Gina Altieri of Nemours Children’s Health System: Why Everything Comes Down To People

Everything comes down to people. People matter and you have to figure out how to get along with all kinds of people in this world and appreciate all the perspectives and nuances that they bring to each situation. I don’t think I wish someone had told me that, as I think I knew it, but I do wish more people were told this and acting appropriately knowing it. It get’s back to what kind of people should be executives. I was surprised to find that I’ve made some of my best friends from within colleagues where I’ve worked.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gina Altieri, CPA and Chief Communications Officer (CCO), Nemours Children’s Health System.

Gina Altieri is an Executive Vice President and a member of Nemours Executive Cabinet. As CCO, she is responsible for Nemours’ marketing, communications and digital assets, strategic planning process, project management, and Nemours’ Center for Healthcare Delivery and Innovation — a consumer digital health strategy including telemedicine and web-based patient education and related services. She has been recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal as a Woman of Distinction and by Connected World Magazine as a Woman of M2M and the Internet of Things (IOT).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Iam an accountant by education and a CPA. I started my career in a large regional public accounting firm that gave me a good foundation in how things work at all levels of a business organization. I moved to the healthcare industry and started at an adult health system that also had pediatrics. I realized that my passion was in pediatrics and I wanted to continue my career in an organization focused only on children. That led me to an opportunity at Nemours where I could put my business and analytical skills to work on the business side of healthcare, and more specifically the physician practice, which is different from a hospital. As my career progressed, strategy and organizational operations became my strong suite and I began to lead strategy development. Once we determined that an important part of Nemours’ strategy was to grow and become a health system, we needed to change literally all of our systems and begin acting as one. That led me to information technology where I had the privilege to lead an amazing team in changing out all of our systems from the general ledger, Human Resources, Materials Management and more, including implementation of one of the first electronic medical record systems in pediatrics. I continued to take on additional responsibilities and my role expanded to all corporate functions and strategy. As Nemours has grown, I became more focused on strategy which then encompassed our brand and reputation. That’s how I ended up as the Chief Communications Officer responsible for Marketing/Communication, Strategic Planning, Project Management and our Center for Health Delivery Innovation.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I received a cancer diagnosis the same month I was appointed Chief Communications Officer. I still wanted to do this exciting job, but I had to make my health a priority. Our new CEO was incredibly supportive, and I had built a great team who were quite capable of keeping the work moving. I worked through it, but it certainly gave me a perspective I didn’t have before. Even more, it both humbled me quite a bit and alternately showed me I can probably do even more than I thought I could. It reinforced the importance of getting the answers you need about the health of your child, or yourself. It all becomes about what’s really important. Everything else takes a back seat, and yet it doesn’t, because life goes on. It’s very complicated and yet it comes down to needing answers and care or treatment.

The perspective I gained was that it helped me better understand the empathy and support every patient and family needs. It validated my desire to create a digital experience that families want and need, because that’s how I communicated with my care team. It also helped me with my new role, and helped Nemours with our COVID-19 communications. Because of what I experienced, I championed the use of our patient portal to communicate with families, and even more important, to listen to them.

