Don’t just sit back and complain; do something about it.
There’s no better way to capture the spirit of Sheree Mcfarland than the sentence above. Not only has she spoken those words; she has lived them throughout her career. Whether it was by seeking out an interim CIO role at Lenox Hill Hospital despite a lack of technology experience, or working tirelessly to promote diversity through various CHIME initiatives, Mcfarland has always been a doer.
Recently, healthsystemCIO caught up with HCA West Florida’s longtime CIO to talk about the organization’s Covid-19 response – including how technology is being innovated to improve tracking, and the keys to keeping teams motivated during a crisis. Mcfarland, a native of Belfast, also discussed the unique circumstances that brought her to the United States; why she is so passionate about inclusion and creating opportunities for others; what she believes are the most valuable skills in today’s leaders, regardless of gender; and why, despite the progress that’s already been made, she feels the Women of CHIME are “only scratching the surface.”
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- The most important qualities in a successful CIO don’t involve technology. “You have to know how to hire the right people, motivate them, and take risks.”
- An event as simple as an afternoon tea or golf clinic can go a long way toward building strong professional relationships and building confidence in potential leaders.
- Being able to mentor and educate young professionals in areas like building a brand, negotiating a salary, or “holding your own” in a board meeting can make a huge impact.
- As leaders, taking the time to “build that expertise and that curriculum” and help “bring up the next layer and the next era of women leaders” isn’t just a responsibility; “it’s part of our legacy.”
Q&A with Sheree Mcfarland, Part 2 [To read Part 1, click here.]
Gamble: It seems there really needs to be a willingness to take risks and to put your hand up, even if you don’t meet every qualification. And that hasn’t always been the case with women; we’re not necessarily brought up that way.
Mcfarland: You’re right. If you’re looking for me to fix the server, I’m probably not your gal. I’m going to call the server administrator for that. But I know how to hire great people. I know how to hire the best developers. And so, while you may not know every little bit and byte, you know how the whole system works together — that’s what you can offer the business. You’re a business executive first and foremost, and a technologist second.
I’ve studied technology for many years. But what’s more important is not take yourself too seriously. Don’t pretend to know everything and don’t be afraid to say, ‘Let me get my SME for that.’ I’m going to focus on organization and development. You need to know how to hire the right people, motivate them, and not be afraid to take risks.
Back in 2005 at HCA, IT reported separately into the CFO of every single hospital. We had a vice president in Nashville who wanted to develop a regional model where we brought the IT staff into one organization under a CIO with a dotted line back to finance. I was the first division CIO in HCA to be made CIO as opposed to division director of IS. To be able to bring more than 200 people and build that team from scratch — that’s my bread and butter. I have Master of Science in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. That’s what I wanted to do. So I said, ‘I’ll do this. I know how to do it. Let me be first.’ We may not make everything perfect year one, but let’s build an organization that’s so responsive to the business that we deliver a level of IT service they’ve never seen before. Under a CFO it can be fragmented; whereas, when you put it under the CIO, we have that different vision of how technology can align with and propel the business. I got to be first, and I loved every minute of jumping in at the deep end.
Gamble: One thing we’re seeing is that CIOs seem to have a more diverse background than in the past, particularly with women. Are you finding that as well?
Mcfarland: Absolutely. I’ve seen folks with backgrounds in nursing, and others who have come through the programming/development route. I know folks who have a graphic design background, folks who are pure technologies, and folks who came from imaging. In HCA there are 14 field CIOs and we each have a different background. I think that’s what makes us such a great time; we have different skill sets. When one person has a clinical background and someone is more technical and someone else understands how to build a business from scratch — that’s what makes us a successful team. I’ve seen that across the industry as well.
Gamble: I want to talk a bit about one of the recent Women of CHIME events, which was an Afternoon Tea. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but right away people came up to me and introduced themselves. It really struck me because something like that can be so beneficial to women in a male-dominated field.
Mcfarland: As you know, I grew up in Northern Ireland, and when I first came up with the idea it was funny because we always say, ‘be aware of women who have afternoon tea.’ If the boys think they can make deals on the golf course, well, we can do that too. It’s interesting because if you think it that’s a mundane activity where we just sit around and talk about what color nail polish we’re going to buy, look out because here we come. It’s a way to get people together. For me, it’s a lovely family tradition of having afternoon tea and eating scones and talking about anything from world politics to how you’re going to change the world. It may look like a bunch of girls with fancy hats and fancy dresses, but look out because it’s, ‘here we come.’
I was speaking with Michelle Vibber and she said, ‘We do more than have lunch and tea.’ I said, ‘You’re darned right.’ We have a lot to do. This is just a way of getting to know each other. I did the same thing at a Gartner event a few years ago and it was fabulous. Because when I was first in CHIME, you’d never walk up to people like Sue Schade and Pam McNutt and just introduce yourself. Well, I would because I’m outgoing, but a lot of women I’ve mentored wouldn’t ever do that. They don’t know how to work a room. They’d never dream of going up to a seasoned female CIO and asking that person to mentor them or have a conversation with them. Events like cocktail parties, painting class, golf clinics, afternoon tea, and diversity and inclusion sessions help break the ice. You start to get to know each other.
