Be confident in the value of your perspective. Earlier in my career, I was often coached to “take up more space in meetings.” What my managers meant by this was to have more confidence and offer my perspective more freely. I remember sitting in meetings counting how many times each person spoke and working to not be at the bottom of that list. I would second guess what I wanted to say, only to hear someone else make the point I was thinking of a short while later. I’ve learned over the years to be confident in what I have to offer, speak up, and offer my perspective.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Koenig. She is an innovative and reflective leader driving the strategy behind ATI Physical Therapy’s efforts to make healthcare in America preventative, less costly, and more accessible to patients to deliver impact at scale. As a consumer of healthcare, Katie understands how important it is to thoughtfully address the opportunities and challenges the American healthcare system faces and is passionate about pushing boundaries and innovating. Although currently the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, her path wasn’t always clear. It was, however, always value-driven due to her parent’s influence. Her mom taught English, so Katie leaned toward liberal arts, taking piano lessons at age 3, singing in the choir, directing an acapella group, and at one point, contemplating pursuing a career as an orchestra conductor. Her dad’s love of nature forged in her a deep connection to nature and wildlife, leading to early aspirations of becoming a vet. Regardless, her dad instilled in her the mindset to relentlessly pursue her passions.
Fast-forward to the present, Katie is shaping how ATI differentiates physical therapy in the healthcare continuum by shepherding high-profile growth projects for the organization, helping to maximize the return on investment of these initiatives for the company. This builds on her past success as Chief Transformation Officer, where she developed a value creation plan to prioritize key change initiatives. Before ATI, she was Vice President of Strategic Planning at the University of Chicago Medicine, responsible for strategy development and implementation, business planning, and market intelligence. Prior to that, she led the strategy team at the University of North Carolina Health Care and worked in management consulting at the Boston Consulting Group.
In her spare time, Katie pursues her passion for photography, an interest that leverages her creativity and has a lot of correlation to her work. Her unique perspective supports her belief that you can find a solution to any problem with the right mindset. Katie also enjoys spending time with her husband and four dogs and has a keen interest in fitness and wellness. At the end of the day, her happiest moments are taking photos in nature, 30 feet from a Grizzly Bear fishing for salmon. It’s this childlike sense of awe and wonder that inspires her to continually change perspectives, frame opportunities, compose, and conduct.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path wasn’t necessarily conventional, and to an extent, it still isn’t now. Somehow it all makes sense in retrospect, as my experiences have set the building blocks for my personal and professional passions. After graduating with an English major and a minor in music theory, I started my career working in financial services — and I learned a lot. Despite my liberal arts background, I discovered that I enjoyed the business, solving problems, and thinking about different ways of doing work. I also learned financial services wasn’t for me. But it gave me the next push I needed, and I decided to go to business school and thereafter joined The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). They say one year at a management consulting firm is like 3 years in an industry, and that was true for me. I worked on complex problems, saw how senior executive teams worked together (and sometimes didn’t), and was surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I also discovered a passion for healthcare and the lack of easy solutions, yet again solidifying that in my DNA, tackling hard challenges energizes me.
Even better, my work in healthcare allowed me to make a positive impact on people’s lives daily. After my time in consulting, I ran strategy departments for two large healthcare systems, delivering improvement at scale and learning the inner and outer workings of U.S. healthcare through initiatives like defining a multi-year strategy for a children’s hospital, determining how an academic medical center could be successful with value-based care and improving access to trauma care on the South Side of Chicago. I am proud of the work that my teams and I did at both of these organizations, however, I also found myself missing the fast-paced environment that I experienced in consulting. As I was beginning to think through what my next step would be, ATI Physical Therapy called, and I leapt at the chance to join a growth-oriented organization with a mission to help people get back to being their best selves. It connected all the dots for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Living through 2020 so far! In all seriousness, my nature as a leader is to pick up the ball and help move it down the field whenever it’s needed. As late February rolled around and we realized that we were heading toward a global pandemic, I launched a cross-functional emergency response team that has met daily ever since. As an essential business, ATI remained open to serve our patients and having clinics in 25 states made for a lot of complexity in terms of navigating local stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and more. In our normal course, we don’t typically use much PPE or wear masks in our clinics. As it became clear that we needed to, I took on the challenge of finding us medical-grade masks during the most turbulent time to date for international supply chains for medical supplies. To make a long story short, I was striking out consistently, either because suppliers weren’t able to work with a new client or because there was so much counterfeit product on the market. I took some time to think through my network and recalled one of my photographer colleagues owns a garment manufacturing company and does a lot of manufacturing overseas. I reached out to him to ask if he had a lead on medical-grade masks, and as luck would have it, he had just shifted his factories to producing surgical masks — exactly what we were in need of. It’s the perfect snapshot of how timing is everything. We were able to work with him to get enough supplies to ensure our clinicians could safely provide care to our patients for a few months while we worked to set up new relationships with medical suppliers. This further reinforced a key lesson I’ve carried with me throughout my career: networks and relationships are incredibly valuable.
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?
