It’s funny; sometimes the most pivotal moments in one’s career occur when least expected. For Laishy Williams-Carlson, the moment came when news of the Anthem data breach hit shortly after she was promoted to corporate CIO at Bon Secours Health, and she was asked to provide an update of her organization’s cybersecurity strategy. What she had realized, however, was that she wasn’t as equipped as she would’ve liked to address the issue. But instead of covering this up, Williams-Carlson chose to be honest with the board, and found that it helped build a level of credibility she may not have otherwise achieved.
In this interview, she spoke with healthsystemCIO.com about the major projects on her team’s plate, from the “never-ending” journey to implement and optimize Epic, to the “huge shift in thinking” required to move toward population health, and what she believes is a critical element when merging cultures. Williams-Carlson also talks about why she believes her finance background serves her well, what changed her feelings about the role female executives play in advancing other women, and why she believes diversity in leadership is so critical.
- Benefits of a background in finance — “It serves me well.”
- “Conflicting feelings” about being a role model
- “I don’t want to be a great woman CIO. I want to be a great CIO.”
- Learning to “play with the boys” in the C-suite
- Being “available” as a leader
- Value of diversity across the organization
- Her mantra: “You get to get out of IT and understand the business.”
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I used to apologize for not being terribly technical; now I think it’s a blessing for me. With my background in finance, I get return on investment questions, business cases, and so I think not being consumed by whether or not the technology is cool serves you well at the C-suite level.
My thinking around it has evolved as I’ve matured. I used to minimize the issues of being a woman executive and a woman in technology; now I’m more readily acknowledging that there are challenges and unique things that we face as females, and being more straightforward about that.
Our thinking around diversity and inclusiveness across all spectrums — race, gender, and orientation — has really evolved. It’s not only a way to assure that voices are at the table, but a reflection of the communities that we serve.
‘You’ve got to get out of IT and understand the business you’re in.’ Sitting in a data center is not how you understand healthcare.
A lot of the ways that we make money right now, if we’re doing our jobs right, we shouldn’t be doing them. We shouldn’t be doing cardiac surgery for patients whose care has been unmanaged and now need some sort of interventional event. That’s a failure, not a success.
Gamble: All of this speaks to the evolution that the CIO role has gone through. It’s really a huge difference from when IT was viewed as a separate entity, and now has more of a seat at the table.
Williams-Carlson: Right. I used to apologize for not being terribly technical; now I think it’s a blessing for me. With my background in finance, I get return on investment questions, business cases, and so I think not being consumed by whether or not the technology is cool serves you well at the C-suite level. My colleagues would probably be laughing right now, because they know if someone’s iPhone doesn’t work in the middle of the meeting, I am probably not the person who can help them fix it.
Gamble: Right. The old joke about the PowerPoint slides and the IT person being called to fix it.
Williams-Carlson: They quit asking me. They’d say, ‘Laish, can you help us?’ And I’d say, ‘nope.’
Gamble: You’re better off. Now, with having a strong financial background, is that something has served you well, or made your job more difficult at times?
Williams-Carlson: That’s a great question. It would be interesting to ask my colleagues in finance and my team whether it serves me well. My perspective is that it does. I definitely get it during the budget cycle and the compilation of year-end results. I’ve been there, done that, and understand the questions they’re asking — if expenditures sticks out like a sore thumb because we’ve been in a certain run raid and now we’re at another, it’s all very familiar territory to me. If anything, my team might struggle, because when I’m talking to finance, I fall very easily into their language and my team might perhaps say, ‘okay, translate what you’re talking about. We don’t get what you’re saying. You keep talking about ‘run raid’ and we’re comparing the budget, what are you guys talking about?’ But overall, I think it serves me pretty well.
Gamble: Very interesting. Another topic I wanted to get into is one that can be a little thorny. When you look at the number of CIOs and other leaders who are women, the numbers are still pretty low. And when it comes to actually talking about the issue, there are women who are very out there carrying the flag, and others who don’t really want to make gender an issue. Both are valid viewpoints, but I wanted to talk about where you stand on this issue, and the whole idea of advancing more women to leadership roles.
Williams-Carlson: I am one of those people who have conflicting feelings about it. For a long time, I really tried to underplay the role of being a ‘woman CIO’ and when I would see conferences for women in technology and things like that, I would think, ‘Oh, for goodness sake, I don’t want to be a great woman CIO. I want to be a great CIO.’ And so I intentionally didn’t go there.
I guess I was a little slow on the uptake, because in healthcare, I think there is a nice presence of female executives. Maybe not for the best reason; maybe because traditionally nursing is dominated by females, and those who ascend to the chief clinical nursing officer role and other roles are women. So when I would look around the executive leadership table, I would see women, and it didn’t really cross my mind as much that maybe that’s what was happening in healthcare, but not necessarily across information technology.
