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 am also the CEO of CareContent, a digital strategy agency for healthcare organizations.
Today we are talking about communication, especially how women leaders can do it effectively to achieve their goals.
Communication may come easy for some, but for others, it must be studied, and practiced, and constantly improved — especially if you’re communicating in high stakes situations.
In this episode, we turn to an expert in getting her point across. Dr. Joanne Conroy is the CEO and president of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health in New Hampshire. Dr. Conroy is also the founder of Women of Impact — Healthcare, a group of women healthcare executives who advocate for more women leaders in all sectors of healthcare. She’s also one of Modern Healthcare’s 2019 inaugural class of Luminaries, a designation given to the most influential women leaders in healthcare.
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MODERN HEALTHCARE: Now, let’s dive into our conversation with Dr. Joanne Conroy. Again, Dr. Conroy is the CEO and president of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health. She’s sharing her insight on communication styles that can help — or hurt — women as they pursue leadership positions. Thank you for being here, Dr. Joanne Conway. How are you doing?
DR. JOANNE CONROY: Great, nice to be with you, Kadesha.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: We wanted to talk with you for this podcast because it focuses on communicating effectively. We’re specifically talking to women, and even more specifically, women who are in healthcare administration and are on their way to the C-suite. And this is one of those skills that really is a skill, it is not a talent. It is not something you’re born with. It’s something that I believe you really have to practice.
First question. You have inspired countless leaders — men and women — as their mentor and their advocate. But who’s your personal hero? As you’ve developed your own communication style, who has been your inspiration?
CONROY: One of my inspirations was a gentleman named Dr. John Mahaffey. He was the Chairman of Anesthesia at the Medical University of South Carolina, and he taught me several important things. The two most important things he taught me was, number 1, listen more than you talk; 2, make sure that you are listening in a way that doesn’t actually reveal what you’re thinking.
Amd people may say, “Ooh, that doesn’t sound very transparent.” But sometimes, you’re hearing things and you may have a negative reaction to them. I think we underestimate the impact of non-verbal cues when we speak. And sometimes if you have a negative look on your face, you may stop somebody from saying something that’s really important because they don’t believe you like what you’re hearing. I think it’s really important to just kind of have this, almost impartial, just, “I’m listening and not passing judgment on whatever the person is saying.” And that is a skill that you have to develop.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: I am one of those people where everything shows on my face. That is something that would require practice.
So, throughout the course of this pandemic, you’ve had to stand up and lead an organization in the midst of personal grief, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you prepare yourself to communicate to large audiences during all of these challenges?
CONROY: You know, I think for many women it’s striking that balance between authority and authenticity.
Many people are aware my husband died of cholangiocarcinoma at the end of April.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Yes.
CONROY: So, you know, between preparing the institution to take care of an unknown number of COVID patients, I also was juggling an end-of-life journey for my husband. You know what? People do want to know you’re human. I would say that the institution, and really my friends across the country, were very supportive and thankful to kind of know what was going on in my life.
But, as a leader, they do want you to lead. Which means you sometimes have to put your personal feelings and emotions aside, and just lead the organization. And that’s not leading without humanity, it’s not leading without authenticity. But it is leading with authority and confidence, because people are looking to you for that leadership. Regardless of what’s going on with you personally, you are their leader.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: So, how do you balance being authentic with being professional in high stakes situations? Can you give an example — and I’m sure you can — in the last couple of months where you have had to do that?
CONROY: I would say that one of the most difficult things is figuring out how much information to give that’s helpful, so people can make appropriate decisions about their own lives.
And I can tell you an example would be when we were just learning about the virus and people were worried and concerned about the impact — not only on their own health, but their family’s health. I had a young hospitalist come and just show up at my office one morning, 6:30 in the morning. And he was very distressed because both he and his wife were hospitalists. They had immigrated from India. They had no family here and they had two small children. And the question that he was asking me was, “Who is going to take care of my children if my wife and I both contract COVID while working here?”
Those are the type of unanswerable questions you actually get from staff as they’re grappling with a pandemic that we didn’t know a lot about. I gave him advice about what I knew about the pandemic, but assured him that he was part of the community that would make sure that he and his wife were cared for, and that we would do whatever we can to support them if they were to become ill. And, you know, sometimes you don’t have all of the answers, but you have to answer it with the power of your office, as well as authentic awareness that people were scared, and he was not the only one.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Let’s shift to talking about some of the challenges that women have with communicating, especially in high stakes situations. And before I dive into the questions about that, I just want to read a few data points about what we know in this area.
We know that there’s research that says about 4 out of 5 women find it extremely difficult to express concerns and make clear, straightforward requests. We also know that a study of business students at Carnegie Mellon found that female students ask for 30% less than their male peers in negotiations. In healthcare, about 80% of the healthcare workforce is women, but only 19% of hospitals and 4% of healthcare companies are led by women.
