In this episode, Renee DeSilva sits down with Liz Bickley, the COO of Korn Ferry Health, to discuss how to empower the next generation of women leaders in healthcare. Liz walks us through the findings of their latest ‘Women CEOs Speak’ report, including progress towards representation goals for 2025 and the variety of career paths and experiences for today’s women CEOs. In addition, they cover the evolving skillsets for the CEO of the future, and what organizations need to do today to support their high potentials.
Highlights from the conversation:
• Liz’s background and the context of today’s talent challenges (2:50)
• A breakdown of the Women CEOs Speak report (8:40)
• The structural barriers that restrict opportunities and the talent pipeline (12:55)
• Why tomorrow’s successful CEOs need to transform and perform (16:05)
• Charting the non-linear career paths to the CEO position (20:20)
• Organizational responsibilities for ensuring advancement opportunities (24:50)
• Liz’s advice for women aspiring to become CEOs (24:40)
• Why Liz would invite Jacinda Ardern and Queen Elizabeth II to her table (29:50)
An ingenious, venturesome and compassionate leader, Liz Bickley is relentlessly driven to make a positive impact on the world. With 20+ years of experience having cultivated specialized talent in private and nonprofit sectors in the USA, UK, Europe, Middle East & India, Liz brings a unique viewpoint and knowledge of the global market in healthcare. Today, Liz serves as the Chief Operating Officer for Korn Ferry Health, where she is responsible for growth, strategic vision, and innovative organizational systems. She is determined for organizations to meet the needs of their patients and communities by ensuring talent can reach those organizations, focusing on working through barriers in policy to enable this to happen at a local, national and global level. Courageous and collaborative, Liz is constantly checking in to ensure her work is leading to impact that is purposeful, deliberate and intentional.
Renee DeSilva 0:00
Welcome back to The Table. I’m Renee DeSilva, CEO of The Health Management Academy and your host.
To kick off our new season, I’m delighted to welcome Liz Bickley, the Chief Operating Officer of Korn Ferry Health.
Last year, Korn Ferry released an updated Women CEOs Speak Today report, featuring conversations with 21 women CEOs at companies in and out of healthcare – my conversation with Liz was grounded in her team’s research, and I highly recommend you give it a read.
Here are a few of my takeaways:
First, some background. Today, more than 10% of Fortune 500 companies are led by women – a record high. And among S&P 500 companies, 29% of board seats are held by women – important because board service provides critical experience, setting new CEOs up for success. Though much more progress is needed on racial equity and the advancement gap, and we are only halfway to Korn Ferry and the Rockefeller Foundation’s broader goal of 100 women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, the change over the last few years is notable.
Next, one of my favorite parts of Korn Ferry’s report was their visualization of career paths. As we hear a lot today, there is no linear career path; and as I can personally attest, certainly not to becoming a CEO. Liz walks us through it all – their key findings, the evolution of backgrounds, skills, and experiences, as well as how others can instill belief and potential in ourselves – what I call the power of the nudge.
And finally, I loved Liz’s advice for women leaders aspiring to be CEOs or senior executives: leverage resilience, lead with purpose, and don’t waste time at organizations who aren’t supporting your career trajectory.
I could have spent all day on this topic with Liz, and I hope you enjoy the discussion as much as I did. So with that, let’s head to the Table!
Renee DeSilva 2:13
Good morning, Liz. Welcome to the Table.
Liz Bickley 2:15
Good morning. Thank you for having me.
Renee DeSilva 2:17
So I am I first read Korn Ferry’s work your work on women CEO speak today at the end of last year, and I’ve been eagerly waiting to have some time with you to unpack all of the findings in that. So thank you so much for joining us today.
Liz Bickley 2:33
No problem at all.
Renee DeSilva 2:35
Before we dive in, I’m always curious about the guest and like to get a sense for their background. So maybe give us a sense for how you got into healthcare. And then in particular, you’re now in the Chief Operating Officer role at Korn Ferry health. How did that come to be?
