"Women in Leadership" Event - Jan. 27, 2009
Speech by Andrea Coleman
President and CEO of Trinity Regional Health System


Speaker Andrea ColemanIt is an honor to be here and a great challenge as I am surrounded by so many terrific women in this audience.

Thank you too, for your presence fostering relationships for mutual support and development. I can tell you from my career experiences, that it is essential to have a supportive, and inspirational place to share the inevitable frustrations, and challenges, of our careers and lives and especially those moments I call, "am I good enough?". The Women's Connection speaks to the power of women to inspire and support one another.

Let's start with how great the times are - NOT! Our economy is tanking and what an odd time to talk about risk-taking! And yet, these are precisely the times that should shake us up, and open our eyes to opportunities in our lives.

Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's new chief of staff recently said: "You never want to waste a good crisis!"

It is in precisely such desperate moments that you will make different decisions and life is forever changed - often for the good. As you will see, adversity I never wanted, none of us want, gives us strength and blessings we need.

I'll talk about my journey and risks, including the times I bet wrong. For if you take risks, you won't always land safely, but you will land safely A LOT of the time, leading to amazing things in your life and career. No risk, no reward.

At the end, I've tried to distill a few lessons - and share my personal list of things never to risk!

A moment to define risk: it is the potential inherent in an action which can hurt you, cost you, or hurt another - but it can also elevate, reward, and advance your aim. There are financial risks, career risks, and moral risks. There are many safe havens - but is that what you want?

My risk taking started in childhood.

I believe one's early propensities are important, and that childhood was the fertile ground for my own willingness to dream dreams and take risks for them.

I was born at the nation's Naval Hospital in Bethesda over half a century ago. Born to fractious, warring parents who both came from impoverished beginnings, financially poor, and poor in love and caring.

I was one of three daughters. All of us agree we suffered in our own unique ways in our family.

My mother and father, whatever their relationship, were of that "greatest generation" in terms of hard work to make a living and better their condition. My father had an 8th grade education and was one of thirteen children. He joined the Navy at 15, lying about his age and finding himself 16 and at Pearl Harbor.

My parents did much better than their childhoods would have predicted. With the U.S. Navy providing a chance for advancement as the military has done for so many people.

As a Navy family, we traveled everywhere; a great experience, even if a source of constant upset, when we were children. Like all such unpleasant things, it held hidden treasures.

I lived in Turkey and it was there that my love of adventure and willingness to take risks developed. No one watched over us much - my laissez-faire mother let us go anywhere, which means at age 6 I was knocking on the door of my sidekick, Kippy, to go out and play at 6:00 am on Sunday and no one knew I'd even left the house, having gotten up, eaten something, dressed myself and gone out to play!

What could be wrong with that? We went everywhere we were not supposed to go, to Farmer Ahab's land, forbidden and dangerous, where Kippy and I were unfortunately spotted by the said Farmer Ahab, and as a result we became a target for his ax-throwing.

Fleet of foot and scared enough to wet our pants, we had enough running speed to practically become airborne as we sought to avoid his attack! Whew, lived through that one but the hatchet passed inches from my face when he threw it!

Two other formative memories related to risk taking; one that remains today for me a miracle of desire over the physical forces in the universe.

Toys were rare in Turkey. Once in a while in this 100 military man installation, someone would think to ship some toys to the PX and this time, roller skates had been shipped to a country without sidewalks. One day, Memorial Day dawned bright and lovely, and the base families had planned a BBQ and picnic and games for the kids.

A set of roller skates was offered as the prize for a race. Three or four girls took their places, me, the not exactly chubby but as my mother would say, "chunky", she's still right! The rest were sleek racehorses, born from genetic lines yielding beautiful, thin, knobby knees, sinewy bodies, and small torsos. I was lost before I began.

