INTRO COMMENTS: Hello and welcome to Modern Healthcare’s Next Up, the podcast for emerging healthcare leaders. My name is Kadesha Smith. I'm your host, and I’m also the CEO of CareContent, a digital strategy agency for healthcare organizations.
In our last episode, we started a discussion with Dr. Vivian Pinn about the advice she’d give her 40-year-old self. She’s now closer to 80 and has been retired for nearly 10 years, but in her decorated career as a physician scientist, she was the first Black woman to chair an academic pathology department in the country. And she served as the first full-time Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) from 1991-2011 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Here, in Part 2 of our discussion, she gives a list of top skills that younger leaders should be cultivating now. She also talks about the challenges she faced being a woman of color leading scientific research in the 1960s, and what emerging leaders today — regardless of race, gender, or seniority level — can learn from her experiences.
SPONSOR MESSAGE: Before we get to our discussion, I’d like to acknowledge Masimo, the sponsor for this episode.
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MODERN HEALTHCARE: Now, let’s continue our discussion with Dr. Vivian Pinn. So, let’s shift to talking about some of the challenges that you faced as you rose into leadership positions. What were some of your most unexpected obstacles in your journey toward a leadership role, and how did you overcome them?
DR. VIVIAN PINN: Various things, I guess, over the years. I’ll just start with one example that people have heard me quote, and that was going into medicine. At the time that I went into medicine, there were very few women in medicine then. That was 1963. And I remember at the start of my medical school class when I realized I was the only woman and the only person of color in my medical school class. One of my classmates came up to me and said — and literally, this happened — he said, “Vivian, you have no business being here. You’re just taking a place that a man could have, because I read in my anatomy book that women have smaller brains than men. So, there’s no way you’re going to finish medical school, and you’re just taking up a place a man could have.”
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Oh my gosh.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: And of course, that really was said to me. And the interesting thing is, four years later I graduated, and by that time he had flunked out. But looking at this now, 50+ years later — as we look at comparisons by sex and gender, and the fact that my later career was dealing with — was dealing with looking at sex and gender in health and medicine, I said, “Maybe he really gave me my first exposure to looking at sex differently. I’m trying to make lemonade out of what happened.” But that was a very early thing.
But then, looking at my later career, looking at some real down-to-earth challenges. When I went to head this new Office of Research on Women’s Health, this was, as I said, a new office. It was a new concept. It had been suggested by Congress that there be attention to women’s health research. And there were so many in the scientific world who thought that this was just being politically correct, and there was no need to address women’s health as something separate, or pay attention to putting women in clinical trials. And I must say that I faced some of my biggest challenges in getting that office established and bringing it credibility.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Wow.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: And I think others, as they move into new positions, might have similar, parallel experiences. I had to reassure Congress that we were doing what they were expecting to do. But to the scientific community, I needed to assure them that we were not PC. That we were only pursuing scientific-driven initiatives, and that everything that our office would be supporting and funding would be the same level as expertise and review as was any other research that NIH was funding. And just making that case and having to deal with the constant challenges to that.
“What is women’s health?” I mean in the early 90s, almost every speech or talk, or every appearance I made, I had to explain, “What is women’s health and why is it important? And why can’t we just study men and apply it to women?” And over years, I’ve seen that — I mean, to where it is today, I think there are many people who don’t even remember when women were not included in clinical trials on heart disease, for example, or many other things that also occurred in men. Of course, we still have a ways to go.
But it was — I remember when we wanted to put programs in for women to reenter careers once they had to interrupt their careers because of family care. Not just for childbirth, but also often taking care of disabled children or relatives, or dealing with parents with dementia. But then wanting to come back into the research world. I remember having a senior male scientist just pooh-pooh that idea and say, “You know, there’s no way a woman can leave and come back in and have a viable research career.” And I was thinking, “How am I going to — I’m now in government, I’ve got to be tactful.”
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Right.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: “How do I respond to this and say what I really want to say?” When in fact, one of the other men spoke up and said, “Well, you know, my daughter interrupted her career and she’s back in.” And so began to see that as they get exposed to more women who are doing these things, they have a better appreciation and understanding of why it was important, and that women could come back in and do as well as men.
And for our first program of funding for what we call “reentry,” I remember that one of the first people that we funded was a male who had interrupted his research career to take care of ailing in-laws so his wife could continue her research career. And that brought about some credibility, because they saw it wasn’t just a women’s only initiative, but was important for family.
So, I just say that, you know, I could list — but I’d go on too long — with all the different challenges. I mean, there were those who wondered why a Black woman would be heading initiatives that would affect all women. And there were many different challenges. But you just have to think, “This is important to me. I have a goal ahead of me. And I’m determined to do the best I can, and I’m not going to let these obstructions and challenges keep me from doing the best that I can do.” And that’s what I did, and of course, having support — networking, having a few confidants that you can then blow off steam with or get advice is helpful.
