Ep. 86: Creating Space for Diversity

with Susan Turney, M.D.

October 26, 2022


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Susan Turney, M.D.
CEO, Marshfield Clinic Health System

Susan Turney, M.D. is the CEO of Marshfield Clinic Health System. Previously, she was President and CEO of the Medical Group Management Association. She was also CEO and Executive VP of the Wisconsin Medical Society.  She is a Fellow in the American College of Medical Practice Executives (FACMPE) and for 22 years, Dr. Turney was an internal medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic. Dr. Turney received her bachelor’s from Northland College and her M.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Organizations have to prioritize the need to have diversity at the table. It's not just about men and women, it's other diversity as well. If it's not a priority, it won't happen.



[00:00:00] Ceci Connolly: Hello her story. Friends, we are back and we have a very special guest for this podcast, Dr. Susan Turney. She is currently the president and CEO of the Marshfield Clinic Health System. Full disclosure the health plan there, Security Health Plan is one of our terrific members at the Alliance of Community Health Plans, and so it is a special delight for me. To be able to talk with Sue here today. Sue, welcome to her story.

[00:00:30] Susan Turney, M.D.: Thanks, Ceci. Pleased to be here.

[00:00:33] Ceci Connolly: As we are focused here at her story on women leaders in healthcare, and in particular, we really wanna dig into how you got to this amazing place in the world that you’re at, including some of the, bumps along the way, perhaps. So that we can share some insights and lessons learned. But let me just start with a little bit of your early days. How did you get on the path of healthcare? You’re a physician obviously, but now you are also an executive, so talk a little bit about your own leadership journey.

[00:01:07] Susan Turney, M.D.: I think a lot of it has to do with our roots. If I go back in time to where I grew up a com, a community of 700 people in very rural Wisconsin and that’s my people, and that’s where I things were instilled in who I am as a person today and the passion that I have for really taking care of people in rural America. Know that my early career was with Marshall Clinic Health System as a practicing physician. I also was involved in research and education and truly gratifying to be able to take care of patients one on one. But as I thought about my career path and where I could really have a bigger impact, I realize. Being involved at the more macro level, building on all of my experiences growing up in rural Wisconsin and understanding healthcare from a clinician perspective, but also the unique needs and challenges that occur in rural America. I then took the leap from being a physician and leader at Marshall Clinic to becoming the CEO of the Wisconsin Medical.

[00:02:12] Ceci Connolly: And so then from the Wisconsin Medical Society and that kind of. At you away from maybe direct patient care into more of the shaping and transforming healthcare perspective but you came back to Marshfield and explain a little bit about that decision.

[00:02:30] Susan Turney, M.D.: It was a little scary coming back because first of all a newly created health system had occurred. We had a Marshall Clinic with a long history of. Care and a health plan. And when I came back the health system had been created and everything was now under the umbrella of the Marshall Clinic Health System, including the care delivery and the health plan side. And it was an opportunity to forge the future. They were at a pivotal point at that time. And the question before me when I started was, do we have a go to alone strategy? Do we merge with someone or do we be acquired by a larger health system? That is much more national presence. And we took the bold and very aggressive tactic of having a go alone strategy. So it very exciting to. Requiring a lot of grit, a lot of determination, but really building a team that you know has helped along this journey.

[00:03:31] Ceci Connolly: I’m glad that you men mentioned grit and determination and I’m always curious in these conversations to ask. The way. Have you found yourself throughout your career being one of the only women in the certain decision making circles or certainly in the minority, and how have you personally navigated that?

