Corner Office: How a hurricane and a pandemic taught one CEO to grow in a crisis

More than 20 years have passed since Beth Walker relocated to New Orleans from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. But she told Becker's the crises she's faced in the last two decades, including Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic, continue to influence her in her role as Ochsner Baptist CEO.

Ms. Walker moved to New Orleans in 2002 to participate in Ochsner Health's administrative fellowship program. She went on to serve in various positions within Ochsner Health, including acting as manager of general internal medicine at Ochsner Medical Center when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. She served as COO of ambulatory clinics at OMC before becoming CEO of Ochsner Baptist, a campus of OMC, in May 2019.

Here, Ms. Walker answers Becker's seven Corner Office questions.  

Note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

Beth Walker: My grandmother was a nurse, and I always looked up to her. She was a force to be reckoned with, but she also had a softness and a kindness to her. I loved listening to different stories about what she had done in the past and how she cared for patients and how she cared for her community as she got older. I think that was always in the back of my mind. I got involved in leadership at a younger age, whether it was through student council opportunities or early jobs I had or my soccer team or church. I realized I enjoyed building teams, being a part of something, trying to make things better. I knew I liked leadership and knew I wanted to do something that felt like it had a purpose. And so connecting those things with the conversations I had from my grandmother is what got me there.

Q: What do you enjoy most about New Orleans?

BW: I moved here from the Midwest almost 20 years ago. I came here as an administrative fellow and thought I would be here for about a year and then move back up North somewhere. But I quickly fell in love with New Orleans. It is unapologetic about who it is, and I love that. I love the pride in the city and the way that residents live their lives. I fell for that pretty early on. But it certainly hasn't been without its challenges. I moved here about three years before Hurricane Katrina, and I stayed to be a part of that rebuilding. It was interesting because I had a lot of friends and others who had left after that for obvious reasons. And I felt compelled to be part of the rebuild and to say, "We have to get the city back to what we know its value is and its greatness." In a weird way, Hurricane Katrina has sort of tied me here because it helped me realize how much potential and pride we have in this place.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be? 

BW: Staffing. Like other hospitals and health systems, we continue to be challenged with having enough bodies and expertise in the right areas to take care of the demand. COVID has only exacerbated that. It was a problem before that. We didn't have enough doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, and COVID took that to a new level.

The other thing is access to care and coordination. We don't have enough services to go around, but I think we have a huge opportunity to make more meaningful use of what we do have and to help people navigate our systems better. They are really complicated systems and only getting more complicated. We have to figure out how to make it more accessible to all patients and close healthcare gaps in a variety of ways so that we can all be a healthier and stronger community going forward.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite? 

BW: I asked my best friend this question about me, and she told me she thinks my best skill is finding balance. I believe that I generally live in a state of equilibrium. I also know and believe that I make a lot of intentional choices and have a great awareness of how I can show up as my best self. And that is really ensuring that I have the right balance of work, relationships, fitness, rest, healthy eating. I do spend a lot of time making intentional choices to get myself back on track if I feel like any of those are off. It's who I am. I don't know how to function when I don't have that right balance, and I'm quick to pivot if I feel like something is off. 

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

BW: I enjoy exercise and my fitness regimen. It's really important to me. I practice high-intensity training and yoga. I run. I love to hike. All of that allows my mind to go to a different space, and it helps me find that steady state again. I also love to be outside, so anytime I can just get fresh air, whether it be going for a walk or going out to one of the many festivals that we have and hearing live music, is helpful to me.

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

BW: I had an executive coach, and it was at a time when I had a lot of insecurities about my abilities. I was struggling with imposter syndrome and thinking, "Someday, somebody's going to wake up and realize I'm not all that good at what I do." I had this fear of people finding me out in a way. And I remember talking to the coach, Rebecca, about that. She looked at me and said, "Beth, you are not successful in spite of who you are, you are successful because of who you are." And that was a poignant moment to me. I was able to start embracing my ability to build relationships and connections and to get people to follow me as a strength and not a liability. That was advice tied to authenticity and leaning into who you are and understanding the strengths that you can bring. I've used that as an example to so many other young leaders, especially to say, "We've all had these different challenges. But what are your core competencies as a human and not just what does an article say are the top skills every CEO should have?"

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievements at Ochsner Baptist so far? 

BW: The ability to respond and grow in a crisis. That's been something that has been a learned skill during my healthcare career and while living in New Orleans. When I became the CEO here, I was only here nine months when COVID inundated us. And the ability to stay calm, respond, work as a health system and take care of every patient that comes through our door, I think will forever be a bigger accomplishment to me than hitting a certain volume metric or a national accolade we get. To me, that was about coming together as a team, leading people through tough times when uncertainty was such a driving force, and being able to keep the team together to do what we had to do to care for our patients in this community. That will be something I'll remember for the rest of my life. I learned so much about courage and resilience. 

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