I do remember when my boss, Skip Hubbard, first pulled together the top IS leaders in our organization and created our team, which he called the CIO Council, and I looked around and said, ‘Okay, I’m the only female here.’ And it took me a while to learn how to ‘play with the boys.’ In fact, I had a good friend who could tell I was struggling, so he pulled me aside and said, ‘When they’re joking around with you, that’s a sign that you’re accepted. Try to see that as a positive, and not a negative. What a guy would do is give it back in spades. So don’t just suck it up, dish it out. That’s how the boys play.’ And so I had to learn that.
My thinking about it changed a few years ago — frankly, when I was promoted into the role, and different people walked up to me and literally said, ‘We’re so proud to have a female CIO. We’re one of the few companies who does. We’re so proud that a person who ascended through the ranks of Bon Secours has reached this position — and a woman to boot.’ I started to think about it differently; not so much around my baggage about being a female executive and wanting to underplay that, but more in the sense of being a role model for those in our organization, and outside of our organization.
I have spoken a couple of times at conferences that are focused on women in technology. I am very much interested in being available to my whole team, but surely the women on my team, to help appreciate cultural challenges and be a good person who helps them take the next step up on the ladder.
So I would say that my thinking around it has evolved, ironically, as I’ve matured. I used to minimize the issues of being a woman executive and a woman in technology; now I’m more readily acknowledging that there are challenges and unique things that we face as females, and being more straightforward about that.
Gamble: I think ‘evolution’ is the perfect word, because I think the goal is always to avoid being stuck in a way of thinking, even if it’s not something that feels right to us, and to be open to seeing things in a different way.
Williams-Carlson: Right. I remember the vice president of human resources at one of our organizations telling a story about an old comic strip. It was probably poking fun at IBM or a similar company, but it was a CEO standing in front of his team — it’s all white men dressed exactly the same way — and he says, ‘I can’t understand why I can’t get an original idea out of this group.’
Williams-Carlson: I think our thinking around diversity and inclusiveness across all spectrums — race, gender, orientation, and all of that — has really evolved. It’s not only a way to assure that voices are at the table, but a reflection of the communities that we serve.
Gamble: Absolutely. You just segued really nicely into the last point I wanted to talk about, which are the qualities that leaders and especially CIOs will need to have going forward in an industry that’s seeing so much change; and I think really a big part of that is having more diversity and different ways to look at challenges and solutions.
Williams-Carlson: Absolutely. I think the number one mantra that I say to my team — to the point that they’re pretty sick of hearing it — is, ‘You’ve got to get out of IT and understand the business you’re in.’ Sitting in a data center is not how you understand healthcare. It’s not how you understand healthcare as it exists now, and certainly not the foundational and huge shifts in healthcare that are underway.
I think a lot of IT people, especially if they’re very technical — the people who are managing the infrastructure and the security operation center — if you ask them how we get paid in healthcare, what’s a contractual adjustment, things like that, they would look at you with a blank stare. It’s really important if you want to become a leader with increasing responsibility in the organization, not just to understand information technology, but to understand how your business functions — and not just how it functions now. It’s understanding what population health means. Well, it means we’re getting out of the hospital business and into the keeping people well business. It means that a lot of the ways that we make money right now, if we’re doing our jobs right, we shouldn’t be doing them. We shouldn’t be doing cardiac surgery for patients whose care has been unmanaged and now need some sort of interventional event. That’s a failure, not a success.
This huge shift in thinking is a lot of what we talk to our team about. And I think as you said, diversity and appreciating different cultures in the communities we serve and the unique health challenges that the communities have is an important aspect of that.
I’m always fascinated by the data that shows you, by zip code, what predictive longevity is and how closely that correlates to the resources in that particular area, as well as maybe cultural differences. I think that’s a really exciting dimension in our work to be able to look at the zip code — if not more granular level, and understand the challenges of our community and help them to wellness.
Gamble: That’s fascinating, and it’s so good to see more of these discussions happening now. I was talking to somebody about the difference between the Chicago suburbs and the city itself in terms of life expectancy, and it was something like 15 to 20 years. It’s just staggering, but it shows that we know where the problems are, and hopefully more resources can be put toward making that gap much smaller.
Williams-Carlson: I some ways it’s shame on us for not getting that before. Doesn’t it, in retrospect, seem obvious that the communities that have an abundance of resources, and ways to travel to those resources, and ways to pay for those resources, we’ll see that reflected in literally how long they live? But when the data puts that right in front of you, it makes it painfully obvious.
Gamble: It’s the power of data.
Gamble: All right, well, I could definitely speak to you longer, but in the interest of our time, I will let you go. But I want to thank you so much. This has been really fascinating. Your organization is doing some really extraordinary work, and I think that our readers and listeners are going to enjoy hearing about it.
Williams-Carlson: Thanks so much, Gamble. I’m sure it’ll be the best hour of my day that we got to chat, so I enjoyed it.
Gamble: Sure, thank you and I hope to speak with you again in the future.
Williams-Carlson: Okay, take care.