Liz Bickley 2:50
Yeah, so I come from a long family line of teachers. So a commitment to service I think has always existed. That teaching genes skipped a generation, my sister and I both chose not to pursue that, although, interestingly, my daughter is now training to be a high school history teacher. But that that commitment to service has always existed. And I, as a young child actually had a traumatic experience that was pretty formative for me, it gave me some visibility of the system of health care, the access or lack of access, and was always something that I was passionate about being able to make an impact to. I’ve had the opportunity to spend time kind of inside and outside of the system. And I had a great coach and mentor who told me that I could have a greater and broader impact from the outside, which is really what’s turned into my career of working in the consulting space with organizations like Korn Ferry, and I really like to try and think about that, that pebble effect in a pond. Although I’d like to think that perhaps we’re throwing some rocks in the ocean and having that ripple effect of of impacting healthcare care, access to care, and in particularly particular focus around diversity and elevating the role that women and other diverse colleagues can play in the space.
Renee DeSilva 4:25
That’s fantastic. And when you think about just zooming out on search, and I love your it, maybe it feels like we’re now throwing rocks in the ocean versus pebbles in the in the pond. When you think about just the the need for greater rigor around both Talent Recruitment and talent, retention, just bring to life some of the conversations that you’re having at a high level with the folks that you’re working with across healthcare.
Liz Bickley 4:50
Yeah, I think it’s such an interesting concept. You and I discussed when we spoke that nobody is hiring themselves out of today’s talent crisis, we particularly in healthcare, know that there is not enough talent to go around. And that gap is going to continue to grow over the next couple of years. And that we really have just such a great opportunity to think not only about recruitment, but retention, and mobility, and moving away from career pathways to career rock walls, thinking about the opportunities that exist in automation and augmentation, and what that can mean to work. And the future of work that our our colleagues and our healthcare partners need to do versus have to do today. And make sure that all of that is ultimately impacting experience, patient care, and hopefully the utopia of outcomes.
Renee DeSilva 5:50
That’s right, you know, so much of what you just mentioned, I had some time with about eight health systems in their trustees last week. And the topic that dominates that conversation is all of what you just talked about, it’s this notion that team members are really reimagining their compact with their employers. And for those of us that are hoping that we’ll go back to what maybe it looked like in the past. But that is that is a non starter. It’s really about how do we reimagine the future and how that that all plays out? So I think you’ve encapsulated that beautifully. I particularly loved your migrating from career pathways to career rock walls, this notion of new capabilities, and just sort of thinking about how those might be applied differently. I think that’s brilliant.
Liz Bickley 6:35
Yeah, I think it’s interesting because it’s applied to my own career. You know, I think about that. It’s been varied. It’s been scrappy. It’s been ambitious. And when we talk in a little bit about our report on women CEO speaks, you will see some of those consistencies and how we’ve seen those women who’ve been able to rise to the top. Take very different routes to get there. I’m, personally, you know, I, I’ve never asked anyone to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself, as my husband will attest and fiercely independent, and have always focused on kind of that impact and outcomes both on behalf of my client partners, but also the teams that I’m working with. I’m a huge advocate for women at work, I’ve been willing to personally, again, to kind of take risks, pushed outside of my comfort zone, and have tried to apply that wherever I’ve worked around the world, whether that’s, you know, the north of England, North America, India and the Middle East and apply some of that philosophy.
Renee DeSilva 7:51
I love that. So let’s dive in to the report because there is so much to unpack. So the first report on advancing women to the CEO role, you all Korn Ferry produced that in 2017, you followed up late last year by interviewing 21 women CEOs, both in and out of healthcare, which I think is worth noting. And many of whom were serving in their positions in Fortune 500 companies, I think it was more than 10% of fortune 500 companies are now led by women. So with that backdrop, what are your your top takeaways? Where have we seen the most progress, even in that duration of 2017? When you all first published to 2022, when you updated that, that body of work?
