Twenty years ago, Theresa Meadows took a rather big risk: she said to the CIO at her organization, “I want your job.” The courageous move paid off, and she gained a mentor that helped steer her toward her ultimate goal. Now, Meadows serves as Senior VP and CIO at Cook Children’s, one of just a few integrated pediatric health systems in the country. In this interview, she talks about how Cook Children’s is partnering with vendors to make EHR systems more pediatric-friendly, what they’ve done to dramatically increase portal usage, and the groundbreaking work her team is doing with medical homes. Meadows also discusses the tricky transition from nursing to IT, how her nursing background has helped shape her leadership strategy, and the mistake CIOs can’t afford to make.
- Her pivotal career moment — “I want your job.”
- Learning from mentors
- “It’s about really listening to what people say.”
- Embracing challenges — “I really didn’t know what I was signing up for when I said yes.”
- From nursing to technology
- Advice for aspiring CIOs — “It’s not about immediate gratification.”
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Not many people would actually want you to quit. They don’t want you to leave and go to another organization; they want you to stay forever. I think it takes good leadership and mentorship to recognize people’s career aspirations and then help them get there.
If you do your job well, the next opportunity always comes to you — you’re not going to have to seek it out, because people will recognize that you’re a hard worker and committed to the job you’re doing.
I think about it less from a technology standpoint and more, how is this going to impact the process, how are people going to be engaged with this, and is this something that’s really going to work for the person who has to use it versus it just being cool technology.
That to me is the harder part — being patient and continuing to work toward what your goal is, because a lot of people want it to happen overnight. Sometimes it’s the slow and steady that wins the race at the end of day.
For all CIOs and leaders, I think it’s very important to be engaged in your organizations that support your profession. If you’re not engaged, you can’t introduce change and impact change.
Gamble: How long have you been CIO at Cook Children’s?
Meadows: In June, it will be five years. Time flies when you’re having fun; it seems like yesterday I just started. But it’s been five years.
Gamble: And then where were you prior to that?
Meadows: I was a regional director with Ascension Health, and so I was located in Birmingham. There were 10 facilities for which I was responsible for all their clinical system deployments.
Gamble: What was it that made this role appeal to you, and how did that process happen as far as obtaining the CIO role?
Meadows: It’s interesting because almost 20 years ago — maybe not that many, when I went back to graduate school, at that point, I decided that ultimately I would love to see my career go down the CIO path. And so over the years, I’ve really just focused on finding jobs that would help me move in that direction.
One of the biggest things I would encourage people to do is when I was at Ascension Health, I had a very good mentor. He was the CIO, and he said to me, ‘What do you want to do with your career?’ And I said to him, ‘I want your job.’ And there are days that I regretted saying that to him. If you get the right mentor, he really found opportunities for me to excel and to find the path that would help me to get prepared. And so I really encourage people that if you have a career goal, share that with your manager or your leader. Now I’m in the giveback mode, so if there are people on my team who really have that aspiration or some other aspiration, finding ways for them to get the skills that they need is critical to that.
I owe a lot of where I am to that mentor I had. He encouraged me to apply for other positions. He almost said, ‘You know, I love that you work here, but you’re ready to do something else.’ He really encouraged me to start looking at CIO jobs, and I’m grateful for that, because not many people would actually want you to quit. They don’t want you to leave and go to another organization; they want you to stay forever. So I think it takes good leadership and mentorship to recognize people’s career aspirations and then help them get there. I was lucky in that fact, but it’s all about telling people what you want, because if you sit back and wait for it to happen, it’s not going to happen that way or it rarely happens that way.
Gamble: And I’m sure there is often some hesitancy to tell your boss or your managers what you want. It’s probably might be a little more common still among females. To have the guts to say that, it’s great that you did it and you had somebody who pushed you in the right direction and wasn’t threatened by it.
Meadows: It can be intimidating. If somebody said to me, ‘I want your job,’ you could take it in a way like, ‘uh-oh, they’re going to try to get rid of me.’ When I said that to him, I kind of said it tongue-in-cheek, but I do think he listened and that’s really the important part — really listening to what people say. And you can tell if people are serious or not; if that’s really what they want to do. That, to me, was a good lesson for me that I learned in working for him. When people say these things, 9 times out of 10 they mean it, and we need to figure out how to help them get there.
Gamble: For the people who you either mentor in a formal way or just have helped along the way, what are some of the characteristics that you really value?
Meadows: Good character and ethics is always number one, and a positive attitude. I also really admire people who will take on a challenge and really not know a 100 percent of what they’re getting into. A lot of the jobs that I’ve had, I really didn’t know what I was signing up for when I said yes. And so sometimes it means taking a little risk to try something new and not really know what you’re getting yourself into. Because coming from a nursing background into more of a technology background, that’s pretty intimidating transition, so some of it is just being willing to take a risk and say, ‘I think I can learn that. I think I can do that.’ And really just working hard. I always say if you do your job well, the next opportunity always comes to you — you’re not going to have to seek it out, because people will recognize that you’re a hard worker and committed to the job you’re doing.
