12 honest quotes from female healthcare leaders on accelerating their career, finding mentors & work-life balance

In an industry where just 1.6 percent of CEOs have been female over the last 10 years, the journey to the top for women in healthcare can be challenging and is rarely linear. Many women find their path to leadership involves leveraging their unique strengths, finding support from mentors and networks, and finding fulfillment outside of the workplace.

"It's very easy as professionals to define ourselves by the work we do. We lose sight of the totality of who we are as people," Georgia Casciato, the managing director of healthcare at Patina Solutions, said at a Chicago Health Executives Forum panel last fall on women in leadership. Ms. Casciato, who moderated the panel, was joined by the following four female panelists, who are leaders both at work and in their personal lives.

  • Sharon Allen, author and adjunct instructor at Columbia College of Missouri
  • Antoinette Hardy-Waller, BSN, RN, CEO of The Leverage Network  
  • Barbara Johnson, consultant at Johnson Consulting
  • Elizabeth Wick, MD, colorectal surgeon at UC-San Francisco

On the panel, these leaders shared the ways their lives and personalities have influenced their professional roles in the healthcare industry. Here are 12 unfiltered soundbites from their discussion. 


On being an authentic and effective leader

"I don't traditionally think of myself as a leader. I've been a colorectal surgeon with a lot of interest in quality and safety, and I've thought of my role as influencing others without a title," said Dr. Wick. "When I went into surgery, it was not a particularly receptive field to women. I … wanted to make an impact on surgery in my career. I really tried to be creative in this environment that might not have been as hospitable to a woman being a leader or having an impact. I ended up working in quality and safety in surgery and in the perioperative and hospital setting … [You have] to find that path and that niche where you can have an impact."

"People follow people who they believe have the best interests of not just the organization, but the individuals, in mind," said Ms. Hardy-Waller. "Being able to influence others means you are open to hearing their thoughts and ideas about how you want to lead the organization."

"If you want a person to achieve a goal, and you don't understand who that person is, how they work, how they think and how they approach work, it's going to make your job harder," said Ms. Allen. "You can transfer the work, but not the responsibility. At the end of the day, your boss is going to come to you."

"You should be able to achieve your goals by being yourself. You shouldn't have to be a different person," said Ms. Johnson. "If you're enthusiastic, friendly and like to talk, you should do that at work."

On building relationships to accelerate your career  

"I've had mentors ever since my first job at Baxter," said Ms. Allen. "I chose mentors based on their position — they had to be VP and above — because I wanted to become a VP. They had to be in an area of interest where I wanted to go, or they had to have influence to get me there. And they had to be open to the relationship ... At the end of the day folks, you want a mentor to be in the room, to bring up your name when an opportunity comes up. You want them to say, 'Jane is great for that job.'"

"I think mentors are really key, but you need to be broad when you think of a mentor and what they can mentor you in. They may not necessarily be in healthcare or your institution," Dr. Wick said.   

When you join an association or board, you "have to be active. You can't just sit back and say, 'I'm going to go to meetings,'" Ms. Johnson said. "What happens is you meet people, you get other opportunities and you learn things and grow from those relationships."

"One of the things I've learned most profoundly is how to develop strong relationships in my career," Ms. Hardy-Waller said. "As many of you know, the healthcare workforce is 80 percent women, but the people that ran hospitals were mostly men — white men. In order for me to grow my business and make my business successful, I had to learn how to develop strong relationships with individuals who were decision makers in hospitals. That has to be intentional. It has to be deliberate. It's how you take the obstacles and the barriers that you face, no matter why you have them, and leverage them for your success. For me, it was all about building strong relationships so I began to fit into that organization for my business to grow and succeed."  

On work-life balance

"The balance is, as you get more experience and maturity, you realize you can't do them both equally. Some years you are focused on your little kids; some years you are focused on who's going to college and where are they going. It moves and it's not always equal," Ms. Johnson said. "Having a wonderful life and having a wonderful career doesn't always happen at the same time. The hardest thing for working women in particular is that you're torn. You feel like you should be home or you feel like you should be working. I never felt that way. I never felt I had to do both equally."   

"The way I do it is I find a life outside of work, otherwise I will be working 20 hours a day," Ms. Allen said, adding she also shares these passions with her colleagues. "They will have respect for the fact you have something else going on in your life."

"I shy away from balance. I like to talk about it more like an intersection between personal and business life — how they coexist and come together," Ms. Hardy-Waller said. "My kids knew early on that work was important, but they knew they were as or more important as well. You have to carve out that family time and that means you might be up at 10, 11 or 12 o'clock at night doing the business side of things."

"How [my husband and I] do it is we try to protect the weekends," said Dr. Wick, who is the mother of two and married to a surgeon. "We don't work, except when we're on call. Other weekends we try to have that be for family. The weekdays are challenging. We have a great babysitter who backs us both up, but we try not to stress about the weeknights and really focus on the weekends."


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