But those skates….I decided to try anyway, worrying about that small hole in the back of my shorts and wondering if it would split when I ran. The "go" was given, we shot off, and quickly it became Janice and I. I was 10 yards behind her running as fast as I could, and breathing heavily, and then I thought about those roller skates. I made up my mind to win, and somehow, my short legs began to pump faster, and I just kept thinking about those skates and ran even faster. I won that race and learned the first lesson of Risk:

And now, less you think I had only successes, let me share that I also ran away one day in Turkey and that DID get my parent's attention. I couldn't stand the household tension and fighting, so I packed my turquoise sweater set with the rhinestones on it, and a carton of milk and headed up into the foothills behind our little house.

My parents had told me about kidnapping by the wild forest people - didn't bother me. I ran into a nice Turkish farmer in the woods and he shared his cheese with me and I shared my milk with him. Growing tired, and a bit concerned that this running away stuff wasn't such a great idea, I walked back home and promptly got a spanking.

One last experience in Turkey - an illness that changed my life.

A bad case of mumps - keeping me in bed for two months. I could do little except read, and read I did. I read everything in sight and at the end of the two months. I was reading grown-up novels at age 7. Books were to become a huge part of my life and my imagination, introducing me to every possible biography of wonderful people like Amelia Earhart, Florence Nightingale, and Dolly Madison, to tales of heroes and heroines and as exciting to me, tales of courageous adventures, epic events and great moral heroes and noble acts.

Time passed, and we returned to the States, where, to avoid the immersion in our unhappy family, I willingly escaped into the world of my imagination, and a place of stability and success, and that was School.

School was a place of friends, books, challenges, and predictability. It was a place I could begin to formulate a dream of another life one day - one of my own making. Fifty plus years later, my home environment was the seed of future success, because one day, I remember it clearly, I left home - forever. I was only nine years old.

Not actually. I didn't leave physically. But I could no longer stand to be emotionally torn up by all the conflict, so I remember with perfect clarity the exact moment I made a decision that I would Leave Home, in my mind. I would no longer "be there". Instead I went to a new home, also in my mind, where I could nourish my dreams of the future life I would live. In nine-year-old terms, " I would grow up to be a Big Girl and Have My Own House and Make My Own Rules. "

Schools and teachers were my path to my dream - God bless the special teachers that encouraged us.

High school years came and went. I dreamt of going to the University of California at Berkeley. My father was going to give me $500 a year towards college - but forbade Berkeley. I thought I had a plan though - I'd ONLY apply to Berkeley and then he'd have to give me that $500, right?

Wrong. I did get in, but he would not budge. As a result, I was without a college for my first semester, went back to Virginia Beach with my tail behind my legs, got a job at a drugstore, and re-applied to a Jesuit college for the second semester.

In January 1970, I found myself at the campus, with two suitcases, a big loan, and about $200 to my name, in a dorm full of wealthy kids but in a great college that would provide me an outstanding education. I worked my way through college and was tapped twice to take leadership roles - first as an RA, and then as one of the first ever non-religious women managers of our women's dorm.

I was lucky to have a lot of job experience when I graduated but my major was a bit challenging. That major? Psychology. Not very practical, but I loved it, and I decided to study what I loved, not what I didn't.

Unfortunately, a college counselor told me I should have majored in business and it was much to late to help me - hopeless in fact! Well, that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.

I got a job or two in my field, counseling jobs working with children for several years.

Fast forwarding ahead, I married the love of my life, got a master's degree, and finally found myself in a job that would lead to my entire career in health care.

The job that was to initiate me into the calling that healthcare is for me, is 100% due to an odd moment of unplanned risk in an interview. I found myself with an interview with a consulting firm about which I knew nothing.

I sat in the small lobby waiting for the interview, busily reading the firm's brochure and trying to figure out what strategic planning for hospitals meant.

In the interview with the owner and founder, Wanda Jones opined that the job was probably two small for me. Picture my thoughts as a bubble over my head: "Boy, does she know our bank account is about zero and we've about enough for a few groceries?" I responded to her, "but I think that's my decision to make!"

