Lan Nguyen 0:00
In this episode of Her Story, Dr. Julie Gerberding, Chief Patient Officer and Executive Vice President for Policy, Communication, and Population Health at Merck, explores the intersection of women, leadership and healthcare with Dean Michelle Williams and Dr. Helen Gayle.
Michelle Williams 0:18
In the role as a leader, you’re going to have to demonstrate right off the bat that you’re a leader for everyone, not just for black people or not just for women. And so for me, it was really important to message, but also through my actions, make very clear very early on that I took my responsibility seriously and it was leading the entire school, not half the school or a quarter of the school.
Lan Nguyen 0:42
That was Michelle Williams, Dean of the Faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Helene Gayle 0:47
I thought that a public health career couldn’t allow me to make a contribution at a broader level–at a population level. I came to appreciate the social determinants of health. That was why we decided to take this focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap. That’s kind of our moonshot, as you said, because we felt if we could make a difference there, then we could have a huge impact on all these other issues as well.
Lan Nguyen 1:10
That was Dr. Helen Gayle, President and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. In this conversation, Dean Williams and Dr. Gayle reflect on their unique professional journeys in public health and leadership lessons learned along the way. Let’s listen.
Helene Gayle 1:27
Mentoring is a relationship. You want somebody that you are invested in their success, and that you truly feel your success, by them being successful.
Michelle Williams 1:38
Curiosity in the person that you have the privilege and the opportunity to mentor. You have to see the person be curious about the person to help them.
Lan Nguyen 1:47
We’re delighted to welcome Dr. Michelle Williams and Dr. Helene Gayle, to Her Story.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 1:54
Hello and welcome to Her Leadership Story. I’m Julie Gerberding. I’m the Chief Patient Officer at Merck and Executive Vice President for policy communication and population health. I’m absolutely delighted to be here today with two incredible women who are going to share a little bit about their professional journey, and help give us some tips on what has inspired them, what they’ve done to overcome some obstacles, and where they’re going to go from here. I’ll just briefly introduce them and then we’ll get right into it.
So let me start first with Helene Gayle. Helene is currently the President and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, which is a really important, large philanthropic organization in Chicago. Helene is responsible for the oversight of this organization, but also is involved in implementing a moonshot to really addressed economic disparities across the city of Chicago, which, by the way, ranks, I think, 50th out of 50 cities in the United States in terms of the ethnic and racial disparities in the economic forefront.
Helene has an amazing background of academic success at Barnard, U-Penn, Hopkins, she has 18 honorary degrees and is on the faculty at the University of Washington and Emory, and has so many accolades and achievements that I don’t want to take time to go through them all here. But, Helene, let me start by asking you, how did you move from sector to sector? You’ve been at the CDC, you’ve been in government, you’ve been in the nonprofit sector for [inaudible] here in Chicago. How did you navigate those incredible sector changes? And how did you know it was safe and time to make a move like that?
Helene Gayle 3:43
Thanks so much, Julie, it’s great to be here with you and with Michelle, to have this conversation. I guess I would start by saying I went into medicine because I really wanted to have a career where I felt I could make a contribution to society. Health is so central to our overall well being and so many other things, our economic potential, etc., I thought it was a tangible way that I could contribute and hopefully give back.
In doing so, I kind of went from being a clinician and trained as a pediatrician, thinking about my patient as an individual, to public health, where you really think about your patient as a community or a nation or even the world. And I thought that a public health career could allow me to make a contribution at a broader level–at a population level, and so it took me to CDC. And in working in HIV, which I spent so much of my time working on, you recognize that oftentimes, the things that make people vulnerable for poor health have less to do with health and the health toolkit, but more to do with the other societal issues. And, you know, we now talk about the social determinants of health and I think I came to appreciate the social determinants of health, which led me to take on the role of leading care in an international organization that focuses on global poverty and economic progress in poor countries. And then to come to Chicago and a few things in between there, but coming to Chicago, where I felt, after spending 30 years of my career globally, that I really wanted to have an opportunity to contribute at a local level, and to really live with a community and see if you can make a tangible difference.