Liz Bickley 8:37
Yeah. So back in 2017. Gosh, what a lot has happened between now and then. But to your point, the the 6% of fortune 500, companies had a female CEO. And as you mentioned, just just into just before the New Year that rose to 10%, which is really exciting. And it’s certainly showing progress. Our work back in 2017, was in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation. And collectively, they, they were those set a goal. And their goal was to achieve 100 female CEOs in Fortune 500 companies by 2025. So we’re about halfway there. With still a long way to go. Our broader data tells us that globally, only about 21% of executive roles are held by women. Even in industries like ours, or retail or the public sector where women make up more than 50% of the workforce. We also have an even further way to go when we think about achieving both gender equality and racial equality. Hopefully does, of course, has set us back a little bit with over 4% of women globally leaving the workforce and as we know, an even higher percentage within health care. I know some data I read recently said over 2 million women in the US alone have exited the workforce. And we really have to make some meaningful decisions to try and bring those people back. There have been some positives, however, that have come out of COVID, we’ve seen a much greater degree of flexibility that didn’t exist in the past, we’ve seen a focus on race, as a result of the various social injustices that have occurred. We’ve seen a rise in conversation around the social determinants of health. And I think importantly, from a leadership perspective, we’ve seen a change in purpose driven leadership, demonstrated by leaders who operate in an authentic and inclusive way, leading with humility, agility, and open mindedness that we haven’t always seen. And all again, interesting qualities that many of our successful female leaders demonstrated in our interviews and assessments back in 2017. One of the other areas of progress and we’re going to talk a little bit more about women on boards is the female representation on boards. 29% of board seats at the s&p 500 companies are now women. And in 2016, that was 20%. So we’ve really seeing the movement there, and particularly those women who’ve been successful at the top, directly correlate some of their experience on board to really setting them up for success. Absolutely. In those top roles,
Renee DeSilva 11:49
Absolutely. I mean, that’s a good that’s a really good, that’s a really good backdrop in terms of significant progress and the intentionality from, you know, I think organizations like Rockefeller Foundation, sort of nudging this power of nudging and really being unclear on what success might look like. You know, at the same time, we would all know that there have been some headwinds, right. There have been some places that we’ve lived. We’ve talked about this a little bit leading into this conversation around this gap and advancement. Right. So you mentioned 50%, you might there’s sort of a, there’s a, there’s a gap in terms of female representation in senior management levels, which maybe makes it harder to get to CEO levels. Let’s just talk through some of the unintended structural things that we sometimes do that gets in the way of people ascending into leadership roles. So what are some of the things that you see as maybe ways that we sort of narrow pipeline to early in careers that maybe make it harder to get this level of gender diversity and CEO roles?
Liz Bickley 12:54
Yeah, and particularly in healthcare organizations. And I would say even more drastically, when we look at academic health, we see some real barriers, often structural, actually, which is where we spend a lot of our time really helping organizations see some of the unintended barriers that just have existed for a very long time, whether that be around how long, people need to serve in certain roles, how many committees they need to have been on? How many publications need to have been concluded? All of those are things that really impact impacts women in a different way, often to men in terms of being able to achieve those goals or goals, and cause women to have to make those decisions around. Do I only focus on my career? Or do I want to focus on a family, and there are consequences on both sides of that coin? In healthcare, and women in medicine, we work with the American Medical Women’s Association, who have some really fascinating and upsetting data that shows one in four women in medicine, how fertility problems, often because they are waiting, and are focused on their careers at the expense often of their own health. I think when we think about what these organizations can do, there’s a couple of things in there. inclusive and equitable hiring practices is almost a no brainer. You would hope that that is the case, still not always the case. intentionality around incentives that are tied to diversity and representation goals. You know, we really believe what gets measured, get unpaid, does what matters. Yeah. And many healthcare organizations have kind of talked the talk with that regard, but have stopped short of walking the walk. And I think there’s just some real opportunities to remove those structural and unintentional biases that exist.
Renee DeSilva 15:09
Yeah. And I’ll throw out a few others. So a big part of what we do with the academy is we create these fellowship programs that take folks that are a couple of levels away from a C suite position and get them ready. We do this with earlier stage leaders as well. And that comes up a ton just committee structures, the start time of committee structures, are they starting at 7am? Right to be achieved for chair, what time is that starting? And does that make it then hard for folks that have responsibilities, maybe on child care on the front end? So I do think there are these little traps along the way that could be resolved with the right amount of focus and intentionality. And so I just I appreciate you, you sort of raising that in the backdrop of what we’re trying to achieve here. Yeah. So let’s go a little bit to the how the future of the CEO CEO role has evolved in this time, you’ve talked about this concept of transform, and perform. I’d love for you to bring that to life a bit for our audience. Yeah, of course.
Liz Bickley 16:06
So in this increasingly kind of complex, and ambiguous world, the world’s most successful leaders, we believe, will know how to perform and transform. And what we mean by that is the ability to be running the business and delivering results while driving training and transformation, amid uncertainty. And that’s really been the world we’ve all lived in for the last couple of years. We leverage something that we call our enterprise leader framework, which talks about lots of different elements, but four of which I see as being really key are when we think about impact, you know, the what strategic priorities for running and transforming an organization. I think about capability or the how those capabilities that drive sustainable results on behalf of an organization. I think about mindset. So the who, the beliefs that that can create a followership and multiply the capacity to grow into as an enterprise leader and be able to pivot between those form and transform dynamics. And then finally, back to we talked about this earlier purpose, the belief that you have the responsibility to transcend self interests, and apply and grow your gifts to give others to give your organization to give your communities and even the world that capability.
