As Sue Killips, MBA, retires from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health after nearly 40 years of service, she treasures countless stories, life lessons, and words of wisdom gleaned from colleagues over the decades.
Her early career was in the Department of Human Oncology in human resources and research administration, although prior to her first full-time position she worked as a student employee with the famed Paul P. Carbone, MD. Killips transitioned to a research program manager role in the Department of Psychiatry for more than 15 years. In 2006, she joined the Department of Pediatrics as an assistant director of business services, rising through the ranks to become department administrator.
“Pediatrics underwent a rapid expansion of its faculty, along with its research, clinical, and educational missions, under the strong leadership of our Chair Dr. Ellen Wald,” Killips explains. “It was my job to help manage this growth. In these roles you get to touch everything: HR, fiscal, space use and facilities, physician compensation, communications, IT, program development and strategy, education, research administration, and academic affairs. But you can’t do it all. The secret is to learn to delegate and to build great teams.”
Through her administrative work, a pair of phrases have held value: “Treat others how you would like to be treated,” and “The customer is always right.”
The latter was instilled in her from a young age by her father, who owned a small grocery store. While she jokes it can be debatable at times, Killips firmly believes that giving people the benefit of the doubt and trusting their motives are sincere are keys to success anywhere.
“Treating people well and giving them permission to learn from their mistakes is how you build a strong team,” she says. “What I’ve learned over the years is that listening to what others have to offer is how you become an effective leader. It’s not about you at all.”
The stories Killips recalls from her career reflect the vibrance of the school. For example, she recounts meeting the Dalai Lama when he was at a symposium sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry in the early 2000s.
“He came out of the Fluno Center elevators with his entourage in their flowing robes — it was incredible to see him up close,” she says. “My coworker and I were amazed when he acknowledged us. It was an awesome moment.”
Killips also remembers the hard work put into submitting large grant proposals and the excitement of finding out about funding awards. The role of staff in helping faculty navigate the grant process is an important part of what makes SMPH a strong research institution, she says.
“A grant award means so much to the investigator but is also exciting for the research administrator,” she says. “I enjoyed feeling like I was playing a role in advancing science.”
Killips often felt she was contributing to a larger cause.
“Staff members like me, while not directly involved in clinical care, education, or research, contribute to all of these important missions,” she says. “I stressed to my teams that this is a huge deal. In Pediatrics, Dr. Wald has been an incredible partner in this.”
Inspired to take on an additional challenge, became a Badger student again herself when her last child departed for college. Killips was admitted to the UW School of Business’s Executive MBA program and earned her degree in 2014.
During the COVID-19 pandemic that capped her career, Killips noted how much the ingenuity of SMPH experts helped lead the way forward during the challenges that the SARS-CoV-2 virus brought worldwide.
“To see these individuals talking about their work and expertise, which we all have a hand in facilitating, was amazing,” she says. “We are having an impact on the world here at UW–Madison. It really brought that home for me and made me so proud to be a part of it. It was a horribly intense year, but everyone rose to the challenge. It is heartwarming.”
In retirement Killips plans to travel, volunteer, and spend more time with her grandchildren and elderly parents. While she hasn’t ruled anything out, she jokes that an initial plan to “sleep and read books for a year” is already on the backburner as “too boring.”
She hopes to stay connected with colleagues and friends in SMPH, including continuing to play the bassoon in SMPH’s Medical Sciences Orchestra, an experience that has been meaningful for her. A recent retirement party featured a musical surprise from three pediatricians who are also members of the orchestra.
“At the end of the virtual party, my husband led me outside and there they were set up physically distanced in the driveway playing chamber music for me,” she says. “It was fantastic, and I burst into tears. It touched me so much. That’s Pediatrics for you.”