Leading as a woman in the clinical vs. healthcare business setting: 6 Qs with Merritt Healthcare's Kerri Ubaldi

Kerri Ubaldi has more than two decades of experience in healthcare, many of them serving in leadership roles both on the clinical and business sides.

She spent 22 years as a registered nurse in the operating room, ICU and emergency department where her responsibilities included staff recruitment and retention, quality and safety improvement and patient satisfaction. In 2012, she joined Merritt Healthcare as vice president of operations, bringing her clinical background to the ASC business growth side of the company.

Here, Ms. Ubaldi discusses her leadership philosophy in both the clinical and business setting, and the best opportunities for leadership going forward.

Question: What is your philosophy on leadership? How has that changed as you built your career?

Kerri Ubaldi: I believe leadership is leading by example and not asking staff to do anything you wouldn't do yourself. An important aspect of leadership is to perform your role in a way where you try to put yourself out of a job. Empowering your staff to make decisions so that whether you're present at work or not, the place runs exactly the same way. You won't actually put yourself out of a job because there is always work to be done. The most important part of this empowerment of staff is supporting the decisions your team makes, whether you agree with them or not, and then collaborating afterwards to discuss how they can do handle the situation in a different way the next time.

My philosophy has changed over time since I first became a manager. In my early years of management, I assumed the staff would rely on me to know everything and answer all questions right away and perfectly. It didn't occur to me that I could say, 'I'm not sure. I'll think about it and get back to you.' Many times I will also ask my team members what they think or how they feel the situation should be handled since they are the ones doing the job, they know the best way to get things done. It will also allow them to feel comfortable making decisions in the future.

Our role as leaders is to mentor the staff while removing barriers in front of our teammates so they can perform their role without having obstacles in their way.

Q: What was your experience like as a woman leader in the clinical setting? Has that changed since joining Merritt?

KU: The leadership role in the clinical setting is a bit different than my current role, primarily because most of the people in clinical leadership roles in the hospital were women. There were some men in leadership roles, but they were in the business department of the hospital. I never felt that there was a lack of opportunities for me because I was a woman; there were plenty of opportunities for professional growth. Since joining Merritt, the biggest change has been that I am sometimes the only woman at the table. At first it was awkward because I was so used to having only women at the table, but after a while I realized that men are human too and there really was little difference in how the work was performed.

In the ASC industry, most of the surgeons and owners of ASCs are male. I have never felt any differently as the only woman at the table except that my perspective is one of a nurse. One interesting observation has been how it's primarily women carrying out care for patients as nurses and predominantly men that benefit financially from the care provided by these nurses. It would be nice to see additional women in the surgeon role.

Q: As one of the only women in a leadership role at Merritt, what is the unique perspective you bring to the table?

KU: I feel like my perspective is shaped first by being a nurse. When you are taking care of patients, you don't think about the financial side of the equation. You think about what the patient needs to get better and you think about using empathy and compassion to care for them. As nurses we do not think about how much that care will cost, aside from using our resources in a fiscally responsible manner. It's much more important to me that the patients are safe and comfortable and getting the care they need. I'm a nurse first and a businesswoman second.

I feel that I was able to bring that perspective to Merritt, which I don’t believe they have before. I have worked to drive home that safety needs to be taken into account. We never sacrifice quality of care or patient safety to increase the profits of our centers. Safety is our number one priority.

Q: Where do you see the biggest challenges for aspiring nurse leaders today, especially if they are women?

KU: Whether you are a man or a woman, as a nurse leader it's going to be increasingly important to figure out how to provide care to patients economically without sacrificing quality. That's an ongoing challenge as the healthcare system moves to paying for episodes of care. Honestly, it will all boil down to spending more time in chronic disease prevention and management of these diseases without hospitalization. We can then focus our care and expenses on patients that are critically ill instead of spending billions of dollars on patients with preventable chronic diseases.

Q: What is the best advice you received early in your career? Would you give that same advice today?

KU: What leaders need to know early on is the importance of earning trust and respect of not only the people you report to, but the people who report to you. Pitching in and doing what it takes to get the job done instead of having a hierarchy is important. I believe that has paid off tremendously for me and my staff have always worked incredibly hard. I try to work as hard as they do so that we can make a successful team.

Q: Where do you see women leadership flourishing in healthcare, and where is the best place for improvement?

KU: It would be great to see more women in physician leadership roles as well as continued growth in nursing leadership roles. We will need additional men and women leaders focusing on disease prevention and how to pay for that. No matter if we have men or women in these roles, if we all step back and realize we are there to take care of the patient, and put the patient first, we will never go wrong. Problems arise when we lose site of the fact that the patient is the reason that we have gone into the healthcare profession.

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A 'very, very fine line': How the gender 'double bind' affects workplace feedback & 3 strategies to stop it
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