Ep. 118: Grace, Empathy, & Integrity

with Madeline Bell
Episode hosted by: Sandi Fenwick

July 5, 2023


Share Episode
Share on email
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on facebook


Madeline Bell
President & CEO, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Madeline Bell is the President and CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), which is one of the top-ranked children’s hospitals in the United States and was ranked No. 1 on Forbes’ 2022 list of America’s Best Large Employers. Most recently, she was named one of Modern Healthcare’s “100 Most Influential People in Healthcare” and one of its “50 Most Influential Clinical Executives” and was included on Forbes’ “50 Over 50: Vision” list, Philadelphia Business Journal’s “Power 100 2022” list, and Philadelphia Magazine’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in Philadelphia.” Ms. Bell is the host of Breaking Through with Madeline Bell, a podcast that features interviews with CHOP patients, doctors and scientists, as well as with philanthropists and innovators who support CHOP’s mission. She holds a bachelor of science in Nursing from Villanova University and a master of science in Organizational Dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania.


People cannot believe in you or see you in a role until you can believe in yourself



Sandra Fenwick: Welcome to Her Story, A Show for Women by Women, and I’m here with an amazing woman for you to hear her story. I’m Sandi Fenwick. I recently retired as the CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital, and I now serve on a number of. Public, private, and company boards. I’m here with Madeline Bell, who is the president and CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, better known as chop. I’m thrilled for you to hear her. Really, truly is inspiring and impactful story. So welcome Madeline.

Madeline Bell: It’s nice to see you, Sandi.

Sandra Fenwick: Thank you. So Madeline I’ll just do a quick intro and then really, truly turn it over to you, Madeline. You started your career as a pediatric nurse and then rose rapidly through the ranks of hospital administration. First at chop, and then you left and came back and you had roles as. Vice President, senior Vice President, E V P C O, and now president and CEO. And you’ve done really, truly, so much for children and children’s health and for CHOP specifically you’ve built CHOP into the powerhouse it is today and it is really a. In the envy of so many of the children’s hospitals around the world not only within Philadelphia and your neighboring communities, but obviously nationally and internationally. And you have been both a civic leader a board member publicly in private organizations, and you are an icon in Philadelphia. And I have learned so much from you, Madeline, and had the privilege of working side by side with you. And I’ve watched you and learned from you as you have done so, not only what you have done, but how you have done it with such grace and empathy and integrity. So we would love to hear your story.

Madeline Bell: Thank you so much Sandi. And right back at you. It’s been such a pleasure to get to know with you and work with you over the years and partner with you as a children’s hospital, CEO. I suppose my story is unique just everyone else’s. As you mentioned, I started as a pediatric nurse and if somebody had handed me a piece of paper, That said, this is your future. You will one day be the CEO of this organization with, 25,000 people and over 4 billion in revenue. I would’ve said, you have the wrong person. Look behind me, it must be somebody else. So I think the moral of the story is that you never know where your career will take you and For me, it’s been such an opportunity and a privilege to have the career that I have had. But I would say the most important thread that runs through my career is having a curiosity and an interest to do more and have more decision making power over. The work that I was doing when I was a nurse, I remember feeling curious about why people are making the decisions they’re making that are impacting my life as a nurse. Rather than being curious about it, I thought, why not be part of making those decisions and navigating this on my own? And that was what got me to go from being a nurse to, to going into hospital administration. And then from that point on, really my career has been a matter of people tapping me on the shoulder and saying, Hey, would you have liked to try to do this? And me saying yes, even though I was not comfortable. So I remember one time I was really happy with my portfolio. I loved everything I was doing and I was asked to oversee revenue cycle and I really knew nothing about it, but I realized that, leadership transcends whatever area, technical area you’re working in, and that I could learn that technical area. And I said yes, and I gave up a portfolio that I loved, but I did it to be challenged and to learn a new skill and to feel, like I’ve broken out of my comfort zone. And so I would say even to today, I. I do that, I push myself outside of my comfort zone. And then for me, it’s such a sense of accomplishment to step back and say I’ve actually done it. So that to me is the sort of thread that runs through my career that has gotten me to where I am today without it being planful in any way, frankly.

