Daring Women Q&A: Leanne Berge, CEO of Community Health Plan of Washington

"While the health care industry has a higher percentage of women than most industries, there’s still more work to be done in terms of gender equity — especially in leadership roles."
 
 
  • Leanne Berge CEO of Community Health Plan of Washington (CHPW) and Community Health Network of Washington (CHNW)

This week’s Daring Woman is Leanne Berge, CEO of Community Health Plan of Washington and Community Health Network of Washington.

Read about her proudest moments, mentors and challenges she’s faced in her industry in this week’s installment of our Daring Women Q&A series.

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

My entire career has been focused on transforming the health care system to better serve the health care consumer and improve quality and reduce cost. The most impactful opportunity for me has been centered on the intersection of funding and the delivery of care for our most vulnerable populations. To that end, being able to serve the Medicaid and Medicare communities of Washington state as CEO of Community Health Plan of Washington and Community Health Network of Washington is certainly a true high point. This is the culmination of all of the learnings and work I’ve had the privilege to be a part of during the bulk of my care in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a national leader in health care transformation. I’ve also learned about the need for change from the consumer’s perspective as my own family members and close friends have struggled to navigate the complexities of our fragmented health care system. It is far from easy to access the right care at the right time. That’s why I’m especially proud of the work Community Health Plan of Washington and Community Health Center network have done to integrate the health care system for its people to improve their health and well-being. What’s especially gratifying is the alignment of the state Medicaid office’s goals with our goals and those of our community partners.

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

While the health care industry has a higher percentage of women than most industries, there’s still more work to be done in terms of gender equity — especially in leadership roles. My legal background is something I’ve always been proud of because it has helped me hone my analytical skills and challenge the status quo. While those traits have helped me build the career I have today, they’ve also been the cause of much pushback from (typically male) colleagues. Women, traditionally and stereotypically, are supposed to get along with everyone and smile, while the “take-charge” more assertive style was reserved for men. I can’t begin to count how many times male colleagues have told me I should smile. I’ve experienced this double standard in countless encounters. It’s much harder for a woman to be in a position to challenge authority, but for better or for worse, I’ve always looked for ways to improve systems and I’m proud of the successes that I’ve been able to achieve by persevering in a politically diplomatic way.

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

While at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a pioneering and innovative managed care organization, I worked for then CEO, Charlie Baker, who is now governor of Massachusetts. I learned a tremendous amount from him about strong and effective leadership. One of the key lessons I took from his leadership was the importance of transparency and honest communication. Charlie Baker wrote regular messages to the entire staff to keep us all looped in as a unified community. This helped everyone have a clear vision of what we were working toward organizationally. That clarity of purpose at an organizational level is something I certainly try to communicate at Community Health Plan of Washington through a variety of forums, including personal messages, open-door policies, “walk and talk” lunches, and regular staff meetings that share strategic plans and goals so that everyone knows the importance of their work and feels included. It is important that the communication is two-way as well. I learn a lot from my staff and  from information that comes from all levels of the organization.

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

The path to success has three lanes: Be your own person; stand up for what you believe in; and follow your heart. First and foremost, you have to be your own person and don’t let other people limit your own drive and ambition.

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

Leaders today come in all shapes and sizes thanks to an increased value placed on diversity and inclusion in the business sector. However, there is more work to be done. A lot of that work starts at the leadership level. Leaders at organizations need to set intentional goals for hiring. We must make an affirmative effort to seek opinions from everyone in the room. Most important, we must appoint leaders who are conscious of the need for change so that, through appropriate modeling, they instill a need for action throughout their organization.

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

I love the show Homeland. It features a brave, brilliant and principled woman who is a spy for the CIA. She also happens to have a serious mental illness (bipolar disorder) and yet she literally saves the world multiple times, with the help of her equally committed team. When I watch Homeland, I am inspired by this great role model and am reminded that justice means recognizing people’s abilities, not their “disabilities.”

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

There are three places I regularly draw inspiration from: people, nature and music. Each feeds my soul in a unique but important way.

I have the benefit of working with great people all of the time — they inspire me every day. People who defy all odds and overcome incredible challenges especially inspire me. For example, I worked with a health care consumer advocate who also has quadriplegia. He is paralyzed below his neck, and yet he is an incredibly effective leader (and a friend) on behalf of people with disabilities. He regularly inspires me to strive to do more than what I may believe I can.

More than anything, I’m inspired by nature. One of my favorite things about living in Seattle is our proximity to the natural beauty all around us. When I need to feel reinspired and rejuvenated, I go to the mountains.

I’m also inspired by music, especially Bruce Springsteen.

On networking: It’s critically important for any leader to know folks throughout all communities that touch her industry. I spend a lot of time networking, but I don’t think of it as networking anymore. I think of it as learning from people who are connected to my organization and work. It’s vital that we all spend time with each other — especially stakeholders in each other’s work — so that we can all share ideas, learn from one another and understand the different perspectives.

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

The most important characteristics of a good leader are to be principled, to set clear priorities, and to be able to articulate and embody your organization’s purpose. As a leader, people need to trust what you say and know that you believe in what you’re saying and doing.

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

When I look back at my career path, everything I did led me to where I am today. And I’m really happy at where I landed. All of the decisions I made in my career were based on what I thought would make my work most impactful and give me the opportunity to apply my skills and talents toward making the world a better place.

10. What would be the title of your autobiography?

Never Surrender. I carry the concept of always doing what you believe in with me in all threads of my life. My phone’s ring tone is even the Bruce Springsteen song, “No Surrender.”

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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