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Healthcare executive Charlene Frizzera: How to rise above your limits and help others do the same

Charlene Frizzera started in the secretarial pool at the IRS and she’d be the first one to admit that her career vision at the time was a little limited, but due to her mentors along the way, she became a nationally-recognized expert, thought leader, and speaker with more than 30 years of healthcare business leadership […]

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Charlene Frizzera started in the secretarial pool at the IRS and she’d be the first one to admit that her career vision at the time was a little limited, but due to her mentors along the way, she became a nationally-recognized expert, thought leader, and speaker with more than 30 years of healthcare business leadership spanning policy, healthcare reform, Medicaid, and Medicare. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with her about the role of mentorship in her life and why it works for individuals and companies alike.

Tell me a bit about your background and the role of mentorship in your own life. 

I was raised in a household where my father worked hard every day and taught us that that’s what it took to get ahead. While this is a value that I wholeheartedly embrace, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentors who saw greater potential in me and fostered it.

I started in the secretarial pool at the IRS after high school and, because of hard work and the people who believed in me, I rose through the ranks, gaining experience and expertise, before leaving the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) where I worked for thirty years. I did everything from cost report auditing to writing regulations to, ultimately, holding Senior Executive Leadership positions. Under President Obama, I became the Acting Administrator of CMS.  It was an honor and a privilege to serve as the leader for CMS for over a year, ending my 30-year career at the top of the organization. 

I then formed my consulting firm, CF Health advisors, with my partner, which advises corporate, government, and equity companies on Medicaid, Medicare, and health reform. It’s been a successful small consulting firm for over 10 years.  

During my CMS career, I received the Presidential Rank Award twice (an award that is given to the top 1 percent of the Senior Executive Service in the country) and I say this not to brag but to emphasize the power of mentorship. When I started out, my vision for my career was limited to vying for a promotion to a higher-level secretarial position (which I didn’t get), but because my boss at the time saw what I was capable of, I was encouraged to grow and expand my learning so that I could, ultimately, contribute more to the people and organizations that I worked with. 

When you’ve reaped the rewards of mentorship like I have, you want to pass those rewards on. While I was at CMS, I developed a mentorship program that worked – and worked well. We know that the majority of people who are mentored excel in their careers (as do the mentors) and are more satisfied with their jobs. We know that mentorship increases minority representation within management and increases promotion and retention rates across the board. The benefits are innumerable, but the takeaway is simple yet powerful: mentorship is the key ingredient for growth in the individual, the organization, and society.   

Who are some of the pivotal figures in your life that helped you get to where you are today? 

Obviously, my dad was pivotal regarding my work ethic. Later, it was my mentors at work. My first boss when I was a secretary was a crucial mentor. He saw that the position that I was vying for was too small for me. He encouraged me to go back to college (which was not even on my radar) in order to obtain the credits I needed to be promoted. Sometimes, that’s all it takes – someone who can see your potential and push you to achieve it. 

In most of my leadership jobs, I wasn’t sure that I could do them, but the competence came from other people believing that I could. This is what makes me so passionate about mentorship and what I wanted to pass on.

What was your approach to creating the mentorship program at CMS and what were some of the effects on the employees and company? 

Like many companies, CMS tried a variety of mentorship programs and, honestly, none of them turned out very well. Because of that, I suggested that we start a mentoring program that was more efficient and informal. The program was anchored on three basic principles:

  1. Diversity in matching mentors and mentees: Typically, companies match mentees with mentors based on personalities, skill sets, or specific roles. Instead, I suggested we make the program entirely voluntary for all participants and make the matches randomly. This provided people with the opportunity to connect with someone they might not have had exposure to otherwise and, with no pre-conceived evaluations, allowed the relationship to grow organically. 

We also had more mentees than mentors, so we created group mentorship which became one of the most successful mentoring approaches to date. Many became very close and supportive of one another and stayed in touch long after they moved on from the company. 

  1. Set realistic goals and expectations: To make sure the mentorship was successful, we clarified what the program was and what it was not. For example, the mentorship was not a way for mentees to get a new job or promotion, and it was not a place to bring one’s personal issues or challenges.  Instead, we emphasized that the goal was to provide a safe and trusting environment for mentors to share their professional experiences and advice.
  1. Measure impact by what matters most: We used criteria that went beyond the standard goals of increased employee retention, professional development, and job satisfaction in order to broaden our understanding of the program’s assets. By including how mentorship affected communication skills, fostered and developed leadership, and increased trust between the mentee and mentor, we were able to see the depth of value that the program offered. 

What is the value of mentorship to the mentor and the mentee?

When I think about the importance of mentorship, one very specific experience comes to mind. During my time at CMS, I applied for an internal senior leadership position which nobody thought I would get., but my mentor encouraged me to go for it and reassured me that I had every right to be considered.  To everyone’s surprise, including myself, I got the job.

The transition to the new position was not without obstacle. On my first day in the role, I got to my new office and the person I was replacing said, “I’m not moving.” Because of my earlier experience being passed over for a promotion, I understood his feelings. Instead of causing confrontation, I sat in the cubicle outside his desk. The office was an open layout, so everyone was watching us, but I remained calm and did nothing for a few days. People were saying all kinds of things, but I didn’t care. Then one day, I went in early and told him we were going to share the office. After two weeks, he had moved out and left flowers on the desk with a thank you note. 

Not only was he thankful about the way I treated him, but we ended up becoming close and he was instrumental in helping me in that job. While people may not use that exact tactic, there is value in the experience in regards to thinking outside of the box, not worrying what other people may think (which is admittedly hard) and understanding how the other person views the situation. It took some patience and creativity on my part, but the result was I made a new ally, who generously shared his experience with me so I could excel at the position. 

These are the types of experiences mentors can share with their mentees. 

In my experience, the value for mentors is threefold: you become more connected to the organization in a way not possible in your day to day work; you learn from the experiences shared by your mentees, which may be very different from your own experiences; and you are able to share in the growth of people you believe in.

What’s one lesson you’ve learned that you would pass along to a mentee? 

Don’t wing it. Prepare, prepare, prepare. At first, preparation may mean additional study but eventually, preparation evolves into something that I would call thought organization. Thought organization is taking your experience, expertise, and vision and honing it to become an effective tool to benefit others. Being able to organize your thoughts at this level can powerfully affect change within your life, the lives of others, as well as the organizations you work.  Taking the time to do this and asking for help along the way, if needed, will take you where you want to go next – if not beyond. Fortunately, none of us does this alone – and this is the power of mentorship.


Charlene’s story exemplifies the power of mentorship on reaching one’s professional and personal goals and how the shape of that mentorship may change throughout your career. Working with experienced leaders to discuss the challenges, rewards, and paths forward is key, while giving back that mentorship to the ones coming up behind you not only helps them but contributes gifts to the giver as well. To learn more about Charlene you can visit her on LinkedIn.

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