Judith Watson, 37, describes her ascent to executive director of Greenburgh Health Center as a "natural progression." When she joined the White Plains, N.Y., health center as a staff nurse 11 years ago, she exclusively focused on patient care. But after working in every department at Greenburgh, her knowledge and experience exceeded her responsibilities and she was promoted to nursing director.
Yet in 1999, when Watson became the center's interim executive director-filling the void left when the previous executive director retired because of illness-Watson declined to seek the job on a permanent basis, feeling that she was "too young and not capable enough." But two years later when the position became vacant again, armed with added confidence and experience, Watson applied for and won the role.
Such self-awareness has helped Watson meet the demands of running a health center that is one of three sites, which work together to provide more than 300,000 patient visits annually. As executive director, Watson saw Greenburgh, with 92 full-time staff members, through a merger with the Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Neighborhood Health Center, which became Greenburgh's parent organization in December 2004.
The merger realized a five-year plan to integrate the administrative operations of both. Now Watson is helping lead Greenburgh's $9 million project to build a replacement facility. She also is working toward a master's degree in public health, focusing on health policy and management.
She is quick to say that hard work, discipline and focus are what enable her to be successful as the center's executive director. These skills, she says, she learned after high school when she enlisted and spent three years of active duty in the U.S. Army, where she achieved the rank of sergeant, and four years in the Army Reserves.
"That experience taught me that showing up is 90% of getting the job done," Watson says.
Turning challenges into opportunities is something Watson does exceptionally well, according to Carol Morris, founder and chief executive officer of the Mount Vernon center. Morris says she saw that ability in action when Watson was able to motivate more than 400 people to attend public hearings addressing community opposition to plans for the replacement building, with less than 24 hours notice.
"She is a true visionary and is great with strategic planning," Morris says. "To see someone Judy's age mobilize political personalities from congressmen to town council to promote the new center is an example of what she is able to accomplish." Morris adds that Watson has a gift for motivating people to move in a certain direction without antagonizing them and that her peers "love her for it."
"Judy is so dedicated, not only to our program's mission, which is to provide healthcare for the poor, but also to the idea that healthcare is everybody's right," Morris says. "This is how she approaches her job, and she makes people believers."