Ep. 90: The Power of a Mentor

with Lisa Simpson, M.B.
Episode hosted by: Ceci Connolly

November 23, 2022


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Lisa Simpson, M.B.
CEO, AcademyHealth

Lisa Simpson, M.B., B.Ch. President and Chief Executive Officer of AcademyHealth. Before joining AcademyHealth, Dr. Simpson was a professor of pediatrics, first as an Endowed Chair in Child Health Policy at the University of South Florida and then as the Director of the Child Policy Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Simpson received her undergraduate and medical degrees at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and an MPH at the University of Hawaii.


You don't rely on just one mentor. There are different mentors who will help you with different aspects of your career development and advancement.



Ceci Connolly: [00:00:00] Hey, it’s cece. We’re backed with her story and I have such a terrific guest with us today. This is Dr. Lisa Simpson. She is President and CEO of Academy Health, which we’re gonna hear a little bit about today. And a dear friend of mine, fellow woman of impact. Lisa, welcome to her story.

Lisa Audio track: Oh, Cici, it’s a real pleasure to join.

Ceci Connolly: Terrific. Well, we like to start most of these her story conversations. Lisa, with a little bit of your story in particular, you are a physician. You now run a big powerhouse organization based here in Washington, dc. Tell us a little bit about your journey. Were you focused on medicine from childhood?

How’d you get on this?

Lisa Audio track: Well, you know, I, some people have intent. And planned out career journeys, and that is not my story. So my story is it definitely has a [00:01:00] unifying thread. But it is more a story and a journey of serendipity and hard work. And so I come from a non-medical family. My father was US diplomat. I grew up overseas, but what my parents really instilled in us both my mother was a stay at home work at home mother and my dad was the importance of women having choices.

In their lives. And this especially was important since I’m one of four girls. And so as I was good in the sciences, I ended up choosing medicine, not because I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but more that I knew that if I were a physician, I could then choose to go into research, go into clinical practice, potentially move into more leadership roles.

But I saw it as a way to have opportunity as a.

Ceci Connolly: Fantastic. And I, I love a father figure who really believes [00:02:00] in the success of women and daughters, and I know that’s the case with all of your sisters. Tell us a little bit more so you make it through medical school, which is no small achievement. And I am curious when you went through medical school, residency, et cetera were there many women role models, peers, what was that like for you in the early days?

Lisa Audio track: So I went to medical school in Ireland cuz our family home was in Ireland. And I like to say I would not be a physician today cuz I could not have afforded medical school in America, in Ireland as an Irish resident. It was. Affordable. And so it was heavily subsidized by the state. And actually we did have quite a few women in our class.

So there were peers in terms of role models, no. Most of our professors except our anatomy professor were men. So didn’t see much there. And you know, it took me a while to, of reflection over the years to look back on my experiences in terms of was I [00:03:00] treated differently as a woman? Did I have barriers put up in front of me or opportunities provided because of my gender?

And I have one anecdote that I always remember when I asked my chemistry. Professor for a reference for a summer job. This is, I still have this letter. He, it was handwritten and the sentence that stands out for me is Ms. Simpson is a diminutive damsel of most attractive appearance now. What the heck, what has that got to do with my skills, my intelligence?

But it was 1976, so a very different world. So I think that there, I was probably not as aware at the time of all the ways that my presence as a woman really did affect my experience throughout. Training. And so I went from medical school to pediatrics to public health, and as I like to say now, I think I’m misquoting Kiir [00:04:00] Kard about life is live forward, but understood backwards what has what I see as a constant thread in my journey as a woman and as a leader.

Is this dissatisfaction or impatience with the status quo of there’s got to be a better way to do this. And the way I chose to try to answer that question was through research, by helping to either create better evidence about what works in healthcare to make communities and individuals healthier or to help support that research or promote that research.

And so, Through my journey in the public sector, the private sector, I landed in the nonprofit sector here in Washington at Academy Health, where our mission is to improve health and healthcare for all and how, by advancing evidence into policy and practice. So in a way, I couldn’t think of a better role or organization to be in[00:05:00] as really a culmination of all that I’ve learned and continue to learn.