And when I first came on, I was charged with thinking about a new strategy. And again, looked at a lot of the things that we could have an impact on, whether it was violence, education, we have a huge health disparity; 30 year life expectancy gap between rich and poor neighborhoods in Chicago, but underneath all of that was the wealth gap and this sustained and growing wealth disparity that existed, that particularly existed along racial lines, we’ll get into that more. But that was why we decided to take this focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap is kind of our moonshot, as you said, because we felt if we could make a difference there, then we could have a huge impact on all these other issues as well.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 6:14
I have no doubt that you’re going to be successful. I’ve watched you succeed in every other endeavor that you’ve taken on, so I really think the people of Chicago are lucky to have your leadership and your engagement in this.
Now, let me turn to Michelle. Michelle, as Dean of the Chan Harvard School of Public Health, you have an amazing responsibility at an incredibly prestigious university. But you too, like Helene, have this amazing trajectory through some of the most rigorous and outstanding institutions in the world.
But your story starts a little bit differently because at seven years old, you and your family emigrated to the United States from Jamaica. And somehow you found yourself at Princeton University and then from there, Tufts, earning a Master’s in Engineering, which was the fact I didn’t know about you. And then from there to the University of Washington, where you did your doctoral work at a rapid rise over, I think, eight years to become a full professor there, then back to Harvard, for your academic development, and then ultimately became the Dean of the school in 2016. So I’ll start at the beginning, just because I think it’s such an amazing thing. How does a seven-year-old little girl who arrives in the United States, end up at Princeton? What helped you get acclimated and oriented and have the kind of support you needed to be able to make that evolution?
Michelle Williams 7:42
Thank you, Julie. And it’s really a privilege and a pleasure to be here to have this conversation with you both, because you’ve been role models for a very long time. And let me just say, Julie, I was lucky. I mean, as an immigrant family to the United States, my parents made the decision that they were going to do everything to afford us the best possible education that they could and public schools back in the 70s, in Queens, New York, were really good. I had exquisite exposure to dedicated professional teachers. And it just takes one teacher to notice talent and to say, “You belong in this program.” And that happened in the eighth grade. That put me on a track where I was allowed to pursue my interests in biology.
And I will say, and will always believe that this great country has the recipe, has the people, has the institutions, if we could only support and maintain them, to support talent, native born talent, as well as the many immigrants that come to this country and make it what it is. I have, all along the way, been deeply grateful to teachers and professors. When I made it to Princeton, I learned very early on that my career as a clinician was not going to happen because I couldn’t pick a frog in my freshman biology class. And all I wanted to do was study biology and be a clinician. And thankfully, with good mentorship, I studied developmental genetics with someone who went on to become a Nobel laureate. That experience in being in a laboratory with someone who brought pure joy and energy and effort, kindness, to his laboratory allowed me to see what it could be like to be a scientist.
But growing up in Queens Village, New York, [inaudible] genetics alone was not going to fill my need to have an impact, and I was lucky again, to find one of your colleagues, Helene, Lowell Seaver, who modeled for me what someone who has an interest in developmental biology could do if they had the training of the science of public health. And so it was a CDC specialist in birth defects, who gave me an opportunity to see that I could marry my passion to bring biology out into the world where we solve problems. And the CDC actually gave me that beginning inkling of what a career in academia and public service could look like through the lens of public health.