And lastly, in a story on May 22 of last year, Modern Healthcare reported on a study of about 200 hospitals and health systems, and they found that women in these organizations have been overlooked for leadership positions, due to gender. Nearly two-thirds of the hospitals and health systems ranked their development programs for women as fair, poor, or non-existent, and 76% said that their company doesn’t even have a sponsorship program for women to advance to leadership.
So, if you had to nail down three situations in which women hurt themselves or they struggle to communicate, what would they be?
CONROY: I want to preface my answer by saying there’s perception and there’s reality. Women often are perceived as not having as many impactful ideas in a meeting. So number 1, we have this lens that sometimes obscures the real contributions of women in a conversation around strategy, etc. So number 1, we’ll put that off to the side.
Because there are things that women do in negotiations, in just, day-to-day strategy conversations, that weaken their communication. We see it more commonly in negotiation, where women don’t ask for something and then just use the power of silence. They don’t do that. You have to be really comfortable with making a request and then just waiting. Women often fill up the space, but silence can actually be very powerful, even though it may feel a little uncomfortable. If you’ve said something important, a little silence after it is okay.
The second thing is when women present an idea, a concept, or something in kind of a strategy session, they often weaken their points by using qualifiers. By saying, “I’ve been thinking about this,” or, “Would you think about it?” instead of giving their opinion with confidence. Women have to unlearn a lot of that behavior, and some of it is cultural. I think some of it is how women are brought up, in, you know, certainly in our society, to focus on relationships and kind of be, I always call them, kind of the oil between the gears. You know, they make things happen by being flexible. And there’s a time to be flexible. But there’s also a time to be firm and confident in your request, in your expectation of a response.
I would say another way that women don’t always think about how they interact in a difficult negotiation, or maybe they’re advocating for somebody, or in a public speaking event, is your voice. I had a very good friend who was a radio talk show host, and she actually had voice lessons because her voice was too soft. And she worked actually to decrease the tone of her voice because it made her sound more authoritative.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Wow.
CONROY: I do remember my first public speaking event. I was nervous, and out of my mouth came this squeaky little voice, and there is some benefit to actually practicing speaking. I’ve spent hours in front of bathroom mirrors, making sure that what I wanted to come out of my mouth came out of my mouth. Confident, articulate, and memorable. I think women — again, we have to practice that.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: That is actually really affirming to know that even you have had to practice it. That you too had to build that skill.
You kind of alluded to this already a little bit — unlearning behaviors, how we’re raised, and confidence. What are those personal barriers, those internal things that women might be saying to themselves or grappling with that prevent us from communicating effectively in the negotiations, in presenting ideas or in public speaking, or some of these other high stakes situations?
CONROY: Most women don’t have the confidence in their own ideas, which is not founded in reality. But they present with a lack of confidence and that’s when sometimes they don’t get credit for their ideas, because they don’t present them in a way that makes people stop and say, “Wow, that was a great idea.” And you hear many stories about women presenting ideas at a meeting that are then picked up by a man in the room and re-presented, and people remember the idea presented by the man in the room and not the woman who presented it first. I think those are — sometimes the confidence that we present things with is one of our biggest obstacles.
I would say, I counsel a lot of women that are thinking about going for another job. And if there are ten job requirements, if they have nine of them, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not ready.” But there are many men that have two of them and say, “That job is for me!”
It’s all about confidence, and often, women just need somebody to say, “This is your job. You are ready for this.” And then once they actually know that other people believe in them, you know, they can pivot and be very effective in actually interviewing for and getting the job of their dreams.
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Now, back to our discussion with Dr. Joanne Conroy.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: When you think about advice for focusing on challenging situations — so, so often, women are cached on, “Okay, here’s how you negotiate, here’s how you do the public speaking.” But what about becoming stronger communicators in some of the more positive situations? Like giving praise, or highlighting strengths, or taking credit for your idea, recommending a colleague...how do we cultivate those skills as well?
CONROY: Women really benefit from acknowledging individuals — not just part of a team — but there always are individuals that probably deserve to be called out for unusual effort. And that doesn’t diminish you as a leader — in fact, it enhances you as a leader to actually recognize members of your team by name who have gone above and beyond. That’s something that a leader needs to start being very good at if they’re not good at it already, really is acknowledging other people. It is one of the best things about being the leader. You do get that platform to actually mentor other people and help people — men and women — really celebrate their careers.
I would say the second thing as a leader is to use humor and use humor effectively, not too much humor. We have all seen people that have this self-deprecating kind of approach to using humor, which is perfect in small doses but not in large doses. It just dilutes your message. I think women need to think about how to begin and end either a 5-minute or a 10-minute or a 20-minute speech in a way that actually leaves somebody with an understanding of the messages you want them to walk away with. But at the end, have them feel like they knew you a little better, they were inspired by what you had to say, and the fact that they walk away saying, “I would follow that person.” As a leader, when you’re able to have a platform to talk to people about important issues, you want them to leave inspired but also with a sense of direction, where we need to go as an organization.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: And that goes back to your point about being authentic. That’s what makes people like you, want to follow you, is being authentic in those moments.
