Daring Women: Elaine Gibbons, Vice President of Global Engagement and Communications at PATH

Health care executive says leaders need to be great listeners and agile decisionmakers

Elaine Gibbons, who in January 2018 was named vice president for Global Engagement and Communications at PATH, a nonprofit promoting health care innovation and equity, is the latest Daring Women interview.

At PATH, Gibbons oversees the organization’s brand efforts, communications, policy and advocacy as well as its philanthropy and strategic corporate engagements. She leads a team that works with donors, partners and peers in organizing resources to tackle some of the world’s most challenging health care issues. Gibbons, a native of the United Kingdom who joined PATH in 2013, has some 15 years of experience in leading international teams and overseeing major initiatives for both for-profit and nonprofit businesses.

Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.

I am not sure I’ve had my high point yet! I would say that, overall, I’m proudest of the great people I’ve hired and the strong teams I’ve built in various roles over the years. It really is so gratifying to be able to hire great people, support their development, and watch them achieve all they can. It’s especially great to help a group of people come together to solve a very difficult problem — and to create change for the better.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?

I have been very lucky in my career and have had great opportunities with my managers and in the organizations I’ve worked for. That said, I have fallen (and do fall) into many of the common patterns that women adopt in the workplace — discounting accomplishments, apologizing ahead of making a point, failing to speak up at the right time.

I did at one point early in my career find myself on the wrong side of some untrue and unfair rumors — simply because I was a young woman advancing quickly in a male-dominated environment. I handled it by addressing the instigators head-on, one on one. When I reflect on this now, I realize that it was pretty gutsy for me to do that. But addressing things fairly and squarely is really the only way I know how to solve issues of that kind.

Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?

I have had some great bosses, both female and male, who have entrusted me with interesting work and responsibilities. I’ve learned several lessons from these mentors that continue to inform my outlook and guide my approach as a leader.

You can’t manage and control for everything. Things will go wrong. What you’ll be judged on as a leader is how you respond to a challenge, issue or crisis. The more senior you get, the lonelier it becomes. The peer dynamic and sense of camaraderie shifts a bit more with each new title. You need to prepare yourself for that and seek other avenues for support and guidance.

One lesson I have learned from women I have worked with is the need to compartmentalize when making decisions. You know other people have their own individual viewpoints. As a leader, you must hold firm on your position and move forward with the belief that the decision you’re making is right. Stay open, stay informed, but move ahead.

What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?

Have confidence that you don’t have to justify your position or your expertise. Too often you’ll hear this in the way women feel compelled to apologize before making a statement. “I’m not sure if this is right, but….” You don’t hear men doing the same thing. I tell my employees that I’ll call them out if they do it.

Knowing the inequities of the workplace, don’t be fearful of taking a risk, and don’t feel you have to justify your expertise. You need to share your insights, both within the context of your position and beyond it.

What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?

We need to understand the root causes of gender inequity and focus on the levers that can make the greatest change. We must acknowledge that sexism and racism exist in our offices, and on our own teams. This means calling out harassment when it happens. It also means being aware of the small actions we take daily that can either encourage people to take the next step or dissuade them from taking a risk. Both men and women need to be aware of that.

To advance gender equity, in my experience the early stages of a woman’s career are the most important places to focus. Hiring women into entry level roles and early-stage promotion are key drivers of long-term career success. We all have a responsibility in that promotion and advancement, since that can be helped by mentoring and taking a chance on people. When you know someone has the capability, don’t wait until they’re perfectly proven. Take a risk and let them prove themselves.

Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.

The “Hidden Brain” [on NPR radio] by Shankar Vedantam explores why people think the way they do and what motivates them to do what they do. It lends some useful insights into better understanding where people are and what factors influence their decisions. I am also a longstanding fan of Shakespeare and admire how his work is reflective of human nature. My personal favorite is “Macbeth.” Reminds me that good people can do bad things.

And of course, the “Great British Bake Off" [TV show]. The way people work with each other, help each other and take criticism on the chin, as they say, is so inspiring to me. Finally, [the TV series] “Queer Eye.” Who isn’t inspired by the openness and genuine desire to help people be the best they can be?

Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?

I find some of my best support and inspiration in a bottle of sauvignon blanc, or pinot noir, depending on the season! In all honesty, I despise the concept of networking. I find that it is more about finding genuinely interesting people who can contribute to your thinking and perspective, and you can contribute to theirs.

I always listen to and seek referrals from the people I know. I trust my network of mentors to refer other great people and am genuinely appreciative when someone can spare some time to talk or offer advice.

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?

Understanding people is incredibly important. Part of that is carefully listening and assembling a complete picture of a situation and the person or people within it. The counterbalance to forming a holistic view is the need to think on your feet.

The more senior you get, the more you need to take the information you have and make reasonably quick decisions. People can’t wait weeks or even hours until you understand the whole situation, because the next decision needs to be made, and then the next. Your mindset needs to be: I’m going to move this larger process forward incrementally and be comfortable making these smaller decisions on the fly.

An overemphasis on “agility” in leadership can backfire, of course. This trait is very important. But if everyone is agile but not really listening to each other, they quickly fall out of sync.

What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over.

Hundreds of things. Trust my instincts more. I’ll leave it at that.

What would be the title of your autobiography?

Brilliant — or Rubbish?

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. Feel inspired? Join us for our second Daring Women event on May 21, 2019.

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

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