I tend not to dwell on mistakes; rather, I try to focus on lessons learned. This is not to say that I haven’t made mistakes — trust me, I have. One funny ‘lesson learned’ that sticks with me is when I was at BCG. Consultants pride themselves on being able to get through airports as quickly as possible. You can always tell who’s a rookie if they need to check a bag or don’t have a TSA pre-check. Early on in my tenure at BCG, we took an early morning flight to Toronto. We were cutting it close to get to the client site for a meeting and upon landing, the team decided we needed to run to meet our car. I was wearing heels and my briefcase at the time didn’t zip shut, and as I was rushing through the arrivals area with the team, I hit a wet spot on the floor, slipped, and wiped out — completely. Everything in my briefcase and I mean everything, scattered across the floor in every direction. I ended up with a pretty bruised knee and a lot of embarrassment. Lesson learned: always wear comfortable shoes and always have a briefcase that you can zip shut.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) that most attracted you to it?
I’ve spent the majority of my career in strategy roles helping organizations tackle hard problems. Innovation is an extension of this and leverages creativity, inquisitiveness, differentiated thinking, and listening and observing to identify and mitigate challenges — all things that I naturally enjoy. Much like photography or music theory, it’s all about composition and how you put things together or change perspective for the better.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or 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?
CINOs are usually naturally inquisitive and consistently ask ‘why?’ Understanding why we do things the way we do them helps the organization think differently and try new ways of doing things — sometimes failing along the way. If you don’t fail, you aren’t pushing the boundaries enough.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
In my role, I cut across the organization and lead largely through influence to frame opportunities and drive results. I enjoy working with all areas of our team and firmly believe that collaboration and diversity of thought drive better outcomes.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
It’s not necessarily a downside, but something I try to remind myself of regularly is that when you are a leader at any level, eyes are on you. Because of this attention, I think leaders need to be intentional about how they touch base or stay connected — a blank look or stare is amplified exponentially. Sometimes I get lost in my thoughts or focused on the problem we are trying to solve, and in those moments, I don’t take the time to connect with others. But I’ve learned that people (myself included) can internalize when a leader doesn’t take a few extra moments to connect and wonder if they did something wrong, when 99% of the time, the leader is just focused on something else — or maybe spilled their coffee on their way into the office, or just wiped out at the airport in heels. I work every day to remind myself to take that extra moment to connect because your team needs you to be present.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
That we know all the answers because no one person does. A good leader surrounds themselves with strong team members that help enable their success.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
For women and minorities, unconscious biases are real, and women and minorities deal with them in the workplace all the time. These biases come in many forms and have a real impact on how those who experience them present themselves and are received by others. I have personally experienced them throughout my career — things like having a point that you just made restated by a male colleague as if it were the first time the perspective was being offered, or, as a young consultant, being patted on the head by an older male executive and told ‘you remind me of my daughter’ upon kicking-off a meeting. Or, being told in a performance review early on in my career that my ‘areas for development’ were to consider wearing more skirts and lipstick (as an aside, to this day I still don’t wear skirts or lipstick). As I reflect on these experiences, I don’t think any comments were shared with malintent, but again, these types of things happen to women and minorities every day. As leaders, we need to consistently analyze how biases that we may hold, consciously or unconsciously, are showing up in the workplace — and work to be better.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Moving into my role as a lead innovator, I expected to be pushing the boundaries and challenging the organization to do things differently. I didn’t expect that the world would change as drastically as it did in response to COVID-19, though, especially as it pertains to telemedicine. I developed my first telemedicine strategy back in 2007. Between then and early 2020, I worked on a number of these strategies and always ran into challenges around consumer and payer readiness. Predictably, these strategies stalled.
Telerehab was on ATI’s roadmap and was something I thought we would be challenging the organization to try over the next few years, but in February, that all changed seemingly overnight. Our innovation work changed from pushing the thinking around tel rehab to needing to stand up a solution as soon as possible. Thankfully, we had done some work in this space already that enabled us to move rapidly, but it’s been an interesting experience in the innovation space to move from pushing new care models to being pulled forward by a rapidly evolving market.
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?