And Julia, over the years as a student, and as a junior faculty member, I essentially brought my whole self, my desire to have an impact, my love for being in the academy, being in this educational system, and my passion for always being in a space where discoveries are being made. And wrapping that all together in a career that has brought me the opportunity to lead a department and in doing so, enable others to find their own journey into leadership, science, and public health, and then being the Dean of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. And it’s a challenging job, but to be in a position to enable the best science being brought forward, to solve problems, to prevent disease, and to have the kinds of impact that you both are very well aware of what we can do as public health specialists, impact on scale is the most rewarding thing that I think we can do with our time.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 11:28
You mentioned mentoring and I just have to say that one of the amazing things about Michelle is that she’s actually received awards for her mentoring. I think the Presidential Award from the National Science Foundation. At the time of the award, you had supported the mentoring of 23 Medical grads, 28 PhD grads and 67 Master’s students. I mean, that’s just unbelievable. So I’ll ask you, maybe just in a short sentence, what is the single Most important thing that creates a good mentoring relationship,
Michelle Williams 11:58
Curiosity. Curiosity and the person that you have the privilege and the opportunity to mentor. Who are they? Where do they want to go? And how can I help you? You have to see the person, be curious about the person to help them.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 12:12
I love it. Helene, you’ve also been a mentor to so many people and probably benefited from mentoring as well. How would you answer that question? The most important quality in a mentor?
Helene Gayle 12:24
Yeah, I like that idea about being curious about the mentee because these days young people feel like mentorship is something they should almost check a box, and not think about the quality of the relationship. But I just think mentoring is a relationship. And I think thinking about the quality of that relationship is the part that is most important to me, I think, because you want somebody who there is a bond that you are invested in their success, and that you truly feel your success by them being successful.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 13:10
Thank you for that. And as I said, I know even from just days at CDC, the legacy you left behind, and that agency still lives on, there are a lot of people that benefited from your support and in your engagement.
So now here, you both are really at peak performance in really important leadership roles as Dean or CEO of important organizations and you both come into these roles relatively recently, you had to set a new strategic direction. You came into organizations that weren’t broken, you know, they had many attributes and assets and successes behind them. And that’s actually one of the hardest environments to affect change when you’re trying to lean into the future or up the game even further. So I’d like you to talk a little bit about what was hard about coming in and establishing a new strategy, and then getting the buy-in from the incumbents to be able to move that strategy forward. I’ll go to you first, Michelle, because I know that’s been something that has been a challenge, but also having been privileged to understand a little bit about the strategy at the Harvard Chan, I think it’s marvelous. So I’d love to hear how you approached it.
Michelle Williams 14:08
Thank you for that, I think coming into an institution that isn’t broken, that is really at the pinnacle, represents a significant leadership challenge, because you do want to first do no harm to the excellence that’s there. But you want also to have added value during your leadership journey. And I think for me, the first thing that was necessary to do was to really understand, to listen intently, through listening exercise, what the stakeholders of the organization that I’m leading, really saw as unfulfilled mission that they thought we could reach for, and what we’re doing really well, and identify stretch goals. And recognizing that in that identification of stretch goals, one has to go back and understand, “Well, why weren’t we doing these things already?” so that you can anticipate where there might be barriers to achieving those goals.
Building the coalition to then manage the journey and imagining and prioritizing those stretch goals and building into that an operational plan requires building a team that not only can come to the conceptual understanding of where we want to go, but actually implement on it. And having those two together, the conceptualizers and the implementers, building that team and making sure that they are well-guided is a challenge, but is also where a lot of creativity and energy and enthusiasm comes. So I say listening first, coming to some consensus about where we want to add to excellence, and then being sure that that excellence and that goal is managed appropriately from concept to implementation.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 15:59
Yeah, it’s a journey. I think we learned that. Helene, you stepped into a very different kind of a role in a city in which you’ve never lived. How did you establish your credibility and get your moonshot underway?
Helene Gayle 16:15
I was frankly, somewhat terrified. In entering, I took the job believing that that of course, I would be able to do something but you know, you it is harder, as you said, becoming to an organization where it’s not broken, and really figure out how you put your mark on and I guess, you know, I would say I tried to enter in with a lot of humility. I didn’t know Chicago, as you mentioned, I didn’t know the Community Foundation world. And I intentionally said to people I was going to take time, and actually do as you said, Michelle, listen and learn and you find that most organizations, even if they’re in good shape, have aspirations for doing more. And if you just listen and be patient about learning, you actually find where the cracks are, where the opportunities are, because they’re there.