CONROY: Correct. That means, probably, not reading from speeches. I rarely read from prepared remarks. Occasionally, when I’ve done commencements or very orchestrated speeches, I will use some prepared remarks, but be also prepared to deviate from them. Because that’s when your warmth comes out, when you actually address the audience directly, without looking down at your notes.
I’m always amazed by people that can talk for 45 minutes and hold the audience’s attention, and inspire them, without taking a breath and using more notes. Bryan Stevenson — he talks about racial justice — he is just an incredible inspiring speaker. I’ve heard him a couple of times, and I think your passion and your authenticity just come out when you can connect with people in such an effective way over a meaningful topic.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Absolutely. Well, you mentioned earlier people who have inspired you and that also you’re a mentor to many other healthcare professionals. So let’s focus on self-advocacy, mentorship, and sponsorship for a moment. For self-advocacy or communicating to get what you want, what steps do you take to prepare for these conversations?
CONROY: So I advise women — let’s take, asking for a promotion or asking to be considered in the pool of candidates for a higher-level job in their organization. I encourage women to do a little bit of homework, understand what the challenges have been with the job in the past, enter into the conversation about why you would be a good candidate in a fully informed way. That means talking to not only me as a mentor, but any other of their mentors or advisors that can give them some helpful hints on how to negotiate this.
I also tell people to get a good night’s sleep, wear an outfit they don’t have to worry about — so remove everything that could be a distraction so you just focus on making your case for why you should be considered and selected for a job. Or given a raise.
Prepare for it carefully. And I would say, this is a place where you could use silence.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: That uncomfortable pause that women so often want to rush to fill. (long pause). I’m practicing with you, I hope you can tell.
CONROY: You know, I do observe women that are making a pitch and use 100 words when they should use 25. It’s a cultural thing that I think is something we need to be careful about. There’s nothing more powerful than a very direct, simple opinion, request, followed by silence.
I’d encourage people to probably observe women in the workplace. I spend a lot of time observing women and just noticing who communicates effectively, who communicates less effectively, and what’s the secret do you think effective communicators have? You know, you don’t have to go to national meetings to just observe people in their workplace, and you can learn a lot by who is an effective communicator.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: That is great advice, just to observe the people around you. Can you share your thoughts on how organizations like Women of Impact, and events like the upcoming Women Leaders in Healthcare virtual conference help women rise to leadership positions, and then also equip them to be successful when they get there?
CONROY: I think both organizations are incredible networking opportunities for women at every single level of their career.
People at my level still want to network with other women that are facing similar challenges. And, you know, it’s amazing how isolating it can be in some organizations where there are not a lot of women. You always need some safe space to talk through challenges that you’re facing, or commiserate. There is something about having colleagues that have similar challenges in their organizations.
Groups like Women of Impact and the Women Leaders in Healthcare — when you network with each other, you also have an opportunity to make friends, acquaintances, and advance people’s names and ideas when you think they may be a good fit, or could be interviewed, for their next job. So, our role at Women of Impact, and certainly the role of women leaders that participate in Modern Healthcare conferences, we like to see other women move up in organizations and have successful and personally and professionally satisfying careers. So, it gives us an opportunity just to meet more talent out there, and put people’s names forward.
I would say we focus a lot on who are going to be the next leaders in healthcare. We think about the election. If there’s a new administration — are women leaders who are advocating for women’s issues and issues that benefit humankind — are their names being put forward in a way that they can actually have an impact on healthcare? On social services, on the fabric of not only our economy, but our society. Those are the things that you have an opportunity to, as a woman leader, is to just continue to populate leadership roles across the country with really talented women leaders. And that’s where you meet them.
MODERN HEALTHCARE: Yup, absolutely. That is it, thank you so much for all of this insight. You’ve given me at least 10 things to go practice in my bathroom already. We’ll continue to watch you as you lead Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
CONROY: Well thank you Kadesha, it’s been great.
OUTRO COMMENTS: Dr. Conroy is the President and CEO of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health and one of Modern Healthcare’s class of 2019 Luminaries.
Again, I’d like to thank Masimo, our sponsor for this episode.
And I’d also like to invite you again to consider joining us for the Women Leaders in Healthcare virtual conference. It takes place August 13th and 14th. To register, visit modernhealthcare.com/womenleaders. If you use the discount code NextUp, you’ll receive 25% off the registration fee.
Again, I’m your host, Kadesha Smith, CEO of CareContent. We help healthcare organizations use their web presence to increase their reach to key audiences, and to reach their strategic goals.
Look for more episodes of Next Up at modernhealthcare.com/podcasts or subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or your preferred podcatcher. Thank you again for listening.