At this point in my life, I’m almost 80, and I have mentors who are younger than I am, but I can still learn from others from their experiences. We are not an island unto ourselves, and it’s no problem to share — with those you can trust — to share the issues you’re facing and getting assistance with how you should face them and how you could overcome them.
And so, I recommend, again, the need for what some might call “sponsors” — for me, it’s basic mentoring. Someone — or networking, someone that you can then relate to to help you find your focus again and move forward.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Your comments remind me of research from one of my favorite strategists. His name is David Dylan Thomas, and he talks about cognitive bias and how it really boils down to pattern recognition. If the pattern of leadership that you’re used to is old, white, male — when you encounter a leader who deviates from that pattern, you have a cognitive bias that places more burden on that person to prove themselves. More burden on that person to build credibility than you’d otherwise if they had just followed the pattern — even if that person was not even qualified.
So, it sounds like you didn’t fit the pattern, and a lot of your obstacles that you faced — being a Black woman and leading a, you know, major agency — was because you didn’t fit the pattern of leadership that people were used to.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: I think that’s true, and you know, we hear so much about unconscious bias. Sometimes it’s not unconscious — it may be conscious. That has sort of replaced the old terms of discussions of racism, sexism, homophobic views, etc. I think people are a little more comfortable dealing with terms such as “unconscious bias” and the fact that everybody has a little bit. And the straight-out terms, describing what that encompasses.
But as all these discussions begin to focus on unconscious bias, I really — as I thought about it, thought, “This to me really just represents historical stereotypes.” We aren’t born with these stereotypes, but it’s what we’re exposed to, are brought up to think. And we develop these stereotypes based on traditional, historical concepts, and that’s what goes forward, and that’s what we have to face. I really think that for women to succeed and to advance — and not just women, those who are from other categories that are not seen as the “usual” or “traditional norm” — it’s a matter of overcoming those stereotypes.
And again, it comes back to having self-confidence, but not arrogance. I can’t stress that enough. And it means, yes, you may have to put a little extra time and a little extra energy, but you’ve got to be prepared.
That’s where I think — academically or experientially prepared — because you don’t want to be out there spouting off stuff that really doesn’t fit with the state-of-the-art knowledge, or with the current issues. You really want to know what you’re talking about. But you can do that and still have that work-life balance, if you will, just knowing that you need to be prepared, and that you need to learn when you need to ask questions or admit when you don’t know something.
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MODERN HEALTHCARE: And now, here are more thoughts from Dr. Vivian Pinn.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Let’s shift then to talking more about the skills that younger, up and coming leaders need. What would you have told your younger self to focus on before joining the C-suite, as far as what skills you should be building? Soft skills or hard skills — sort of, what knowledge should you be acquiring at 40 to position yourself for that higher position later?
DR. VIVIAN PINN: You need to first of all make sure you’ve got networks beyond just your immediate organization or your immediate circle. So that if you’re looking to go to higher positions — you want to make sure that you’ve got some understanding of what those higher positions mean, what they represent, and where you think you can make a difference. And you need to have that firmly ingrained in your mind.
You don’t want to just be a leader to say you’re a leader. You don’t want to just be in charge to say you’re in charge. You want to be able to be a leader or be in charge because you feel you have something to offer that may change the path of the organization or make it better. That you have something to offer. And that needs to be firmly entrenched in your mind so that when you go for a new position, you feel confident that you’ve given it some thought, and you’re ready to face it. Even if you don’t know everything, but you’ve got the confidence to feel that you’re ready to tackle those things.
It’s often said that women don’t know how to negotiate salaries, and I’m probably a little bit guilty of that myself. You don’t want to seem like you’re just out there trying to make money. You want to show that you really have empathy and you’re really interested in doing better — till you find out that your male colleagues, who are not working as hard as you are, are making more money. And then, boy — all of a sudden, you do learn how to negotiate.
So, it’s a matter again of making sure that if you’re looking for positions that — that if you’re looking for positions, that you know how to approach them in terms of showing that you are deserving of what it takes to be successful in that position.
I can remember once — I was looking at a position. I was being recruited for a position. But they were really not wanting to give me the FTEs that I needed or the space that I needed to build a department. I had really taken stock, and I knew what was needed to really build up this department and make it an A-class department.
And when I was making — not my demands, but pointing out what anyone else — and I had actually done my homework and talked to others to get information — and I was hit with, “Well, I thought you’d want to be in the same city where your husband was, so why do all of these things make a difference?” And I realized that they were negotiating with me thinking they would get me cheaply because I would want to be in the same city where my husband was, instead of negotiating with me as an equal, as they would with anyone else — a male, let’s say — for that position. That taught me a lot of lessons.
But it means having information and speaking with — and again, having your contacts and your networking — so that you can know what to expect. And then knowing what you are worth. Not that you’re going in to ask for the whole world, but what it will take for you to be comfortable in that job and for you to be able to be successful in that position.
