If you ask Jennifer Laughlin Mueller how she achieved her career goals, she’ll tell you that it was through hard work, taking advantage of golden opportunities, and being visible. “You say yes to things you might not know anything about,” says Mueller, who has learned a tremendous amount during her 17 years at Watertown. In this interview, she talks about the major changes her organization faces with a recent affiliation to LifePoint Health — and how her team is already leveraging its resources; how physician engagement has evolved from “arm-twisting” to a true partnership; and her vision for state HIEs. Mueller also shares the advice she’d like to give all young women, the attributes she values most in aspiring leaders, and the conversation with a CEO that was a career-defining moment.
- Climbing the ladder at WRMC
- Reporting directly to the CEO — “I learned so much from him.”
- Her career-defining moment
- “What I love to do is empower people to take that passion and run with it.”
- Value of mentoring — “It makes me feel really good.”
- Her father’s advice
- Volunteer work with WHIMA
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What I love to do is to empower people to take that passion and run with it. I don’t like to micromanage people, but certainly if they’re exhibiting leadership skills, I definitely want them to take their knowledge, take their ideas, and try them. That’s the only way we’re going to see what sticks and what doesn’t.
They have these ideas and they just want to run with them, and I am okay with that. Just go and do it, try it, roll it out. You don’t have to ask permission every step you take — let’s go, let’s see how it is. And it’s really fun for me to watch them just beaming when their idea or their success turns out the way that they wanted it to.
That thought process definitely is not instilled in every woman out there. Sometimes I just want to say, ‘You can do it. I wish you could see yourself through my eyes’ — that kind of thing. And I have said that to people because if they could see themselves as strong, creative, talented, passionate women like I see them, I think their worlds would really open up.
When you have challenges that come up or when you have projects that you need to work on, they’re the first people you reach out to, and because you have that relationship with them, they’re more than willing to talk to you, to work with you.
Gamble: When you were working your way up the ranks, did you intentionally seek out people who were senior and ask them questions and just try to be visible?
Mueller: I was fortunate that when I became the director of medical staff services and medical records, I reported directly to the CEO. It was kind of odd reporting relationship from a director to the CEO. However, because of my involvement with the medical staff, our CEO definitely wanted to be in the know of what’s happening, and so it was really great working with him as my mentor and I learned so much from him. He’s now retired, but I learned a ton professionally just watching him and modeling after him. So I was sort of lucky that way in being visible directly to the CEO. But that’s not to say I did not earn it. I still had to earn it.
Gamble: Were there any conversations that stood out or any times when maybe you were pulled aside and told something that you didn’t expect?
Mueller: I guess one thing that I think the catalyst for me going back for my advanced degree was a conversation with him about, ‘hey, what do you want to do when you grow up?’ And I said, ‘I want to be in administration. I want to oversee medical staff, medical records and IT.’ And I knew in order to do that, I needed to go back and get my degree. I was able to articulate that, and it’s kind of like once you put it out there in the universe, somehow it conspires to get you there. And so a few years later, there I was doing what I said I wanted to do, and I love it.
Gamble: And the decision to go for the MBA — did it make the difference that you thought it would?
Mueller: Yeah, it did, because I definitely wouldn’t be able to be in this role without it.
Gamble: Being in your position, can you talk a little bit about what you look for in the people where you see potential? What are you looking for?
Mueller: I have one person in mind as you were just asking me that question. I look for people who have passion for what they do, and what I love to do is to empower people to take that passion and run with it. I don’t like to micromanage people, but certainly if they’re exhibiting leadership skills, I definitely want them to take their knowledge, take their ideas, and try them. That’s the only way we’re going to see what sticks and what doesn’t, and not to be afraid to make mistakes. That’s kind of part of the deal.
And definitely working as a team is important. I meet with not all my direct reports, but there are definitely some that I meet with because of the reasons I just described where they have some passions. I’m thinking of my clinical documentation improvement specialist. She is just raring to go, to roll this program out and make it the best CDI program around. She has excelled beyond belief, and it’s been really fun to watch her do that.
