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.
My 40th birthday is coming up in a couple of years, and I feel like I need more advice now than I ever did in life before. This age overlaps with pursuing career milestones, homeownership, managing investments and building wealth, raising children, stepping in for aging parents. And all of those hats come with new responsibilities, new questions, and new decisions.
So, wouldn’t it be great to have someone who’s been there and done that? Who can give some advice and direction, or at least a few heads ups as you head to the C-Suite?
For those who are aspiring to the C-suite, what should you be doing right now to get there? And think about it: The C-suite is no longer just the CEO, and COO, and CFO. It now includes Chief Nursing Officer, Chief Experience Officer, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Chief Strategy Officer — there are a lot of different paths you can take.
But what hasn’t changed is that most of these positions are held by older, highly experienced leaders.
On this episode, we are speaking today with Dr. Vivian Pinn. Dr. Pinn is a pathologist who was the only woman and minority student to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 1967. She was also 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).
Dr. Pinn is going to talk to us about her path to leadership and what she would tell her 40-year-old self about making it into healthcare senior leadership roles.
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 dive into our conversation with Dr. Vivian Pinn. She is sharing her insight on what she would tell her 40-year-old self as she rose to senior leadership.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Hello, Dr. Vivian Pinn. How are you doing?
DR. VIVIAN PINN: I’m doing fine, thank you.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Excellent. Thank you so much for making the time to talk about this kind of personal and really important topic, especially for our audience — which are people in healthcare who are aspiring to the C-suite. So, they might be at director or VP level. They’re looking at a C-suite role, and just need a little help and advice and insight to get there.
Before we dive into your questions, I’m going to just share a couple of quick data points.
One is that we know that most healthcare leaders at the C-suite level are in their late 50s. We also know that healthcare has an 18% CEO turnover rate, and that’s the highest it’s been in 5 years. And that’s largely because of burnout.
Your accomplishments range from academic medicine, government policy positions, you’ve served on multiple boards, you’ve been a mentor, you’ve testified before Congress on important issues. As you look at all of the accomplishments thus far in your life, what would you say you’re most proud of?
DR. VIVIAN PINN: Actually, I think I'd come at that in two ways. I’ve always felt that what I’m most proud of is not so much in the honor, award, or position I’ve had, but just seeing those whose lives I might have touched — mostly students, because I’ve had a lot of students over the years — and seeing them go into great positions, and seeing their accomplishments. I’m proud of all of those. I sort of feel as though they are my children that I’ve watched grow up.
And so when I hear from them that maybe I played some role in promoting them, or encouraging them, I really take great pride in that. And so it’s not so much what I’ve done for myself. I really think my major accomplishments have been — and I hope that others would feel this way — have really been in supporting and advancing and encouraging those who’ve come behind me. And seeing them rise to great positions — whether they’re important positions or just personal fulfillment positions. That, I take great pride in.
And one of the things — I guess in terms of my different roles — being given the opportunity, having the opportunity to just serve as the first director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the NIH that did not exist before. It sort of gave me an opportunity to really build an area in which I had great interest in, had really been spending personal time on throughout — really, throughout my life, I guess. But in addition, that also gave me the opportunity to build and construct and put in place government programs that could be of benefit to young, aspiring women as well as men, and those of minority backgrounds to excel in biomedical careers, regardless of the level.
So, I guess in terms of my career, that was one I never expected to have. Didn’t dream and didn’t exist, I guess, before I went in. But then it really allowed me to do more in terms of supporting those that come behind, as we won’t be around for forever. And so it’s so important to build those who will be coming behind us, who really are the future of health and healthcare for this country.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Absolutely. Speaking of the people coming behind you, the title of this episode is, “What Would You Tell Your 40-Year-Old Self?” So I want to break this down into three areas and just hear your insight on if you could go back and give yourself some advice, give yourself some warnings or encouragement in these three areas, what would it be?
So, the first is finding your purpose. If you could go back and give your 40-year-old self some advice on finding your purpose, what would you say?
DR. VIVIAN PINN: I think I would remind myself at age 40 to be open to new opportunities. None of my career, as it turned out, was anything that I planned. I grew up thinking I wanted to be a pediatrician. Well, I ended up as a pathologist. I thought I would go back and practice in my community. Instead, I went into academic medicine. I had always had an interest in what was happening with health and research, but never thought I would end up in a government policy position.
And so, I would tell myself to be more open to opportunities as they come up that I might not expect, and that I would advise others to really think about. Because each of these things ended up being major components of my career and of my life — really just sort of happened and not something I would have expected or had planned — and really have been some of the most beneficial and most fulfilling aspects of my life and of my career.