In my work, every.

Ceci Connolly: So we focus a lot here at her story on leadership and in particular women leaders, how they got their advice, et cetera. And you have this such a diverse background in range of experience, as you say, government, private sector, now non-profit in dc And I’m curious if there are d. Elements of your leadership style that you think have come from those, or that have, you know, you’ve pulled together where you are now.

What did that eclectic background do for you?

Lisa Audio track: It’s a great question. And I don’t know how. Much of it is unique to me as opposed to as. Learn and grow older. Some of the lessons that come along the way. So, I’ve already mentioned sort of my impatience for change and I’m also a pretty fast [00:06:00] thinker. And one of the things I had to learn about my presence and my style.

Was to hold it, to step back a little bit and to not always be the first one to speak to not cut people off and to really actively listen. And then what I was able to bring as I developed that skill was because of my background growing up in so many different countries I think I’ve.

It’s enabled me to work sort of cross sectorally and across different cultures, organizational, various cultures, to really kind of understand the importance of these different perspectives and to honor and make room for all of them. So, so that’s one area I’ve seen myself evolve and change.

I think the other aspect is I’ve also learned to. To understand the power of my words. So when you’re a ceo, cce, you know this. You know if you have an idea, well, you’ve gotta really signal to your [00:07:00] staff, is this an idea I expect you to act on and I want you to do this. Or am I brainstorming here? Is this an idea?

I want us to bat around and figure out if it makes sense. And so that importance of being very clear depending on the audience and the context of the conversation helping folks with sign posts about what your expectations are for action on their part.

Ceci Connolly: Boy that is spot on. I can really relate to that. And so how do you try to. That you know, here’s a crazy idea that popped into my head versus no, I really want this to happen now. How do you approach that with staffs or coalitions or stakeholders or whoever you’re working with?

Lisa Audio track: So I think what I have found and continue to learn from is the importance of building relationships with individuals so that your reputation almost precedes you when you enter the room. People have heard of your organization or [00:08:00] of you and so that takes time and effort. and you’ve the importance of building trust and so that when you are clear and signal, I would like this to happen, people know, oh, she’s serious, or you signal okay.

I’m not sure about this. Let’s hit this around. Let’s bat this idea around when you’re doing that with your team and your staff or your collaborators if they’ve worked with you before, if you have laid the groundwork for trust, it’s gonna be a lot easier for people to push back to, to tell you, you know, that’s kind of a hair-brained idea or great idea, but not right now.

Let’s, how about this alternative? So, I think that’s been part of my strategy as I go forward. So really building on those relationships, nurturing them and really stepping back, you know, okay, if there are more than one way, if there’s more than one way to accomplish the goal. It doesn’t always have to be my way.

It, you [00:09:00] know, and so letting other people lead. I think that’s been important.

Ceci Connolly: Obviously you are a great success these days, but I bet there were setbacks along the way. Barriers, hurdles talk a little bit about, and in particular, were any of those, because you were. A woman in a position or the only woman in a setting, were those challenges for you to navigate?

Lisa Audio track: So I remember back when my, I like to say my first real job after my residencies was as the maternal and child health director for the state of. And as such, I ran a series, I oversaw a series of categorical programs and perinatal health and family planning. And I could go on, but you know, to improve the health of moms and kids in Hawaii.

And I found that you know, the way I’d like to characterize it is that sometimes it felt like the real decisions were being made in rooms where only the big [00:10:00] boys. And for me the question was how do I get access to that room? And so it, it contributed to my decision to to leave that position and eventually go back and get a postdoctoral fellowship in health services research and health policy.

Cuz I felt I really hadn’t, my MPH was an epidemiology, so I did not underst. Health policy making in America, you know, the various actors and stakeholders and how to navigate and leverage those and be effective. And so I think gender certainly played a part of that. But otherwise, I would say because of my background as a pediatrician in maternal and child health, And working in children’s hospitals or in government in my field, those are actually disciplines and sectors that where women are pretty well represented as opposed to say, you know, consumer tech or some other aspect.

