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HIStalk Interviews Patrice Wolfe, CEO, AGS Health

December 7, 2022 Interviews No Comments

Patrice Wolfe, MBA is CEO of AGS Health of Washington, DC. This interview was focused on women as health IT executives.

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Not to hit you with the hardest question first, but if you see a company whose executives and board members are nearly all white males, how do you convince them that they may have chosen unwisely?

No kidding, you’re asking the hardest question first. Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I like to believe that the best way to convince people is through performance and through results.

I was on the board of a large company recently and it was nine white men, mostly in their 70s, and two women. I had a hard time convincing the rest of the board that when we had open positions, we needed to be a little more open minded in terms of how wide we would set the aperture for the candidates for the roles. 

I’ve noticed that often when we do searches for senior positions — whether it’s a board position or an executive member of an operating team — all the search descriptions end up sounding like the person must have won a Nobel Peace Prize and walks on water, because we are trying to make the job sound as complete and as attractive as possible. Sometimes we create job descriptions where we’re ratcheting down the aperture so much that five people in the entire country can fit this job description.

When you are trying to drive diversity, you have to make sure you open that up a little bit. You have to let in people who might not be traditional candidates, and you have to be willing to take a chance. To me, the thing that has been the hardest is convincing people that the answer isn’t, “We’re going to hire the best person for the job.” Because the best person for the job often looks like a very traditional candidate, and that does not help us gain ground on diversity.

Is that because it’s comfortable to hire candidates who are like us, or is it the perception that those other candidates aren’t as qualified as they actually are? And would you see the same biases toward female candidates if the company leaders were mostly women?

There’s an element in this that we all gravitate towards people who are more like us. That’s human nature.

I don’t have enough experience with all-women leadership teams to know if that bias exists. There’s not enough N’s out there for me to have a good feel for the answer to that. If I look at my own leadership team, we’re about 50/50 in terms of male/female. That puts me in a great position where I don’t have to worry quite as much about gender diversity.

I’ll tell you what I am typically the most focused on — cultural fit. Is the candidate someone who can thrive in the culture that I’m trying to cultivate? That’s definitely not a gender thing.

I don’t think I have a perfect answer to your question. I’d love there to be more examples of women-only leadership teams out there so that we could tell if they suffer from the same bias.

Given the frequent importance of networking in getting hired, how does networking work differently for women than men?

This is such an interesting point. It’s something that I talk a lot about when I speak about gender diversity at the senior executive level.

The good news is that if you are hiring at the executive level, you are most likely at some point, maybe not initially, going to use an executive search firm. For me, that has always been a great way to meet people I don’t know.

But in terms of the networking element, no doubt the more networked you are, the more likely you are to get tapped for a wider range of opportunities from a career perspective. One of the things that women have struggled with is finding themselves in those situations that maximize networking. Are they invited to certain types of meetings? Are they included in a small group of leaders who might be attending what now are incredibly expensive conferences?

What I’ve seen over the years is that you have to almost make a deliberate effort to include women in these types of activities that end up being great networking opportunities. It has to be a deliberate action. It works well when it is tied to things like recognition of high-performance employees. If you do a good talent review in your organization every year, you can pinpoint those members of your employee base who are high potential. You can deliberately do things such as say, we’re going to earmark these people for attendance at a particular conference, or we’re going to earmark them for presentations to the board on a particular topic that they’re focused on. If you don’t do that stuff, those people lose out on the networking that might make them more well known as a candidate for an executive role.

How do men and women apply and interview for leadership jobs differently?

The Harvard Business Review published a study on this many years ago. I may not quote this exactly right, but I believe that the findings were that women would put themselves forward for a role if they fit 90% of the criteria for the job, whereas men would put themselves forward if they felt they met 60% of the criteria. There’s definitely a difference there, obviously in general, but I do think that this is challenging.

When I mentor women, I raise this point a lot. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You could be told no, you’re not qualified enough for the role. Too often, people might build up in their minds an outcome to putting yourself out there that is far more daunting than what really happens. Sometimes I think it helps just to get people to talk through, how could this play out? And are you OK with how this might play out? Why not try?

This is a general challenge that we have to deal with through mentoring women. Also, modeling the behavior that comes from saying, what the heck, I’ll give this a shot. Maybe it won’t work out, but I’ll probably learn something in the process, at least.

Bias sometimes exists against women who have current or future family obligations. Are the trends of remote work and increased work-life balance changing that?

This is a really interesting point, because so much has shifted generationally. I was guest lecturing at a Wharton Business School class a couple weeks ago in the healthcare track, and I had several interesting comments from the students. They were interactive, it was so fun.

One of the students, a woman, raised the point that nowadays men and women are particularly focused on work-life balance. There is more of an acknowledgement, with younger professionals, of the important rule of maintaining both a balance in your personal and professional life, but also maintaining a level of mental health wellness that people my age never really paid attention to. This woman was saying, what about men taking paternity leave and other types of family related time off? Isn’t that part of how we achieve some of this balance in the workplace?

That is exactly right. Younger professionals are more focused on work-life balance in general, and it’s not a gender issue. We are seeing men taking this seriously also. That’s an interesting thing, that some of this gender distinction is going away.

In terms of work from home, I do believe that the trend towards work from home has made it easier for women to take on roles of greater responsibility. I see this in India, where there traditionally has been a big drop-off in women in management roles, because once they start having children, many women have enormous pressure to not go back to work. Work from home in India has helped to shore up the growth of women in management roles in all kinds of industries. I’m fascinated by how the whole workforce dynamic has shifted with work from home.

What career advice would you give to a woman who is in a director or senior manager role and wants to move to VP or the C-suite?

If you want to get to the top echelon of an organization, it’s important that at some point in your career, you get experience managing P&L. Maybe you just manage a cost center, and maybe there’s no revenue attached to it. Too often, you see women working their way up the ranks in support functions, things like marketing or HR, where they don’t get an exposure to enough of the business side of the organization. Having the ability to run some type of operating unit inside a health system or a software company is an extremely important role, because it gives you exposure to a wide range of the key operating metrics for the organization that are important when people are assessing you for the very top of an organization. I don’t often see that as a focus for people’s career paths, and it’s important.

Always be intellectually curious. Raise your hand when something interesting is going on in your organization that you think you could learn from and that you could add value to. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone to show that you can make a difference in a way that’s maybe a little bit different than how you’ve traditionally been spending your time.

Those are great opportunities to expand your understanding of your organization, to expand your networking. You might work with different people than you’ve traditionally worked with. Also, to expand your knowledge of what you personally enjoy, because too often, we find ourselves down a path incrementally that maybe we’re not happy with.

It’s  important for women to find mentors and folks at senior levels who will support them throughout their career,. I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life like that. Actively searching out the men or the women in more senior roles in their organization who they admire or they think they can learn from, and actively build a relationship with those people, because they can be hugely helpful to you.

The last thing I would say  is to believe in yourself. Stand up for and pursue things that you’re interested in, because we are always our own best advocates and we deserve to be good advocates for ourselves. Having a level of confidence to do that is important.



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