32 thoughts on leadership from women in the healthcare industry

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

Here are 32 women who offered words of advice for healthcare leaders:

Nancy Howell Agee. President and CEO of Carilion Clinic (Roanoke, Va.). The events of the past year have brought unique and unexpected challenges, and women across the country have risen to the occasion. In healthcare, in particular, where the majority of our workforce are women, they are lauded as heroes. And they are. Looking ahead to the future, women will continue to provide strong leadership as we enter the new digital era COVID-19 accelerated. With the growth of telemedicine, artificial intelligence and other technology advances, I can't think of a more exciting time to be in healthcare.

Olesea Azevedo. Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based AdventHealth. For many women, the eternal question is, "How do I give myself fully to home life and work life?" This endless search for balance can leave us depleted. What if we did a personal inventory to understand if we are dedicating the same passion and intensity to our emotional, physical and spiritual well-being as we are to our work? This would mean truly setting aside time and energy to focus on mind, body and spirit. Could wholeness be within our reach?

Jasmine Ballard. Administrative Director at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute (Charlotte, N.C.). Women in leadership have been crucial to help make decisions and manage quick change with empathy and understanding of the load so many have had to bear. As a mid-career leader, the best advice I have received is to always lead with authenticity and transparency. It is imperative that we create cultures of excellent performance while also recognizing that the leaders and teams that report to us are human. We must consider the whole person and not the one we think should show up at work today.

Odette Bolano. President & CEO, St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center (Boise, Idaho). Effective women leaders are strong in all the characteristics you would expect in any leader:  Integrity, trustworthiness, visionary, effective communicator, influencer, strategic and financial acumen, passion, understanding, team player, collaborator, self-reflective, ability to learn and grow from experiences and humbleness. Providing leadership in an industry predominately made up of women requires them to be at the table and engaged in creating change that is fueled by their commitment to a diversified workforce not only reflective of gender, race, and ethnicity but diversity of thought and perspective.

Marna Borgstrom. CEO of Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health. This past year has been challenging to leaders everywhere, especially those in healthcare. But it's also underscored what makes a good leader — and for many women, these traits come naturally. The first is humility. Good leaders are self-aware enough to understand their own shortcomings and to value the expertise of others. The second is courage. That means not letting the fear of failure amid uncertainty get in the way of doing the right thing. And the third is the ability to drive alignment and collaboration. 

Stacey Brandt. Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer of Tampa (Fla.) General Hospital. Leadership is about serving others. Support and lift up your team to make them the best versions of themselves by giving them the resources and guidance they need to be successful. That in turn makes you successful, which makes the organization successful. Realize that no one person can do it all — surround yourself with a strong team. Support them, celebrate them, and reward and recognize them often.

Joan M. Coffman. President & CEO, St. Tammany Health System (Covington, La.). The COVID-19 pandemic has tested many of our leaders, especially as it relates to how they lead. With my own healthcare team, I have witnessed many inspirational moments and watched as the challenges made them even stronger and inspired them to greatness. We often think about strong leaders being very analytical and strategic, but during the pandemic we really needed to demonstrate vulnerability and empathy and lead with our hearts. Balancing a tactical approach with a more human touch was essential as we successfully navigated through these unprecedented times — together.

Lisa Davis. Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Blue Shield of California. This is the time for authentic leadership — to really get to know our people and what their unique struggles are during this pandemic. As leaders, we simply can't afford to lose more women from the workforce who need to prioritize their responsibilities to their families. If we have open conversations to understand what is happening, we can help women in our organizations and offer flexibility so they don't have to abandon their careers. And personally, I know that while we can do as much as we can professionally to pull women forward, it all starts at home. We need more partners to step up to support us in our careers. 

