Women in leadership: Three female hospital leaders share what leadership means to them

April 22, 2024
By Katie Pearson, Lynn Jackson, and Carolyn Booker

A surge of women earning hospital leadership positions has occurred two years after a study found only 15% of CEO positions at mid-size hospitals in the U.S. were held by women.

The insistence on diverse leadership candidates, mentoring and training programs, and diverse hiring goals—which many health care organizations have prioritized—have laid a path for more women aspiring to and accepting roles in hospital leadership positions. Still, the subtle gender bias that flows through organizations and society can disrupt motivation and development of future female leaders.

As three female hospital leaders ourselves, at the helm of one of the largest and most decorated hospital systems in Georgia, Northside Hospital, we intimately know the challenges and rewards this journey offers. In this article we share our perspective on the qualities that make great leaders, advice for the next generation of women looking to attain leadership roles, and the importance of gender equality in leadership roles.

Carolyn Booker
Empathy, kindness, and hospital culture
Carolyn Booker:
Leaders must be empathetic and begin to connect with the experiences of staff in order to engender trust and increase workplace wellbeing. Different perspectives and ideas stand above the singular, self-serving alternative. There is a need for diversity in leadership, especially in hospitals, where problem-solving and critical thinking can be leveraged to better the health of a community made up of different races, genders, and ethnicities.

In 2018, I started a hospital-based Kindness initiative as a way to improve the work environment and create a place of healing for staff and patients. The initiative has been a great success and stems from leadership adoption. For example, every month at our Patient Care Council we ask leaders to visit different units and ask staff to identify a coworker for recognition and provide the reason. The leaders directly share the positive feedback with that colleague, which has an immediately positive impact on the recognized employee. This is one of the many facets of the Kindness Initiative that have fueled an improvement in our culture.

Kindness is now embedded into the cultural fabric of the Northside Hospital system. We have assembled a systemwide team—the Kindness Through Communication team—that meets weekly and creates ways to embed kindness into the organization’s culture. Due to this team and their outreach and mission, we’ve seen an increase in both employee and patient satisfaction.

Lynn Jackson
Grow where you are planted
Lynn Jackson:
Empathy, purpose and ingenuity are all characteristics that define who I am as a leader and healthcare professional. It is my belief that successful Leaders start by building a solid foundation of expertise and establishing credibility. It goes without saying – leaders are not the ones who sit back and avoid the difficult work or conversations. Instead, they find challenging opportunities—even the tasks that appear daunting and improbable—and pour themselves into finding solutions. In addition, offering to help or advise others should be a muscle that is well exercised on the route to attaining a leadership position. It’s important to demonstrate to others that you lead by example and want to help your colleagues grow and succeed. Assisting others in achieving their goals helps facilitate their success and makes us a better leader.

“Grow where you are planted” has been my mantra throughout my career. Practicing my entire 40+year career in acute care settings, first as a bedside RN in surgery and critical care, then later moving on to leadership roles in nursing. The more I learned about hospital leadership, the more my ambition grew to become a catalyst in creating a healthcare future where clinical expertise and experience was integral in hospital governance. After acquiring a Master’s degree in Hospital Administration, I left the practice of nursing to take on a broader role as a hospital administrator. In 1999, I joined the Administration team at Baptist Medical Center, which was acquired by Northside Hospital in 2001 and as the hospital administrator, I stayed on for the next 20+ years as our team supported the unprecedented growth of the hospital from 41 beds to over 400 beds. In October 2023, I was named CEO of Northside Hospital Forsyth. From bedside to boardroom, my passion for serving patients with compassion, empathy and joy has never wavered.

Women in leadership have a unique opportunity to infuse collaboration and strong communication skills to build relationships, foster teamwork, and promote a more inclusive and diverse work environment. When leadership opportunities or positions are available, it’s important for interested clinicians to give a voice to their aspirations and interests to lead. Building a resume that includes integrity, reliability, a track record of taking on hard tasks and proving to be a valuable asset in difficult situations, makes the job easy for the decision maker, as current work is an interview for our next position.

Katie Pearson
Compassion and efficiency in care
Katie Pearson:
My career trajectory has been different than most in hospital leadership. Prior to my time in the health care field, I was in business consulting. I decided to change my career path because I wanted to do something that was more meaningful and go somewhere I knew I could make a difference. Identifying efficiencies to improve organizational operations has always been a strength of mine, and it is extremely fulfilling to use that strength in a health care setting, where the decisions I make as a leader have a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of my community.

Those in hospital leadership positions must always put patients first and have a servant attitude and mindset. Although we are all different and have different priorities and needs, I have made it a primary focus at Northside Hospital Cherokee to lead by example, driven by compassion. Demonstrating compassion while caring for our patients is essential, but it starts with how we care about one another throughout the hospital – whether you are an executive, leader, physician, nurse, administration staff member or custodian. By keeping our eye on the ball and growing a compassionate culture, we can deliver the outstanding care that our patients and the community deserves.

Great hospital leaders have an ardent desire to make a difference and have a positive impact on people’s lives. It is a position that should not be taken lightly and should not be reserved for any specific demographic. In hospital leadership roles, both men and women have an equal opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of others and the surrounding communities—a task that we hope inspires the next generation of women leaders and gives them something to strive towards.

The future of women in hospital leadership
We are fresh off the heels of annual tentpoles like Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. These moments are important for highlighting what women have added to the tapestry of life, both in and outside of the work environment. While our contributions benefit our local communities, we continue to aim to contribute our efforts to positively impact the world.

In hospital leadership specifically, these are times for us to pause and look back at history, learn from it and look to the future. There are a couple questions we need to ask ourselves as we think critically about the future of gender equality in leadership:

How can we continue this momentum? How can we inspire other young women to help them understand their capacity and influence?

These types of questions can help us identify areas where we can apply needed resources. It also creates an opportunity for other women leaders to reach younger generations and marginalized groups, underscoring health care’s interest in creating a diverse employee community that is representative of the diversity within our communities.