Renee DeSilva 17:45
I love that impact capability, mindset and purpose. Did I get those for? You did? Okay, that’s great. What do you note, you spend a lot of time obviously, on the front end of searches, and just a lot of time thinking about talent and advising CEOs and board chairs on on that front. What are you seeing right now is the most common traps, where are CEOs getting in their own way.
Liz Bickley 18:13
Um, I think that CEOs, not only now have to think about the role of the CEO, but they have to think about the role of their top team in a different way. So we spend a lot of time with boards and CEO was really thinking about the role of that top team, and the role of that top team as the team, not as an individual. So you can have, you know, an incredible CE, O O, or CFO or chief nursing officer, whatever it might be, and they go and conduct their individual role, incredibly, but if as a CEO, you are truly going to be able to find this balance of performing whilst transforming, you are going to have to rely on that top team in a very different way than perhaps you’ve had to historically. So we spend a lot of time with CO CEOs thinking about that, and thinking beyond one role to that team dynamic.
Renee DeSilva 19:17
Yeah, I’d love that I feel privileged in that I through my role, I get to spend a lot of time with him, not just health system CEOs, but industry companies, CEOs, and this this notion of, you know, ensuring that you’re not just spending the time on what you like to spend time on what maybe comes easy to you and really thinking through that that how do I activate the unit towards mission and vision and all that we’re trying to accomplish? As is one that I think a lot of a lot of our colleagues just talk about, and how that that is ever shifting just in terms of this crisis level leadership that’s been required of many of us across the last several years. Yeah. So I want to get a little bit more into some of the the findings in the report around this notion that there is there is no linear path to the CEO position. And a lot of the work that you did in this, this work was charting out career paths for the CEOs that you interviewed. What were some of the things that you uncovered on just the pathway?
Liz Bickley 20:21
Yeah, so a lot of what we found, it is, is kind of what you and I talked about at the beginning of this conversation, that there are hugely varied routes for women who become CEOs, you know, we had such a mix of degrees, you know, did people start in STEM did they start in the arts just hugely varied. For those women who who’ve been successful in becoming CEOs. What was very consistent, however, was that most of these women worked across organizations taking often lateral as well as promotional roles. Many had also worked across different industries, certainly one of the most common and highly recommended criterias was having held p&l responsibility. And often in addition, as and as well as operational responsibility. In a number of different scenarios, significant transformation or turnaround experience had been really beneficial, but that p&l piece and that operational piece, were two areas that were really pretty consistent. The other thing that’s interesting, and I think we don’t often talk about enough was that most of these women also were referenced leaders and coaches, who’d played significant roles and exerted their influence and perspective on the individual’s potential. Often, even when they didn’t have that belief in themselves. Many had never even considered the potential that they could become a CEO until someone else had really pointed that out to them. And I think that’s interesting. We you know, We don’t always recognize that as something that can happen and the impact we can have on others, if we encourage them.
Renee DeSilva 22:14
Yeah, the power of the nudge, I’ve talked about this in past podcast episodes of how my own career has benefited from people noting your strengths when it maybe you don’t see it yourself, and just opening your aperture to what you think is possible. And then just what that then means in terms of all of us, doing the same for others. And that can sometimes be in the four walls of your own organization. But oftentimes, I think that your your sponsor or your cabinet can also be helpful to you, even if they’re not, you know, sort of directly in your line of sight with, would you? Did you see it play out that way? Or any any change? Or would you view that differently?
Liz Bickley 22:50
No, absolutely. And not only is it that support, but also, you know, one of the things that many of these leaders talked about was their network, and how important their neck work was, both during their growth journey, but also really important, once they got there. A lot of them stressed, don’t wait, don’t wait till you get to that top job to try and build that network, you’re going to need that network to help you get there. And then you’re going to need that help work to support you once you’re there. Because that can be a lonely place to be as well. So to your point, that when we talk about that network, it is definitely not exclusive to colleagues and peers, that’s friends, that’s family that’s outside of industry, all of those things.
