a position request, then - within the boundaries of defined compensation and duties - the division conducts the search. “We do all the recruiting, interview planning, onboarding in collaboration with HR, and we pull everything together as point of contact for prospective and new hires,” said Werndli. And she and her team also help facilitate career advancement of members – for example, by providing support for preparing faculty tenure and promotion packets.

Additionally, Werndli serves as administrative supervisor for advanced practice providers within the division. “I don't clinically manage our APPs, of course, but I put together an orientation plan, oversee their clinical expectations, and serve as a point person,” she said.

Her previous background in research administration at the UW Carbone Cancer Center prepared her to shift from her early work in genetics and clinical research to the oversight of clinical studies. As a research program manager, Werndli was responsible for the conduct of approximately 50 active research studies in lymphoma, multiple myeloma, leukemia and transfusion medicine and hemostasis. It gave her exposure to the finance and human resources skills that she continues to rely on.

When asked what is needed for success as a division administrator, Werndli emphasized resilience. “You have to be flexible, nimble or able to quickly shift what you're doing,” she said. It’s also a position that requires the ability to synthesize financial information into a coherent story. “You have to be able to grasp the whole big picture, especially with all the finances, and kind of have that in your head. You have to look at spreadsheets and figure out what's going on - basic accounting.”

Most of all, tackling day-to-day challenges with good humor is key, because the “unexpected” can paradoxically always be counted on within the practice of medicine. “You have to have a positive attitude and be able to help people problem-solve and move forward. Each division is set up differently, but for some division personnel, you're kind of [the point person]. People work in their lab, work with their PI, but if they have a problem they'll come to me because they know me.”

It's work that Werndli finds to be continually renewing, even in its complexity, because within that complexity is context: division administrators can draw on the support of peers and resources. “What I enjoy most about being part of the Department of Medicine is that it's so big, and we have a lot of really good infrastructure. We've got an IS team, HR colleagues, department administrator Sheri Lawrence, and other division administrators that I can collaborate with. I really value the ability to have peers as a sounding board , and guidance where I need it. As division administrators, we don't operate in isolation; we have many places to turn to for problem-solving and ideas.”


Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in our Everyday Remarkable series, which tells the stories of staff members within the Department of Medicine. Nearly 350 staff members on our team are dedicated to educating the next generation of physicians, advancing health, facilitating and conducting life-changing research, and ensuring the smooth operation of the largest academic department in the UW System. We’ll go behind the scenes with staff to give Vital Signs readers a glimpse into the roles, responsibilities, challenges, and joys that they encounter every day. Have a suggestion for a person or job that you think we should cover? Contact us.