February 24, 2021
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 0:00
I saw this white rose, just healthy, pure white. Not a stain on the petals, just growing and all these weeds, these brown dead weeds. And I often remember that and I think to myself, this is a metaphor for women, for people, that no matter what we surround you, and may threaten to choke out your existence, you can still survive and you can bloom in any season. It’s never too late.
Lan Nguyen 0:36
That was Ruth Williams-Brinkley, President of the Mid Atlantic states for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. In this Season One finale hosted by Ceci Connolly, President and CEO of the Alliance for community health plans, we learn about Ruth’s moving journey from growing up in the segregated south, to training as a nurse, to taking on the C-suite. So let’s jump into Her Story, a program where we explore the intersection of women leadership and health care.
Ceci Connolly 1:03
Hi, everyone, it is great to be back with Her Story. I am so pleased to introduce our guest for today’s podcast, Ruth Williams-Brinkley. She is the President of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Mid-Atlantic states. That plan is here in my home region of the DC, Maryland, Virginia area. And it is quite a responsibility if I’m not mistaken. About 34 medical offices now and over 768,000 members in that health plan. And of course, the other thing I think is so relevant to our listeners on the Her Story podcast is Kaiser Permanente, really an organization that has been promoting women and putting women in such important senior positions, executive positions of influence and importance. Ruth is an RN, so we’re going to talk a little bit about the move from clinical side over to C-suite. She has had numerous CEO gigs throughout her career, and we’ll talk about some of those travels and trails, if you will. So Ruth, thank you for joining us.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 2:22
Thank you, Ceci. It’s great to be here.
Ceci Connolly 2:24
Unfortunately, we’re remote in a pandemic but it seems to work okay, for the Her Story podcast. Ruth, I’m going to do something a little bit different than our typical podcast conversation because you and I had a chance to talk and we were focused on one of the important Her Story questions, which is “accidental or intentional leader?”. And I’m so interested in your response there. And I think it may lay the foundation for a lot of our conversation today. So can you start with – do you think of yourself as an accidental or intentional leader?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 3:03
I view myself as an intentional leader. I didn’t go into management or leadership thinking that I would love to do that. However, after my first leadership role, I was hooked. And I love being a leader because you have such influence and such an ability to bring people together and build them into teams. So after that first time, I was very intentional.
Ceci Connolly 3:32
And so of course, though, you were drawn to health care, first clinical side as an RN, talk to me a little bit about how that first pulled you into this world. And then we can get to making the pivot.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 3:46
I didn’t naturally go into nursing. It was a career that my grandmother guided me into. And once I was in it, I found that I really liked it. And so I worked as a clinical nurse for years. And then I had the opportunity to get my first management role as a nurse manager. And I found that I really enjoyed it. After that, I just kept doing different things. I would say that my career progression has been defined by saying yes to opportunities when I would be offered an opportunity, just as with my first role, I would say yes. And I didn’t always know that I could master the role. But I knew enough to really do the role pretty well. So I just kept saying yes, and it has been a great progression, and I’m very thankful.
Ceci Connolly 4:45
Will you tell us a little bit more about your grandmother who I suspect had a pretty significant influence?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 4:51
My grandmother absolutely did. She was a teacher, which was pretty unusual for an African American woman. Back in those days, and she was very, very focused on education, she’s very strong, and she decided what everyone was going to be. And so my role was to be the nurse in the family, everybody else in the family are teachers, and I am the one that she selected for healthcare. And that’s where I landed. Even though I resisted a little bit, I ended up exactly where she wanted me to be.
Ceci Connolly 5:27
That’s terrific. And of course, then you listened to your grandmother, you became an RN, you did the clinical side for a while. How did you make the leap over to the executive team?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 5:40
After being a manager, supervisor, and area director, I became a Chief Nurse. And I loved that role and worked at some fabulous organizations that I was really pleased to be a part of. And then I spent some time in consulting, and professional services. And once I left consulting, I started to be asked to do different kinds of things other than my core experience area of nursing. And that’s how I ended up being in the executive chair, in addition to a nursing role, because the Chief Nurse is an executive role. But then I had the opportunity to get into broader leadership after my experience in consulting. And that’s what really changed my trajectory. After that, I guess people saw me in a different way that I could do this really massive consulting doing turnarounds, and then I was asked to take on an interim CEO role. And then that led to a regular role. And after that, that was where I landed.