Christy Dempsey, DNP. CNO Emeritus of Press Ganey and Adjunct Faculty Member at the Missouri State University School of Nursing (Springfield). This is advice I wish I had received early in my career: As a woman, it may be difficult to get to the leadership table. Don't stop trying. It's easier now than it was, and it will be up to you to make it easier for future generations. It's not easy, it is sometimes scary, and often it's not popular. That's what leadership is and that's what leaders do. But good leaders surround themselves with people who know more than they do and augment the leaders' strengths and fill in for the leaders' weaknesses. Those who follow the leader are as or more important than the leader herself. Humility, courage, passion, fortitude and love are the values that inspire people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age or creed to create, innovate and grow.

Lisa Deschamps. Senior Vice President and Chief Business Officer at Novartis Gene Therapies. The power of my company's mission is what energizes me. We are here to transform the lives of patients living with rare, genetic diseases. Our focus is on a population that is so often left behind in the healthcare system. For me, there's no better reason to push through a problem than to focus on the end goal. As a leader, it's imperative to anchor the team to our collective purpose, but also recognize each individual team member is motivated by diverse and unique factors. This is why I always ask my team, "What drives you?" 

Tricia Smith Edris. Senior Vice President and Chief Consumer Officer for Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based AdventHealth. Growth and comfort do not coexist. The ability to recognize a good, but challenging, opportunity and fight the urge to run the other direction is a skill — one that great leaders possess. Leadership is a complexly balanced relationship of courage, compassion, strength, commitment and trust. As a woman in the healthcare industry, I strive every day to lead by example — practicing the same behaviors I want others to follow and consumers to experience.

Janet Hadar. President, UNC Healthcare (Chapel Hill, N.C.). I feel fortunate to live at a time and work for an organization where women's contributions are recognized and celebrated. I don't take for granted the courage of generations of strong women and men whose actions have provided many of us the opportunities that might not otherwise have been possible. International Women's Day reminds us to pay it forward by taking every opportunity to encourage, inspire and support other women. I began my career as a nurse. My hope is that my accomplishments will enable the next generation of hospital leaders who today may be caring for patients at the bedside, to see themselves in my story and to aspire to the highest levels of personal and professional achievement.

Carin Hagberg. Chief Academic Officer at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston).
At times, embracing change can be a challenge, but change is an opportunity for growth and further development. To effectively implement change, I think it's very important to connect with people, listen to their concerns and suggestions, be willing to embrace new ideas and concepts, as well as be open and transparent.

Tracey Hoke, MD. Chief of Quality and Performance Improvement for the University of Virginia Health System (Charlottesville). When I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me that I could accomplish anything that I set my mind to. Now that I serve on a nearly all-female hospital leadership team, it is clear to me that other moms must have been deliberately building strength, confidence and resilience in their girls as well. This generation of women in leadership has extended the success of those who came before us, in no small part due to the efforts of those who believed in us from the beginning. Thanks, mom.

Michelle Janney, PhD, RN. Executive Vice President and COO of Indiana University Health (Indianapolis). Growing up, the message of "be good, do good" was instilled in me by my mother. For a kid, the idea of "be good" seemed black and white. Children are often told by others what is and isn't right. Growing up and serving in leadership roles, I realized the concept of "be good" wasn't black and white at all. Leaders confront gray areas — complex situations where diverse perspectives and opinions about what's right or best or preferred collide. The gray area is where difficult decisions often must be made. Being and doing good are about making decisions based on a set of values. I am inspired by the core values of integrity, positivity, service and connection. My mother’s long-ago advice is still sound. Know what being good and doing good look like for yourself, then have the courage and discipline at the end of the day to stay true to it.

Norma S. Kenyon, PhD. Deputy Director of the Diabetes Research Institute and the Martin Kleiman Professor of Surgery, Microbiology and Immunology and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Miami's Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. Through my research in Type 1 diabetes, I've had the opportunity to meet T1D patients and their families, scientists from the private and public sector, businesspeople and many others. These diverse interactions have had a significant impact on my research and on my approach to leadership roles within the organization and more broadly at the university. It is also important to read back what you "heard" to those you work or interact with — I have learned that what one hears and what others meant and/or their interpretation of your own dialogue is often different. Listening carefully, "reading back" and demonstrating that you are truly engaged is key to good relationships and good leadership.

