For Liz Johnson, the most rewarding part of being CHIME Board Chair has been in witnessing the “passion” and “commitment” of the organization’s members. “For people who have jobs in a soft healthcare market and face incredible pressures at work are still there at the table, giving everything they’ve got,” she said.
It’s made the role even more enjoyable for Johnson, who took some time during the recent Fall Forum to talk about her key priorities as CHIME Board, which include focusing on diversity in leadership, continuing to grow CHIME’s international efforts, and encouraging CIOs to maintain a healthy work-life balance. We also discussed the organization’s plans to ramp up its mentoring program, her thoughts on the role gender can play in establishing a leadership style, and why it’s more critical than ever before to forge ahead.
Gamble: Hi Liz, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to speak with us. We always appreciate your perspective.
Johnson: You’re welcome.
Gamble: The first thing I’d like to talk about was your experience as CHIME Board Chair. What has stood out most to you during your time so far?
Johnson: I think what’s stood out has been the level of volunteers and the expertise that they’re willing to bring to the table on a consistent basis. Anytime there’s a call for anything, whether it’s in Washington or whether it’s the Opioid Task Force, they’re always there. People who have incredible jobs in a very soft healthcare market and face incredible pressures at work are still there at the table giving everything they’ve got to ensure not only CHIME does well, but that our industry that not only CHIME does well, but that our industry stays whole and our voice is heard.
It’s just been so clearly reinforced during this past year the amount of commitment and caring and passion. I’ve heard again and again that it’s all about the patient — hearing that refuels you and encourages you to keep giving your own time.
I would also say that the diversity of issues that we’re with dealing is pretty vast. Through our work with the A-groups (AEHIS, AEHIT and AEHIA), we’ve recognized that it takes all of us — CIOs, CISOs, applications — to make this work. The technology is coming faster than we can keep up with it, and so I think we’re learning that you need to bring in expertise in a number of verticals so that you’re not depending on just your own. CHIME has set that organizational structure in place with the way we’re organized, which I think is a smart thing to do.
Gamble: Right. And it seems that during your tenure, CHIME has continued to grow its international presence.
Johnson: It really has ramped up. The fact that we have members in 26 countries and we have CHCIOs all over the place who see CHIME as the premier place to get their executive knowledge is quite an accomplishment, and one we’re very proud of. And it is a two-way street; we are learning from them as well. They challenge the way we think, and we challenge the way they think. The world we live in is global — it’s not a city or a state or a country; it’s a world. I think we as an organization have done a remarkable job this year in growing that aspect of CHIME. So far it’s been really good.
And this year is the first time we’ve had events focusing on women and diversity in leadership that have been planned in advance. We’ve received so much positive feedback because of the recognition of the criticality of those groups. Even though they’re still not the majority, they are growing, and having a place to network and develop skills and have fun is so valuable. The feedback has been incredibly positive, so that’s certainly something you’ll see again in the future.
Gamble: I went to the Sunrise Session on Breaking Down Barriers and Paving the Way — which was a great presentation, and there was a point that really stuck out to me about how women need to embrace the unique characteristics that we bring to the table, rather than trying to downplay them. As someone who has held leadership roles for many years, what are your thoughts on this?
Johnson: It’s interesting, we’ve spoken about this before in meetings. Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to play on the strengths of who I am and ignore the gender. I’m bot blind to gender bias, but realistically, what I found is if you do your homework, you present your ideas well, you’re passionate about what you believe in, and you can tell a story, gender doesn’t really play a big part. And that’s a big difference from when I started nearly 40 years ago.
Back then, it was much harder to even get people to listen to me. For years, I was the only female voice in any boardroom or any executive suite — that, fortunately, has changed. I think we’ve learned to play on our strengths as people and executives and not think that you need to have feminine wiles or to act like a man, and that’s a good place for us.
As you sit at the table, you see that there are skills that go with different people regardless of gender, and if you play to the team strength, it’s very powerful. We see it on the board. We see it everywhere.
What I really enjoyed about that session was having the girls from Girls Inc. as our guests. Afterwards they did a meet and greet with the speakers, and that was really fun. When we were in a smaller setting, they were much more comfortable asking us questions and interacting with us. You could had the sense that we have important jobs, and we got to tell them, ‘it’s just a job.’ And I really think the experience of being able to interact with health system leaders can help build confidence. I believe we touched at least one of their lives — hopefully several of them. In fact, we took the girls to the opening keynote, and one of them asked me, ‘Are you the boss of the board?’ And I got to say, ‘yes.’ Of course we all work as a team, but it was cool to be able to tell her that, because it might make her think, ‘I can do that.’
Gamble: Along those lines, what is CHIME doing in terms of mentoring?
