Recognition for a job well done with Dorothy Gibbons

Recognition for a job well done is one of the most effective ways to give feedback. But if it isn’t timely or doesn’t convey that the giver really understands the depth of the accomplishment or effort, even recognition, the best of feedback, can come across sounding lame or insincere. As a part of our series […]

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Recognition for a job well done is one of the most effective ways to give feedback. But if it isn’t timely or doesn’t convey that the giver really understands the depth of the accomplishment or effort, even recognition, the best of feedback, can come across sounding lame or insincere.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dorothy Gibbons.

Dorothy’s leadership has led to many firsts — she employed patient navigators when no one had heard of that terminology, established a 500 + member strong Physicians Network that provides pro-bono care for the uninsured; brought in the first truly portable and business adaptable Mobile Mammography units which now serves a 35 county area in Southeast Texas, created the Breast Health Collaborative of Texas, was the first female selected for the Community Health Leadership Award in 2008 by the Episcopal Health Charities, named Houston’s first “Fearless Woman” Awardee in 2011, was the first recipient of the Trekker Award, and her first national award was as Yoplait’s Breast Cancer Champion in 2012.

Her nonprofit experience involves healthcare, education and women’s issues. As a CEO, community leader, published author, wife, mother, yoga instructor, lecturer at the Jung Center, rancher, and advocate for women, her labels are many.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Poverty, sickness and the lack of healthcare were constant companions throughout my childhood. I’ve sometimes wondered if that history was preparation for the work I do today.

My father’s third heart attack left him jobless with no hope for future work. His solution was to abandon my uneducated mother to care for four children, the oldest ten and the youngest nine-months old. Mother’s family took us in and we spent years moving from place to place, living at the whims of resentful people who were doing their duty, knowing no home of our own. Those were years of watching my mother slip deeper into mental illness and depression. As the oldest, I was expected to look after my siblings. My mother died of metastatic cancer in a charity hospital when I was 20 years old. She knew something was wrong but working part-time meant no health coverage. By the time her cancer was detected, it was too advanced for any treatment. I remember holding her hand as she took her last breath and wondering what would have been different for her if she had had insurance.

When she died, my role as mother to my youngest sister became real. I married too young, went to school at night and worked full-time while raising a son after surviving a divorce. I had worked my way up the management chain at an HCA hospital, Bayshore Medical Center, and was the PR/Marketing Director. That was when I met Dr. Dixie Melillo.

My job was to promote the hospital and its medical staff and when Dixie came on staff, I finally had something I could sell. At a time when only 3% of physicians were women, she had been only the second woman to complete a surgical residency at UTMB making her marketable indeed. Her story, her winning personality and passion about breast cancer and early detection were all contagious. Mammography screening was just getting a toehold in healthcare and she charmed countless audiences during community presentations. I arranged those talks, created the slides, carried the projector and hauled her around. After a couple of hundred presentations, we became friends.

But it was the women who were her patients that made the biggest impression on me. Case after case of late-stage cancer, women who were doomed to die, came to see Dixie. As a medical photographer, my job was taking pictures of those women, documenting fungating cancers that erupted through the skin. Their stories were always the same; no money, no insurance, and they didn’t know of any doctor or place to go for help.

In 1985, we met journalist and breast cancer advocate Rose Kushner. When hearing Dixie talk about the women and help that was needed, Rose told Dixie to “get off her duff and go start a non-profit!” After that meeting, Rose proceeded to call me every Friday, insisting I do ‘something’ to get our nonprofit going!

Believe me; starting a nonprofit was not on either of our lists. Dixie’s general surgery practice was growing by leaps and bounds and I was part of the management team of HCA’s flagship hospital and on HCA’s training faculty with unlimited opportunities.

But as these things go, by July 1986, The Rose was officially a nonprofit. Although she died before she ever saw our Center, Rose Kushner’s dogged determination is still with us today.

