The more we value our leaders and team members, the more we provide context for decisions being made and for desired outcomes, and the more we recognize and celebrate successes, in addition to very specific coaching and development for individuals on the team, are all things that are very important for any successful leader.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Becky Kuhn. Becky Kuhn leads the oversight of Banner Health’s 28 acute care facilities, Banner University Medical Group and Banner Medical Group, ambulatory services, post-acute care, Banner Pharmacy Services, and Banner Health Transfer Services, which supports over 50,000 internal and external transfers annually. She is responsible for $7.2 billion of Banner’s revenue and for 33,000 full-time employees. She directs delivery integration, operating efficiency, development and construction, and customer loyalty development. Major initiatives she has led include groundbreakings on two acute rehab hospitals and the openings of a new tower at Banner — University Medical Center Phoenix, of the new Banner — University Medical Center Tucson hospital, and of Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. In addition, somewhat unique for a health system COO, Kuhn oversees nursing, tapping into her passion, education and early career experience.
Thank you so much for joining us Becky! Can you tell us a bit about your backstory? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my health care career as a nurse and quickly went into critical care nursing. I had always been interested in critical care and so proceeded down that career path. I tried a few different things — not just direct patient care but also critical care education, becoming a clinical nurse specialist, and taking on some management roles. In the mid-1980s, I settled on seeing that my best opportunity to contribute, and what caused me the greatest satisfaction, was leading and supporting others to deliver care. I’ve now been in health care my entire career, directing the critical care unit of a hospital and then continuing to move up the ladder.
What particularly propelled me toward my interest in and focus on leadership and management was the opportunity to serve as the president of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. At the time, it was a worldwide organization with about 60,000 members and the world’s largest specialty nursing organization. I had speaking opportunities worldwide, as well as experiences like meeting with the nursing chiefs in all of the service branches at the Pentagon. This opportunity to lead on a very large, global scale, and have an impact far beyond the individual patient or an individual unit, pushed me toward becoming an executive.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began in your current leadership role?
I was recruited back to Banner Health during a difficult turnaround situation. Banner Health is a very desirable place to work; but, because of the turnaround environment, internal candidates were reluctant to come forward because the risk was high. I believed that I had the skill set needed and was not afraid to take on that situation. I looked at it from the standpoint of, what’s the worst that could happen? Besides, I really liked the new organizational vision at the time — to transform Banner from a hospital company into a fully integrated enterprise. So, I took on that role.
From there, I had an opportunity to open a new Banner hospital and then to serve as the leader of one of the hospitals that Banner had acquired, integrating them into the rest of the system. I then moved into market-wide and now company-wide leadership.
It always is interesting to me when people are afraid to say yes and to take risks. It really limits their options. When you’re willing to take those risks, opportunities are abundant.
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?
Well, they aren’t funny, but I’ve got a couple of stories that I like to tell. Early on, as a new leader, I was not really praising people for good work. One day I was speaking positively about someone on my team to a colleague, who said, “Have you told that person? You need to tell people what you’re thinking.” That was very impactful. Since then, I’ve been very intentional about ensuring that I share the positives and the praise with people as I’ve seen them in action.
The second story is that, early in my career, I was going to submit an article for publication and asked a colleague to give me feedback. She said, “Do you want me to tell you how good it is, or do you want real, honest feedback?” Of course, what could I say? It came back to me with red marker all through the document! And it was all incredibly helpful, important feedback. I look back on that and kind of laugh about the whole notion of, when we ask for feedback, do we really want it? And when we do ask, we better be prepared for whatever we hear.
What is it about the position of executive that most attracted you to it?
There are two things: one is the ability to make an impact on a broad scale and, two, the opportunity to work through and support team members and leaders in accomplishing, developing, and performing the impactful work. I look at my role as to support, resource, and remove barriers for the people who are accomplishing that work. For me, helping others succeed is extremely rewarding.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an 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?