And you also want to make sure that you have the support of those who are in the top positions, as well as the fact that if you’re young, you’re in your 40s, you have a young family — you want to make sure that where you’re looking or if this new position — is going to allow you the flexibility to be able to succeed in both your personal and family responsibilities.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: I don’t know about you, but in my experience, when I’ve worked with healthcare professionals that are naturally used to juggling multiple major responsibilities — like you said, whether it’s caring for aging parents, or their relatives plus caring for children plus being professionals — I find that they have among the highest, sort of, “get it done” capacity.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: I say that if you want to get something done, ask someone who’s busy because they’re more apt to get it done. And that’s because you’re not going to waste time. You’re going to do it, you’re going to do it. You’re going to get it done. I think that’s true.
But, you know, you mentioned something about burnout earlier, and I hear this a lot from younger people, especially those in their 20s and 30s just starting out in the healthcare field. They say they’re tired and they’re called on to — because you’ve got to represent women, you’ve got to represent minorities, you’ve got to represent these groups and committees. And, you know, you’re always called upon to represent, and they’re tired.
And I have to really convince my older self to be more patient with that. Because I say, “If you’re tired, imagine someone my age who is still trying to fight these battles and do these things, and we need younger people to come behind us. But if you’re tired already, how are you going to help us change — make the changes that are needed? And perpetuate the changes that are there?” But there are some who will and some who do, and again, it comes down to each person finding what balance works best for him or her. But there are times when I’m tired, but I know something’s got to be done. Somebody’s got to speak up. And if I’ve made a commitment, I’ve got to get it done. So, you learn to do it.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Last question. You’ve talked about mentorship and the importance of having a mentor that will give you guidance as you navigate these various professional spaces, especially in healthcare. What should aspiring leaders look for in a mentor? Especially since you’ve been one to so many people.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: I think many are mistaken in thinking that having a mentor means having one person who can tell them about career advice, who can tell them about personal issues, who can tell them about any and everything they have to deal with. And to me, that’s a mistake.
First of all, you want mentors that you respect. You want mentors who are going to be honest with you. And you want mentors who are going to be positive and encouraging. If you have someone that you’re thinking about having as a mentor, you don’t want someone who’s going to immediately be negative and turn you off.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Right.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: Sometimes, I’ve advised people in science and health careers that — a mentor may be a person that you wouldn’t want to discuss your personal issues with, but you know they really know the business or the field that you’re in. And so you may want to seek that advice on the science or the role or the organization or the governance of the kind of position you’re seeking or you’re in to mentor you on those professional issues.
But there may be someone else that you would have or go to to mentor you about dealing with your personal issues as it fits into your professional life. So, I don’t think you have to have a single mentor. I think you may have multiple mentors.
And I think there’s a responsibility of the mentee also to be a good mentee and to not expect to just say, “I want you to mentor me. I’m open. Tell me.” Because I can’t tell you how many times I hear from folks, “I need a mentor. Tell me about your career and what I need to do.” Well, you’ve got to bring something to the discussion and you can’t be totally demanding. You have some specific issue, I’m happy to guide you on that. But I can’t guide you on your whole life just out of the blue based on mine because we’re different. Each of us is different.
When I hear someone say — and unfortunately, I have heard a few people who have been successful say — “I’ve never had a mentor, I’ve done it all on my own.” I think you may not call them mentors. But if you’ve gotten ahead, there’s been someone, I’m sure, along the way who has given you advice or steered you in the right direction. And if not, you should have and you should play that role for someone else.
I like to say it’s important for anyone — whether it’s in healthcare or any other field — to have a mentor and to be a mentor. Because we can always reach back to those who are coming behind us, and we can always gain from the wisdom of those who are ahead of us or who have experiences that we have not yet been through.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: This whole discussion has been a perfect to-do list of how you should be shaping your time, how you should be shaping your priorities, if you're wearing all of these hats and still have ambitious career goals. Thank you so much for taking the time. This was really great.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: Thank you, I enjoyed it. I’m always happy to discuss these issues. And they’re just so important, and especially to let those who are starting in their careers or aspiring to go further to know that no one has really had it easy. And it’s going to take some dedication. But with perseverance and dedication, and a little bit of thought process, you can achieve most anything. I like to say reach for the stars so you don’t get stuck in the mud.
And I think it’s important to know that if you don’t reach for those things you’re not sure you can get, you’ll never get there. So we shouldn’t be victim to the imposter syndrome.
OUTRO COMMENTS: Thank you so much, Dr. Pinn. This concludes our two-part series with Dr. Pinn talking about advice for aspiring leaders on their way to the C-suite and what she would tell her 40-year-old self.
Again, I’m your host, Kadesha Smith, CEO of CareContent. We help health systems reach their growth goals through digital strategy and content.
We’d again also like to thank this episode’s sponsor, Masimo.
For more information about what it takes to become a healthcare leader, go to modernhealthcare.com.
You can also look for more episodes of Next Up at modernhealthcare.com/podcasts, or subscribe at Apple podcasts or your preferred podcatcher. Thank you again for listening.