Ceci Connolly 6:51
So when you went into that first interim CEO role… Were there any hurdles, hiccups, challenges on that first one?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 7:00
I went into that role, and I had not been a CEO before. But I had been Chief Nurse. And I had a female boss who really believed in me, and asked me to do the interim role. And her boss, who was the head of the system, didn’t think I had enough experience to be the interim CEO. But she believed in me, and I’m so thankful to her. And I was to do that for four or five months while they did the search. And after I was there, the Board of that health system decided that they would invite me to be the CEO. And it was one of the best and most enjoyable positions, I’ve held. And then the person who was the head of the system did come back and say, You know what, I was wrong. You did a fabulous job. And I think he learned something from that as well.
Ceci Connolly 7:51
Wow, good for you. But good for him for saying so.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 7:56
I just thank the woman who believed in me. And I believed in myself as well, because I had done so many things prior to that, that I knew – I wasn’t absolutely certain because I hadn’t done this role before – but I always believe they see that you don’t have to have all the answers to everything. You just have to have the right questions. And you need to know who has the right answers, because no one can know everything. And so you need to know what your resources are.
Ceci Connolly 8:23
Ruth, we often on the Her Story podcast discuss being the only woman at the table, the only woman in the room, the only woman on the board, that sort of thing. But for you, I imagine you may have also frequently been the only person of color in many situations. So to be an African American woman coming up through this industry. Talk a little bit about that. And how did you manage that?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 8:50
Going back to my grandmother and I grew up in the segregated south. That’s my background. My grandmother, being a teacher never really taught us racism, she taught us that we could be whatever we want it to be. And so I never had that in my head. I’m sure there must have been times when I was discriminated against or looked askance at during those times, because many times, I was both the only woman and the only African American in many of those rooms. But I didn’t pay attention to it, because I just wasn’t taught to do that. And then what I noticed, was a lot of times when I would say something and this is a classic story, men and maybe somebody would say something oftentimes not and then a man would say the same thing. And so “what a great idea.” So I just learned to say, well, thank you for building on my idea. I just said thank you. And I learned to do it with grace, not with sarcasm, and you just learn but it was in retrospect, had I thought about it. I think it might have been crippling to my growth but didn’t think about it that way, I thought that I have a job to do. I’ve been hired for the job. And I am going to do the very best I can.
Ceci Connolly 10:08
I love your insight about not letting it be crippling. And I’m wondering if you can elaborate on that, especially for so many young women and people of color today, trying to navigate very challenging situations and career and community in life or looking at disparities and equity issues. What are your thoughts for those folks, both individually, and maybe as a community? How do we move forward?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 10:40
I think, first of all, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to get inside of your own head. And to think that people sitting around these tables don’t know any more than you do, in most cases, and they are managing, they’re there, and you have chosen to be there. And you have to have the confidence of knowing that someone had the confidence in you to place you in the role. And you’re just as good as the other people around the table. It can be intimidating to think that “Oh, everybody else knows more than me. I’m the only African American person. I’m the only woman. I’m the only Asian. I’m the only whatever.” But you were chosen for that role, for a reason. And in most cases, you are as smart in some cases smarter than the other people in the room. And what you have to learn to do is to work with others and not be intimidated about being the only one. And sometimes quite frankly, you are left out. It used to be prevalent that men would go to golf outings or go to golf or do the men kinds of things and not invite women. And I learned to play golf, I don’t play anymore. But I learned to play golf, because every hospital system, everybody has a golf tournament. And I learned to play golf. And I found that I really liked playing golf. And you have to learn to enjoy some of those things. You don’t have to do all of them. But if you want to be a part of the group, you got to be a part of the team.