Allyson Kinzel. Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston). I am honored to serve as MD Anderson's first female senior vice president for regulatory affairs. I am grateful to work at a place that values and promotes diversity and inclusion. We all benefit from these efforts. When I discuss my leadership path with other women, I emphasize how important resilience has been in my life.  Staying strong in the face of adversity and being humble enough to learn from setbacks are keys to success. Also, find confidence, gratitude and humor whenever you can — these three things will make the tough times easier to bear. Finally, always be willing to help those around you and to give back to your profession. The rewards of teaching and sharing are infinite.

Alka Kohli, MD. Executive Vice President and Chief Population Health and Clinical Officer at Inspira Health Network (Vineland, N.J.). As a female leader of color, I have had the good fortune of some excellent mentors — both male and female. As I asked them what I could do for them in return, I consistently heard the same thing: Pay it forward. As women in leadership, we have the ability to help cultivate a more diverse workforce and lessen the gaps at the top tiers. I also believe that opportunities come in different ways — often ill-defined and sometimes complicated — but those are the ones that, while challenging, can bring about the best rewards. Learning to take on things that one has never done before and continuously learning from the experience is part of growth. 

Ronda Lehman, PharmD. Market President of Mercy Health-Lima (Ohio). Bringing your "whole self" to the conversation is vitally important for your community, staff and fellow leaders to know that all are aligned as we work to improve community health. I believe strongly that women leaders can (and should) embrace our feminine side and our leadership side in these important roles. As healthcare leadership has been particularly visible during the pandemic, I have also really enjoyed the opportunity to serve as a role model for young girls interested in leadership opportunities.

S. Catherine "Katy" Longley. Executive Vice President and COO of The Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, Maine). I feel very fortunate to have been a leader in the biomedical field during this unprecedented past year. It gave me the unique opportunity to not only support people at work, but to help co-workers' families and children in many personal ways. As we celebrate International Women's Day in 2021, let's stop and applaud all of the women leaders around the world who demonstrated strength, compassion and empathy to others during the pandemic. Whether on the front line or doing research, we can guide, mentor and express gratitude to all of the women who advance our mission to improve human health.

Vinitia Mathews. Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Patient Experience Officer at LifePoint Health (Brentwood, Tenn.). It is imperative to understand the great responsibility that comes with your role as a female leader. Your words and actions impact not only your own legacy but also the ability for other women to follow in the path you create. Never stop learning — expose yourself to different perspectives in people, books, podcasts and other resources. The macro view you develop from that knowledge will serve you well. Trust your instincts but also ensure you have a personal board of directors to be your trusted mirror and sounding board.

Jennifer Meade. Division President of Breast and Skeletal Health Solutions at Hologic. Women play a critical role in healthcare as the primary decision-maker of care for their families. It's our responsibility as industry leaders to ensure their voices and perspectives are well represented within our organizations. For me, that means women not only need to be represented in leadership, but they need to be actively involved in everything from innovation to marketing and the delivery of care. In fact, new research has shown a positive correlation between female physicians and patient outcomes, especially when female physicians are treating female patients. What does this mean? A diverse industry that is more reflective of the patient population served is going to have the greatest impact on health outcomes.

Alefiyah Mesiwala, MD. CMO of Humana Military. Two things that have been critical for me: learning to "give myself an A" and developing an ability to listen to feedback with curiosity, even if it is not what I want to always hear. For a long time, I have been harshly critical of myself, always worried about whether I was good enough. After enough risk-taking and life lessons, I've learned that the only rules that matter are the ones I set for myself. This has been liberating and more importantly, has allowed me to get out of my head and be more present in life whether it is work, my family or the things I care about. A big part of this journey I credit to the people in my life who in addition to sharing their life lessons with me have been willing to provide me honest feedback that has forced me to stop, reflect and continue to grow into the best version of myself.