Of the healthcare [00:11:00] ecosystem. I mean, in our membership at Academy Health, we have over 50% women members. And at our conferences, our annual research meeting, when we come together, about 3000 of us, we have about 50, 60% women. And importantly, We have about 50% women presenting. So it’s not just women in the audience, it’s women on the stage as well.

And so, I think I perhaps have not experienced quite as many gender based barriers given the sectors I work in, but they’re there.

Ceci Connolly: Absolutely. And you know that, I think that’s a. I mean, I know that you are extremely intentional and purposeful about the speakers that you put on a national stage, women, people of color, et cetera. That doesn’t happen accidentally. Has it been challenging? And what are your other strategies for helping now other women and different groups come along [00:12:00] and succeed with you?

Lisa Audio track: Yeah, absolutely. This is a, as you noted, this is a big priority for Academy Health and for us and really to bring new voices into our community. And I wanna make clear they’re new to us. They have been out there, they, we have just not engaged or reached out or acknowledged them. And so part of the, a number of different strategies we’re using, one is.

You know, a lot of our field, about 50% of our membership is in academic settings. And that’s a pretty traditional, pretty hierarchical, you know, title based sort of community and and approach. And so what we’re doing is we’re reaching to earlier career individuals who just by nature of the demographics in America, Are more diverse by race, by ethnicity, by gender identity, sexual orientation.

So that’s one strategy. Another one is then actively making opportunities available. We have increased our mentoring programs, our scholarship programs, and our [00:13:00] most recent initiative. We will announce our new cohort next. But we are working with the public, with the op-ed project to which is a project which is really founded.

I’m sure you’re familiar with them. CC given your background to bring the voices, underrepresented voices, into writing op-eds because that those public, those articles are dominated by male and white voices. And so we launched this initiative back in August. We received over 90 applications for just 20 slots, and having just finished reviewing them, an amazing cadre of excellent researchers from all walks of life and all areas of the country.

That’s the other thing is that in our field, in evidence and policy making, we’re pretty bico. Sort of community dominated by the coast and so we’ve been, another strategy is proactively reaching out to everybody else to get institutions and states who have not been heard from [00:14:00] as much in our gatherings and in our community, but who have so much to contribute.

Ceci Connolly: Fantastic. I’m, I am super. About, about that one in particular. You know, you mentioned mentorship and we are always very interested at her story in any experiences that you’ve had with terrific mentors or maybe not, and then how you think about that now as a senior executive.

Lisa Audio track: So absolutely I have I’d like to say I, I’ve probably learned a little bit the hard way of the value of mentors because I think that until I had a mentor and I’ll touch on that a little bit more during my post-doctoral program, and so I’d already done two residencies, medical school. A real job, all that.

I’d never had a mentor I had nobody to turn to for advice. As I mentioned, my family’s not in healthcare. Nobody took me under their wing. So it wasn’t until my early thirties that I experienced the power of a mentor. And and one of [00:15:00] the things, a few things I’ve learned about mentorship. One is you don’t rely on just one mentor.

There are different mentors who will help you with different aspects of your career development and advancement. And that there’s, it’s not just mentorship, it’s also sponsorship. It’s actively not just listening. You know, be having somebody to turn to and ask questions and they give you advice or, you know, help you find your way.

It’s that person then actively connecting you, helping you build your network, introducing you to the right rooms. And I think I always turn as one example of a mentor who helped me during my postdoc. And after that was Dr. Phillip Lee, who founded the Institute for Health Policy Studies in California, San Francisco, where I did my postdoc.

And he just, he connected me to people. He pushed me to, you know, meet with Barbara Starfield, a luminary in our field at Hopkins, and she and I ended up co-authoring an article together in drama. I never thought I would get to work with Barbara Starfield, so, [00:16:00] so that sort of active mentoring and sponsorship is critical.

The other mentor I had gave me the advice I most hated and was best. Okay, so I did not wanna hear this when John Eisenberg said, I was deputy director at Arc, and John told me, you need to focus, you know what gets the fire in your belly going? And I was like, well, child health, I’m a pediatrician.

I’m passionate about improving children’s health and their outcomes. And he said, okay, you’re the deputy. You have all these management responsibilities and you need to become known in child Health Services research. and during which hours of the day, excuse me. So it took a lot of work, but he was absolutely correct.