Ceci Connolly 12:10
I think you, and me, and Joanne Conroy and some of our other Her Story gals, we might just have to play one round for fun. No boys allowed. You also have moved quite frequently throughout your career. And I mean, literally, geographically. Has that been hard on you? You have children. And so for your family as well as you – how was moving throughout your career?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 12:39
It was not hard for me. I always viewed it as a sense of adventure. And my little area, our town that I grew up in was teeny tiny. I mean, like maybe 300 or 400 people. So to call it a town would be a gross overstatement. And I was a reader because my grandmother wouldn’t let us watch TV. So I always read about places and different countries, different cities. And so I wanted to know what those places were about. I wanted to experience them. So when it came time to me to move for my career, I really thought “How is this going to impact my children?” But I was a single parent for a while and I knew that I was the sole support of my family. And so I had to make sure I made a living for them. And so most of my moves came after my son was just about finished high school. My daughter got the brunt of it. And I would feel sorry for her sometimes. Because if she gets settled, then I get a new job and we’d move again. I know today that it was difficult for her. I know it was and she has talked about that. What I also know is that it made her very adaptable and very resilient. And it made her feel that she could adapt to most situations without being intimidated. I would take her to events with me as my plus one. I remember when she was a senior in high school, she asked if she could bring one of her friends to an event we were going through and I said sure I asked the host if it would be okay. Her friend was immobilized and not able to work the room. Well, my daughter worked the room like a pro, because she’d been doing it since she was about five years old. That’s just one example. She became very resilient, and just very adept at mingling with people.
Ceci Connolly 14:36
Such a successful career, but I’m sure there have been disappointments and setbacks. How have you managed those? Is there anyone that comes to mind?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 14:47
I would say personally, I lost my husband about 10 and a half years ago, that was hard. I could always recover from anything that went wrong in my career and I’ve been truly fortunate. Much has gone wrong in my career, but I’ve been very fortunate. But that personal loss was really hard for me. And so it took me a while to recover from that. Grief is a very hard thing. And it happens to all of us. As a professional woman, you’re in the public eye. And you don’t quite know how to grieve appropriately. When I had disappointments in life, I would just work my way through it. And I tried to do that, with the loss of my husband, and it didn’t work, I had to actually go and get some grief counseling, and I worked with a counselor for a while and finally found my footing. That was really hard. And so for the jobs I’ve held, as I said, I’ve been very fortunate, not everything has gone perfectly, but I just learned whatever I could from whatever job I had, I gave my best. I learned what I could and used it as a springboard to my next position.
Ceci Connolly 16:00
We’re often very interested as well at Her Story about the themes of sponsorship and mentors. And from your own experience, did you have sponsors or mentors that were instrumental for your growth?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 16:17
I did not have mentors, our sponsors. I think one of the closest was the woman who helped me get my first CEO job and she is a friend to this day. I did not have the benefit of a long term sponsor, or mentor. And I really feel like that was the missing part of my career because I had to figure it out on my own. And because of that, I am passionate about mentoring and sponsoring other women, I can think of two examples, very recent examples of two women who just assumed really, really great roles. And I played a part in that because in one case, I introduced the person to the search firm that was doing the search. And subsequently, got the job. On another one, I had introduced both of those people to the same job and one got it, one didn’t. And the other one was looking at other roles and was thinking about taking a role that absolutely was not right for her. And I said this is not the right role for you. I knew the organization, I knew the dynamics, and I said you will be miserable. And I just think you have too much to offer. You’ve worked too hard, you’ve come too far to be miserable. But I said you make your own decision. But this is my personal opinion. So she just called me early this week to tell me she’s accepted a fabulous job. And she thanked me for talking her through not taking that other role that would have absolutely not been right for her in my view. And I think she came to the same conclusion that she got a much better role.
Ceci Connolly 18:02
Well, that’s a terrific outcome to that story. Although I do wonder if you hesitated at all to give her that kind of straight talk advice because I think sometimes we may think of mentors and sponsors as being our cheerleaders, right? Our boosters. And yet, you are giving some tough advice for her to hear at the time.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 18:24
Well, I hesitated because we never want to discourage someone. I let her talk and tell me about the interview. And then went on to tell me how the interview had gone and how it had made her feel. And it wasn’t an uplifting feeling. And there were red flags. And so when she told me that because she knew that I knew the organization. And I said, Well, I don’t normally do this, but I’m just going to tell you, you will be miserable. You can make it work. But the direct report is not someone I would work for. I said, but you need to make up your own mind in terms of whether you need this job, or whether you can wait for something different because I believe something better and different will come along that will encapsulate all of your experiences and you will be much happier. And I said, but I would never tell you not to take the job. I’m just telling you my perception. And so I didn’t know what she did. I didn’t talk to her because everybody gets busy. But she called me back just this week. And she said thank you for helping me to see that that was not the right role for me. And then she told me the role she was going to and I am just incredibly happy for her because I know she’ll do a great job.