And so I went on a listening tour, I went on a tour to get to know the Chicago neighborhoods, I talked to a lot of stakeholders and I spent a lot of time with my staff and with my board. And I think it was, I was at, that we were able to co-create something. And I think that was particularly important because as a community foundation, you’re there to really work on to benefit the community. It’s not what I, Helene Gayle, wants, but what will really make a big difference for the community. And so I guess, I would just emphasize, again, it’s that learning, it’s taking people on a journey, it was a bit of a challenge to take on this issue of racial equity. And that was pre-COVID, pre-George Floyd, when it wasn’t on everybody’s lips, necessarily. But we did a big learning journey as a staff and as our board. And at the end of that, and really understanding the facts and understanding the issues in the Chicago area, it was hard not to move forward with the strategy that we came up with, it was so patently clear what the biggest challenge was for that city. And so I think by the time we got there, the conclusion was almost obvious. And in the process, we have taken others along on that journey. And I think we came to the same conclusions at the same time, but it was about entering with humility, and being willing to listen.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 18:31
I’ll follow up this question to both of you, but Helene, I’ll start with you. Leading strategic change is hard, we’ve acknowledged that. But being a woman in a leadership position–and being a woman of color in a leadership position–brings some special challenges. And I wonder if you could just share a little bit of how you handle that and what you found to be the best way to bring people along and accept your leadership and your professional capabilities?
Helene Gayle 18:58
Well, maybe I’ll cover two things. I think first, for me, it’s always been important that I’m focused on the mission. And when I’m focused on the mission, then it’s easier for me to move forward because I’m not thinking about myself, I’m thinking about “How do I actually get done, what needs to be done?” To your point about being a woman and particularly being African American, it was an issue and a challenge to think about “How do I come in as a black woman?” and understand that we were headed in the direction of taking on the issue of racism and how it impacts economic opportunity, knowing that people hearing it from me might hear it differently than if they heard it from somebody who was white. And again, I think it was by going on this journey together and also by being able to talk about this in a way that was very inclusive, that we were able to get even some of our most conservative, either board members, donors, etc., to understand why this issue was the issue of the day and why it was so important. But it’s a delicate balancing act, because I know that the moment I opened my mouth and start talking about race, discrimination, racism, people hear it very differently. And so I think it adds an extra burden on thinking about: how do you shape the issues? How do you frame the issues, so that you’re not closing off people from the very beginning because it’s you giving the message?
Dr. Julie Gerberding 20:32
Really interesting challenges. Michelle, you’re in a different world at Harvard, but nevertheless, one that probably brings some of these same issues to the forefront for you. How are you handling it?
Michelle Williams 20:42
Not very differently than what Helene described. I would say that the first thing that I realized I had to do and you know, this coming up throughout your career, is that in the role as a leader, you’re going to have to demonstrate right off the bat that you’re a leader for everyone, not just for black people or not just for women. And so for me, it was really important to message, but also through my actions, make very clear very early on that I took my responsibility seriously and it was leading the entire school, not half the school or a quarter of the school.
The other thing that Helene said that resonates very deeply with my own journey is that to make sure that the stakeholders, the other senior leaders of the school, were there to message and there to support the priorities and the directions that we would take on during my early years as Dean. It is, you know–and Helene used this word “a burden”–is something that we have to be aware of. It is something that is surmountable by very clear and strong communication and making sure that our actions, our decisions are aligned and comported with our rhetoric.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 22:00
Every time we enter into a new role, we’re rookies in that role. And Michelle, I remember hearing you describe a rookie mistake. I can’t remember what the mistake was but I remember specifically you use that phrase, and it just resonated with me so much that you make a rookie mistake. My question isn’t, tell us your mistakes. But my question is really, how do you recover from a mistake, especially when it’s early on in your tenure, and you’re still in that fragile state of developing your credibility?
