Mary W. Brown is a charter WHEN member. During her long career, she has served as a mentor, role model and supporter to many women executives in New Orleans and throughout the country. We are pleased to share this brief interview with Mary, and to have her as one of our loyal members.
How did you make your initial career choice?
I’m sort of a child of the 60’s. I graduated from college in 1972. It was a time of great idealism, somewhat like today. I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but after receiving my masters in education, I realized that was not at all what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to be involved in kind and meaningful work. I was living in Boston and took a job in a psychiatric hospital as an aide. I loved that job because of the teamwork, and the mission and the intellectual stimulation.
What was your first leadership role?
After I received my MBA, I took a job as a department manager in a community psychiatric facility.
Who were some of the most influential people in your career?
I would say my first boss was a big influence. He was a psychiatrist. I think 50% of management is learning how to deal with difficult people. He showed me how to master that. He was a great problem solver; and worked very well in a matrix organization. Also in my first management job, I worked with three nurses who each had a clinical area. They taught me so much about dealing with people. They gave me the latitude to make mistakes, yet still respected me (even when I hadn’t earned it yet!) Of course, I also learned a lot about what NOT to do as a leader from several people throughout my career.
What are you proudest of in your career?
Well, I’m happiest when working with a team. I believe I was imprinted with the value of that in my first jobs. Probably what I’m proudest of was my turnaround process at Westchester Medical Center in New York. I was brought into an organization with multiple major issues, and I was able to get the organization back on its feet.
What aspect of healthcare leadership do you like most?
I like the mission aspect of healthcare. It is important work, and I feel good about accomplishing things that really matter every day. I also like accomplishing things as a team.
You were a charter member of WHEN. What are your memories of those early days?
I don’t really remember a lot about the beginning of the organization. I believe it was founded by a woman named Julie (I have forgotten her last name), who had been active in a similar organization in Chicago. She has since moved on from New Orleans. Originally, WHEN was conceived as an offshoot of ACHE, but we didn’t require our members to be ACHE members. We were a small group, and our primary reason for being was networking and education. Periodically over the years, we’ve discussed whether we should open up membership to mid-level leaders vs. top executives. We’ve always maintained, though, that one of the core values of the organization is to provide networking among top tier women healthcare executives. ACHE provides a great vehicle for younger women to network in the industry.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve grown professionally?
I’ve learned to be less insistent on my ideas always being the ones that are adopted, but I do insist that my ideas are heard and considered. I’ve also learned that I have enjoyed both leadership and staff positions at different times in my career. I’m not the type that always has to have line authority to be happy in a role. I’ve also learned to become more patient. Over the years I’ve come to know myself better, and have developed a sense of confidence in my abilities, so I have less of a need to prove myself professionally.
You’ve had a rich, varied career. How have you managed to maintain your personal/professional balance over the years?
I give my husband, Rick, a great deal of credit. As an academic, he was able to have a flexible schedule while my career was growing. Honestly, I was never that ambitious. I always wanted to do something I could enjoy every day. A lot of my career was based on luck. I didn’t have a great need to work 100 hours a week to advance my career as my first priority. I have been pretty good at drawing the line. I don’t take work home at night or on weekends. I’m very focused and efficient, so I get the work done while I’m at work.
How has the professional climate for women leaders changed over the last 25 years?
Oh, it’s changed so much from my first real leadership job until now. There are just so many more opportunities now than 25 years ago. So many women have become top healthcare leaders. It’s just much different than it was.
We are always trying to become the best we can be. What are some of the things on your current “personal development plan”?
Currently I’m learning a lot about our research enterprise and about biotech translational research. I need to improve my computer skills, and I’m working on developing more patience.
What do you think are some of your personal characteristics that have contributed most to your success?
This is an interesting question. I don’t really know what others think of me. I think I’m relatively flexible, and have learned not to take things personally. My background in psychiatry helped me with that. I also have the ability to know when to let things go. When I’m blocked in meeting a goal for instance, I have learned there is always another way to go, another path to take. I also always try to treat people with respect, which engenders their respect for me. I’m also very organized.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming women healthcare leaders?
I would encourage them to broaden their thinking regarding career paths. There are an astounding number of career options. I would encourage them to explore those. Especially if you get blocked or bored with your career, or you don’t have a detailed career plan mapped out, take a look at the many options out there. I would tell young leaders not to take themselves too seriously. Don’t believe your own press clippings, so to speak. Another piece of advice is to realize that we are all “making it up as we go along”, and to just tackle the next challenge in front of you. And it is important for young women leaders to believe in their ability to take on bigger, broader roles. It is so important to believe in yourself.