It’s a first step in building trust, and from there you can build so much more. Once you know that person, you can go up to them at a CHIME event or reach out to them afterwards; the relationships that you build and what you can learn from that is incredible.
To me, we’re just scratching the surface; we’re only getting started. We have so much work to do. We have so much ahead of us. Of course Covid got in the way of everything, but we’ve had to put that aside and say, ‘Listen, we can do this digitally. We can use technology to stay together.’ We’ve run HCA’s entire Covid response from different places through conference calls and Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams meetings. There’s no reason why we as Women of CHIME can’t organize and start producing curriculum that really meets our needs.
I’ve had the opportunity to be a mentor with HCA’s Emerging Leaders Program for eight years. We bring all types of speakers together to talk about how to build your brand and negotiate a better salary. These are things that women typically aren’t taught. It’s okay for a man to do it because they’re considered the breadwinner. When women do it, we’re considered overaggressive or an upstart, but I think things have changed in the 24 years I’ve been with CHIME. I remember being at the Fall Forum back in 1999 — I wasn’t officially a CIO yet. But I was at a table full of men and one guy said to me, ‘What are you doing in a man’s job?’ And I said to him, ‘You’re obviously suffering from the Y2K virus. I hope you’ll be okay next year.’ I don’t know where that came from; I think it’s just my cheeky Irish upbringing. But I realized back then — and this is 21 years ago — that we have a long way to go to smash that glass ceiling. And you know what, you don’t stand back and complain about it. You get involved and you change it. You become part of the solution.
One way to do that is to run for the board. Get elected and start making a difference. And you don’t have to come out with this grandiose plan as if tomorrow the Women of CHIME are going to run the world. You start gradually. You build up through a grassroots campaign. It’s important to find out if there’s an interest. And by God, there’s an interest. I can’t tell you how many male CIOs have said, ‘This is so important. We support this. We have wives. We have daughters. We have colleagues who want to be part of this.’ The support we’ve had from our male colleagues has been incredible.
Gamble: That’s really great to hear.
Mcfarland: People like John Kravitz, Cletis Earle and Shafiq Rab have told us, ‘You need to do this. This is awesome.’ I’ve asked them if they felt left out, because we’ve brought in some keynote speakers in the past few years like Emily Chang and Dr. Sue Swanson who have really stirred the pot with some of the male membership. But it needs to happen. There’s an unconscious bias that people don’t even know they suffer from.
Gamble: Right. Dr. Swanson was amazing; she’s so passionate. I remember her saying there were topics she didn’t even get into (including the ‘me too’ movement). That’s the type of speaker who gets people talking and gets people thinking.
Mcfarland: I was actually the Q&A moderator, and I promised we’d bring her back. We need another session with Dr. Swanson. Two of our members, Drex DeFord and Wes Wright, worked with her when she was at Seattle Children’s — she’s a dynamo, and she has so much more to share. I also thought Emily Chang did a great job talking about the boys’ club of Silicon Valley. These are speakers who stir the pot, and I love it because status quo leads to status quo. As a professional organization, we need to be on the frontiers of breaking through, along with ACHE and other organizations. I’m so happy to see CHIME embrace this and recognize the need for us to be more inclusive and to have a voice for the Women of CHIME and a prominent role for us to play. As we build this Women of CHIME committee and subcommittee of diversity, we want to build curriculum that are relevant and that can help make a difference. We want to make sure the content is valid and it’s what our membership needs.
I’ll tell you, I didn’t have any training to brand myself as a young professional; I can only imagine how valuable that would have been. You kind of stumble along and find your way and make a few mistakes. Maybe you have guidelines in terms of what not to. But being able to learn from a professional coach can make such a difference.
It’s amazing some of the offerings that young women today have that we didn’t even know existed back then. I think it behooves us to work on building that expertise and that curriculum and become mentors and coaches to help bring up the next layer and the next era of women leaders. That’s our responsibility and our legacy.
And I do the same for my guys. I mentor men as well, but since women have traditionally been so underrepresented, that’s been my main focus. With Emerging Leaders program, they’ve always given me a female to mentor and it usually revolved around executive presence and being able to hold your own in board meetings and how to go into a room full of men and not feel threatened. I don’t feel that kind of fear. But when I speak with younger women, they often tell me the thought of doing that makes them sick. It’s something some of us do naturally, so you don’t realize it’s a skill. That’s where we can help one another. We can help to develop techniques. Sometimes you don’t know what helps people and how they learn to break the ice and feel more included. I think we’ve got a lot more of that to accomplish.
Gamble: Definitely. The fact that we’re talking about this is absolutely huge. To have that type of guidance in place and opportunities earlier in your career can really make a difference.
Mcfarland: Especially getting younger girls involved. I’ve done a few STEM activities in the last few years to help get younger girls interested in STEM careers. One thing Cletis and I have talked about a lot is bringing in women leaders. We did it a few years ago where we had a group of girls come to the Fall Forum, and it was fantastic. It’s really important for them to see some role modeling; to see what business women in IT and healthcare IT do and to expose their minds early on and let them see that potential. Because they’re never going to see things like that unless we give them opportunities. Being introduced to technology and being introduced to career paths that can take you on a different trajectory can make such a difference.