Sandra Fenwick: Madeline, you you have, I think, said so many of the things that we hear over and over again. This, stretch opportunities that we jump into and we grab, and we’re not necessarily afraid. To take them on. But as a woman leader and a very accomplished woman leader, a lot of the questions that we always get are what have been some of the challenges as you have moved from, role to role as you have stepped outside the organization. But you are truly viewed as. Extraordinary leader, whether you are a woman or not, but what have been some of the challenges or some of the pitfalls, some of the, or even some of the advantages of being a woman leader?

Madeline Bell: I think one of the things that I learned and I had to really learn it, was that networking doesn’t come as easily to women and myself included in that, and many of the women that I mentor as it does for men, it seems like much more of a natural thing and. I like many of the women, iMentor would be at my desk earliest, head down, cranking out the A plus work. Doing it all at home, doing it all at work and expecting that’s the only way that I was going to be able to develop my career. And I learned, I ultimately learned along the way that successful men, generally speaking, my experience, really networked a lot. They spent time playing golf. They, went to baseball or football games together. They just seemed to feel much more comfortable stepping away from the desk, getting things done. And that’s where opportunities came, where people got to know each other. And that all the benefits of networking. So I learned it later in my career and more the hard way. And I really tried to tell women to be much, first of all to, to network and to be intentional about it. I had to work at it. Yes. Everybody else was on the golf course. I don’t play golf. I’ve never had the ability to have that time commitment because I was a working mom and, my, my discretionary time was spent, doing other things. But what are the other ways that I could network with business leaders? And how could I be intentional and planful about that? So that was a, that was an important lesson and something that, took some time for me to hone that skill I.

Sandra Fenwick: Madeline, you mentioned networking with other business leaders. How did you do that? Because a lot of the women ask that’s great, but where do you start? I. And how do you how do you break into those things if you can’t break into the golf and other things? How did you do that?

Madeline Bell: As an example, chamber of Commerce always has networking events different groups, business affinity groups, have networking events even, women corporate directors. I remember at one point I was invited to a networking event before I was ever on a corporate board. And I remember thinking like, oh, it’s at seven 30 at night. I’ve had a long day. I don’t really wanna go. And one, the person who invited me, I showed up, the person who invited me. Didn’t come to the event. So I was I was right next to the elevators and I was thinking, all right, pivot and go down that elevator and go home. But I pushed myself and I said, I’m gonna go into this event and I’m going to meet several people in different from different industries that I don’t know, and developed a nice. Table relationship with the people at my table and some ongoing relationships. So I think you do have to be planful, but most communities will have different types of events and you can start there and then you start getting in, in invited to things.

Sandra Fenwick: Madeline obviously throughout your career, which is not over by any stretch of the mean means. And you obviously have been faced with. Difficult situations, whether they were one-on-one people or big organizational challenges. What do you think were some of the greatest attributes, skills or characteristics that helped you deal with those?

Madeline Bell: Yeah, I really believe that. My background as being a nurse has helped me a lot because I, generally speaking, nurses are very empathetic. The people who select nursing as a profession are empathetic to their patients, and so I think empathy is something that I’ve tried to bring and maintain in this role. Listening and always understanding what is it like to be in the shoes of our frontline staff, as an example. What is it like to be in the shoes of our board? How are they thinking about this? So really that skillset of listening and trying to put myself in somebody else’s position comes from my background in, in nursing, and I think it’s served me well. In my various roles, even outside of working at a hospital.

Sandra Fenwick: And were there situations that people talk a lot about some of the biggest challenges of being a leader is managing people. And, being empathetic is, It’s clearly an incredible skillset and characteristic of who you are. But there are times when you have to do some really hard stuff. How do you find doing those things? And you know so many people and many of us avoid them cuz they’re so hard. But those are the kinds of things that if people are so interested in learning how to do better at some of those things.

Madeline Bell: I think a basic tenet of being a leader is your job is to inspire o other people to do their best work and in an organization to row together. And finding a way to do that. Getting people to the place of understanding the big why. Why are we all here? How does that unite us? And when I go to adult hospitals, I always come back to a, my children’s hospital and think everybody that has wor that works here, has chosen to work with children. There’s something very unifying in that, and I leverage that all the time. And so I think that’s one way to get people around the why and to find that point of immunity. The other is to help them to understand how they fit into the big picture and what role they play and how decisions are made. And I remember one time meeting with a group of staff and. It has been my habit to have lunches regularly with frontline staff who are randomly selected by human resources. And I’ll sit down and have lunch with them and listen to them. And I remember one lunch I was heading to, I knew that I was gonna be faced with Some compensation issues with this group that have been pulled back some special overtime. And what I was trying to explain to them is we’re not indiscriminately sitting in a corner office just taking away something from you. We’re trying to be really responsible on our costs. Our costs are also passed along to our patients. We wanna be in line with, other children’s hospitals and other hospitals.

