23 thoughts on leadership from women in healthcare

In honor of Women's History Month in March and International Women's Day on March 8, Becker's Hospital Review asked women in the healthcare industry to share their insights on leadership.

Here are 23 women who offered words of advice for healthcare leaders.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and style. Responses are in alphabetical order by last name. 

Katya Andresen. Chief Digital and Analytics Officer for the Cigna Group: Channel your energy into understanding customers, clients and colleagues above yourself and speak to their concerns above your own. Your starting point for making change is not in your head; it's in the hearts, minds and vitality of those around you.

Heather Attra. Senior Vice President, Head of Global Quality and Regulatory Affairs for Alcon: As a leader in the healthcare industry, I've found that it is most critical to develop positive relationships with your associates — at all levels. At Alcon, I take pride in building relationships with my teams and empowering them to use their voice while also listening to others. Bringing in different voices and opinions and truly listening to them is key to a successful team. We make the best business decisions when we have many different perspectives seated at the table.

Emily Bancroft. President of VillageReach: For female executives in a predominantly male-dominated leadership sector, it is important to connect with other women leaders. Find networks and women's leadership groups with powerful women all working to support gender equity and other issues that impact female representation in the workforce. We all have too many demands on our time and often the temptation looms to skip anything we deem "extra." But I'd argue that participating in women-led networks isn't extra, but rather integral to our leadership. In my experience, what we get back more than justifies that investment — think about the multiplier effect of such networks. Networks like that benefit not only yourself as a leader, but your organization and the changes you are looking to make in the world. That's powerful.

Holly Belter-Chesser. Executive Vice President and CFO for Atria Senior Living (Louisville, Ky.): It's a mindset shift when you think more about what you could do versus thinking about what you've already accomplished. I encourage leaders to believe that you have the skills and business acumen to carry yourself to the next level and to problem-solve when you get there. I look around me and see our smart, talented young employees who are crucial in solving complex questions, and they have long careers ahead as value-add leaders. We place a lot of value on listening to our customers so we drive results, and on listening to our employees so we cultivate a strong culture.

Elizabeth Bolt. COO and Senior Vice President for UW Health (Madison, Wis.): Your career is not your life. It is part of your life. It is certainly an important part, but there is so much more to being a whole person. I think women can bring more balance into the workplace by talking about this and making it OK to not have your entire existence revolve around your career. It doesn't mean you are less committed to your work or any less effective. In fact, I believe it makes you more effective. Particularly as we see high levels of employee burnout and dissatisfaction across industries, you can model being a great leader and a real person with many facets to your life.

Trish Celano, MSN. Associate Chief Clinical Officer and Chief Nursing Executive for AdventHealth (Altamonte Springs, Fla.): This International Women's Day, I think about all of the women who have been influential in my career. As a nurse, my relationship with patients has framed much of how I lead today. It has been a blessing to be able to spend moments — inspirational, heartbreaking and solemn moments — with women: the mothers, daughters and wives. It has framed my "why" and is a deep well on which I draw, even now, as my leadership position takes me further from the bedside.

Jaimie Clark. Head of Innovation for Catalyst by Wellstar: We are living in a time in which consumers have more choice and information to guide their healthcare journey than ever before. Leaders across the country need to continue to collaborate, co-create and be open to new and emerging solutions to meet new consumer demands. That's why it's important to me as a leader to think outside the box about redesigning the healthcare ecosystem to enhance the patient and provider experience. While doing so, I'm privileged to support female-led startups and women in the industry. I hope to continue to inspire the next generation of women in healthcare to be fearless and take up space in every room.

Briana Costello, MD. Cardiologist at the Texas Heart Institute Center for Cardiovascular Care and Physician Ambassador for THI's Center for Women's Heart and Vascular Health (Houston): It is both gratifying and humbling to find oneself leading as a woman. The tireless work of women before us who paved the way and changed biases cannot go unnoticed. For me, my mother taught me that to lead one must be kind to all and listen to others. Now, it is our duty to instill confidence in and build platforms for the women and young girls that come after us. Leadership, not only at work, but at home with our families, only succeeds when one listens to and understands the needs of others and can effectively communicate and execute goals as a team.

Karen Cox, PhD, RN. President of Chamberlain University (Chicago): There have been many lessons along my leadership journey, but two remain foundational for me and will be important as you try to stay true to your personal and professional values. First, at the end of the day, all you have is your integrity. Don't lose your passion or integrity to move up — it's about making a difference wherever you are. And second, remain humble and "live life like a staff nurse" no matter your title or salary grade. As you progress in leadership, you may encounter situations that call your integrity into question. If you are unable to successfully compromise, your ability to walk away and keep your integrity intact far outweighs the glory of the role or salary.

