One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2015.
Deborah Bowen guides one of the most influential associations in healthcare, but her complex work with C-suite leaders is rooted in a simple desire: to change people’s lives for the better.
As the president and CEO of the American College of Healthcare Executives, Bowen heads an enterprise that assists administrators in developing their abilities to lead their organizations. Its Fellow certification (FACHE) is one of the most respected designations in the halls of a health system and its annual Congress is one of the industry’s biggest draws. But Bowen says she herself is drawn to the servant leaders she sees all around her.
“I think one of the great things about this profession and this field,” she says, “is that I’ve always found the people in it are very dedicated to giving back. I think we all come to it from a place of trying to make a difference in whatever way we can.”
Bowen began her career as a social worker dealing with some of the toughest issues out there – drug addiction and alcoholism.
“I started out working with heroin addicts,” she says. “That is a difficult line of business because people often don’t get better because they don’t have the right support networks. Some of them get detoxified, but then they’re going right back into the same environment that probably drove them to addiction in the beginning. That was the catalyst for me to say, ‘Maybe there is another way to do this work that might have more impact.’ ”
She moved on to Wisconsin’s Department of Health and Social Services, where she gave grant money to programs battling drug abuse and alcoholism.
“That’s where I started to learn a little but more about what it means to influence decision-makers,” Bowen says, “and if you influence decision-makers, you can potentially have a bigger imprint in changing policy.”
Her interest in policy work led her to the state medical society, where she held a variety of roles.
“I have a great deal of respect for physicians and the work that they do,” she says. “Wisconsin was very progressive in their thinking. We opened free clinics. We did a lot of good work there, which I’m sure continues today. So my first foray into association management was through the physician community.”
She eventually spent a number of years at ACHE, but found the path to advancement blocked, so she joined the Society of Actuaries in the No. 2 role before ACHE recruited her back to become the chief operating officer under longtime CEO Tom Dolan.
When Dolan announced his retirement, Bowen says she never thought she was a shoo-in to succeed him.
“Being an internal candidate is a blessing and a curse,” she says. “Everybody knows you well, and sometimes the allure of an outside candidate can be greater than the person you really know. Obviously, I’m honored to be in this role.”
As the first female CEO at ACHE, her promotion mirrors an industry trend – about half of ACHE’s members are now female.
“I grew up at a time when it was a male-dominated field,” Bowen says. “I remember the early days when they always turned to the woman to take minutes in a meeting – it didn’t matter what your title was. But I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had good people in my court and, frankly, almost all of them have been men.”
Bowen says attitude can be a bigger determinant of success than gender. “The way I have thought about it over the years is that we all have choices to make. You can choose to focus on those things that are going to detract from you, or you can choose to focus on the things that represent who you truly are: What is your purpose and how are you going to move the needle?”
Finding purpose has been a key attribute for Bowen since her formative years. Even before her work as a social worker, it was instilled in her by her mother, a piano teacher who would take Bowen with her as she gave lessons in an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago.
“It was an eye-opening opportunity for me as a child to understand that not everybody lived the way I did,” she says. “Understanding the challenges of other communities was very revealing for me. There were women who had to stay up all night because they were worried about rats getting to their babies. When you hear that, you realize there are disparities in life.
“I took that to heart and thought, ‘That’s not fair and that’s not right. And if I can do anything to even the scales, I’m going to try to do that.’ ”
Sometimes the piano students would come to Bowen’s home in middle-class suburbia for a lesson, and it was not unheard of for Bowen’s family to find newspaper burning on their lawn.
“In some respects, those were different times. But in some respects, they’re not different at all when you think about some of the things that have gone on lately with race relations. We have much work to do.”
It’s also why Bowen remains determined to chart a different path for her own leadership and for ACHE.
“My legacy, I hope, is going to be all about building the culture of ‘and.’ We need to make sure we are understanding each other’s point of view and leveraging each other’s skill sets, because we all have something to bring to the table to improve healthcare.”