And so I was trying to tell them, how this all fits in. And while they didn’t love the decision, they understood it. And so I think getting people to seek to understand how and why decisions are made, even if they don’t like it, and then how they fit into the big picture and why they are important. What their role is. And I think that along with getting people, inspiring them towards the mission and getting them to row together, those are all ways of, they’re the things that leaders have in our toolbox to get people, to move in, in the direction with us. And it doesn’t always work. And I always say to people, I am not going to be everyone’s. Favorite person. I am not going to be the most popular person, but if people believe that I’m fair and I’m competent, that’s what I’m going for. And because I was actually talking to somebody on my team earlier today and she’s I’m tired of getting thrown under the bus. And I said as a leader, sometimes that happens, right? And it happens to all of us. We just have to pick ourselves up and say, there may be 10 compliments we get for every one time that we’re thrown under the bus, but for some reason we throw, we focus on that getting thrown under the bus part. So I just had this conversation a couple of hours ago with somebody. So it’s not all glamor being a leader. It’s it’s challenging, but you also have to. Keep yourself inspired by all those really good rewarding moments.

Sandra Fenwick: A lot of what you’ve talked about is a culture that we need to build as leaders and as leaders of a 25,000 person organization. That is really a challenge. Trying to touch everyone and trying to have people belong and to really inculcate a culture of fairness and respect and diversity and all of those things. And Madeline, you have been so incredibly successful at doing that. You talked a little bit about, mission and people’s understanding and people’s, role in that. What are some of the other things? I think the fact that you sit down and you talk with people from really all walks of life in your organization and the fact that you have made those kinds of relationships and connections is clearly one of those. But are there other things that you think of that help build that culture of why people wanna come and stay at chop?

Madeline Bell: Yeah, I think first of all, I think it has to be really intentional and so I’ve been really intentional about the culture I want. When I became CEO, I created a leadership platform that said, here are all the things I wanna be known for. Here when I leave my job, which I’m here, this is 168 year old organization, I’m here for a tiny fraction of time. What do I want to be true when I leave? And so I did all of that homework upfront and then used every opportunity to embed the cultural messages that I wanted. We created values. Aligned people around those values. We reflect on those values. I mention the culture and use storytelling to reinforce that. Every Monday there’s a message that goes out to all of our employees, CEO message and I embed, the key cultural messages and reinforce our values in that way. So whether in writing, whether. Talking in town meetings, whether in our executive walk rounds that we do on the front lines, being really intentional about modeling the cultural expectations and then telling people, like just saying it out loud, this is what I expect of us. And what’s really gratifying to me is hearing people repeat some of these things back in the course of meetings and. Even times where they don’t really know I’m in the meeting or they’re not aware that it came from me. And it’s really it’s really gratifying cuz to, to hear people echo that is for me a rewarding time at work just to witness how the culture is moving and to hear people articulate it.

Sandra Fenwick: Oh, thank you. That, I think that is helpful I think to so many people who are trying to figure out the, not only the where you’re going, your vision, but. The in incredible importance of bringing people along and having them really care about not just their own local personal or departmental role, but how they fit into the important picture that really when a healthy organization when an organization is healthy it really is. Everyone’s been, those we serve and those who serve. Madeline A lot of women, and I hear this again a lot of times, have asked the question about work-life balance. And increasingly, it’s not just women it’s everyone trying to find that balance. How do you think about that? And obviously how has it worked for you, but how do you think about it also as a leader?