[00:03:54] Susan Turney, M.D.: In medical school and in my residency and in my early practice, I was the first woman in internal medicine. I was the first woman on the executive committee at Marshall Clinic. I was the first woman on the board, and now I’m the first woman ceo. However It’s both men and women that have helped me on this path. I’ve had great mentors, people who I’ve reported to, people who have stood alongside me, and people who have reported to me that have had the confidence and the trust in me to help lead through, through this evolution or through this journey that I’ve had. I do think that for women right now, The organizations have to prioritize the need to have diversity at the table. And it’s not just about men and women, it’s other diversity as well. And if it’s not a priority, it won’t happen. And for me As I’ve become involved in activities at the national level to help promote women in leadership, knowing that, 80% of the people that work in healthcare are women and 20% of the people in leadership are women. There’s a huge disparity there, and we need the ideas and the thoughts and the energy that a diverse group of people bring. But in particular,

[00:05:09] Ceci Connolly: You just laid out a series of firsts for you. First in your intern, first ceo, first board member, et cetera, et cetera. Lonely at times. Did was there ever a moment where you looked around and said, Gosh, what am I doing? Or Why am I here? How did you get through those periods?

[00:05:28] Susan Turney, M.D.: There are times when it’s varied, lonely. You have to be careful what you say. I have learned that much of what comes out of my mouth gets repeated, and for that reason you have to be a little cautious when you’re with people, whether it’s an individual. or whether it’s a group of people. So I think for me that was a real learning experience that I had to be very careful what I was going to say. That my opinions matter and that people would take me Very seriously in at my word. So I yeah. There you have to build people around you that can support you. And whether it was early in my career when it was my internal medicine colleagues and the people that I was doing research with, or whether it was in leadership and they’re not all within our institution. There are people that you meet across the country in different venues, like being part of Ach p where you establish relationships and you can share your journey and share your stories and invent a little bit about the challenges that you’re facing. Cuz I’ll tell you, healthcare is hard. It is very challenging job right now, the head.

[00:06:32] Ceci Connolly: It certainly is.

[00:06:34] Susan Turney, M.D.: at this point in time are probably worse than they’ve ever been. So it really is being able to find people that you can trust being with people that have confidence in you and understand the what you’re trying to create as you, go through these transformative processes.

[00:06:52] Ceci Connolly: And now as I look at your organization and for many years now, you have had so many very strong, smart. Women executives and leaders throughout your organization, and I don’t think that happens accidentally. So can you talk a little bit about how you change that makeup to your point about companies will be better with more diverse leadership and representation. How do you go about doing that?

[00:07:23] Susan Turney, M.D.: When you think about is it intentional or accidental? I would say that it’s a good part intentional. I felt even as, Kindergartner when my teacher told me women could not be physicians, that that was a good motivator for me to want to pursue that career. And I’ve told this story before, but I did end up taking care of my kindergarten teacher at the end of her life. So I guess she maybe did have trust and confidence in me even though women couldn’t be doctors. But I do think that once you’re a leader and you understand that, Using the values that you have instilled within yourself and the values of the company that you’re working with at the time, and people providing affirmation or validation for what you bring to the table, I think is a great motivator. And also I do believe then does create those opportunities where it’s more accidental.

[00:08:21] Ceci Connolly: And so let’s just take the notion of you’ve got an opening for a senior leadership role or an opening on your board or. Other organization that you are a part of? Are you sitting there and saying either to yourself or allowed, Okay, I wanna see some different candidates. Is it that concrete to make it happen?

[00:08:44] Susan Turney, M.D.: Of course we always wanna hire the best person or have the best person serve on the board with the skill sets that are needed. , if we’re not prioritizing it, not thinking about it, it’s very easy to fall back on the same pool, the people you know, the people you’ve worked with. And in many circumstances it might not be someone of color a woman versus a man or with a different background growing up in a more urban versus a rural environment. So I think it always has to be intentional and it has to be something that you prioritize. If you don’t, it won’t happen.

[00:09:18] Ceci Connolly: I wanna shift to one of our favorite topics here at her story, and that is, Mentorship, and I wanna first maybe capture a little bit of, did you have some important mentors along the way? I’m curious, were they men or women? Did that matter? And then we can get a little bit to how you approach mentorship now for others. But first, what was your experience coming?