Michelle Williams 22:30
No, thanks for that. The rookie mistake was I saw there was a structural problem in how we managed part of the school’s mission and it was clear to everybody that there was a structural problem, who could see it, who had the same perspective that I had, and it had to be fixed. And fixing the problem was easy. But what I missed as a rookie was you had to bring people along. You had to bring them along for a change that might touch them, but they might not necessarily understand the full reason why an immediate fix to the problem had to happen. And the rookie mistake was I did the right thing, but it’s not the “what”, it’s the “how”. The “how” was, you know, I should have taken a little bit more time to explain why the change that had to be made, had to be made, and it would not have been that much longer to do. I’ll tell you the rebound, the most important thing was first, own the mistake. So I basically said, “I made a rookie mistake, it’s not the what, it’s the how, but let me share with you what I won’t do again.” And I won’t do a massive change in a speedy way, without bringing people along so that there are enough people in the community who can appreciate and understand why the change is necessary.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 23:45
Helene, I have to ask you the same question. I can’t imagine that you haven’t made at least one rookie mistake.
Helene Gayle 23:51
Yeah, I feel like I keep making them and there’s always a new area where you can be a rookie, even in a job you’ve been in a while. But I guess I would just say, I think it’s that balance between first of all, admitting you made a mistake. And that’s critical, and being able to acknowledge that you made a mistake, and help people understand why you made the mistake. So that there is a sense of, yeah, maybe if I was sitting where she sat, I might have made the same mistake, so that there’s some sense and some understanding. But I think there’s also this balance, because leaders make mistakes. And I think sometimes as women, we are almost more apologetic about the things that we do. And I think there’s this balance of admitting you made it, being open and honest, but not letting it overwhelm you or keep you from being willing to take similar risks or step out there again. So I just think that continuing to calibrate that in a way that doesn’t let a mistake disable you from moving forward, or for people to see you getting almost thrown off guard as a result of that, because you got to keep moving forward.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 23:05
We’re all working in environments that right now we’re talking a lot about diversity and inclusion, almost as a buzzword. But they, people do look to see what the person at the top is actually doing, what kind of talk and what kind of walk they are perpetuating. So I think our listeners would be very interested in understanding what you, personally, are doing to try to create a more inclusive environment in your organization.
Helene Gayle 25:25
It’s interesting, I walked into the Community Foundation seeing one of the most diverse staff that I’ve probably ever been a part of, you know, it’s incredibly diverse, represents ethnic and race, diversity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, diversity, etc. But even in an organization like that, we still have a history, if you will, that is very much a part of it and a culture. And so we’ve been on a journey around diversity, inclusion and equity. And several of our younger staff, many of whom have not had other experiences, said, “Well, you know, you’ve got to do something about this white supremacy environment that we live in”. And I’m like, I’m the black CEO, my COO is a Latina, half of the rest of my senior staff are either African American, or Latin X; we have this incredibly diverse board, etc. Nonetheless, organizations do have cultures and if you are part of the mainstream in some way or the other, there are probably elements of that, that reflect the mainstream culture. And so, you know, for me, I think it’s really leaning into those issues. And then thinking about how do you start analyzing why people, even in this diverse environment, may still feel like there are remnants of a way of doing things that still inhibits them from being their full selves. And so for me, it’s just how do we make sure that everybody can come to work and be their full selves, at least as full as is reasonable within the context of a work environment? And how do we get at that?
And so we’ve been doing a lot of work around DEI, including, you know, having consultants and people who are working with us to come up with, what’s our standard? How are we going to think about that? And how do we incorporate it in everything we do, including our grant making, which is a big deal. We recognize that, in philanthropy in general, those who are good at writing grants, are those who tend to get grants. They often don’t represent the communities that we work with. How are we thinking about those sorts of issues? We’ve just tried to dissect every piece of our business, if you will, and think about how we are living in our values of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?
Dr. Julie Gerberding 27:41
I’m fascinated by this dichotomy, in the sense between diversity, you can have a very diverse organization, but culture is a very different thing and how much attention you really have to focus on the details. Michelle, I know that you’ve worked hard on improving the diversity of the student body, as well as the faculty and the faculty pipeline. And that’s really hard when you’re in an environment where there’s not a lot of turnover, etc. So how are you addressing the inclusion dimension of your culture?
