Nimble Leadership: Planning And Adjusting Management Style Through Crisis

#WomanCrushEntrepreneur

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Pamela Sutton-Wallace, MPH

SVP & Regional COO

New York-Presbyterian Hospital

October 2020

Background

CEO, University of Virginia Medical Center

SVP, Hospital Operations, Duke University Health System

Chief of Staff, Office of the Chancellor for Health Affairs, Duke University Health System

Awardee, 2019 Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders

Awardee, Becker’s Top 50 African American Health Care Executives

Education

Bachelor of Arts, Political Science and African American Studies, Washington University in St. Louis

Master of Public Health, Yale University

Wife, Mother of 2

Pamela Sutton-Wallace is Senior Vice President and Regional Chief Operating Officer of New York-Presbyterian (NYP), ranked the number 4 health system in the country according to US News and World 2020-2021 report. Sutton-Wallace has a varied professional background in healthcare, with experience in pharmaceuticals, insurance, research, and hospital operations. In 2019 she was named to Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare. For the last three years, 2018-20, she has been named to Becker’s Top 50 African American Health Care Executives to know. In her role at NYP, she leads strategic and operational initiatives to grow services in Brooklyn, Queens and Westchester County. While only three months into her tenure at NYP, coronavirus became a pandemic, New York City shut down, and hospitals around the country had to contend with unprecedented budget constraints and looming financial crises. The implications of mandated social distancing and rising rates of infection meant meeting new people, virtually as an enterprise-wide command center was implemented to quickly and nimbly make leadership decisions. Pam had to quickly learn the system and begin putting her leadership skills to work in short order. Sutton-Wallace shares with our Program Manager, Sharon Mwale, what she has learned from 25 years of experience being on the front lines during times of crisis.

How has your professional and/or academic experience influenced how you approach leadership?

I’m a leader who prefers to lead by collaboration and influence, and my academic background greatly influenced that approach. My background is fairly unique among health care executives in that many C-suite leaders are either clinicians who have grown up in the healthcare industry and promoted throughout the years or individuals with a strong finance and/or business background. My undergraduate training was in Political Science and African American studies and then I later went on to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. After finishing 3-years of graduate coursework, I realized I wasn’t passionate about an academic career of teaching and research, so I left the program just as I was starting my dissertation. Soon thereafter, I took a job in retail that, ironically, is how I got introduced to healthcare. A customer offered me a position at BlueCross and BlueShield of North Carolina (BCBSNC), which is where I gained significant insight into the challenges and complexities of healthcare. A mentor/manager at BCBSNC is who encouraged me to advance my education and pursue a master’s degree to prepare me for long-term success in the field. I chose the public health degree because it covered the full spectrum of healthcare including the business principles, population health science, epidemiology, statistical methodology etc. That training – and frankly difference in the academic background – heavily informs my worldview and has shaped my approach to leadership, which is largely based on interdisciplinary collaboration and consensus building. As a leader, in my opinion, it is essential to understand how people do their work by learning and appreciating the details. I find that decisions are much more efficacious and effective when I take the time to listen to a variety of stakeholders and integrate their concerns and thoughts into a solution. This is far more effective then dictating a mandate without engaging or listening to a diversity of opinions.

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Talk about a challenging time through which you had to lead – was there a defining moment? Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

As a leader, it is critical to bring perspective, stay calm, remain focused, consolidate information/data and bring structure, especially during times of crisis. To be sure, planning is needed but in crisis mode, you also need to be nimble and able to make decisions quickly with the best data available while vetting through droves of incoming information – some accurate, some not so much. I was serving as CEO of UVA Medical Center when the white supremacist march on Charlottesville happened in 2017. Never would I have thought this would have been a possibility in my lifetime. It was like something from the 1960s. Preparing for the event took more planning than most realize as we had to play out multiple scenarios of ‘what ifs.’ Before the August rally, there had been two other poorly attended marches in and near Charlottesville. Our emergency management team was able to collect valuable information from informal and formal networks suggesting that this rally was going to be much larger and more significant. But at the end of the day, there was no formal state of emergency declared. Nonetheless, our teams had to prepare as though it was. As the CEO, I had to make a hard call to prioritize safety and security of our patients and workforce recognizing the adverse financial impact and possible public scrutiny for cancelling elective procedures. Fortunately, it proved to be the right decision. What came as a bit of surprise was during the post-event debriefings. The white supremacists march led to poignant discussions about widespread racism and prejudice occurring within our organization and for the first time, we were having honest and unfiltered conversations about it. More importantly, it was a call to action to address the plaguing racist behaviors and practices. As a leader you quickly learn that not only do you have to manage the short-term crises and ongoing business but you also have to be willing to tackle the longer-term, societal issues such as racism or healthcare disparities that have a direct and lasting impact on the work you’re doing and leading.

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What is your advice to women and what actionable steps can they take as leaders or aspiring entrepreneurs in the health & tech industries?

One book that I highly recommend is Dropping the Ball, Doing More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu. An essential tenant of the book is that women must stop trying to do it all ourselves. More often than not, women seek perfection in all domains of life– trying to be the perfect mom, the perfect partner, the perfect entrepreneur, the perfect employee, the perfect boss. Not only is this impossible, it’s a quick recipe for stress, burn out and health challenges. Instead, we should focus on performing tasks that require our unique skills and/or talents and, then, delegate other tasks to those around us. That means as an entrepreneur, if your gift is business development and sales, then that should be where you focus your energy. Hire someone else to do your books or build your pitch deck if those aren’t within your core strengths. Without a doubt, I have to acknowledge that this approach and advice assumes one has the resources to support outside assistance/staff. That certainly isn’t the case for all women especially earlier in one’s career. That being said, there are constant trade-offs and often we must ask for help from those who are willing to support and help us voluntarily (friends, families, sponsors, etc). You’re faced with a very different decision at the onset of your business than when you’ve finally got resources to grow it. In that case, you may need to let go of other responsibilities – as an example being the primary caregiver to children – so you can dedicate more time to your business. Remember, the arrangement isn’t necessarily permanent and can be re-negotiated as needed. The key is to be flexible and to stop seeking perfection and allow for some nimbleness. Now, regarding innovating in this space, I can’t stress enough how important it is to ask more “what problem can I solve for you?” I’ve noticed that too many startups are building solutions for a problem they thought was important but are either too narrowly scoped or not adding value. As an entrepreneur, you need advisors to guide you and a willingness to adjust as you learn and find more information.

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Lecky’s Comments:

“The true test of leadership is how will you function in a crisis.” Leadership in crisis during a global pandemic is a testament to the character and fortitude of Pamela Sutton-Wallace. Despite her amazing experience over the years, nothing prepares you for crisis until you are in the thick of it. Her advice to stay calm and focused is true wisdom. Cooler heads prevail.

If you would like to recommend a female entrepreneur in healthcare technology to be featured, we encourage you to contact us.

Contact information:

Sharon Mwale       Program Manager        [email protected]

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