SightLife’s Claire Bonilla Has a Unique Perspective on Leadership as the CEO of a Global Health Care Organization

Prior to joining SightLife, Bonilla honed her executive skills at Microsoft overseeing the company’s efforts to improve disaster-response efforts
 
 

Claire Bonilla leads a global nonprofit, SightLife, which is focused on fighting corneal blindness, which primarily affects people in developing nations. As chief executive officer of Seattle-based SightLife, Bonilla oversees the organization’s efforts to build awareness, prevention, transplant capabilities and improving overall patient outcomes.

Prior to joining SightLife in 2015, Bonilla worked for 20 years at Microsoft, where she served as the general manager of disaster response. At Microsoft, she was responsible for helping to improve the disaster-response capabilities of organizations and customers through the use of technology, partnerships and community involvement.

Under her leadership, SightLife and its partners internationally have provided more than 36,000 corneas for transplant in 2018, helping to restore not only the gift of sight for thousands, but also independence and an enhanced quality of life. Among Bonilla’s focuses at SightLife is developing a workable model for eye banking and surgeon training in countries around the world.

Bonilla is a graduate of the University of Munich, with an undergraduate degree in German studies. She also earned a master’s degree in political economy from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

 

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? The most important characteristic of a leader is your commitment to your talent, and by that, I mean your people. To ensure business success, leaders must do more than support professional development opportunities. They must create a psychologically safe space for people to share ideas, however provocative or risky, that challenge assumptions and help everyone grow. That’s why SightLife encourages all staff to embrace a growth mindset and stay nimble, balancing our passion with humility in the pursuit of our mission because there are many twists and turns ahead of us on the road to eliminating corneal blindness globally by 2040.

While it’s important that CEOs articulate a clear vision, the most overrated trait is certainty. If we knew the path to eliminating corneal blindness, no one would be suffering from preventable blindness today. It’s going to require empowered people from all over the world to come together and fail fast, and forward, to figure this out. My job it to make the space for that.

In sum, my mandate as CEO is to grow the business. The most effective way to do that is to inspire and grow the people critical to our business success.

As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? The most significant barrier I’ve faced was the result of challenging the status quo of traditional leadership styles, what they involve and why. Prior to the concept of servant leadership, the qualities of nurturing and serving others ― common among women leaders ― were at odds with the “manage the numbers, not the people” approach.

There are outliers, of course, but regardless of gender, the goal posts for business leadership are changing. One can manage the numbers through managing the people. I strongly prefer and have seen more success ― at Microsoft and at SightLife ― when I lead with compassion and conviction, focus on listening and cultivating the highest potential of others, in alignment with our mission. While this process can be challenging for some, it has been instrumental in helping the talent and businesses I lead to flourish.

How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? I believe there are three ways that women can achieve more prominent roles in their organization.

Marry your strengths with your role. You may know what most of your strengths are, but you can also engage your former colleagues to get outside opinions. They may see things that you don’t. When you fully understand what you bring to the table, play to your strengths and pursue (and take the initiative to shape) roles that allow your strengths to shine.

Be your own advocate. We must all take control of our career aspirations, aggressively go after development opportunities and not be afraid to communicate our wins by sharing metrics that demonstrate objective success. If you hate to brag, don’t worry, you’re just sharing the facts! But also, women benefit when they model fearlessness. It’s difficult, but sometimes it’s exactly what’s needed to brush off biases around how women should show up in the business world.

Cultivate diversity, inclusion, and belonging. In the workplace, organizations need to hire diverse candidates at all levels. As women ― especially those in traditionally male-dominated industries ― we must be a part of diversity initiatives to help ensure they are realized. Sometimes this will require us to lead the initiatives, and sometimes it’s necessary for us to be active and intentional allies. But by advocating for more diversity, we bring more diversity advocates to our organizations. More diversity means more equal opportunity for all. Plus, better business outcomes.

What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you? Throughout my career, I have been honored to connect with brilliant and inspiring mentors who challenge me both personally and professionally. Interestingly, the one individual I have spent the least amount of time with, but who has had the most transformative impact on my career is Mae Jemison. She was the first African American astronaut, a doctor and finally the CEO of her own foundation. We connected at a formative time in my career when I was at a career crossroads contemplating a major pivot in career focus. I was contemplating whether to go back for a medical degree or go into global health.

During a short but deeply meaningful conversation, she poignantly highlighted that I could make a bigger impact on people’s lives by building off the skills of global scale that I had cultivated the first half of my career vs. starting from scratch. If I played to my strengths, as she encouraged, I could make an even greater impact ― by leading an organization that is uplifting the lives of tens of thousands of people each year through interventions and change at the health-systems level. Mae recognized something that I had not, and I am eternally grateful for her mentorship.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders? We must recognize that we are stronger together. No one can succeed in an “us vs. them” world. Let’s acknowledge and appreciate the male leaders who have been a huge catalyst in opening doors for women. Let’s build up women and recognize that there is no single path to what we each define as success. Let’s cultivate and appreciate diversity to move the needle on equity and belonging in the workplace.

As female leaders, we forge new paths every day to balance the range of our commitments to ourselves, our families and our careers. Let’s respect each other’s choices and embrace every path taken, helping to normalize the choices as well as sacrifices that all leaders ― men and women ― make daily in the pursuit of a better future. If we judge others because they don’t operate in the way we expect, we will never achieve unexpected results.

How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? Networking is catalytic. I look outside to organizations, associations and industry events that are aligned with what I want to accomplish professionally and personally. For example, I’ve found incredible value in my interactions within the Women in Global Health Network, which includes more than 250 women working across all levels in global health. Through this network I’ve been able to grow the diversity hires in our organization, create connections that have opened doors in other countries and bring new ideas in disease elimination that couldn’t be found in our own industry. 

When I make a connection, I’m clear on what my personal or professional aspirations are, and often that the one connection can open up to multiple additional connections that may align to what I’m looking for ― creating exponential impact. But we also must remember that it’s not just external networking that is important. Internal networking is just as critical ― if not more. Building strong connections within one’s own organization can help us get the job done better, faster and smoother.

What would you do differently in your career? I wouldn’t change a thing because every step I took led me to where I am today. I’ve always been one to frequently reflect on how things are going ― always questioning the current state. Does this role fulfill me? Am I happy? How is my work impacting my family? If something ever felt askew, I connected with my employer and proposed solutions, alternatives or looked for the next opportunity to better meet my needs.

Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? Connecting, connecting, connecting. This might mean going on a hike with my children; traveling to a new destination with my family; having dinner with friends; pausing to connect spiritually with myself or considering the bigger questions of our world. Connecting is my fuel. I wouldn’t survive without the unequivocal joy that I derive from connecting with the people in my life.

What would be the title of your autobiography? “Walking Among Heroes: The Inspiration and Accessibility of Women Leaders.”

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