Madeline Bell: Yeah I do tell people who are on my team all of the time, cuz I’m at a different point in my life. I’m a mom and I was a working mother from the time my kids were six week, my oldest was six weeks old. We didn’t have family leave back then. And so I always tell people on my team or anybody that I run into, go to that. Play, go to that little graduation from elementary school, whatever it is, because you can’t recapture that time and the work will be waiting for you and find a team member whom you can delegate to, or somebody, a colleague. So I do try to encourage people that it’s really important to have that or to recharge just to not just. Leave to take care of kids, but to find that thing that helps you recharge. And so I articulate that a lot and I ask people and modeled people that, and I tell them I’m taking time off and what I’m gonna do and ask them what they’re doing to try to explain to them that’s okay. So I think that’s what I do now. And I get this question a lot from working moms and a little bit less from working dads, but I tell them that, it’s, you never feel that you’ve achieved the perfect balance. But I when my children were little, they used to make me feel really guilty. Like, why can’t you be the mom who goes to the farm show with us? Or d does, the art in the classroom mom and. But later in life I was actually doing writing a blog post and I said to my kids I’ve always. Felt so bad about this. They’re older and they said, oh mom, you should have never listened to the seven year old us or the nine year old us. We didn’t understand. But now we’re so proud of you and so proud of what you’ve done, and we love spending time with you, and we learn from you and you’ve helped us so much in our life and our careers, and we always knew that we were number one in your life. It’s like I get choked up every time I say this, recount this. Because if I had only had the ability to take years of guilt away from myself of always feeling torn. And so I say to parents who are working parents, it’s going to be okay, but you need to. Always let them know that they’re number one in your life and communicate with them. So I used to say I can’t go on that school trip this week because I didn’t have four months notice for my calendar. But I can do, I can work in the little league snack bar because it’s at seven o’clock at night. So I’ll sign up for a bunch of those and I’ll be there. And on Sunday night, I would be really clear with them, this is where I can be, this is where I can’t be. And I guess that ongoing communication, letting them know that they were important enough to me to communicate about what I could and couldn’t do and why even though they didn’t like it and understand it at the time and totally guilt, did the guilt trip thing. I now know that It didn’t do harm to them, which is what I worried about so much. So I try to tell parents those stories, the story and how I navigated it, but I don’t think it’s possible to achieve a balance. I think if you think you’re going to, you’re just gonna feel like you’re always on a treadmill and I think you just do your best at wherever you are at the time.

Sandra Fenwick: Thank you. That was really very special. And I think it probably will bring a lot of little tears to the eyes. So Madeline are there any. Other lessons learned. I think I always like to get to a place where I just let you share, any other lessons learned that or words of wisdom that you would like to just impart?

Madeline Bell: I would. Say two things. One, as a leader, the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my career are hiring mistakes. And the mistake I made was, okay, I hire somebody and I believe in them. And I knew in my heart of hearts, and this has happened to me more than once, and you would think I would learn from it, but I knew in my heart of hearts that this was not gonna work out. Yes, a great person, but maybe not a fit for our organization. Made a, not a fit for my team. Maybe a, not a fit for me, but I kept sticking with it and thinking that I could get them there. I could rehab this, skill or whatever. And I knew it early on and I should have moved on it early on. And I say to people, if you really don’t think it’s gonna work out, don’t waste your time trying to make it work. It’s likely not going to work. Call it early and move on for both sake, for the person and for you. And I’ve done it more than once and I think they’re, the biggest mistakes that I’ve made are. Hiring mistakes. And then on, on the positive side I would say that people cannot believe in you or see you in a role until you can believe in yourself. And I remember I did not take this advice when I, somebody from our board said, we would love to consider you as. A CEO successor. I was the chief operating officer for eight years and I kept saying, no, I really love the job that I’m doing. I love the job that I’m doing. And then I started getting calls from other hospitals, several calls and invited to interviews for CEO positions. And then I started to think if they think I can do this, maybe I can do it. And to, I try to explain to people, don’t do that. Believe in yourself first, and other people will believe in you. And I think so of it. So much of it is up here in your head, this narrative in your head that if you’re confident and believe you can do something, other people will meet you and believe in you as well. So I think those are the two things I would pass along to other women.

Sandra Fenwick: Oh, Madeline, thank you. This has been absolutely so wonderful to hear not only your own personal story, but all of the things that you have gathered along the way. That have both helped you but are now helping so many others as they struggle to try and not only deal with their own challenges personally but also how they grow and become incredible inspiring leader like you. So thank you. This has been such a joyful conversation and appreciate so much you taking the time out of I Know and remember well, your schedule. Thank you.

Thank you,

Madeline Bell: Sandi.

Subscribe for Updates​

For exclusive access to Think Medium content and program updates, subscribe here.