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Barbara Pisano Messing: “Be open to change, be open to new ideas, understand that there is much to learn”

Be open to change, be open to new ideas, understand that there is much to learn. Continue to practice, practice, practice. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “the more that you read, the more things you will know. That more that you learn, the more places you will go. As a part of my series about […]


Be open to change, be open to new ideas, understand that there is much to learn. Continue to practice, practice, practice. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “the more that you read, the more things you will know. That more that you learn, the more places you will go.


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Pisano Messing, M.A., CCC-SLP, BCS-S, FASHA. Barbara is the Director of the Milton J. Dance, Jr. Head and Neck Center, Johns Hopkins Head & Neck Surgery and Johns Hopkins Voice Center located at GBMC in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a Ph.D. student at the University of Queensland, focusing on her research on dysphagia in head and neck cancer patients. Messing is a practicing medical speech pathologist with 30 years of experience who is recognized as a Clinical Specialist in Head and Neck Rehabilitation and a Board Certified Specialist in Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders. She lectures nationally and internationally on dysphagia, esophageal disorder, head and neck clinical pathways and outcomes in head and neck cancer. Her clinical and research interests are in the area of head and neck cancer rehabilitation, dysphagia, and voice disorders.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Barbara! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My older sister is an occupational therapist so when I was considering career paths, she introduced me to a speech pathologist. I was very intrigued with the field and researched more about what a speech pathologist does and subsequently was pulled by desire and interest to medical speech pathology. Along the way, I took on roles as a speech pathologist which allowed me to blend my clinical and leadership skills to provide services in a medical center and become the Director of the Milton J. Dance, Jr. Head and Neck Center.

Can you share the most happened to you since you began leading your department?

So much comes to mind — every day is a new experience. The most interesting story has to do with the growth of our center. When I started working at GBMC the department had approximately 10–12 staff and 2 physicians; we now have 44 staff and 6 physicians. That growth has taught me a lot and provided invaluable lessons along the way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

Mistakes tend to not feel funny, especially when one is in that moment but I can point to an important ‘mistake’ which relates to perception. I was conducting a meeting with a staff member, thinking we were on the same page about a certain issue, but later we realized we weren’t. Luckily no one’s health was compromised and it was a small problem and easily fixed.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Be sensitive to how the other person is perceiving the conversation or situation. I have learned that perception is critical. Ask the staff member how they perceived the situation or meeting or what I may have tried to communicate to ensure you had the same perception. I now also make sure there is congruency between us before ending the meeting which can go a long way to reduce misunderstandings.

What do you think makes your department stand out? Can you share a story?

The staff here are amazing, hard-working people. They care so deeply about our patients and each other.

We recently had a time when we were very short staffed. The front desk and administrative staff rose to the occasion and worked extra hard to ensure all calls were answered, all patients were scheduled in a timely manner and daily tasks were performed. The most amazing thing that happened is that not one of them ever complained that the burden was too great. Although it was a tough time, they each brought energy and compassion every day.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now?

My exciting new project is our research on treatment-related toxicities in head and neck cancer. This works alongside our ongoing dedication to our head and neck cancer patient’s survivorship goals, while also remaining true to the focus of my Ph.D.

How do you think that will help people?

The aim of the study is to identify treatment-related toxicities on oral intake and nutrition. The impact of this ongoing research is to improve patient’s awareness of sensory loss and physiological changes while also improving recovery patterns and expectations. The ultimate goal is to reduce treatment-related toxicities and improve functional outcomes.

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

Think outside of the box. Don’t limit yourself. Stay open. Feel confident from within even if you hear negative comments or people who say you can’t. Know you can. Set goals and don’t look back.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Be a good listener — say less, listen more. I am a problem solver so I used to try to fix everything but I’ve learned over the years that is not possible to fix everything but it is helpful to listen then guide.

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?

Dr. John Saunders

Can you share a story about that?

Dr. Saunders hired me almost 20 years ago at The Milton J. Dance, Jr. Head & Neck Center. Dr. Saunders has a way about him that makes one believe they can do the job. He was and continues to be a constant support in a quiet yet steady way. He led by example but also shared so many stories and words of wisdom over the years, such as, when you do a good job take your right hand and tap over your left shoulder — say — job well done! He always made it a point to thank me or acknowledge me for the work I had done, which meant a lot to me since I respect him and value his opinion. I felt supported and appreciated and that made all the difference. Dr. Saunders is a wise man, although retired from practice — he was an excellent head and neck surgeon and a great leader. He brings calm and common sense to the most complex situations.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to support my staff and promote when possible. I try to live each day with a positive attitude so if I fail or fall I try to learn and grow from the experience. I care about our environment and try to do the right thing within my footprint.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Crucial conversations with staff are sometimes necessary. Be prepared. Start with kindness, stick to the facts, end with kindness. If you have concerns, make sure there is someone in the room with you to deliver the news.

2. Treat everyone fairly by treating everyone equally — that is, follows the rules of the organization equally for all staff. Petition for change when needed.

3. Don’t take it personally. You won’t be liked by all but if you hang around long enough, work hard and do the best job you can with a positive attitude and genuine concern for your colleagues then good things will happen.

4. Take time to listen to your staff. I mean really listen. Don’t jump to judge or problem solve. Ask for facts, data, and specifics. The more facts, data, and details you have the better you can guide and lead.

5. Be open to change, be open to new ideas, understand that there is much to learn. Continue to practice, practice, practice. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “the more that you read, the more things you will know. That more that you learn, the more places you will go.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Save our earth! Corporations to the family home — do anything we can to stop global warming.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” By Louis Pasteur.

Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I have taken sufficient time to prepare for a lecture, test, meeting or whatever — it usually is more productive, more efficient and more meaningful to all.

Some of the biggest 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?

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has moved mountains to get where she is and she has never given up. We would also invite Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. Her life story is one of pushing the boundaries every step of the way. Both women showed that there are no limits in what can be accomplished if you work hard, study, and remain steadfast in your goals. As long as the goals are for the good of all and not the good of one.

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