But I think also I would want to warn me — which I try to tell others now — to not be afraid to take on new responsibilities and to not be afraid to go into areas that I didn’t know much about, because you learn that not everybody knows everything anyway. If you’ve got some self-confidence, that it’s worth trying and reaching out into new areas. Most people today — you always are concerned, do you really have the ability to do this? Do you really have the knowledge to take on a new area instead of staying in, sort of, a comfortable rut? And fortunately, I did.
But I had to convince myself several times that that was something that I wanted to do. Like moving to be a department chair took me 2 years to make up my mind to leave Boston, and to come move to Washington and take on the position of being the pathology department chair. Because there had been only two women before me who had ever been a department chair in pathology. And I was in my early 40s when that happened, and I think most of my male colleagues who were department chairs at that time were in their 60s, and I had doubts. And it took others to convince me, “Yes. Go ahead and try it, to do it.” But I think I learned my lesson then, and I certainly have stepped up and taken on things that maybe I shouldn’t have since then, but they’ve all been beneficial to do.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: That echoes what other leaders on this podcast have said. Dr. Joanne Conroy at Dartmouth-Hitchcock said women talk themselves out of opportunities too often because we don’t perfectly fit every single qualification that, in our minds, is needed. When truthfully, you’re actually — it’s the perfect challenge, it’s the perfect role to grow into.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: Yes, I think this is sort of — fits into what we’re now calling, or what some are calling, the imposter syndrome, especially women are guilty of that imposter syndrome. In other words, thinking maybe we’re imposters, maybe we don’t really belong here. And we just need to have a little more self-confidence.
But, I talk about self-confidence, but I always add the additional admonition — self-confidence without arrogance. We just can’t afford to move in these positions and be arrogant in them, because how will we help others coming behind us if we’re, sort of, experiencing the queen bee situation? So, sort of the balance between not falling victim of the imposter syndrome and not falling victim to the queen bee syndrome.
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MODERN HEALTHCARE: And now, here are more thoughts from Dr. Vivian Pinn.
The next area I want to talk to your 40-year-old self about is resolving conflict. So, in a leadership position — especially in healthcare — you are having to manage the needs of clinicians, administrators, legislators, your community, and patients, and they may not always agree. What advice would you give your 40-year-old self about resolving conflicts?
DR. VIVIAN PINN: First, consider what is raising the conflict and think about it before you respond. Don’t be rash in responding. Think about making changes in terms of evolution, not revolution, because that can help bring around those that you’re having to deal with to accept the changes you’re making.
Although sometimes, you do have to bite the bullet and just make those changes, because you know that it’s for the good of the organization or the good of what you’re trying to accomplish. I have had many instances early in my career when I’ve been told, you know, “I’ve never had a woman tell me what to do,” or “I’ve been practicing this longer than you’ve been alive. How dare you tell me what to do?”
DR. VIVIAN PINN: Or where you’re dealing with conflicts between different facets of those in the organization that you’re working with. And my major lesson has been — don’t react immediately. I mean, you’ve got — you can’t let these conflicts linger on, because they just get worse and worse, but don’t just do an immediate reactionary response. Give it thought so that your response and how you proceed in handling that conflict is thoughtful and is sort of programmed to get the point across that you need to to bring about a resolution with a positive outcome.
Sometimes, conflict results because of others’ insecurities, so you can’t let that make you feel insecure in those situations. I like to think that each of those situations I’ve been in where there was a conflict that needed to be resolved was a challenge and I have tried to learn from each of those challenges and keep those in mind as I got older and progressed through my career.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: That is so important, I think especially in today’s climate, where we’re seeing a lot on our news channels and in our various social media feeds about conflict. And it’s amazing how not pausing to take that time to be thoughtful can break a relationship or can break bridges in ways that we hadn’t intended, had we taken the time to be more thoughtful.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: It’s sort of like advice you’re given when you see an email, and you fire off a response. Hold it and read it three times before you send it off.
And the same can be said about responding vocally or in terms of your actions to a situation that confronts you that may be a conflict, or that may be negative. You really have to make sure that you’re proceeding in the right way. Because if you don’t begin with, it can destroy any future attempts to bring about a positive response.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Now, the last area is work-life balance. And that’s so important for today because many healthcare leaders are trying to stay on top of the responsibilities of their jobs, but they’re also home-schooling, and you’ve got the dog in your lap during the Zoom calls — and this is just during the pandemic. But what advice would you give your 40-year-old self about work-life balance, pandemic or not?
DR. VIVIAN PINN: I didn’t have much work-life balance when I was working, and so … I would give myself lots of advice if I could go back and counsel myself in my 30s and 40s about going forward.
