Undercover boss: Why this C-suite leader silently became an EMT

By day, Linda Matzigkeit was chief administrative officer at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. By night, she was a student again, hitting the books to become an emergency medical technician. 

If it sounds crazy, it is; Ms. Matzigkeit is the first to acknowledge it. But for decades after becoming a C-level executive, she itched to do something more, curious if her true calling involved patient care. In her mid-30s, she almost left administration entirely to go to nursing school, but a job offer from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta brought that plan to a halt. 

The desire to care for patients was tabled, but not erased. Twenty years into her tenure, the pandemic propelled her to act, Ms. Matzigkeit told Becker's

"I wanted to jump in and help, but I felt really paralyzed," Ms. Matzigkeit said. "During the height of our COVID-19 response, I saw the demand for clinical caregivers increase, our teams were exhausted. And I kept thinking, 'Gosh, I really wish I could work taking care of patients.'"

She learned that it only took six months to obtain an EMT license. The classes could be done at night, and the clinical rotations could be scheduled for the weekends. It would require some sacrifices, but her son had gone off to college: "It was now or never," Ms. Matzigkeit said. 

The balancing act was difficult: Nervous it might not be feasible, she did not tell the rest of her executive team until after she had graduated, passed the certification exam and obtained her license. 

"I shared with the team [that I had become an EMT], and they were shocked. Especially my boss," Ms. Matzigkeit said. "She was like, 'How did you do this?' And I said, 'I just was determined. I wanted to do it.'" 

She chose to put her skills to work at Children's, taking on an additional 100 hours of orientation. But she kept her identity a secret — it wasn't too difficult in the COVID era, donning a mask along with scrubs and a ponytail. 

"I was just Linda the new person," Ms. Matzigkeit said. "I didn't want them to know. I wanted to be treated like anyone else, checked up on my skills." 

Now, Ms. Matzigkeit works one shift a month in the emergency room. The challenge has given her a better understanding of what front-line staff go through, and how the C-suite can meet them where they are. For example, she quickly learned that existing methods of communication were not the most effective. 

"I think we [as executives] thought everybody reads their emails and everybody looks at the internet, but what I realized is that you are so busy, particularly when you're working in the emergency department, that you aren't looking at your emails. You are taking care of patients," Ms. Matzigkeit said.

Now, the hospital has pivoted, showing important information on screens in the break room and on handouts people can mull over while taking meals. Managers play a more hands-on role in information transmission during daily huddles, ensuring the pressure to keep up doesn't fall squarely on front-line staff themselves. 

She has also learned the value of a good preceptor — hers was the same age as her son — in showing new workers the ropes. And she recognizes how important a strong supply chain is, since running out of gauze or a single needle size can "really impact a shift."

"I think I've become a better listener," Ms. Matzigkeit said of her leadership style. "I can say [to the rest of the C-suite], 'Let me tell you how it really works' — I can advocate better for the front lines because I've walked in their shoes." 

The dual perspective has illustrated gaps in the C-suite and front-line staff's understanding of one another, according to Ms. Matzigkeit. The front lines don't understand how challenging it is to make all the executive decisions, how much heart and consideration goes into every choice. And leadership doesn't understand just how hard it is on the ground, trying to provide patient care while understaffed and under-resourced. 

If every C-suite leader was required to spend time in a front-line worker's shoes, "it would be a game-changer," Ms. Matzigkeit believes.  

"The front-line staff would learn so much from them, and the executives would see that it's a tough job," Ms. Matzigkeit said. "It really is."


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