Michelle Williams 28:10
I think that’s really a challenge. Instinctively, in my environment, the conversation generally turns right away to the numbers of students and number of minority faculty of color. And I have been from day one, saying, it’s not just about the numbers, it has to be the climate in the culture. And what that requires is getting the faculty, getting the staff and the student body to recognize that there are practices and processes that are routine in the mainstream of the school’s functioning, that has to really be thoughtfully addressed to dismantle the embedded hierarchy, that keep people doing the same thing the same way. For example, we should have more diversity, and inclusiveness in some of our quantitative areas of public health. But the practices of how applications are reviewed, how awards are given out, work against black and brown quantitative scientists who want to be in public health. And so it’s not just always about the numbers, it’s trying to get people to see how embedded practices, unconscious biases, lead to excluding a whole segment of our talented population from engaging more on the quantitative side.
On the social determinants and behavioral side, we don’t see that problem. Because that’s a culture and a department that is open to a more diverse set of talent engaged, so it’s having difficult conversations. Sometimes it has to be facilitated with an outsider who might have more spaciousness, to really hold a mirror up and say some of the practices we have, embedded in those practices are ways that keep diversity, and inclusion and belonging, not a realized goal. It’s hard because there are parts of the community who will expect because I’m a black woman, I can make things change right away. And that’s an unrealistic expectation. It really requires the whole community to make that commitment to create a space that is wholesome and inclusive. And that excellence is not mutually exclusive from diversity and inclusiveness.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 30:30
Well said and sobering, I would say. I feel like I could talk with you forever, but we don’t have unlimited time. So I’m going to move very quickly into a little lightning round here, where I’m just going to ask you some quick questions. And I’d love you to give our viewers some quick answers. Snap answers off the top of your head. So the first one is an easy question. You’re both experts in public health, and know everything there is to know about health and well being. How do you practice what you preach?
Helene Gayle 31:01
Not very well. Sad, but true. I do, seriously, try to do some basic things, exercise, eat well, spend time with friends, and do things that give me pleasure. So I try to keep my balance. I think all of us who have these jobs that keep us working too hard, though, sometimes don’t always practice that.
Michelle Williams 31:22
I have grown to learn to practice self care. And even if it means getting up extra early in the morning, I have to do that exercise because it gives me the mood stabilization and the energy, paradoxically, to make it through long days.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 31:39
What’s the best single piece of advice you’ve ever received, personally or in your professional career?
Michelle Williams 31:46
Do what makes you happy.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 31:47
I love it. Helene?
Helene Gayle 31:50
Don’t feel like you have to be perfect.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 31:52
You are incredibly successful women and you have many distinguished characteristics. But if you had to name your secret sauce, the one thing that really you think has contributed the most to your differentiation and helped you along the way. What would you say your single most important differentiator is?
Helene Gayle 32:11
I think I connect the dots well.
Michelle Williams 32:15
You know, that’s really a good one, I would say the same. I like connecting the dots. I like walking into a space and identifying ways to create something that’s better than additive.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 32:27
For my last question, is the obvious question. This is her leadership story that we’re talking about here. So I’d like to know if you were to write your story. What would you title it?
Michelle Williams 32:39
Dr. Julie Gerberding 32:41
Strategic Optimist. Okay. Helene?
Helene Gayle 32:45
No Straight Line.
Dr. Julie Gerberding 32:49
I love it. You are both incredible. And this time has flown by, but I can’t wait to do part two. So thank you so much for having a conversation, for sharing some of your experiences in your background. I think Michelle and Helene are incredible leaders. They’re very powerful women. They’re also very thoughtful, high emotional intelligence and just about everything else we could aspire to. But seriously, they’re also very, very powerful sources of public health and public health leadership. And at a time when our country needs that more than ever, we just thank them for their service for their leadership and for everything they’re doing, to achieve the goals of their organization, but also to inspire and motivate all of us. Thank you.
Helene Gayle 33:35
Thank you, Julie. Thank you, the same could be said to you, and thanks so much.
Lan Nguyen 33:41
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