I’m proud to be a Texan, I’ve lived here since I was two years old. I love the people and their big generous hearts, the open spaces, and the unpredictable weather. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, but I sure can imagine Texas restructuring its state health program.

Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, at 17.7% of the population, making our rate twice as high as the national average. It’s been that way for two decades, plenty of time to figure out how to care for that population.

We have nothing to brag about when it comes to the State’s healthcare for its poor citizens nor its attitude towards women’s health. Every day, I deal with our State’s meager health programs and the dogmatism that perpetuates its limitations and failures.

I’ve seen way too many women die because access to health care for the uninsured does not exist.

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

In the mid ‘90’s, I was attending a national breast cancer conference with colleague and The Rose cofounder Dixie Melillo, MD. Following the seminars, elaborate receptions were offered in hotel rooms where people were packed together like sardines juggling a glass of wine in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres in the other. At one of those gatherings, we didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help but hear a conversation between one of the leading oncologists at MD Anderson and another physician. His colleague said something like, ‘In Ohio, we have such a problem with the uninsured, there is no place to send them for screening or diagnostic tests or diagnosis.” The MD Anderson physician responded: “In Houston, we have a place called The Rose that handles all of that…” He continued to brag on The Rose and talked about how important The Rose was to the healthcare safety net. Dixie and I were stunned and beyond proud.

I think that was the day I realized The Rose does stand out, not because of anything Dixie or I do, but because of the work The Rose does. Our method is different; then as now, we invite the uninsured to come in for services. They aren’t an afterthought, but the focus of our mission. We aren’t a public health entity but instead are able to serve through a unique business model in which insured women help offset the care of uninsured. The Rose has played a vital role in healthcare for the uninsured, not just for Houston but for most of Southeast Texas. Our program has received national awards, has been replicated nationally and internationally and is often used as the example of success in providing access to care for all.

Twenty years later, I shared the dais with Dr. Gabe Hortobagyi, the same physician who was so adamant about The Rose and its value. Our organizations were recognized by Susan G. Komen Houston during their twenty-fifth anniversary gala. It was a celebratory event made more special when Gabe said to me. “The Rose and you are a Class Act, Dorothy, always were”

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Answered in the question above.

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?

We started The Rose by holding a Bachelors Auction. It was our first fundraiser and we sold every man we could convince or cajole to be a part of it. Its proceeds, a whopping $7,000, created the seed money to rent an office space that housed the donated $160,000 mammography machine and opened our doors.

Today, when I tell people that we sold men to raise money to start The Rose, they look at me aghast. I remind them it was the 80’s and things like that happened. Whether or not this was a mistake, looking back, it was funny — ironic may be a better description, and taught me so much.

We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Dixie was a physician with no business sense, I was a marketing director who knew nothing about healthcare delivery, and neither of us knew anything about nonprofits. Yet we forged ahead mainly because so many people helped and believed in what we were doing. It was years later before I realized what a miracle it is that The Rose survived. Not many nonprofits from that decade did.

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

If such a thing existed, I would have a Ph.D. in self-help. My library is lined with hundreds of how-to books all boasting to make one a better person and live a better life. I’ve given away as many as are on my shelves. I can’t say a specific one helped, they all did.

I truly believe that the more anyone knows about themselves, the more we can understand our own motivations and the ‘whys’ behind our individual responses to the world, all make us stronger and enable us to better manage and enjoy life. Among my favorites are Jean Houston’s The Possible Human and Maryann Williamson’s Return to Love.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Employees want to feel needed, want to know what they do is important, and want to work; at least mine do and the toughest thing right now is watching how hard they are having to work. We provide mammograms and biopsies; our services are essential and cannot be done remotely. Breast cancer isn’t going away because of the pandemic, and my employees are ‘giving their all’ to schedule patients and get their procedures done. In this crazy environment, they must be constantly attentive and on guard, doing their job while ensuring adherence to the safety recommendations (masks, PPE gear, social distancing) and dealing with patients who are equally stressed.