At an executive level, we wear multiple hats. One hat we wear is the areas for which we’re directly responsible, and we have to develop and perform in those areas. As an executive, you’re always looking for the bigger picture and the enterprise-wide impact where executives have a responsibility to contribute. My role is to oversee a particular body of work in the organization, but it is also to have as big an impact on the enterprise as every other member of the executive team — and to learn about and lean into decisions that are important for the enterprise.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The sense of accountability for achieving the organization’s desired outcomes, which we have to manage, can be a downside because it can be pretty strong. We have to make sure we are keeping things in perspective. My boss likes to say nothing is as bad as it seems at the time. It’s keeping perspective of what’s important, because the rest of the organization is watching and will play off of the attitudes and behaviors of the senior executives.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There often seem to be perceptions that the executive is all knowing and all powerful. I would just say that executives are people too, and would remind people to approach and interact with executives, because everyone has the same work-personal-whatever issues and opportunities. The myth is that executives are non-relatable. I would like to dispel that!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I would first say that I have not personally encountered a lot of barriers or issues in terms of being a female executive. Sometimes we create our own challenges by questioning our abilities — are we as competent as we need to be. Also, we think about ourselves as female executives, whereas our male counterparts don’t think about stuff like that. I do sometimes find that I’m the only female in the room, when, after maybe hours of discussion, I’ll suddenly realize that. But it’s not something that I think about much or is obvious to me. I’m not discounting that there are biases against women because I know they exist, but I think one of the biggest opportunities for women is to be totally confident in those settings.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I haven’t encountered a big difference between the reality of my job and how I thought it would be. I felt well prepared from my past experience, including my previous roles at Banner, to step into this role and feel comfortable in it.
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?
The most important traits are: 1) to value and appreciate the contributions of the people on your team and 2) collaboration. Given the needs in business today, the type of person who might avoid an executive role is the person who is very focused on themselves and looking to make a specific name for themselves. Prioritizing people and collaboration, in the environment today, are what will drive you to success as an executive.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Not just for female leaders, but for everyone: The more we value our leaders and team members, the more we provide context for decisions being made and for desired outcomes, and the more we recognize and celebrate successes, in addition to very specific coaching and development for individuals on the team, are all things that are very important for any successful leader.
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?
Early in my career I worked at UCLA Medical Center. It was my first leadership role, and I had some very seasoned, wise people around me. It was a collection of people that formed the environment — not just one individual, but people who were willing to give me important feedback on leading people and who encouraged me to do things differently and to think outside the box. For example, early in my career, I was asked to submit an article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, to get involved in my professional organization, and to pursue opportunities for speaking engagements at national conferences. It’s a combination of not just giving advice and counsel and mentoring, but suggesting some specific opportunities that I look back on now and think had I not had those, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
On the patient care side, it’s one thing to provide great health services, and it’s another thing to make it easier for people to navigate and to access the system, so they get the right care, at the right place, at the right time. That’s where I feel that my impact has been for patients — making care easier for them to access.
On the professional side, over the years I’ve had an opportunity to cultivate and develop a number of leaders and to support them in achieving what they want to achieve. Particularly in health care, that leadership contributes to making not just health care but the world a better place.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Focus on the important more than the frequent. We are too easily distracted by issues of lesser importance. Setting priorities and honoring those priorities makes us more effective leaders.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. As a perfectionist, from time to time, I have invested way too much energy in focusing on things that just don’t matter.
- It’s OK to be wrong and admit it. Admitting our foibles makes us human and authentic.
- Health care is harder than expected and more rewarding. It’s a privilege to care for people at their most vulnerable moments.
- Find joy every day and in every way. The work we do is good and important and appreciated.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I am passionate about children. As an adoptive mother, I believe that every child deserves a loving home, with the support to grow into a contributing member of society. A focus on the next generation of people (and leaders) is our greatest obligation in life and for every generation to come.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I cannot manage the past, others are responsible to manage the present, but it is my unique responsibility to shine a spotlight on the future and rally my countrymen to achieve it.”
~ Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister
This quote exemplifies the role of a leader as a visionary and evangelist.
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?
Queen Elizabeth — to learn how one remains true to values and behavior through decades of visibility, through opportunities and challenges, balancing criticism and devotion, and keeping an institution alive despite changing times and attitudes.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.