Ceci Connolly 19:44
Fantastic and the virtue of some honesty and candor.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 19:47
Right. Yeah, you know, everybody has to make their own choice. But I think as women we owe it to our mentees and sponsors to be honest to say “This is what I’ve seen, this is what I’ve experienced, your experience may be different,” and let people make up their own minds about what they believe they can live with. That’s a personal choice. But I think sometimes people aren’t willing to be honest. And we want to be too politically correct or too polite or too whatever we believe is the right thing to be when people really need honest advice. And that’s what they’re looking for, from their mentors and sponsors.
Ceci Connolly 20:29
Some women might settle quickly, and you’re just relieved, they landed somewhere, right?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 20:36
Exactly, sometimes you have to do that. Depending on your family and life circumstances, you may have to do that, and you make the best of the situation. But in this case, I knew at least that this person didn’t need to do that.
Ceci Connolly 20:51
For yourself, is there a particular trait or characteristic that you think has really helped propel you throughout your career and lots of ups and a couple of downs as well,
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 21:05
I love people. I love working with people, I believe in people, and I have found that in my career, that working with people, building teams, helping to develop people pouring into other people is where I get my joy. And I guess that’s why I gravitated to mentoring and sponsorship. No one succeeds alone. We all have to work with other people to achieve any major objective. So I find that working with people has been my source of joy, my source of contentment, it gives me a feeling of accomplishment, when people I’ve worked with do well, when someone gets promoted, I’m so happy for them because I’ve taken some pride in that the person had to do their own work, and so forth. But I love that. I love seeing that. Now, sometimes you’re disappointed by people. And you wonder how could this person have done this? What were they thinking? And in those cases, if it’s possible, you try to forgive the person and help them move on. Sometimes people inflict self-inflicted wounds, and you can’t save them. But hopefully, in most cases, the person has learned something very valuable for themselves and won’t repeat that.
Ceci Connolly 22:30
We are all human. So I think another great trait of yours is that ability to forgive and understand and help others learn as you say. At Her Story, we often like to give you the opportunity to come up with a title for your own story. And I wonder Ruth, if you might have one?
Ruth Williams-Brinkley 22:53
I have been mulling this story over in my mind for a long time. And the title I would give my story is “roses still bloom in winter.” It’s metaphorical because I love roses. That’s my favorite flower. And what it means is that you can bloom at any time. And the way I came up with it many years after my grandmother died. I was at her old house. And she had a beautiful flower garden. And I spent many years pulling weeds and working in that flower garden. So I knew that garden and when I remember how small it looked. And when I was a child growing up, it just looked huge. Anyway, it was wintertime and the yard had grown up and there were dead weeds all over. And I was thinking oh my goodness, she would absolutely be fit to be tied if she saw her garden looking this way. And just as I was turning around, I left the garden to go back into the house and looked and I saw this white rose, just healthy, pure white, not a stain on the petals, just growing and all these weeds, these brown dead weeds. And I often remember that. And I think to myself, this is a metaphor for women, for people that no matter what weeds around you, and may threaten to choke out your existence, you can still survive and you can bloom in any season. It’s never too late. You just have to be resilient and to keep moving. So that’s what I chose, Roses Still Bloom in Winter, even though most of them bloom in summer some weight into winter and they still bloom.
Ceci Connolly 24:38
Well, I think it is a fantastic title. Now we’re going to have to get going on the book, Ruth. And what a wonderful high note and image to conclude this delightful conversation with Ruth Williams-Brinkley. Thank you so much for joining Her Story.
Lan Nguyen 24:59
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