[00:09:45] Susan Turney, M.D.: My first mentor really was a physician, a male physician who was not a clinic founder, but practiced at the Marshall Clinic for decades. And I was a medical student and. The thing that impressed me most about him is his ability to listen, to accept the fact that people are different and that. There are unique challenges in healthcare that can only be addressed if there’s a diverse workforce. And that impressed me because it happened to be at Marshall Clinic. It happened to be in a very rural setting, and it happened to be in a community that wasn’t all that diverse at that particular point in time. But then embracing nature and the confidence that he had in me to be successful was. Really an overwhelming experience, but there have been many people in that journey. Men and women. I would say that It’s all kind of case specific and depending on what direction you’re heading in your career. One of the women that reported to me when I was at Marshall Clinic years ago, because I did come back, as you mentioned, was very influential in telling me things like, You need to act like a president. You need to be presidential. You need to stand up. You need to lean in, and you don’t need to ask to sit at the table, just show. So there have been a lot of people that have helped me in the journey and I think what’s most critical is I actually stayed lifelong friends with most of them. And I hope they got something from me as well.

[00:11:25] Ceci Connolly: It’s interesting I was going to ask that. And so now as you think about a legacy, which is something all of us at Women of Impact Care a great deal about, and we have that in common, how do you. Approach mentorship now as the mentor, or maybe do you do some matchmaking for some of the more junior folks that you’d like to groom?

[00:11:53] Susan Turney, M.D.: It’s really about identifying talent and bringing people with, bringing people along. And that might be saying, Gee, I think this person might be good. Sitting on this committee, they have an expertise that is not present and it would give them a great opportunity to expand their thought process and their career opportunity. And then, but also being willing to observe that person because they might not get there the first time. It’s more of an iterative process. It’s hard to instill that confidence and the grit determination that I talked about with just having someone sit at the table. So it requires conversations, it requires follow up, it requires direction setting with with them. So we have to be there to help them. And we have been involved with a Carol Emmett Fellowship. For a number of years, and again, identifying people within our organization that have huge opportunity but have never been tapped. They’ve never been asked, they’ve never been brought forward. To really be given the opportunity that will help them develop, not just professionally, but personally as well. Those two pieces need to go together.

[00:13:12] Ceci Connolly: Is that a bit of a, gender issue in your mind of, is it women that say, Oh my goodness, I don’t know anything about that. How could I possibly do that? Big important thing and I is there is some way we can get past that.

[00:13:29] Susan Turney, M.D.: There’s probably some component of it being a gender issue just based on Way people approach problems and present themselves in a public setting. If you walk into a room and there are 11 men sitting at the table all in black suits, and you come in with a nice bright aqua coat on they might look at you a little differently than if you walked in with that same black suit. So I think. It’s just breaking down barriers, breaking down the silos, giving people an opportunity that it’s okay to look at and think differently. That’s what is needed at the tables that we sit at, and it’s pretty unusual that people aren’t receptive to that. But if you don’t make it a prioritize, you don’t show up and you don’t use your voice, it’s not gonna happen.

[00:14:15] Ceci Connolly: And so of course speak to though the work life balance or the family. Demands that women executives in particular can sometimes have more of the burden. And can you share from your own time where there are times in your life when the balance was difficult, or how did you manage that?