Helping employees avoid burnout during 2020 is difficult. The methods we used in the past simply aren’t enough today. I believe leaders will face the same challenge in dealing with their own burnout. In the end, we will all need to be part magician, part psychologist and a whole bunch ready to get down in the weeds and do whatever it takes to get the job done. We need to convey to our employees that we understand some of their frustrations and at the same time, be ok knowing we aren’t going to be able to ‘fix’ it all.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

With or without a title, everyone has the ability to be a leader. An employee can lead sitting at their desk as well as a company president can lead from the podium. The only prerequisite for being a leader is having a follower.

There are at least a dozen leadership styles and each has its own pros and cons and any of them can be used for creating good or bad in the community.

There is a difference between an effective leader and a mediocre leader and it usually boils down to the effective leader having a clear vision and the ‘guts’ to follow through. Hopefully, that vision is for the betterment of the world.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I might not be the best person to answer this. Years of stress have served me well and given me a demeanor that is usually quiet and reserved. Even in stressful times, I may appear methodical to the point of being ‘maddeningly slow’ and my measured responses allow me to pretend I actually have some control.

Digging in the dirt is the best way for me to get rid of anxiety. I love working in my garden, chopping down dead trees, walking in the woods, anything that lets me be outdoors. Nature is the ultimate healer and a definite reminder that life goes on.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I’ve been in management since the first job I ever had as floor supervisor at Wyatt’s cafeteria. I was 19 years old, pretending to be 22, and supervised staff decades older than me. By 24, I was employed by HCA Bayshore Hospital, and started working my way up in management eventually becoming a faculty member of HCA’s management training program. Even though I have taught feedback and had plenty of experience in management, giving feedback is tricky and its success depends on intention and timing.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Leaders have the unique perspective of the ‘big picture’ and of seeing the business through an empirical lens. It’s easy to forget that such a perspective isn’t shared by everyone and baffling when the reason for doing things isn’t immediately recognized by those who most need to do it correctly. Still no one can read the leader’s mind, making feedback a critical component to overall understanding and efficiency. Knowing what is expected, what parameters are in place and what challenges exist that threaten the success of accomplishing the task, provides everyone a level playing field.

As long as feedback is considered confrontational, it won’t be effective.

Whether feedback takes the form of a compliment, or is used to clarify assumptions or is instructional, feedback can take on a life of its own and go in a way that was never intended.

Recognition for a job well done is one of the most effective ways to give feedback. But if it isn’t timely or doesn’t convey that the giver really understands the depth of the accomplishment or effort, even recognition, the best of feedback, can come across sounding lame or insincere.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I am still of the unconventional school that there isn’t anything constructive about criticism. When something goes afoul, the employee usually knows it and is already beating themselves up for it. There are times when the employee really didn’t know what to do or flat out made a wrong decision. My first question in those cases is, was it a system’s failure or human error. I am always amazed at how quickly systems can become outdated or are simply too complex to be easily mastered, which invariably leaves the employee looking for ‘workarounds’ to get their job done.

Nine times out of ten it is the workaround that creates the failure and we’ll never know about it if we don’t ask the right questions. Add the complexity of working remotely, when even the most precise nomenclature can still be subject to misinterpretation and the corrective effort can fail.

When the need for feedback involves a person’s behavior or a perceived negative attitude, then honesty and examples are the best tools in a leader’s toolbox. Being able to succinctly describe what is observable and how their action is impacting others or the work flow is necessary.

Sometimes asking questions helps to reach the understanding that a change is necessary, such as: “When we are in meetings, do you realize that when you raise your voice to make a point, others think you are angry?” or “When you say I’ve already thought of that; do you realize your employees shut down?” I once had this situation with a staff member, who responded that she was raised by strong, loud, opinionated parents and it’s just the way she was. She was amazed that anyone took her actions ‘personally.’ She paid attention and while she’s still most opinionated, she has learned to tone it down to a mild roar.