Startled, she said "You're absolutely right", and offered me the job. This low level but para professional research assistant job catalyzed a latent love of medicine and health care and which would lead to my entire career. A bit frontal, though, and not planned.

Spontaneous responses are sometime the very things that find success. Truth has a sincerity and power to it that attracts others.

Great candor and honesty at difficult times, is a kind of risk I do suggest you take when the stakes are high.

Later, I took the risk of telling this same boss, Wanda, that it was time to find a new and higher challenge. She was a class act and she blessed this effort.

She made her network available, and that made all the difference in finding my next role.

A new job, for which I was only 50% prepared! But it was the right job, with a wonderful boss, mentor, in a high quality hospital. Looking back, it was probably more risky than I knew.

I was to be there for 11 years working for the same person, with advancement opportunities as we grew larger. One day, 6 years into my career, I went to my boss, Bob, and told him I wanted to seek a line operations executive role, and could I have his help? This of course, is always a little risky. In any event, Bob said he'd help me any way he could.

A week later, he asked me into his office and asked if I had ever considered heading up the health system's newest hospital which was not yet built and which did not have a CEO.

I was stunned. This was a little, no a lot bigger, than I could have dreamed of and by all rules about such things, I was only partly qualified. As project manager, though, devoted to bringing the hospital to fruition, I knew more than anyone about the community, its new board, the plans and prospects. I had been the instrument of its development up until that time.

So I thought - and thought. I had a four year old and a 4-month old baby girl. I didn't have the quite regular credentials that a classic male MHA graduate would have, to be a CEO of a high-risk new hospital. I was 33 years old with nine years' health care experience, and only two years in a VP role. Could I do it?

Like most women, I thought about it for two weeks, not two hours.

At the end, I said yes to this risk - the biggest one I ever took. Bob took my candidacy to the new Board of the new hospital, and I will never forget what happened then. Upon proposing me, a male doctor objected because "Gilroy probably can't accept a woman CEO". Too bad he addressed this to the CHAIRWOMAN of the board. She then thanked him and promptly asked for and got a unanimous endorsement for me in the role.

I call this "checking your parachute". If those things are there, you go a long way to protecting yourself against the risk side of the equation.

And now, for a risk I took that was at the time, an abject failure. As I advanced in my career, the sense of risk sharpened as the responsibilities became more complex, the constituencies larger, and the decisions just tough and tougher. I loved the absolute challenge and sense of reward in the job, though, and survived through both successes and failures, large and small.

In one of my job searches, I was captivated by an opportunity. Things went well and lo, I was hired! I was ecstatic.

Within a couple of months I knew I had made the wrong choice. Every woman in this room should recognize that if you want to rise you must risk, but you might fall down once or twice!

I suffered greatly there for a long period until I blessedly escaped. I had taken a horrendous bite out of my confidence and what bothered me more, I lost for awhile what I consider essential for life - that sense of hope and faith and optimism about the world. Many, many years later, I now look at these battle scars with acceptance and even some appreciation for the lesson they taught.

I learned many things, but perhaps the chief one is, that in spite of one's most careful evaluation of a risk, sometimes it just isn't going to work. I blamed myself much too much and of course, if one believes that one is responsible for EVERYTHING, you don't recognize that sometimes you meet a wall you cannot move. There are some immovable objects. Best to not keep running your head into them and go around.

The price of risk is the occasional fall. It is inevitable. We will not make all perfect choices. But the alternative is sad - a shrinking of our potential, a reduction of our soul and gladness and purpose in the world.

My most recent risk-taking involves Haiti. The western world's poorest country. It is 30 minutes by air from our country and yet people starve. I have been twice, and my daughter four times, the first time with me, and I can think of few things as risky as being in a country with no effective government, no health care, and a certainty, as soon as you get off the plane, that if something happens to you there, it's all over. The only law is the blue helmets of the U.N.