Celina Cunanan, MSN, APRN. Chief Diversity, Equity & Belonging Officer for University Hospitals (Cleveland): One of my main messages for women aspiring to be leaders in healthcare is to step outside your comfort zone and don't be afraid to put your happiness first. I recently assumed the role of chief diversity, equity and belonging officer for our health system after a clinical career of managing the nurse-midwifery division throughout our health system. I was hesitant as to whether to take on the new role, but my longtime mentor encouraged me with some simple advice: Make sure it's something you're going to be happy doing. That was clarifying to me. I've realized as I've gotten older that I can invest my time and energy into things I'm passionate about and make conscious choices to align who I am and what I value with my work. I feel very lucky to be in a space in which I've been able to do that several times over in my career. I'm so invigorated now for the work ahead and the opportunities we have to create a culture of belonging both inside our large health system as well as in our communities we are privileged to serve.   

I've also realized that being a leader doesn't necessarily mean you always have all the answers. This is certainly in opposition to our core training as health care providers, to come up with an answer to our patient's problem or concern. As I've grown in this journey, I've learned that leadership is not about having all the answers, but rather being able to engage all the stakeholders, listen to others and co-create solutions together. To change a system you need to lead with humility and emotional intelligence in order to influence and inspire those you lead.

Corinne Dive-Reclus. Global Head of Lab Insights for Roche Information Solutions (Rotkreuz, Switzerland): Be curious about everything. Prioritize mentoring to give back to your community of women leaders to become a better version of yourself. Zero in on the ways you're able to channel your passions to create impact for the better.

Heather Dlugolenski. Senior Vice President of Solutions and U.S. Commercial Strategy for Cigna Healthcare: At Cigna Healthcare, we create innovative solutions that help our customers improve their health and vitality — and we do so by collecting data, being creative in ideation, and prioritizing our best capacity to accomplish what otherwise seems impossible. We oversee the development of those solutions by monitoring leading indicators to see the potential our ideas have for impact and continuously adjusting. That kind of discipline should be applied to our lives, too — since managing it all can be overwhelming and life can just start happening to you. Document what's most important to your year or your decade, and monitor your progression towards those accomplishments — whether it's more time with your loved ones, committing to rest, learning a new skill or hobby, or a new role at work …pick just a few that are most important and prioritize your best capacity for them. If you're off track, step back and make a change. As long as you are always deliberately checking in on how you feel about your life, you can always change it.

Susan Harvey, MD. Vice President of Global Medical Affairs for Hologic: Research has found that women's health is a crucial factor for societal stability, global monetary advancement and fundamental human rights. Yet women's health is often deprioritized despite the fact that women are the foundations of families, communities and economies. For example, the Hologic Global Women's Health Index found that only 12 percent of women in 2021 were tested for any type of cancer in the past 12 months around the world despite cancer being a top killer of women. That means more than 2 billion of the world's women went untested for cancer. As women leading the way in healthcare, we have the unique opportunity to change the conversation and make women's health a global priority. We must continue to focus on educating more women on the importance of preventive care, encouraging women to get their annual screenings, and helping break down barriers that prevent women from getting the healthcare they need and deserve.

Michelle Hereford, RN. Chief Nursing Executive, Ethel Morikis Endowed Chair in Nursing Leadership for University Hospitals (Cleveland): Women must know they are vital in the growth of our economy, maintenance of our families and leadership of communities. It's clear to me that the healthcare community is not intentionally structured to limit the success of women. However, many centuries of a male-dominated society are difficult to move beyond and can often create lingering challenges for women in the healthcare field. Because of this, we need to position ourselves to be vocal about where we stand and what's needed, really speaking up for what's important and not being ashamed or fearful to do so. This is true no matter what stage of life and womanhood you're in. Speaking up and being true to ourselves further supports the much-needed work within this industry and ensures everyone's success.

Candace Smith King, MD. Vice President of Academic Affairs for Corewell Health (Grand Rapids and Southfield, Mich.): The biggest component to leadership is collaboration. I believe the best leaders are excellent listeners. If you take time to listen to people, they feel valued.  Many of the people I lead are residents, so they are new to the profession, but they still want to be heard and valued. They are not afraid to speak up. And I appreciate that because they have a fresh perspective and some great ideas. The silent generation is gone. But if somebody is quiet in a group setting, I will reach out to them individually so I can still hear their voice and perspective, too.