It humbled me because I thought I was invincible, that something like that couldn’t happen to me. It demonstrated why quality health care is important to everybody. It also helped me be more connected with my teams, helped them build resilience and I will always be grateful for their support. It made me kinder, helped me be more of a teacher, coach and mentor, because I didn’t have it in me to do otherwise. It’s easy to tell people what to do, but the best leadership is helping your team see the bigger picture and the best solutions. This is extremely important as a C-Suite leader. We all know it, but too often let how busy we are get in the way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest thing that happened along the way in my career is what my colleagues call the “Run Gina Run” story. It taught me a great life lesson — language is important and words matter. Early in my career at Nemours, I had to participate in a golf outing with our Board of Managers. I wasn’t much of a golfer, but I was a good sport. So of course, I end up in the foursome with the most serious golfer on the Board. He was so serious that he bragged about golfing with Bob Hope, and I knew I was in trouble! On the day of the golf outing, I get in the cart and on the way to our first shot, he looks me in the eye and firmly says, “The worst thing you can do is hold people up. When you’re up, you take your shot and move on.” I was so nervous. I take my shot. I’m so happy because I hit the ball and I’m getting out of the way as he said. Then as the ball is rolling down the fairway, I hear someone excitedly yell run, run! I take off running down the golf course like a crazy person — not knowing it was a golf term for the ball. I took good-natured ribbing for that the entire year until the next outing. So two lessons — you have to learn to not take yourself too seriously, and language matters.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I count myself fortunate that there were always people along the way that helped me reach success and I recognized how important those relationships were and the value of the coaching they shared. If I had to pick one, it would be Dr. Robert Brent, chair of pediatrics, and a world-renowned PhD, researcher at Thomas Jefferson University Medical Center. He was the chair of pediatrics at the adult health system where I first got into healthcare, and eventually he moved to Nemours. He was my champion and he thought I walked on water because I knew things he didn’t. At that time, medical schools and physician training offered little, if any, training on the business side of being a doctor and running a practice. When he went to Nemours and they’d be discussing a business problem whether it was insurance, getting paid for services, or technology and equipment, he just kept saying they needed Gina Altieri. He made me out to be the perfect person for whatever problem needed solving. Everyone should have a mentor who believes in you, more than you believe in yourself.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Definitely getting a good night’s rest is essential for me. It always seems that I’m going somewhere else to do these presentations and end up in a hotel room the night before. Whether a group of 5 or 500, I believe if you put in the work, know your material, and speak from both your head and your heart, it will go well. It’s about relaxing and being by myself with my thoughts before the presentation so I can be present during it. It’s also critical to listen for the sake of really listening, not just listening to respond. I’ve observed many people who only listen to respond and are so busy thinking about how to respond to what they’re hearing, they don’t answer the question. This is very frustrating for the people in the room. Perhaps the most high-stakes example would be a presentation to our Board of Directors to get the funding and support to build our Center for Health Delivery and Innovation. My team leaders and I had thoroughly orchestrated more than half a dozen presentations for the Board meeting to present a unified vision for delivery of our first app. We practiced a lot, my team is great and I had complete confidence in all of them. The presentation by this large group went extremely well. I was relaxed because I put in the work, and not only knew my own material, I knew the material of each of my team leaders in case someone needed a boost to get back on track.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

I think that diversity on an executive team allows for different perspectives to be heard. If the executives come from different backgrounds or cultures, it makes for such a richer discussion and better-informed decision-making than if everyone is thinking same way. Diversity of executive leadership is also an important consideration in how the decisions made impact your workforce. In healthcare, our workforce is very diverse and I believe that diversity helps our associates better connect with our executives if they can relate to them and feel represented. This is also true of the patients and families we serve. Recognizing the needs of our diverse communities as a healthcare organization helps us deliver on what those needs are.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I believe that inclusivity and equity begins with representation and seeking first to understand what others need and how to meet those needs. As an example, when we design or develop something for families, we involve them and it creates a better end product. We have Family Advisory Councils and Teen Advisory Councils that meet in-person and virtually to gather these diverse viewpoints. We understand that every child and family is different with their own specific needs, opinions, beliefs, religion, and cultural backgrounds — all of which can impact how we need to provide health care. That’s why we created resources to help us be respectful, sensitive, and mindful of the needs and differences of the children and families we see every day.