On the trip with my daughter to a largish city in Haiti, shortly after we got off the 5-seater plane in the middle of nowhere, our driver was stopped by four police from the city armed with high powered rifles pointed at us. Just another day in Haiti.

And yet, initially going to visit my son there, who was doing a medical mission for a year, and later, going on another mission with my 21 year old daughter, the experiences were so transformative, so inspiring that I'd do it again and again. Our adventures were incredible and scary and rewarding - but those are tales for another day.

The risk was life changing for my daughter. It led this young college graduate to rethink her plans and now she is medical school bound and I think she will serve the world well. For me, it has given me some notion that I am needed somehow, to be part of a mission there and I expect that will evolve over the years. So what if I had not taken her with me risk and all? Would she have found that calling? And I believe that Haiti was a call, one that will occur again for some purpose not yet known.

I am so happy and pleased at the opportunity to lead Trinity. The role of CEO is the ultimate in risk because of the complexity of the job and its demands made by so many stakeholders, and the fragile finances all hospitals and health systems face, and because of the tremendous responsibility we have to care for and protect people's lives.

It is a risk that I relish.

I work for a wonderful organization and a leader for whom I have enormous respect, but the risk is always there. You learn to live with it 24-7 and up your odds by trying to do a great job, by seeking wisdom, and by prayer and a faith life.

But there is no security in this job and if security is your thing, you'd not be right for the job.

I love what I do and feel I was born to do this work and ultimately I took this risk because it is a calling for me.

My life with Trinity is one so enriched by the ability to make a difference, to work with wonderful people, and to hopefully help bring our health system to whatever its purpose is in 21st century health care at the greatest moment of change health care has ever faced in over half a century.

All great dreams and quests require sacrifice, passion, and risk.

And so, I'd like to share some thoughts that may help you take risks:
1) Find your calling and take risks for that calling or dream. That's when not only is it worth it, but it's probably going to play out because dreams persuade, dreams enfold others, dreams draw a correct reality into play. How can you not take risks if you are called to do your mission in life?

2) Everything can change. Never forget that. You have the absolute power to make your way, make your path, and others will get on your journey to help you along.

3) Develop lifelong women friends who share your dreams or similar ones, who ground you and care for you. I have a collection of phenomenal women friends, all in professional roles, who collectively are that "executive coach" and "voice of reason" that undoubtedly have saved me from many a poorly thought out decision and too-great risk and who have lifted me gently off the ground when I have fallen.

After all, my husband can only talk about all this stuff so much, wonderful as he is. He already listens to the speeches I have to make, bless his heart, and all my out-loud musings at the end of every day.

4) You will survive a crash. Sometimes it takes a while to recover your confidence. You will be wiser, more compassionate, and stronger.

5) Develop a relentless optimism. It will give you the fuel to risk, it will draw others to you, and it will carry you up again.

6) Understand you cannot fly if you will not jump out of the tree. You cannot achieve high aims without going further and further out on the limb. Fortunately, it's fun to fly, and get a better and better view!

Before I leave this pulpit, I'd like to share my other set of RISKS TO NEVER TAKE:
1) Don't leave the house thinking that small run in your hose won't grow. It always does. Ditto the bra strap that might need a little sewing.

2) Don't risk your fertility, your 20's, or 30's on a worthless partner who never wants to get married. There's a clue there somewhere you should be listening to. You are worth more than that.

3) Never pass up that piece of clothing that makes you look stunning - it IS worth it sometimes.

4) Never dress sloppy. That is NOT what success looks like - you CAN judge a book by its cover and people do it all the time. Dress for your next job and dress to lighten your mood!

5) Don't risk losing a great husband - they are hard to find!

6) Do not listen to people who say you can't - because you CAN.

It's been humbling to be here in front of so many wonderful women and men, and I wish each of you the pursuit of a calling, and the courage to jump off the cliff and pursue your own dreams.

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