[00:14:41] Susan Turney, M.D.: you know, it’s really interesting and I know that one of the presentations you had at your meeting recently was around caregivers and the unpaid caregivers in particular. And as I think about being in someone early in my career where, I was a general internist. I was on call every night. I was on call every weekend. I saw all my walk-in patients. I had an ambulatory practice and I had patients in the hospital, and the days were very long and they were very demanding. And at that same time as I started my career, I started a family. And fortunately, I had a very supportive husband who was did more than his fair share of helping us raise our children. But I think the one thing that helped me when they underst. The demands on my job is to not make promises that I couldn’t deliver on. If I made a promise, I better deliver. And if they had an event at school, I couldn’t show up, or I didn’t know if I could, I didn’t say I was gonna be there because there’s nothing more disappointing to that child that if they don’t see your face in the crowd. But if they know you will show up, if you can, it just takes on a very different light. But certainly, as I’ve grown older and my kids have grown up. Now have family members living with me, a five month old and a three year old, and the mom and dad because they’re in transition with work and also dealing with the end of life care for my mom, which has been very challenging. It’s very time consuming, very emotional. You talk to your colleagues, you talk to your friends, you lean on other people, and you realize that, oh, this all will pass and it’ll pass too. And so if there’s anything you need to remind yourself of, and I need to remind myself every day, is that just stop. Just stop. Take a break, think about what you’re doing and make sure you’re taking care of the people that are most important in your life. And not always easy, but it’s something that I have to actually have conversations in my own head about or I wouldn’t do what I need to do for my.

[00:16:41] Ceci Connolly: Now one of our set questions here at her story the way that we typically phrase it is there a particular characteristic or skill that you have that gives you an edge? I think in Dr. Sue turn language, it’s all about the superpower. So tell us, what kind of a superpower do you rely on?

[00:17:02] Susan Turney, M.D.: As I think about that, it’s most likely leading with my heart. I’m kind, I believe I’m kind. I’m not always patient, but I do and am a much better listener now at this point in my career than I was early in my career. And I of stay focused on the prize and that prize is really for my professional career. Taking care of the patient in our communities and if that is my North star or that is what keeps me going every day then, things do tend to fall in place, but actually from a personal life it’s not much different.

[00:17:36] Ceci Connolly: So as you have this. Here today to offer some advice to, in particular women leaders, but all certainly as they are coming up through healthcare, which as you noted, this may be the most challenging period we’ve seen in this sector in such a long time. May maybe in my lifetime. I certainly hear that from so many executives. What kind of advice would you give to those that are hoping to continue moving up and growing?

[00:18:10] Susan Turney, M.D.: But I do think the best advice I can give people is remember who you are at your core. We all have personal values and we need to remember that trust, respect, kindness is really critical in helping us get through our days. I don’t have any magic. I wish I did, but I do think that my advice is always to have those conversations with yourself about who are you serving? Why are you serving and what can I do differently to make sure that I take care of myself, that I take care of my family, and that I take care of my professional needs in the best way possible? And it’s a conversation I have every day.

[00:18:54] Ceci Connolly: And so now thinking forward a little bit here for just a moment and we can take this on any level really, whether it’s yourself and your personal journey, whether it’s the amazing Marshville Clinic health system or larger health system, you name it. What is really at the top of your agenda? What are the things you know? Again, as you said, it’s hard to say no to things, but you have to, especially in this climate. But what are the ones that you are really you’re saying yes to and you’re prioritizing?

[00:19:29] Susan Turney, M.D.: There are very few people who really understand the unique challenges that we have in rural healthcare. The challenges of the distance people have to travel for care, the economic challenges living in a. Part of the world where we have some of the poorest, oldest, sickest patients in the country. If I think about the fact that what many of us take for granted, like having internet access and being able to communicate with providers virtually. But there’s no connection in about 10, 15% of our communities. So as I think about where I’m at and what I can continue to bring to the table is the fact that I understand rural, I understand the unique challenges, and I have deep passion for the people that live in our communities because, in part they’re my family. Lots of ’em, and I do care about them. I care about their health and wellbeing, but it does translate into everything I do. It’s just the passion that I have for rural healthcare, and I know that we are, I believe the best rural healthcare system in the country, and we need to leverage that to really meet our patient and community needs.

[00:20:37] Ceci Connolly: That is terrific. I want to thank this very busy woman leader, Dr. Susan Turney for joining us at Her Story today, I will let folks know that she continues to be extremely involved in the Carol Emmett Foundation which is all about grooming and growing that next generation of female leaders. Sue, it has been such a treat to have you with us.

[00:21:02] Susan Turney, M.D.: Thanks, Ceci. I appreciate it was.

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