Similarly, equity has to be addressed by understanding how to make those things that we all need and want, and often take for granted, accessible to everyone. For instance, we know that not everyone has paid time off to take a child to the doctor and some jobs don’t lend themselves to parents having time during the work day to even make appointments. Working with our families, we continue to build inclusiveness and equitable access by listening to them and providing alternatives like nontraditional office hours, virtual doctor visits via telehealth, app-based solutions, including an online patient portal to communicate with us on your schedule. Finally, listen to your associates. We have associate resource groups and leaders like myself serve as executive champions. My participation in one of these groups helped me see things I didn’t know we were missing. This led to my being able to share that learning with parts of our organization from Human Resources and recruiting to improvements in our electronic medical records that make our offices safer spaces for teens who are looking for answers.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Members of the executive team need to function first and foremost as a team with the entire organization as their priority and the sole focus of the executive leadership. Functional teams must come second to the enterprise perspective of what your organization needs including the implications of decision-making and their impacts on the entire organization. The other critical function of an executive and executive team is to remove barriers so that your associates can do the job they are there to do. At Nemours, we believe that 50% of the executive job is to teach, coach, mentor and remove barriers. This leads to servant leadership, which for me means — what can I do to help you do your best work and get the job done. If you serve patients, what can I do to help you better serve them?

