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Deborah Bowen's purposeful leadership sets tone for ACHE members

By | June 21 st,  2017 | Baldrige Award, chief executive officer, American College of Healthcare Executives, Deborah Bowen, Blog, leadership | 1 Comments


One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2017. Furst Group and NuBrick Partners, which comprise the companies of MPI, sponsor the awards.


Deborah Bowen, president and CEO of the American College of Healthcare Executives, is leading with purpose.


The most recent evidence is the coveted Baldrige Gold Award for the state of Illinois that ACHE recently earned, one of only 12 such organizations to be named out of 270 applicants. ACHE now moves on to consideration for the national award, which recognizes performance excellence.


“Having ways to improve our organization in a more systematic way is important to me,” says Bowen. “But let’s be clear – the members own the organization. The board and I have the privilege of serving our members in ways that advance the field.”


For more than 40,000 members that ACHE represents, having a clearly delineated plan is important. Bowen and the board recently expanded on that with strategic initiatives that focus on “leading for diversity, leading for safety, and leading for value,” Bowen says.


  • On diversity and inclusion: “I’d love to see a more diverse leadership community in the future because we know our leadership ranks in management and in our boardrooms don’t look like the populations we’re serving.”
  • On safety: “If we could eradicate preventable harm, that would be tremendous.” ACHE is, in fact, partnering with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement/National Patient Safety Foundation Lucian Leape Institute (IHI/NPSF LLI) on a practical playbook for executives to enable cultures of safety, which is key to reducing errors within their health organizations.
  • On value: “Regardless of what happens with the ACA/AHCA, we’re going to be in a value-driven climate. It’s going to be about cost and quality and the core of what leaders do.”

    Having a purposeful approach to one’s career also is part of the ACHE banner, and Bowen exemplified that when she returned to ACHE as the chief operating officer from a different industry and looked at what she would need to do if she wanted to be considered as a successor to renowned industry leader Tom Dolan, ACHE’s CEO at the time.


    “I hired a coach about two years before Tom retired,” Bowen recalls. “I did a qualitative 360 assessment where I had former board members, former ACHE chairs and a few staff members do interviews with the coach and then tell me a little about what they saw in my strengths and areas for development.”


    That not only showed initiative, but courage and transparency.


    “I believe information is power,” she says. “If I know something, I can do something about it. If I don’t, then I’m vulnerable and I don’t have the ability to know what I need to be working on. Self-awareness is very, very important.”


    But Bowen didn’t stop there.


    “I knew that, as COO, I already had the operational experience,” she says. “But if I wanted to be a candidate for the position of president and CEO, I knew I would need to get more credibility and experience in the external skills. So, I started sitting on a few boards, and I signed myself up for more public speaking where I would be pushed to do more things and provide more insights about the industry.”


    In strategic terms, Bowen took more risks in her leadership. That, in turn, encouraged her to take more risks. And achieve more success. “Taking risks,” she says now, “gave me strength and experience and insight.”


    But from her vantage point, Bowen sees that ACHE members need to do more to become the leaders that the industry needs.


    “We’re in the career planning business,” she says. “We’ve done surveys on this very topic, and only 28 percent of executives have a career plan. People need to devote as much time and seriousness to their own careers as they do to everything else in their worlds.”


    Now that she is leading ACHE, Bowen says she is more aware than ever of the power of her words – so she tries to use them sparingly.


    “One of our former chairmen, retired Major General David Rubenstein, used to write the initials ‘LWLW’ on the back of his name tent before every Board meeting, and I never understood what it meant. So, I asked him,” she says.


    “He said, ‘When you’re the general, people look to you for their cues, so the initials reminded me to, ‘Listen. Wait. Listen. Wait.’ If I wait, someone will break the silence and talk; then, I am in a better position to listen. But if I’m the first to talk, then I’m doing all the talking and directing them to my answer.’ ”


    Rubenstein’s story has stuck with Bowen.


    “I think that’s very powerful,” she says, “because if you’re talking all the time, you’re not listening; and if you’re not listening, you’re not learning.”


    Listening is especially important in healthcare, a profession that’s about compassion and assistance, Bowen adds.


    “I really do believe that healthcare leaders are special that way. They have the heart and soul to make a difference in the field.”



    SIDEBAR: Lessons from the big city



    Deborah Bowen grew up in Park Ridge, an affluent, middle-class Chicago suburb. However, she became aware of disparities at a young age – through their church, Bowen’s mom gave piano lessons to African-Americans who lived in an economically challenged section of Chicago. When some students would occasionally visit the Bowen home for lessons, some people in the neighborhood didn’t take kindly to it. That disappointed and angered Bowen, and gave her an early determination to make a positive impact in the world.


    As the first member of her family to attend graduate school – and one with a lineage that included many entrepreneurs – the future was full of wide-open vistas and possibilities. Like many young people, she was unsure what field to go into. She considered teaching French. She also took acting lessons in Chicago, which set the scene for self-discovery.


    “I came downtown for the lessons, during which I found out I was a lousy actress,” she says with a laugh. “But I also saw a lot of homeless people in the city, and I became painfully aware of the need and opportunities to help others.”


    So, Bowen decided on psychology as her major. She earned a graduate degree in social work and started to work with heroin addicts one on one. Eventually, through employment at the Wisconsin Medical Society, she saw she could help more people if she was able to influence public policy and the systems that support people. That began a career that has led her to the helm of ACHE.


    “It’s that ripple effect that John F. Kennedy talked about,” she says. “If you find the right stone, you can make large ripples.”



    ACHE’s Deborah Bowen: Healthcare leadership is still about people trying to make a difference

    By | August 18 th,  2015 | disparities, Healthcare, ACHE, ACHE Congress, American College of Healthcare Executives, Deborah Bowen, Modern Healthcare, president, Blog, CEO, diversity, FACHE, healthcare policy, Top 25 Women in Healthcare | Add A Comment


    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.”



    The results are in: These are the Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2013

    By | April 9 th,  2013 | Furst Group, Patricia Hemingway Hall, Top 25 Women, ACHE, Deborah Bowen, gala, Leah Binder, Marna Borgstrom, Modern Healthcare, Nashville, Sherrie Barch, Blog, leadership, Leapfrog Group, Marilyn Tavenner, Kathleen Sebelius, Sharon O'Keefe, Top 25 Women in Healthcare | Add A Comment



    Furst Group is proud to continue to sponsor the Top 25 Women In Healthcare awards for Modern Healthcare.


    This week's issue of Modern Healthcare has all the details on this year's honorees. First-time winners include Leah Binder, CEO of Leapfrog Group; Sharon O'Keefe, president of the University of Chicago Medical Center; Deborah Bowen, incoming president of the American College of Healthcare Executives; and Marna Borgstrom, president and CEO of Yale-New Haven Health System. Others selected include HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, Leapfrog Group CEO Leah Binder and Patricia Hemingway Hall, CEO of HCSC.


    “The Top 25 Women in Healthcare have battled through a lot to get to this moment, and we applaud their talent and perseverance. Gender inequities remain in opportunities, compensation and societal and family expectations,” Furst Group President Sherrie Barch says. “These women are among the top leaders in our country regardless of gender.”


    The program, along with the “Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare” awards, also sponsored by Furst Group, continues the firm’s efforts to ensure that the leadership of healthcare organizations reflects the communities they serve. This is the fifth year that Furst Group has sponsored the awards.The awards will be presented at the gala Aug. 6 in Nashville, Tenn. We hope you will consider attending.


    To see the full list of honorees, please click here.

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