Ep. 100: Be True to You

with Ashley Thompson
Episode hosted by: Nancy Howell Agee

February 1, 2023


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Ashley Thompson
Senior VP, Public Policy Analysis & Development, American Hospital Association

Ashley Thompson serves as the Senior Vice President for Public Policy Analysis and Development at the American Hospital Association (AHA). Since 2015, she has been instrumental in providing direction and oversight for the formation and promotion of the AHA’s policy positions. Ashley leads the formal policy development process of the AHA, which includes gathering input from prominent hospital leaders to address issues related to advocacy, public policy, and field leadership. Her tenure with the AHA spans over two decades, during which she has held various roles in shaping policy.


I think that most of the women in my life have been the ones that have been there to catch me if I was falling.



Nancy Howell Agee: Ashley is the Senior Vice President for Public Policy Analysis and development for the American Hospital Association. She’s been with the association for about 20 years. Prior to that she has the distinction of having worked with the US Senate Committee on Finance and was the policy lead for then Chairman Charles Grassley for Medicare Part A issues. So you clearly know. What you’re talking about and the American Hospital Association and and all the people in America are grateful for your service and for your leadership. I know you received your Bachelor’s of Arts in from Bucknell University, I think in English and then got a Master’s degree in healthcare Administration. I’m gonna probe that a little bit, but I wanna tell the audience that what I know about you is that you are wicked. , you’re articulate, you’re genuine, you’re always upbeat. I don’t know how you manage to do that. And you have this really amazing ability to listen to many voices often to spirit voices, and try to bring that together in a cogent and cohesive way for policy development. So I think you’re just an outstanding leader, and I know we’re gonna have some fun this afternoon. I’d like to just start out with what do you see from your lens about the healthcare landscape currently and where do you think will be, what do you think we’ll be looking at will be the key issues for the key opportunities in the next three to five years?

Ashley Thompson: Sure. And first of all, thank you Nancy for that super kind introduction. You are always so gracious and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this opportunity to speak with you as well as others who are listening to, to tell my story. I have been in healthcare for a long time. I think we’re might even be approaching 30 years now. And I will tell you that we are at a point. where I think that there has to be a pivot soon coming out of the pandemic. Our hospitals have been beaten down. Financially they are in the most dire straits that most of them. And granted, there’s variation here. Then most people have seen throughout their careers. And as we all know, the workforce issue is one that’s extremely challenging. With our workers burnt out. , there’s violence in the workplace now. There is just a lot of challenges and so I think that coming down the pike in the future, we really need to maybe take a step back coming out of the pandemic to see how we can change health and healthcare in America. How can we change care, delivery and financing to really get to all of those improvements where we can. Increase access, where we can increase quality, where we can increase patient satisfaction, and then most importantly, decrease the overall cost of care to make it more affordable.

Nancy Howell Agee: So when you think about the three or four top healthcare issues today, , whether they’re improving access, lowering cost of care, improving quality issues like D E I and E S G, will they be the same or different three years from now?

Ashley Thompson: I think they’re gonna, I hope they’re gonna be different three years from now. I think that we are on a journey. and that everything seems to take much longer than you want it to. But I’m already seeing, huge improvements. I mean, first just the focus on d e I and sustainability and environmental impact allows us to start. Measuring , which allows us to start improving. And I think that if you can get people to concentrate on certain issues and bring people together to focus on them, then you can really make some changes there. And I will say that this administration has been heavily focused on equity of care. Again, the pandemic really exposed inequities of care. And I think that they have really Really put this under the lens of a microscope with Biden administration releasing a lot of requests for information about him building into every aspect of the administration and their proposals and rules and regulations. And in the quality space and in the healthcare space, we see a real initiative to really track the. Types of individuals coming into our organization, race, ethnicity, language and to really look at improvements and to make sure that there aren’t disparities in care.

Nancy Howell Agee: So let’s dig a little bit about d E I. I, I know you have a personal experience in some ways with d e I. Would you share that with us?