Gamble: Do you do any kind of formal mentoring or is it more like an informal thing where you just have the discussions here and there?
Mueller: I have had a couple of individuals over the years ask me to be their mentor. One individual actually was in banking, and so I was her mentor as just a woman in leadership. We would meet monthly and just talk about different challenges and things that she was encountering and how maybe I would handle them or how she should handle them.
And then I’ve also had some individuals right in my HIM profession where I was their mentor. And that was a little more down in the weeds mentoring and not so much like leadership, but yes, I have done some mentoring.
Gamble: And I would imagine that in having those conversations, there are things that you take from it as well, so you’re both learning something?
Mueller: Absolutely, yes. It makes me feel really good. I love to empower these people because you can see that some of them don’t feel timid. They have these ideas and they just want to run with them, and I am okay with that. Just go and do it, try it, roll it out. You don’t have to ask permission every step you take — let’s go, let’s see how it is. And it’s really fun for me to watch them just beaming when their idea or their success turns out the way that they wanted it to. So yes, that’s definitely what I take away from it.
Gamble: I never want to buy into the stereotypes, but it sometimes seems like it is young women who sometimes need, if not a little more of a push, then to be told, take the ball and run with it. Is that something that you encounter?
Mueller: Absolutely. I have to give credit to my dad for my confidence, because he always told me that basically I can do anything I want — not being arrogant about it, but just being told whatever you want to do, you can do. And so I really embraced that, and it’s true, literally. Anything you want to do, there is a way to do it. I truly believe that and I always have, and now I’m trying to pass that on to my daughter. If you want it, there is a way to do it.
But that thought process definitely is not instilled in every woman out there. Sometimes I just want to say, ‘You can do it. I wish you could see yourself through my eyes’ — that kind of thing. And I have said that to people because if they could see themselves as strong, creative, talented, passionate women like I see them, I think their worlds would really open up.
Gamble: That kind of thing can really have a lot of influence. I had an editor I worked for several years ago who pulled me aside and said, ‘I don’t hear you during these meetings. I want to hear you,’ and just something like that made a huge difference.
Mueller: Yeah, and I’m on a work team. I volunteer a lot with the WHIMA, the Wisconsin Health Information Management Association, and I got my CDI person I was just talking about to be on this committee with me. She’s also one of these quieter people on the call, but I’ll volunteer her for stuff all the time. And behind closed doors, I’ll say, ‘If I’m volunteering you for things that you don’t want to do, just tell me to be quiet.’ And she says, ‘No, no. I’m glad you do that because I’m sitting there like I want to say I can do it. I want to do that, but I just can’t get the words out.’ I love my job and I love being able to really help people flourish.
Gamble: The organization you just mentioned was the WHIMA?
Mueller: Yes. It’s a health information management association in Wisconsin. Membership is made up of medical records, health information directors, coders, transcriptionists — people in that profession. And of course, because that’s my first love, I’ve been a member of that association since 1996 when I graduated. I’ve been a past president of that association in 2007 and 2008. I speak a lot at their conferences and I just love working on their committees. It’s a great, great group of ladies — and guys too. They’re getting more guys in the profession as well.
Gamble: And that was the final piece I wanted to touch on to, was just encouraging people especially who are working toward certain career goals to really get involved in professional organizations.
Mueller: Definitely, definitely. Oh my gosh, you learn so much — you literally get more out of volunteering than you give, really. People I have met over the years through that association have really been awesome. And when you have challenges that come up or when you have projects that you need to work on, they’re the first people you reach out to, and because you have that relationship with them, they’re more than willing to talk to you, to work with you, to email you a policy or whatever. It really is fun.
Gamble: Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground, and I really appreciate you taking the time and talking about what you’re working on, as well as giving your perspectives. I think this will be really valuable for our audience, so thank you so much.
Mueller: You’re so welcome. I really enjoyed it.
Gamble: Me too, and I hope to check back with you a little bit down the line to see how things are going.
Mueller: Sounds good, Kate. Thank you.