I be, you know, I started publishing more in, in child health, giving more speeches, and it really helped me, you know, secure my jobs and advance my career. Because in our field, it really does help to be known in one.

Ceci Connolly: That’s such terrific advice. I am curious at, you know, [00:17:00] at the beginning, I think. Alluded to this a little bit, but one of the questions we really like to ask our guests is this notion of, would you describe yourself as an intentional or an accidental leader?

Lisa Audio track: I’d say both. So I, I alluded at the beginning to my career being sort of a series of serendipitous events and and so that’s where the accidental part comes in. And, but it takes a lot of hard work to be ready. That opportunity to be able to jump at it and benefit from that accidental, unexpected event.

And so that’s the accidental part. But where the intentionality comes in is always being sort of driven by, by some, you know, whether you call it your North star or your fundamental values. And that for me, as I said earlier, is about, you know, impatience with the status quo and a belief that they’re through knowledge we can figure out a better way to [00:18:00] achieve health and equity.

And the other sort of fundamental value. That I’d like to mention is that of kindness, of doing one’s work in a way that is generous. Our throat our field and our world can be very cutthroat if we let it be. And I think you know, if you put it, it sounds a little corny, but if you put it out there, you will get it back.

And so, that, that kindness is really important as I do my.

Ceci Connolly: Now I like that. I like that a lot. Another question. The her story folks would phrase it as you know, is there a particular characteristic or trait that gives you the edge? Suter? And I refer to it as, you know, what’s your superpower? Have you got one more than one

Lisa Audio track: So, I would say that my superpower is probably optimistic energy. You know, I’ve been called. Energizer Bunny, I’ve been called all kinds of names and they probably have something to do with the fact that I’m also petite. You know, that old diminutive damsel I mentioned early on. [00:19:00] But I am at heart an optimist and I have to say that the last three pandemic years have challenged all of us in maintaining that hope and optimism.

But that is what I think allows me to lead our. Through these difficult times to always come back to the aspects of hope in our work and then follow that up with the energy to execute and follow through. So optimistic energy.

Ceci Connolly: I do like that and it’s interesting how many CEOs I talk to, men or women that say to me, I’m an optimist, and I think to be a leader, you need to be an optimist. And you know, to your point about the last several years with the pandemic and so many challenges, and I’m often struck talking to CEOs and they can go through the whole litany of challenges, but at the end it’s always like, but you know, I’m excited about this and this is gonna happen.

It is, it’s a remarkable skill. [00:20:00] What sort of advice might you offer to our listeners in particular? So many, I think younger and mid-career women in healthcare, thinking about moving up maybe into those leadership ranks. A good tip or two for them.

Lisa Audio track: So I think for me, what has been essential is to build and nurture my network. Back and I started doing that with Philly during my postdoc and then maintaining those connections. So whether it’s a mentorship relationship or a peer relationship, you have to nurture that over the years. You have to both give and seek and stay in touch.

And it’s amazing to me how many people I am still in touch with. And ce on the point of the networks and the, and. The connections, I mean the Women of Impact Network, our other group that we’re both in that support from peers throughout your career has been [00:21:00] really essential. And and so I think building that network and nurturing it over time is essential.

I think the other piece of advice and you know, it’s we all come at this from very different ways, but I think it’s also. Really learn to be comfortable in your own skin, so to speak. That’s kind of an adage, but to be self-reflective and always self-assessing. And I think, again, referring to the last three pandemic years and how our country has been, Really trying to grapple more effectively with racial injustice.

And the needs for change in our healthcare and policy. That ability to continue to commit to learning about yourself and being on a journey of learning and authenticity. I think that’s I wish I had started on that. That, that self-reflection and that self-assessment is just essential to constant learning and improvement.

Ceci Connolly: I love it. [00:22:00] Well, as expected this time has flown by. I just have to say, I would never think of you as a definitive damsel. I might think of you as a giant but we are so grateful to Dr. Lisa Simpson for joining us today. Lisa. Thanks a bunch.

Lisa Audio track: Oh, great. To be here.

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