Rosanna Morris, RN. COO of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston). The future is not something we enter. The future is something we create. This sentiment resonates with me because it reaffirms that we always have choices and are in control of our destiny despite the changes around us.

Carla Parker-Hollis. COO of Jersey City (N.J.) Medical Center-RWJBarnabas Health. International Women's Day reminds us all that healthcare is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. As the entire continuum of care advances — from clinical trials, new technology and preventive care to bedside interactions — women's specific requirements must continue to be addressed. Medical professionals must pay particular attention to disease states in women that present in distinctive ways. Heart disease is an example of targeted education to women that has saved countless lives. Through advocacy and outreach, women's health will continue to advance and remain front and center in our health equity journey.

Jennifer Peters. Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at LifePoint Health. Leadership is not — and should never be — defined by gender. A great leader is a great leader. Throughout my career, I have benefited from both women and men who have served as mentors and champions, opening doors and advocating for me. I believe that being intentional about paying that forward is one of my greatest responsibilities as a leader — especially to purposefully raise up those who may have been traditionally overlooked in this space, like women, so that leadership becomes more reflective of the people and environments it represents.

Sonia Ramamoorthy, MD. Chief of Colon and Rectal Surgery and Associate Professor at UC San Diego Health. Women are the best advocates for women. Build each other up, lift each other higher and push each other forward. I celebrate this today and every day.

Rebecca Sartor. Executive Director of LifeStance Health. Take risks, put yourself out there and be your genuine self. Humility and confidence are not mutually exclusive. Surround yourself with mentors and leaders who inspire you, support you and critique you constructively. Remember that having a new idea and seeing an opportunity for change or improvement does not warrant an apology. Initially, as I forged ahead toward my vision of personal and professional growth, I was met with naysayers and resistance. I worked diligently to not internalize this and develop healthy ego strength. Lastly, give back: Take the time to nurture and mentor young women leaders. There is nothing more rewarding than being part of another person's journey of growth and empowerment.

Talya Schwartz, MD. President and CEO of MetroPlusHealth. My leadership style likely derived from my time as a practicing physician, which trained me to listen to patients first before using my medical education and experience to prescribe a diagnosis. I have taken this approach, in a very intentional and deliberate way, to the C-Suite, often thinking of our various stakeholders — employees, partners, members and others — as "patients." Essentially, I lead by listening first. And then I tailor solutions based on their needs. Those needs are not always identical, and the complexity of leadership often lies in our ability to listen intently and diagnose effectively, while realizing that each stakeholder is vastly different. 

Nneka Sederstrom, PhD. Chief Health Equity Officer of Hennepin Healthcare (Minneapolis). I am proud to be part of a long line of strong African and African American women leaders who have shown me what it means to lead. My spirit and drive comes from knowing they sacrificed to ensure I could make my own way, unchained. Oftentimes we women, especially women of color, accept not truly being seen. We worry about the possible side effects of being noticed too much and sacrifice ourselves in order to maintain the status quo. I challenge this thinking because the truth is, you can't be what you can't see. The next generation of young women of color need to see that it is OK to be their whole entire self, unchained, and lead. That is the only way to normalize women, especially women of color, in leadership. I aspire to be seen as an authentic and unapologetic African American woman leader for all the young women who need to know they, too, can be.

Becky Speight. CFO and Administrator of Crescent Medical Center Lancaster (Texas). A trait that has been very important to me during the last decade as a leader has been consistency — the team knows what to expect and they can rely on you showing up. In our hectic healthcare environment, consistency is a way to build trust that lasts. I think Dwayne "'The Rock" Johnson says it best: "Success isn't always about greatness. It's about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come."

Michelle Williams. Dean of the Faculty at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Boston). As the first Black dean and first female dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, I'm certainly proud of breaking down racial and gender barriers. But for me, leadership isn't about celebrating my own achievements; it is about celebrating those who came before me and those who will follow. I've always had to work twice as hard for half the recognition, so I want to make sure that all individuals — especially Black and Latinx individuals — get their proper due. It's the best advice and biggest lesson I've taken to heart.

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