Johnson: We’ve been creating mentorships, mostly through our networking, so not as formalized as we might like. We’ve found that it’s hard to match people up in terms of experience. The challenge with mentorship is it’s not like a preceptorship; it’s a mentorship, which means it should be more lifelong in nature. You should be there as a person who can listen and provide guidance and be transparent where you see strengths and weaknesses, but it should be ongoing if you can work it out that way. It’s also important to recognize that if the match doesn’t work, it needs to be rethought. And it can’t just be, ‘Sally’s name came up and Liz is next on the list.’ Because Sally might live in downtown Manhattan and be pursuing data science, and Liz lives in Texas and is in informatics. We have to find a better way to match people up and bring them together.
The other challenge is that we have more requests than we have willingness. And so I’ve been talking to [Board Chair-Elect Cletis Earle] about how we can sell the concept of value for mentors. Because it’s easy, relatively speaking, to see how much a mentee can learn from a mentor, but what’s value proposition for mentors? How can the experience help them grow as leaders?
So we’re not quite there yet, but it’s something we’re going to focus on.
Gamble: One of the positives is that mentoring doesn’t have to be formal; it can be just as effective if it happens informally.
Johnson: I agree. I’ve had it happen many years where CHIME Boot Camp participants call me, and at first I assume they’re looking for a job, but sometimes they need help with a resume. Or it’s just running something by me to get another perspective.
Now, does that mean I have a long term relationship with that person? Not necessarily, but it’s a way to help someone out when you just have a few minutes. And we’re all really busy, but once you get into it, it’s usually pretty fun. For me, I’ve had so many conversations at Boot Camp that really made me think. It’s rare that I don’t come away thinking, ‘huh, I hadn’t thought about it that way,’ or ‘that perspective hadn’t yet struck me.’
Gamble: Sure. It’s interesting you bring up Boot Camp, because one of the things I’ve heard is that work/life balance is something that’s discussed quite a bit. It definitely comes up in the conversations we have, and I know there’s no secret sauce to maintaining that balance, but any advice you can pass on to CIOs and other leaders who are struggling with this?
Johnson: As the healthcare market softens and things get tougher and budgets get worse, it can be easy to allow yourself to get caught in a frantic panic and lose your balance. But the reality is we’re not as effective if there’s no balance in our lives. If you don’t rest and if you don’t schedule time to do things for you, you’re going to start to sink, because there’s always more work. There are always more obligations.
When we see that people are starting to lose their balance or aren’t creating that balance, we need to give them permission. Because when you’re confident in your position, you’re not worried that if you’re not around for the next five minutes, your job will be in jeopardy. If you do feel that way, you need to work toward a situation where you have some comfort and you can take vacations.
One thing we’re seeing that may wreak havoc with balance is that CIO jobs are turning because of M&A, and people start to think, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ What the industry needs are CIOs who are highly productive and on top of their game, but rested. You don’t have to be inside all the time; you can step away and reboot. You should do that.
One thing I did at a recent speaking engagement was starting the program with a breathing exercise that helped everyone become more present. I asked everyone to put away their PCs and smartphone. If you have a pending medical emergency, put your phone on vibrate, but put it where it’s not in front of you. I told them we were going to do some breathing and really calm the room for a few minutes. At first, people were very uncomfortable.
The concept actually came from my daughter who teaches theater in middle school. She was having trouble getting her students to focus and let go of all the stresses they’re dealing with, and so she decided to start every class by lowering the lights, playing music, and counting breaths. It’s been so successful that if she forgets to do it, one of the kids will remind her.
Gamble: That’s amazing.
Johnson: It just shows that if we set the tone, others will follow. We often talk about having that person that will keep you on line; someone who is a cheerleader but will also be honest with you. You should have a trusted person who will say to you, ‘You need to take a day off,’ or ‘You’re losing your grip on this.’ And it’s not about being critical, it’s about being supportive. Because things aren’t going to get easier.
If you look at where the industry is now, there are so many questions. Our government is in turmoil. We don’t know what regulations are going to go through, and we don’t know how we’re going to get funding. We can’t count on rules getting through the congress because nothing is getting through Congress now. But that doesn’t mean we freeze and stop moving forward; what is means is we keep pushing forward. We keep our stories coming.
In a way, this is a great time for the private sector. Because there is disruption, it may be an opportunity for us to take a stronger role and have a stronger influence. I’m going to make lemonade out of these lemons, one way or another.
Gamble: I think that’s the right approach to take. I remember speaking to you after the election last year, and you said that instead of dwelling on a result that you might not like, we need to go forward. I think that’s a message a lot of people need to hear.
Johnson: We were all surprised, and we haven’t figured out how it happen. I’m getting to a place where I’m no longer trying to figure it out. What I do know is that what we as an industry need hasn’t changed, and we need to start looking for other avenues. Instead of trying to predict what’s going to happen with politics, we need to focus on where we can do the most good.
Gamble: Well said. I want to thank you again for your time. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you, and I look forward to catching up again.
Johnson: Thank you, Kate.