But I think what I would say to myself in my 40s is, you know, wake up and realize what I did. Realize that life is not all medicine, not all healthcare. And I remember I used to always say to my students and my fellow classmates and residents, you know, at least read a newspaper. Today it’s all online, but at the time, the news came through the newspaper. Because life is more than medicine. One of the most boring cocktail parties is when you have all people in healthcare and all they can talk about is what took place in the office or healthcare or a patient that day. But to know what’s going on around you, because, actually, healthcare takes place in the wider world.
But aside from that, I think that especially at the time that I was coming through, and there were so few women and so few minorities, you knew you really had to excel. You couldn’t fall behind, so you really gave so much time to that. But there were women who did better than I did, who had families and raised children. But, you know, that sort of dual professional role — that of family and that of profession — continues to be one of the main issues facing women today.
I can recall doing a conference — for a pre-med conference — with Carola Eisenberg way back, maybe now about 40 years ago. She was the Dean of Students at Harvard Med at that time. Together, we did a workshop for Radcliffe students on going into medicine. And one of the first questions asked was, “If you go into medicine, can you also have a family?” Carola and I also did a panel about 20 years later for Radcliffe students, and that was the first question that was raised again, and Carola, you know, pointed that out and I’ve never forgotten it.
DR. VIVIAN PINN: And we see it continuing today, that so many women who are considering going into healthcare careers — knowing of the hours that it takes and the dedication it takes — are leery and are concerned about whether or not they can have families and be successful with families. And the answer is yes.
But I think that, you know, from what I would tell myself in my 40s from what I know today, is that we have seen improvements, but not all that we should. There’s a very interesting editorial that was just published this week in Science Magazine by Evelyn Hammonds from Harvard. And one of the things that she points out from the effect of the pandemic — as you have just stressed — and just looking in general in terms of women in science and healthcare, is that the pandemic, if nothing else, has pointed out the importance of perhaps the creation of a national, federally-supported system for family care. Which would then really provide a step toward justice and equity for women in science, and that’s sort of a quote from her editorial.
But it points out how even after all this time, and even though there has been improved contribution of males or spouses or significant others to family care, that responsibility really falls primarily on women. And we’re seeing now a decrease in the number of publications of women who are in science, probably related to these extra family care responsibilities in the pandemic. More women are having to stay home because of the schooling of the kids, although some men are doing that. And so, it really can be a challenge.
And I’m not sure we really should call it work-life balance, but we really need society to have a better appreciation of the dual roles that especially women, or younger women, or younger families for those men that are very much involved in family care, have. But that it is possible, and that it can be done. I can say the same thing now. I’ve been retired for 9 years and I have difficulty finding time going to the grocery store, so I’m still not doing that well with work-life balance today. But, you know, if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing, somehow it doesn’t feel that you’re losing a lot. You make time for what’s important for you. If it’s family, you make time for that. And you also learn when you have to say, “Okay, I’m putting this aside. I want to survive.”
But we do have to make sure there is a better appreciation that having that kind of work-life balance, and giving attention to family needs, really does not take away from the valuable contributions that one can make to one’s career and to healthcare and to improving public health.
And I often quote two instances where, you know, this is seen as a female thing. And so often, women don’t speak up, saying, “I can’t stay after 6 tonight,” or “I cannot meet on Saturday morning because I have family responsibilities,” because they’re afraid that it’ll be thought of a statement, that they will be thought of not being devoted enough to their jobs.
And I remember a workshop that I was conducting, and we had a male on the panel, and we were running over time. And this male, who was a leader himself, spoke up and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to leave. I have to pick up my son from daycare.” And I applauded him and I have quoted him so many times, I think embarrassing him. But I thought that just gave the perfect example because I know there were women on that panel who would not have spoken up because they were afraid of how it would seem. But once he did, it kind of gave permission to women to also own up to these responsibilities without feeling guilty about it. And we need to get rid of that guilt, because we’re providing such important roles to our communities, as well as our families, by taking on these dual roles and doing a good job with both.
OUTRO COMMENTS: Thank you so much, Dr. Vivian Pinn, for sharing with us your advice for young, aspiring healthcare leaders who are making their way toward the C-suite. We will continue with Part 2 of this discussion in our next episode.
Again, I’m your host, Kadesha Smith, CEO of CareContent. We help healthcare systems reach their growth goals through digital strategy and content.
We’d also like to thank again this episode’s sponsor, Masimo.
I invite you to go to modernhealthcare.com to read more about what it takes to become a C-suite leader in today’s healthcare system.
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.