My reactions to her previous behavior also interfered with smooth meetings and when others challenged me, I realized I also had to change. Feedback, when it works, isn’t just top down.

Obviously, disruptive types of things happening during a meeting where people are interacting in-person will have a whole different ‘feeling’ than when it happens on a zoom meeting, especially when the problematic employee insists on interrupting others or talking over others. That’s when controlling the mute key is helpful.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Read it out loud. Read it again. Wait 24 hours and read it again. Then decide if it needs changing. Many times, a statement can be softened by adding: I hope this makes sense. Or start and end the email with, “we may need to talk more about this on the phone, in person.”

When I’m frustrated, I state the issue and add the word: “Sigh.” Sometimes a simple acknowledgement of the emotion that’s most present can set the tone.

Good or bad, the one response I’m best known for is: ARRRGGGGHHHHH!

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

It depends on the person, the level of frustration present and the repercussions if action isn’t immediately taken.

A leader knows that we don’t often have the luxury of waiting but also knows that most issues can be addressed AND discussed at a later time for more clarity. ‘Circling back’ is a great term and when used intentionally, an effective tool.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

I’ve certainly had my share of great bosses, and am thankful for their presence in guiding my career and shaping my leadership style. To me, a great boss is not afraid to let their employees see their human side, not afraid to admit when they made a mistake, is always ready to take responsibility for the failures and easily gives the credit away — abundantly — to others for the successes.

Recently, we were forced to downsize staff and I asked all remaining employees to accept a reduction in pay for the next few months. The Rose is facing serious challenges as a result of COVID-19, first a $3 million loss in revenue during the time we were closed for six weeks, and now as we attempt to balance staffing against patient load, social distancing and enhanced cleaning have meant a 30% reduction in patient volume. It is physically impossible to serve 100 patients a day with 20 sitting side by side in the waiting room and still comply with social distancing.

I made the announcement about downsizing staff and reduction in pay during an all staff meeting, explaining what we need to do and why. I made no bones about how difficult these decisions were and how much I struggled with each. After the meeting, I was touched by the number of employees who sent me reassuring emails, telling ME everything would be ok. I was amazed that one tenth of the staff offered to take larger reductions in pay. I’m not sure their reactions mean I’m a good boss, but I do know I have great employees.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not finished with my first movement! The Rose has given a whole new meaning to “access to care” and created a different paradigm in healthcare by asking those who have the means to help those who do not. I hope The Rose inspires others to think outside the box and tackle the tough problems in society.

To me the next important movement in life must involve an internal exploration and a reframing of what is truly important to us as human beings. I’d start a movement that encouraged women and men to enjoy life — to not be afraid to experience life, to play outside the lines of convention and to nurture their inner life as much as their outer life. Most of all I’d encourage women to develop their sexual and sensual natures, to explore life beyond the roles they are expected to play, to realize their worth and to embrace their power. This movement would insist they trust their intuition and allow their passions to be their guiding star.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Just be a good person. Love who you can. Help where you can. Give what you can.” This was the life motto of Bob Domec, one of the most engaging and generous board members in The Rose’s history. Bob died at our annual Shrimp Boil fundraiser last year. There was no other place he would have wanted to be, his wife Elaine, assured me. Through his 12 years as a board director, Bob tested my ‘mettle’ often, inspired me to try harder and walked beside me through both great times and incredibly difficult times. He exhibited the finest qualities in a human being, had a keen mischievous mind and always had a funny story to brighten the day. He made a practice of calling people on their birthdays and in his deep one-of-a-kind voice serenading them with his version of Happy Birthday.

Some people make you better simply by being in your life. Bob was that kind of ‘good person.’

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Anyone interested in my work can visit my website or follow me on Facebook at @DorothyGibbonsAuthor and Twitter at @DgibbonsDorothy. If someone is looking for more information on The Rose, visit

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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