In my experience, successful executives tend to have a number of commonalities. Personalities differ, but underlying traits are pretty consistent. Successful executives tend to understand the value of collaboration and teamwork and surround themselves with people that are highly skilled. Good leaders also have an acute awareness of their strengths and opportunity areas and possess strong motivation and drive. We also have to be good listeners, decisive when needed, but also visionary with the ability to think months and years out.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My biggest piece of advice for women leaders is to have confidence in themselves. Having confidence translates into presence, body language, and word choice. A lot of times I see women apologize when it’s not necessary or negate the point they are about to make by saying something like, ‘I’m not sure if this is right’ or ‘I just wanted to ask.’ Believe in yourself and the value you bring.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been fortunate throughout my career to have some amazing mentors — people who have taken a real interest in me and my success. I’ve learned a lot from each of them and I am eternally grateful to them all. Hands down though, I would say I am most grateful for my dad. My dad had high expectations of me growing up, and as I reached adulthood, he became my trusted advisor, coach, and best friend. The lessons I learned from my dad have shaped who I am: the value of hard work, relentless pursuit of your passions, and a strong sense of ethics and fairness. We tragically lost my dad eight years ago to sudden cardiac arrest, in the middle of a tennis match. I am comforted by the knowledge that he is forever with me, but I wish I could have one more conversation with him all the same. One of his passions was protecting wetlands in nature, and in a sense, my hobby for landscape photography comes from him. Whenever I’m out shooting photos and observing nature, I feel the most connected to him.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Because I’ve been very fortunate in my life, it’s important to me to give back, whether philanthropically or with an investment of my time. I enjoy being on nonprofit boards and helping organizations maximize their missions. I currently serve on two nonprofit boards: Chicago Run and the ATI Foundation. Chicago Run is a sports-based youth program in the Chicagoland area connecting children with fitness to help them be healthy, both physically and emotionally. The ATI Foundation has historically supported children with physical challenges, but with the rapidly evolving situation surrounding COVID-19, we expanded the mission of the foundation to also support an emergency relief fund for employees negatively impacted by the pandemic. So in my personal and professional pursuits, my focus is helping others be the best they can be.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The power of telling a good story. As an English major, one thing I learned in undergrad is what makes for a compelling story. When I started my career in business, I didn’t realize how important this skill was. I remember during my summer internship at BCG, I was working on a slide deck for a major client presentation. I had been working seemingly nonstop through the day and every time I took the deck to my manager for review, he just said no, you’re missing the mark. It got to be late in the evening and I remember feeling completely overwhelmed trying to figure out what success looked like. I stepped away from my desk to go for a short walk to clear my mind. In those few minutes, something connected for me. I realized that I had all the right data and facts — what was missing was the story that would compel our client to act. I ran back to my desk and used all that I know about storytelling to reframe the slide deck. The meeting was a success and I learned a lesson that I’ve carried with me throughout my career.
- Be confident in the value of your perspective. Earlier in my career, I was often coached to “take up more space in meetings.” What my managers meant by this was to have more confidence and offer my perspective more freely. I remember sitting in meetings counting how many times each person spoke and working to not be at the bottom of that list. I would second guess what I wanted to say, only to hear someone else make the point I was thinking of a short while later. I’ve learned over the years to be confident in what I have to offer, speak up, and offer my perspective.
- Take care of yourself, because no one else will. By nature, I am hard-charging and have a deep sense of ownership when it comes to my work. A number of years ago, I had knee surgery and the surgeon recommended that I take two weeks off. I decided there was no way I could take that much time and returned to work while non-weight bearing on crutches a few days after the operation. I was working with an airline client at the time and I remember trying to navigate a busy airport with a briefcase while not being able to put weight on my left leg. Looking back, I think this slowed my recovery, and if I’m honest, probably kept me from doing my best work. I’ve learned to prioritize my health because, without your health, you are unable to give 100% of yourself, which ultimately limits your impact on what’s important to you.
- Be you. When I first started my career, I decided that my name, Katie, didn’t sound very professional. Along with buying a new wardrobe of suits, I decided to go by my given name Kathryn. No one ever called me Kathryn, and I wasn’t as responsive to this name as I was to Katie — I learned over time, but I’m guessing my new colleagues thought it was a bit odd that it took me a few beats to respond to my own name. After I left my first job, I decided to re-embrace the name Katie and never looked back. Funnily enough, there’s a subset of friends that I have from that time in my life that still call me Kathryn. Sometimes I respond with, who’s that?
- The value of having a strong network. When I was younger, I used to think of networking events as superficial and not impactful. As I’ve moved throughout my career, my perspective has changed. Effectively building a network means investing in genuine relationships with others. It means regularly touching base with people even if you haven’t physically seen them in years. It means never burning a bridge, too, because it really is a small world and you never know how former colleagues or old friends might be a critical sounding board or thought partner for you in the future (and vice versa, of you for them). Take the time to invest in people.
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 have always been committed to conservation, all the way back to when I started a recycling program in my elementary school as a 5th grader. Outside of the office, one of my passions is landscape and wildlife photography. I love traveling to remote parts of the world, pushing through challenging conditions (like below-zero temperatures, or 80 mph wind gusts, or no food and water for 12 hours) and creating an impactful composition out of the seeming chaos of nature. I hope to one day use my photography to deepen our connection to the natural world — and to illuminate the need for us as humans to respect and protect our planet and its creatures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is “‘go slow to go fast.” I use it all the time, both at work and in my personal life. We live in such a fast-paced world that it’s easy to go from one thing to the next, chasing after the results we are seeking. The value of slowing down, thinking things through, considering the bigger picture, and preparing well cannot be understated. There have been times when I made a job change that resulted in a salary reduction or in a perceived step back. With hindsight as a benefit, these changes resulted in career-building experiences, new opportunities, and a better understanding of where I wanted my career to go — and in some ways more importantly, where I didn’t want it to go. Ultimately, it led me to where I am today. Taking a step back to clear your mind and think about a problem, project or challenge is always a good idea.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Brene Brown. I think her messages about being vulnerable and doing the hard work of being your full self are incredibly powerful and inspiring.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.