Ashley Thompson: Yeah. The way I look, you probably wouldn’t guess my background. My mom is Hispanic. My, my. Grandfather came from Spain through Mexico to America when he was a teenager. And my stepdad, who has raised me since I was three years old is African American. And he is really quite my hero. He is a doctor. but his grandfather was a slave. He is a very hard worker. I think a lot of my passion for the industry and what we do, I think came from him. And so I actually wrote my college essay on diversity probably before d e I was well known and he worked at a hospital in inner. Chicago. And I think that’s why I have a real soft spot for safety nett hospitals, as we call them, just because of the challenge of what they do and the patients they serve. It is not an easy situation in many cases. And I think that they’re just doing, God’s work I all of our hospital members are, but those in particular have some really tricky situations that, and that they’re dealing.

Nancy Howell Agee: I think you’re right. No one would look at you and say, ah, she has a diverse background, and that it’s been meaningful for her personally. , perhaps you were a bit of a trailblazer or a pioneer in this important work. I know you included in so much of how you think, so your dad was a hero for you. Are there women mentors or influencers that have made a difference in your career.

Ashley Thompson: So many. I’ve actually had men and women mentors I think over the years. The men early on really gave me opportunities to do things. I think that I didn’t know that I could do. And that was fabulous. And then the women, I think taught me so much more about how to live life and to be genuine and to be authentic and to be myself saying that I didn’t have to do everything the way a male would do it. I didn’t have to wear pantsuits every day. I didn’t have to talk like them. And I think that. one of the greatest benefits that my female mentors gave me. As well as one other thing, flex. . One of my biggest mentors is Carmella Coyle. She had my job here for a good decade before I was the senior Vice President of policy. And she did it with such grace, and she gave me such flexibility when I was having my three children that I and other things when my dad was ill. I just think that it’s something that I learned from my mentors. that if you want bright, successful, talented individuals in your organization, you need to give them some flexibility during certain times in their lives when they need it.

Nancy Howell Agee: what about runway? So what about decision making? Is there a mentor or an experience where you were out there on your own? , and yet you’re grateful for that experience and it taught you something.

Ashley Thompson: So that’s an interesting one. My favorite mentors and you have been one to me as well as Mindy Estes and others. I can remember a big situation where both of you caught me. when I had fallen I had done a media interview. It was a live tv. It was a gotcha moment where they sat me there for an hour trying to get me to say a certain phrase. And was really, it was an unfair example of, Communications in media, and I think that my female mentors were the ones that crowded around me afterwards and lifted me up and said, don’t worry. And, move onward. And so I think that most of the women in my life have been the ones that have been there to catch me if I was falling.

Nancy Howell Agee: Tell me your history, so English major. , did you go right into healthcare? Did you always know that’s where you wanted to be? Or was there an awakening of why healthcare would be important?

Ashley Thompson: So I really thought I was gonna be a doctor , and then I realized that. didn’t think I could handle somebody dying on me. So I have great kudos to those who are out there that, that really give ’em themselves every day. And so I became an English major just because I happened to have enough courses thereafter, biology and calculus and all those other pre-med courses. And it wasn’t until I was leaving college that I went into the career counseling. Office, and I saw this book called Hospital Administration. Before then, I had never really thought about how hospitals were run, but I opened the book and some of the first lines there said something like, it’s for those who want the challenge of top level management, as well as the social service aspect of giving back to man.

Nancy Howell Agee: Oh wow.

Ashley Thompson: oh my gosh, that is exactly what I wanna do. And so I got my Master’s in Healthcare management and policy. I really thought I was gonna do hospital administration, but sometimes your path takes you not where you knew you even wanted to go. And as long as you say yes sometimes it can lead you into the right.

Nancy Howell Agee: So how would you describe your leadership style?

