Get out of the healthcare bubble to learn new ways to lead

Key Takeaway: Healthcare executives can learn valuable lessons by heeding the experience of executives in other industries.

Stephanie Tilenius, Shari Ballard, Margo Georgiadis and Terri Kelly

What can healthcare executives learn from non-healthcare executives? Plenty, according to three leaders from very different businesses who shared their insights recently at the Health Evolution Confab of Women ChangeMakers.

Margo Georgiadis, currently CEO of Ancestry, advised attendees to follow their passions, as she has done through stints as CEO of toymaker Mattel, President of Americas at Google, COO of Groupon and CMO of Discover Financial Services.

“I think when you have passion, even when you face adversity, when you get there, you work through it because you want it,” she said. “You want to be there for a reason. I’ve never ever made a career decision for money or title or anything else. It’s literally how did I want to stretch myself and have impact? What makes you get out of bed in the middle of the night and write stuff down on a piece of paper?”

Georgiadis joined Ancestry in May 2018, attracted by the life-changing potential of its massive genealogy databases coupled with the new dimensions made possible by DNA analysis. More than 26 million people have taken an at-home DNA test from Ancestry or one of its competitors, and those numbers are on track to quadruple in the next two years, according to a recent analysis by Technology Review.

Constant change is important, too, Georgiadis added. “When you get to that moment where you say, ‘I’m there, I’ve kind of mastered it, I really feel comfortable,’ that’s when I’ve always felt like I need to push myself to do something else.”

Terri Kelly retired recently as president and CEO of W. L. Gore & Associates, a global materials science company best known for the high-tech fabric Gore-Tex, though its product lines also extend to such diverse areas as medical devices and electric guitar strings. Kelly spent her entire career at the company, though there was a point where she had to decide to speak truth to the founder’s son, then the CEO and her long-time mentor. It meant taking a risk that she would lose her job.

“He was trying to scale it in a way that was all about him being at the center,” she said. “His way of leading—‘If I can touch every person myself, everything’s going to be fine’—was just not scalable. The company was going south and we’re not foundationally talking about why.” She pulled the CEO aside for a one-on-one and told him he was destroying the company with his management style. Though he didn’t speak to her for a long time after that, he stepped down as CEO within a couple of years and made way for broader empowerment and accountability.

“I think you reach a point in your career where you have to make a choice,” Kelly said, and she chose to fight for her vision of what the company could be, even at the risk of destroying a key professional relationship. “I became the CEO, believe it or not, and my friendship with him is stronger than ever.”

Shari Ballard departed in 2018 from her post as president of multi-channel retail for Best Buy, the culmination of a 25-year career at the company, after helping engineer a remarkable turnaround in the face of competition from online-only stores like Amazon. She emphasized staying on message—a skill that becomes more essential as an organization becomes larger. “You’ll be sick of your message way before everybody has even heard it, so stay on it,” she said.

Ballard also believes in creating change from the front lines, starting with the organization’s customer. “Lead it from where the customers are interacting with your brand because that’s where the truth is,” she said. “Every single person at your corporate office who tells you why the front lines people don’t know what they’re talking about, that should be a little note to self about whether or not you’ve got the right leader.”