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

The one myth is that executives know everything and they have all the answers. People think executives sit around and make decisions all the time, when in reality what they try to do is push those decisions down to the people who know the most, who are where the work gets done and give them guidance. Executives are human beings and should be authentic, humanistic and approachable. Anybody should be able to reach out and contact anybody at any level using good judgement and respect to share ideas and ask question. No one should be perceived as untouchable and unreachable. It goes both ways, executives should be walking the halls, engaging with associates and actively seeking to understand what’s going on, being humanistic, asking about associates families, presenting as a humanistic leader.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Again, be yourself. We all face challenges in leadership. My approach has been to focus on the work and what it takes to get the best result. While it’s not about how a man or a woman would do a job, don’t be afraid to bring your innate gifts and instincts to every task. The challenges I see continue to include the stigma around women expressing their feelings, and perceptions when holding others accountable. It still comes up too often that when women leaders take strong stands in holding people accountable and they are perceived as being too harsh. The terminology ascribed to them in those circumstances that are otherwise acceptable when it comes from a man are inequitable. It also continues to be the case that women, including myself when my daughter was young, often take on the larger role in parenting. Of course, this is not always the case. This can be increasingly difficult for women moving up the ladder and as an executive, finding the balance can be a challenge.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I suppose it would be that I thought there would be more autonomous decision-making. There’s much more discussion and debate about a variety of things because every decision can have such important implications across the organization. Particularly with strategy, it’s important to have respectful debates and listen to all the discussion and input so that when the executive team makes a decision you’re all aligned and you don’t have to then create buy-in because you’ve already done that through courageous conversation and good discussion.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Intelligence does play into it but that doesn’t mean every smart person can be a successful executive. I do think that being technically competent is very important in your job as a starting point, but as you move up the ranks, your technical abilities are less important than your judgement. Good judgement includes knowing when to empower others and when to bring the team to a decision. Executives need to engender respect and executive presence matters. How you carry yourself and how you are perceived plays into building confidence and trust in leadership. Successful executives need to be able to admit when they’ve made a mistake and have to be able to make the hard decisions. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being authentic, humanistic and listening to what your people have to say. If you’re not approachable, you’re not going to get the full range of perspectives to help you and your team make the best decisions. Humility is key and not coming across as a know-it-all. Individuals who find these things too difficult are unlikely to enjoy or be successful in the executive ranks. Also, if the highlight of what you enjoy most in your work is technical and very hands on, executive and CEO roles may not be for you because it takes you so far from those aspects.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be yourself and remember that you have earned your leadership role. Set the example for all leaders by being supportive of all of your teammates. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, but male or female, you can’t be ambitious at the expense of your team. The needs of your team must come first and before your needs. Always be an authentic and humanistic leader. Setting clear expectations is very important. Teammates want to deliver on those expectations and ambiguity demotivates people, especially high performers. Be fair and hold people accountable, and by that I mean you have to address poor performers or you will lose your high performers. There’s nothing wrong with expressing your softer side. Showing appreciation and celebrating your team’s successes are great motivators. Use your own experience to be supportive of women and men during the parenting years, give them flexibility and the ability to both of those jobs well. However, you can’t be the mother of the team. Know who your introverts are and give them the coaching to shine or you will end up overlooking some tremendous talent. Do it in way they understand and help them articulate their goals. It bears repeating — coach behind the scenes and praise in front of the group.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Children matter. There is no better way to change the world and make it a better place than starting with children. The science is clear that childhood health and experience has life-long impact, especially on health and productivity. Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults and what we do for them now matters more than ever for what their futures hold as well as how they will impact the future of our society at local, national and global levels. Each of us has the obligation to use what we have to make our world a better place. It has been my intention to do that by staying in children’s healthcare for my entire career and focusing every day on how my talents and skill set can help our incredibly dedicated physicians, clinicians and staff help each generation of children be healthier and achieve their full potential. I also hope that as a strong woman executive and leader who has raised a strong daughter and mentored numerous women over the years, that I have modeled the behavior for these young women that will empower and inspire them to use their talents similarly. One of the things that I love most about Nemours is the philosophy of our founder, Alfred I. duPont which has had great influence on how I view the world. “It is the duty of everyone in the world to do what is within his power to alleviate human suffering.”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. I wish someone had told me that it is a journey, not a sprint, and that there are a whole host of paths to success, not just one path with the same stepping stones for everyone. When you begin a career, you really don’t know what the end looks like, you think you do but careers can take a lot of different paths. Taking my career as an example, I went to school to be an accountant. Working in public accounting the career path might typically be to aspire to move up the ladder with the pinnacle being to become partner in a public accounting firm. So many things and opportunities that happened along the way created my eventual career path and it’s still evolving.
  2. Everything comes down to people. People matter and you have to figure out how to get along with all kinds of people in this world and appreciate all the perspectives and nuances that they bring to each situation. I don’t think I wish someone had told me that, as I think I knew it, but I do wish more people were told this and acting appropriately knowing it. It get’s back to what kind of people should be executives. I was surprised to find that I’ve made some of my best friends from within colleagues where I’ve worked.
  3. Life is hard and there’s nothing fair about it. Sometimes things happen for no obvious reason. You can work really hard and not get the promotion. Life circumstances can send you in a different direction. Having a career is hard work and you have to constantly grow and hone your skills. The travel can be hard, balance and raising a family is hard and you have to be able to put in the hard work. It’s not nine to 5.
  4. Don’t be afraid to say yes and take on the difficult assignments. And when you do, don’t be afraid to ask for help and for the resources needed to be successful.
  5. Don’t get caught up in defining who you are with what you do. The essence of what makes you who you are complements your talent and expertise but they are not one and the same. Know who you are and when the going gets tough, remember that it’s business, it’s not personal.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never let them make you feel like you don’t belong.” You have every right to be at this executive table, on a surgical team, leading whatever endeavor you choose. If you’ve put in the work, you’re prepared and know your stuff, you have every right to step up and take that role, make that speech or receive that award. I remember the first time I was invited to be part of a panel presentation at a health care conference and I was the only person on the panel who was not a physician or researcher. My boss really wanted me to do it and I was nervous which isn’t like me. I sought speaker coaching and at the end of a full day of practicing and seeing myself on video, I was feeling more secure, but not quite there. Then as we wrapped up, one the coaches said, “Just remember, you have every right to be on that stage. You have an expertise the others don’t with a successful track record to back it up.” It was as though a light bulb went on for me and I think that was some of the best counsel I’ve ever received.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She has always impressed me. I think it is truly amazing how she was able to go to law school, take her husband’s classes when he was ill and get him the notes he needed, take her classes, take care of him raise a family. She never took no for an answer and has made a tremendous difference for women in this world. It’s because of her that I’m able to do what I’m able to do and I didn’t even know that while I was doing it. Having also had cancer and continued my professional responsibilities while working through it, I have even greater respect for what she’s endured and overcome. She’s a tremendous role model for all women leaders.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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