Ashley Thompson: I probably delegate quite a bit. It’s not intentional necessarily. I think that I’m super lucky that I tend to hire really well. I hire bright, motivated, passionate individuals. I don’t think that they have to be experts in the field that I’m hiring them for. I just think that they have to have a. Or a, a desire or a need or a want to contribute to the greater good. And if they have that passion, I feel like they’ve been very successful at a h a and in policy. And so I guess my leadership style is trying to choose correctly and then get out of their way so that they can do what they’re best.

Nancy Howell Agee: It’s lovely. You’re a woman. I know you’re married. You have two children, or three, three

Ashley Thompson: Three

Nancy Howell Agee: Are there differences in how women and men in the workplace succeed or not so differently? Have you had opportunities or challenges that you think are different than your male colleagues?

Ashley Thompson: Yes. Absolutely. I think that, From the very beginning of my career, I was probably seen more as an assistant even though I had my master’s degree from the number one school in the nation. I think that, during my administrative internship, soon as I walked in the room, I remember those five men saying, boy, they get younger and younger every day, which was not to say that I was female, which was good.

Nancy Howell Agee: my goodness. Wow.

Ashley Thompson: But that hit home. And then my administrative residency as well. I feel like maybe they gave me different jobs because I was a female versus a male. Some of it might have been, to my own benefit to keep me safe at that inner city hospital. But I think that, I was probably the minute taker more than a male counterpart would be. But I gotta tell you, you learn a lot. By taking minutes because you can really shape the direction and outcome of a meeting because you’re the historical knowledge of what happened. So you’re able to put your spin on it, and most people don’t necessarily pay a ton of attention to them. , but you can really create and shape the course moving forward. So while I was treated differently, I really saw it as an opportunity to carve my own path or to make a difference and to really influence those around me more than maybe even my male counterparts were able to do.

Nancy Howell Agee: Wow. What an interesting spin on taking minutes. I. Actually tend to agree with you. I think when you put something in writing, while it may not feel as important at the moment, a year later or what have you, you have really influenced change significantly talk about personal issues or challenges in a professional way. So raising a family what were your hours like, how, what were the trade offs?

Ashley Thompson: First of all, I was super fortunate to have help and I truly believe it takes a village. And I have a husband who’s extremely supportive. He was very supportive to take a step back in his career so that I could work on Capitol Hill, because those were really wicked long hours. We had one child at that time. And then when I actually left the hill in order to continue raising a family cuz it was just too challenging up there. So you make sacrifices and I will say, , my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law we had two nannies that worked. Seven. Honestly, I had helped 12 hours a day. I know most people can’t do this. But I had helped 12 hours a day so that I could raise those kids when I got home all I wanted to do. Was love on them, . I didn’t wanna have to do dishes, I didn’t have wanna have to do their laundry. I really just wanted to be with them and hear what was going on in their lives. But I was super, super fortunate to be able to do that. And I know that we spent more money on them than we did our mortgage, but it was where we chose to make to place our money in order to do that. But it is true. It’s hard, but I think that when I am away or when I’m traveling or when I’m not, My girls in particular have learned what it is to, I mean, I hope I’m setting a, an example or a role model for them. They know I work really hard. I hope it has inspired them to work really hard and I think they know that I wanna make a difference and I think it’s inspired them to wanna make a difference in life as well. So I really hope that I’ve been a mentor and role model to them, and that while I am working. I hope that in doing so, I’m not neglecting my kids. I’m just raising them to be bigger, better, more more independent individuals.

Nancy Howell Agee: I love that. I suspect however, that it was what’s harder than you maybe you’re suggesting and that you have to create some boundaries. Sometimes boundaries at work as well as boundaries at home. Would you agree with that statement?