Those are really the things I look for when I interview people. It’s not always about the knowledge they have, because someone can be very knowledgeable but be very complacent and not want to do more, so it’s really a combination of attitude, character, and how competent you are.
Gamble: You mentioned having a background as a nurse. Do you find that definitely impacts the leader that you are?
Meadows: I do, because I really think about things in a more process-oriented way. I think about it less from a technology standpoint and more, how is this going to impact the process, how are people going to be engaged with this, and is this something that’s really going to work for the person who has to use it versus it just being cool technology. Because there’s a lot of cool technology out there, but if you can’t mold it to the process that you have, then it’s not worth anything.
I’m probably more of a mothering type just because of having that nursing background and really wanting to care for people. I really care about my teams and the things that happen to them. I don’t know if that’s because I had a nursing background or that’s just inherent, but I think that definitely plays a role in how I make judgments more holistically about how that’s going to impact the person who we’re working with.
Gamble: Right. It’s always interesting. There are so many different paths to the CIO role, and I find it interesting to see how those different experiences along the way all affect the leader you become.
Meadows: Absolutely. I agree with that 100 percent. For me, when I got into IT, it was really not having any clue what I said yes to. It was, ‘Theresa, we need some nurses to help physicians learn CPOE’ — and his was in 1995 — ‘and you’re good with physicians. Would you like to work with the physicians and help train them and support them on their journey through electronic medical records?’
You’re talking about a hospital that barely had computers. I had never even touched a computer when that offer was made. It was really around just communication and interaction and training and education; it was less about technical skills. And so in my mind at that point, I was thinking, ‘no weekends, no holidays, no nights? Sign me up.’ I wasn’t really thinking, ‘This is a good career move.’ It was really about, ‘I could learn something new and have a change in schedule.’
And the commitment at that time was, ‘you’ll do this for a little while and you go back to you nursing job.’ I really saw it as a break; I didn’t see it as a career at that point in time. But once I got into doing the job, I thought, ‘this could be a really fun career,’ and that’s when it really changed. I wish I could say I was smart in my decision making, but it was really just taking a risk at that point. And I’ve just looked for opportunities to continue to learn and excel and do different jobs. If people want to move up in the organizations, that’s what they have to do, is be willing to sign up for jobs they don’t exactly know what it is.
Gamble: It stuck with me that you said several years ago that the CIO role was something you eventually wanted to have, and it’s interesting because I read a lot of these leadership posts and one of the themes I’ve seen is that younger people or people earlier on in their career can’t be afraid to shoot high, and that there’s a hesitancy sometimes. It seems like from your experience, it’s important to know what you want, even if it isn’t going to happen right away, and to really aim high.
Meadows: Yes. And certainly patience is a virtue. You have a conversation six years before you become a CIO, so it definitely takes patience. You have to continue to work hard and strive for that end goal, and so a lot of times it’s not immediate. That to me is the harder part — being patient and continuing to work toward what your goal is, because a lot of people want it to happen overnight. Sometimes it’s the slow and steady that wins the race at the end of day, like the tortoise and the hare. It’s not all about immediate gratification and being promoted; it’s about working your way to where you want to be so you can be successful. And that’s really what I’ve tried to do. Were there days when I’m like, ‘I’m never going to get there?’ Absolutely. But I think long term it was better to have gone slow and steady versus jumping in with both feet earlier.
Gamble: I guess that last thing I would ask is, from seeing you at events and looking at your LinkedIn, that you’re involved with a lot of organizations and are willing to be a speaker and put yourself out there. I can imagine that’s challenging with so much on your plate, but I just wanted to ask how it benefits you and how you think it benefits others to really have a presence?
Meadows: Actually, I think it benefits both ways. It’s highly critical that we’re sharing information. I don’t love public speaking, but I think it’s something that is required in this role. For all CIOs and leaders, I think it’s very important to be engaged in your organizations that support your profession. If you’re not engaged, you can’t introduce change and impact change. I get as much from being involved in those organizations as I give, and I think I learn a lot from my peers being engaged in those organizations. I think presenting and sharing the work that we do is how we learn from each other, because nobody wants to re-create the wheel, as I said earlier. I think it’s very important that we lead and educated in a very stressful time from an IT perspective in healthcare. There’s a lot to learn from each other. More minds are better than one mind individually, and so part of my role is to get out and educate and talk about what we’re doing here and learn from others. And I encourage my staff to do presentations and to really be active in their organizations, because I think that’s how we grow as an organization — by learning from others and participating in those groups.
Gamble: That’s great, and even taking the time to speak with us today is really appreciated. I think it’s so beneficial for others, and I really want to thank you for this. I know you have so much on your plate, so I really thank you for the time.
Meadows: I want to thank you for the opportunity. I think what you guys do in allowing CIOs to share maybe small nuggets of wisdom is really important, and I gained a lot from the other interviews, so I appreciate the opportunity.
Gamble: Thank you, and I definitely would like to catch up with you again down the road to see how everything is going.
Meadows: Absolutely. You may want to talk to me halfway through the six-month upgrade and see if I have any gray hair. I’m sure I’ll have a few.
Gamble: That sounds great. Thanks again, and I wish you the best of luck with everything.
Meadows: Thank you too, Kate. I appreciate it.