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July 2015

Women Look to Make Leadership Inroads
By Mary Beth LaBelle
For The Record
Vol. 27 No. 7 P. 8

As I walked across the lobby and up the escalators at this year's HIMSS conference in Chicago, I couldn't help but notice the gender breakdown. The difference in numbers was clear; by my estimate, there were at least 10 men for every woman.

Although the percentage of women in CIO positions rose from 18% to 25% between 2013 and 2014, according to Healthcare IT News, men still dominate HIT leadership roles. Due to the proverbial glass ceiling, at times women have had to struggle to get ahead. To overcome this obstacle, I have adopted a grassroots approach to turn back challenges from all angles.

Labels That Stick
What does gender have to do with being an effective leader? As with any stereotype, there are advantages and disadvantages for anyone trying to move up in the industry. However, as a woman in this field, I've found challenges everywhere. Some people may find me a threat because I am intelligent, fast paced, and an advocate for change. I've been flirted with, teased, given the worst jobs, and bullied by both men and women.

Whether we like it or not, people are resistant to change, prefer their comfort zones, and pin labels on anything different, no matter the gender or race. I've never cared for the labels I've garnered. People often have made assumptions based on my appearance and the roles I've served. They assume that I fit into a mold and will act in a certain way. But there are no molds; we are individuals who must move forward without bias. We need to focus on our prospective goals, celebrate our uniqueness, and add value to the team.

I have strengths, weaknesses, and personal experiences to bring to the table. I am a woman. I dress like a woman. I think and move quickly. I have an "East Coast" way about me. I don't have a degree in either IT or health care. I can't program, nor am I a project management professional. I didn't earn a master's degree nor was I ever a CIO. Still, I have owned three HIT companies and held leadership roles throughout my career. I'm an Italian American who embraces her heritage and uses her welcoming family culture to her advantage.

Keys to Success
The following are 10 ways I've overcome stereotypes to get ahead in the HIT industry.

• The buck stops with you. Stop labeling and start reaching past your comfort zone to build relationships with all types. We are in a people business, and it's the people who make IT work. Say hello to everyone, from the CEO to the person who mans the help desk. That first hello can bridge a gap to the next conversation where you may receive help with a question or learn something new. Ask how you can help and your kindness may be reciprocated.

• Be willing to take on projects that no one else will. There are times we need to prove our capabilities and commitment to get the job done. I frequently take on projects that no one else wants. Be ready to work as hard as necessary to overcome a personal learning curve or obstacle. Successful outcomes—and a move up the career ladder—will follow.

• Don't accept "no" or "can't be done." There are obstructionists who will try to prevent others from reaching their goals. We have to be problem solvers. Once in a while, a rule may need to be broken, or a new perspective brought to the table to accomplish a difficult task. If you're on a team faced with obstacles, come armed with better solutions and have the courage to try to make a difference. Create a positive buzz around new ways of getting things done and before you know it, you'll be leading the team to great things.

• Embrace and express who you are. Accentuate your positives. I'm a tall woman, so I wear high heels and walk proudly—I can see what's coming well before others. I have an East Coast accent, but instead of hiding it, I just say "fuggedaboutit" with a wink and a smile. People remember me because of my differences.

• If something's not working, stop and try something else. I am defined by my failures. It's similar to baking—you need the right ingredients, temperature, and amount of time for a cake to rise. I've worked on projects where the team's personalities clashed, and no matter what techniques I employed, I was unable to attain the group's goals. It's OK if a project doesn't work out. Don't be disappointed about folding and moving on. I was fired from a consulting company because I didn't agree on how things were run. My personality did not gel with that company. However, from those ashes came LaBelle Strategic Resources, an Epic-only consulting firm, which I successfully ran and sold after 10 years.

• Realize the value of obtaining an advanced degree or certification. Our industry is data driven. Vendor applications and concepts such as Big Data require expertise, strategic thinking, and technical know-how. Those seeking to become a CIO or a project director must emphasize education and go beyond the necessary qualifications to give themselves the best shot at reaching their goals.

• Find a mentor. Most of my success can be credited to mentors who have guided me throughout my career. Be willing to ask for guidance and advice and not only will your career receive a boost, but you'll also develop long-lasting friendships.

• Take risks. If a mentor or a leader asks you to consider a new position, don't think twice about taking the offer because such opportunities don't come along often. I tackled many projects outside of my comfort zone, worked extra hard, and earned two director positions. Stretch yourself to learn new things and the promotion you've been seeking may become a reality.

• Take baby steps. When I started LaBelle Strategic Resources, I was unfamiliar with Epic. But slowly that changed. It took one step to get to the Epic users group meeting and another to learn about the product and how to help. Next thing I knew, I had my first client, was finding the right candidates for the right positions, and closed the sale.

• Never compromise your integrity. All you have is your good name, so if your gut is telling you that an action is inappropriate, then it probably is. The world is big and filled with opportunities; don't make a mistake for the sake of one. When I was asked to compromise my integrity, I stood up for my beliefs and found a better path.

No matter your career path, be yourself. Set an attainable goal, build strong relationships with key mentors, and don't stop. When an obstacle appears, change direction. As long as you're moving forward, improving lives, having fun, and giving back to the profession, consider yourself a success.

— Mary Beth LaBelle has owned three HIT companies, including LaBelle Strategic Resources, the first Epic-only consulting firm. She's currently a senior HIT client executive for Digital Prospector.