Ashley Thompson: I would absolutely agree with that statement. And it’s very challenging to do, and the boundaries sometimes need to get fuzzy because sometimes work calls you and sometimes family life calls you. One of my first. mentors who is a male, his name was Ralph Mueller, who was the president of University of Chicago Hospitals and Health Systems. He would leave work at four o’clock to watch his kids’ soccer games or basketball games, and then he would be in there Sunday catching up with work. , but it was that flexibility and he always took their phone call, like family always comes first. It just does. If one of his kids or wife called the office, that was the first call, he would pick up. He’d put the other people on hold, and I think that really helped me understand that you can be very successful. and not not lose the fact that you are a mother or a wife and make sure that everyone gets the attention that they need. But the barriers, I will say the weekends are special times and dinner is a special time in our family. We, we don’t allow devices and unless it’s an absolute emergency, everything can wait half.

Nancy Howell Agee: I love that. So do you have advice for other women, especially young women who are seeking leadership position?

Ashley Thompson: I guess the advice that I would give, that at least worked for me is say yes. When people ask you to do things that you don’t think that you’re qualified to do, just say yes and and get exposure and new opportunities and new learnings because all of it builds upon itself. . And I think that will lead to new opportunities in the future. Although I will say, as I say that now I’m trying to learn how to say no Because once you say yes to everything, all of a sudden there are a lot of things that you could be doing. and all of a sudden you have to be more targeted. I think where I am in my career, at least right now, is to be more targeted in what I’m addressing so that I can be successful in those areas specifically.

Nancy Howell Agee: So perhaps that means seek new opportunities, but be intentional about the work that you do so that you can focus and prioritize.

Ashley Thompson: Oh, I like that. I like that a lot. One of my opportunities, which people might remember is I was asked to be project director of y2k. Do you remember that?

Nancy Howell Agee: Oh

Ashley Thompson: turnover? Yes. I knew nothing about it, absolutely nothing. But it was really project management. and if somebody gives you an opportunity, I think it’s say yes. Say yes if you can and learn new things.

Nancy Howell Agee: So what piece of advice would you give your young self?

Ashley Thompson: I’m super thankful for where I am today. And I talking about my younger self, and I have thought a little bit about this because I’m not sure I would’ve done much differently. Not everything was perfect, I. . I had errors and missteps along the way, but I think that has given me learnings and taught me more about myself. I think what I would probably say is just remain true to yourself. I had some bad advice once upon a time. Again, you need to look like a man, dress, like a man, walk like a man, or whatever it was, and I don’t think that’s right. I think that you have to do things the way that. need to do them the way that you are. You need to be authentic, you need to be genuine. Because I think that carries a lot more weight than because people can see through the fakeness. And I and so that’s what I would recommend to people earlier on in their careers is to just be themselves, be true to themselves.

Nancy Howell Agee: So last question. . I love that, by the way. And I think you’re right. I think being authentic and true to yourself perhaps is the best advice. A along with, learning new things, being curious and being collaborative. So creating that network and that network of support and taking advan advantage of it in a way but then adding to it. And I know you’ve done that so often for so many others. , can you tell me, so if you’re gonna write your story, what would the title of it be?

Ashley Thompson: Now that we’ve gone down this path, maybe it’s be true to you so that people would know. so that as they take their steps it is, and you’re absolutely right, by the way, about collaboration. I have been very fortunate in the relationships that I’ve been able to develop and the exposure that I have received. And I think that has really propelled me. It’s the wing wind beneath the wings. It is, it’s super true. It is super true. , we really can’t accomplish anything on our own, so maybe the title would be better together.

Nancy Howell Agee: Oh, I like that.

Ashley Thompson: there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of things and we are better together. My team and maybe it’s because I also work in DC right now on Capitol Hill, , and there’s so much partisanship right now that I think maybe if we could move forward, we really would be better together.

Nancy Howell Agee: You are an amazing leader. You’re doing such important work. I know your husband. I’ve heard about your children. And I think that you’re the whole package, Ashley, and I really appreciate your sharing time with us today.

Ashley Thompson: Thank you so much, Nancy. I really appreciated the time with you as well. I miss you. You are such a wonderful leader, and thank you for creating this opportunity for others to share their story and then hear from others. It’s a great thing that you’re doing.

Nancy Howell Agee: Thank you.

Ashley Thompson: thank you.

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