Nicole Lambert. COO of Myriad Genetics: Spend as much time as you can with your patients and front-line healthcare team. If we understand the challenges they are facing, the answers become very clear. It's the intersection of what they need most and what we have the capacity to provide that is the opportunity for all of us to succeed. When we really [work to] solve …  these issues, inspiring work is done, lives are changed for the better and the profits follow from there.

Grace Lee, MD. Pediatric infectious diseases physician and Chief Quality Officer of Stanford Medicine Children's Health (Palo Alto, Calif.): My advice for women is to work hard and follow your passions — even if you don't know where that will take you tomorrow. The global COVID-19 crisis exposed the critical need for a highly qualified public health workforce, allowing me the opportunity to extend my knowledge and leadership skills among public health professionals, the community and nationally. I was able to support the health and safety of Stanford Medicine Children's Health's workforce as well as patients and families throughout the country by serving on the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. During these times, and as a proud member of the American-Asian community, I learned the power of giving a voice to those who may not always be heard and identify the gaps needed to face healthcare challenges. This new path took my career to places it has never been. I’m excited to serve as a voice for equity going forward.

Cindy J. Miller. President and CEO of Stericycle (Bannockburn, Ill.): To see growth and success, diversity, equity and inclusion needs to be more than just a goal. It's a responsibility held by every member of your organization to create a healthy, equitable and inclusive environment for employees, patients and our communities. It's important for everyone — especially women in healthcare — to see themselves represented at work, including in positions of leadership. It tells them that they, too, can thrive and rise through the ranks. I hope everyone remembers that they are their best advocates for the change that they want to see.

Missy Miller. Chief Marketing Officer for Waystar: One of the most important leadership attributes, no matter how advanced you are in your professional career, is the ability to listen and to learn. In fact, at Waystar, one of our values is curiosity because we know the best decisions are not always obvious or easy; we invest the time to understand first, then develop a solution. Sometimes people in leadership roles feel pressured to exude confidence or indicate they have all the answers. I've found that leading with curiosity and an open mind empowers others to use their voice and share their knowledge. In the end, this leads to a powerful solution developed with inclusivity.

Colleen Riley, OD. Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for embecta: Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math careers. This shortfall is not solely because women are not pursuing STEM education. We also have a leaky bucket, meaning once they embark on a STEM career path, the support and mentorship they need falls short and they exit to pursue other opportunities. As women in healthcare, we need to work together to support one another and challenge those systems that aren't working for us. If you're new in your career, don't be afraid to speak up when added support is needed or if something just needs to change. And if you've been in the industry for a while, use your influence to make things easier for the next generation. We need to put them on our shoulders.

Veronica Sandoval, PhD. Principal, Patient Inclusion and Health Equity, Chief Diversity Office, Genentech: I am committed to motivating those with influence and power to prioritize and increase public health literacy for historically underserved patients so they can ultimately advocate and communicate for themselves. Whether this is combatting COVID-19 misinformation or explaining what it's like to participate in a clinical trial, we must address health inequities through education and empowerment. I encourage those in a similar unique position of privilege to work to identify and advocate for solutions that make healthcare more accessible to all types of patients, especially those historically left behind in healthcare.

Ghazala Sharieff, MD. Corporate Senior Vice President, Hospital Operations and Chief Medical Officer for Scripps Health (San Diego): My best advice is to always step up and just ask. So often I find that women may not even apply for a role because they lack sometimes just a single item on the job description. We also hesitate to ask. I had the honor of being the first fellow twice in my career by just asking if I could be. My mom always said, "The worst they can say is no." This has been the best advice and I would not be where I am today without asking and thinking outside the box, beyond the "requirements." Getting known can be difficult, so stepping up and working on projects that may not always be the most fun — but are definitely needed — is a great way to get recognized.

Kimberly Williams, DNP. Director of Nursing Operations, Bass Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Diseases Hematology/Oncology, CAR-T, Stem Cell Transplant, and Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine at Stanford Medicine Children's Health (Palo Alto, Calif.): I first started in health care as a front desk clerk for a clinic in Texas. A female doctor there was the one who pushed me to go into nursing. Because she saw something in me, and allowed me to stand on her shoulders, I got started on my path to become a Black nurse leader. Now, in my current role and co-chair of one of our organization's diversity, inclusion and equity committees, I’ve made it my life's purpose to infuse a culture of inclusion and equity in all areas of healthcare — from the front line to the boardroom and to bring others along with me on this journey.

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