Renee DeSilva 23:37
Absolutely. That I mean, the power of a peer network is incredibly powerful. It’s, it’s a big part of what we believe our mission to be. And I would say, you know, one of one of the things that you sometimes note is, it’s easy to not invest in networks, because it’s one of those things that might feel important but not urgent. And when you are, you know, managing a busy life and have a host of operational responsibilities and family, that can be the one thing that I noticed for myself that I sometimes sacrifice, but when you do make that shift, it’s amazing how that opens your eyes to what might be possible.
Liz Bickley 24:08
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more.
Renee DeSilva 24:11
So let’s go a bit to when we talk about progress, there’s this there’s this balance between organizational responsibilities. And I think we’ve covered that right being mindful of things that might be structural, that just get in the way of of good people advancing the need to be oriented around just the right level of conversation, and maybe even tying some performance measurement against that. So that we I think we’ve covered the organizational responsibilities in terms of ensuring advancement, would you add anything else to the organizational side? And then I want to go to what individuals themselves can do. But anything else on the organizational side?
Liz Bickley 24:49
Yeah, I think a couple of things. So I think it starts early, you know, how do we get to to our future healthcare leaders in early education? Help them learn about the potential roles? I think you mentioned this, when we have them, how do we support them? How do we make sure we have a robust, safe working environment where people can thrive, and we talked about the career career pathways or the rock walls? I think a couple of things that we didn’t mention earlier is we desperately need and particularly in health care, more mental health support for our people. And that’s, you know, women, men, everybody, we need to make that a less taboo subject. Again, there’s been an awful lot of research. And Anwar, in particular, have focused on some of the challenges that exist around things like if you’re applying for your license, and it asks, Have you ever sought help for mental health? that many people are not seeking that help because they’re nervous about selecting that box, and we’ve seen consequences of that happening. So I think, again, they’re some of those kind of older unintended consequences that exist, we have to do a better job recognizing some of those barriers. And then the final thing that we haven’t talked about yet is we’ve got to address the pay gap. It is still there. It is profound, and we have to tackle it.
Renee DeSilva 26:18
And think that’s perfectly said, I don’t have anything to add to that. I do want to go to maybe the than the individual piece, right, so So in this is probably not easy to encapsulate into one or two things. But if you were to offer advice for women leaders that are aspiring to be in a CEO position, what would you offer them?
Liz Bickley 26:41
Yeah, so I think we we just mentioned it, tap into that strong network of mentors, sponsors, colleagues, leaders and friends, create those connections. Find an organization that will support your career trajectory. Don’t waste time if it’s pretty obvious that that’s not going to be where you are. Take Action, despite your fear. You’ve got to leverage resilience. I think women have more of that than anyone. Lead with purpose, we’ve talked about how important that purpose piece is. Recognize that actually your strength isn’t in having all the answers all the time. And it’s back to that piece around building a team around you, that is going to enable an organization, this, none of this can ever be on one person anymore. And then finally, be kind to yourself, I think we expect an awful lot of ourselves, make sure that you are taking that time to look after yourself and be kind.
Renee DeSilva 27:48
Yeah, I love all that. I also think, and a big reason why I sought you out to join us here is I think, increasingly, we are seeing exemplars and just more examples of folks that are you know, that that, that look like us in these positions. And I just for my own reflection I was about five years ago, and I was at a retreat with another company. It was I was a chief talent officer at the time. And I was invited to this retreat, which included the top positions across a set of portfolio companies. And it was a mix of roles. And there were three women CEOs running these these portfolio companies. And this was only five years ago, I’d actually never been in a room with a woman CEO before them. And when I was interacting with them, and just getting to know them, the first thought that I had to myself was like, Well, I think maybe I could do this. It hadn’t even occurred to me. But before then, I had my head down, I had, you know, I was doing all the things, really trying to be helpful to the organization. And I loved the talent portfolio that I was leading as a chief talent officer. But it had never even occurred to me that that was something I should aspire to. So a big part of you know, for me, the purpose of this conversation is just as a great body of work. There’s lots of different proof points of how people have done it. And I think sometimes the first thing is just the awareness that that is something that you know, you you could and ought to be ambitious and really try to try to achieve. So I appreciate your some of your practical elements as well. Yeah. All right. So maybe our final question, although I could just go on and on about this topic. I think if I ever had another job it might be to do some of what you what you’re doing, which is live and breathe in the talent and human capital space, because it’s so fascinating to me. Yeah. But I’ll ask maybe one final question. If you could invite any two people to your table to continue this conversation. Who would they be? And why?
Liz Bickley 29:49
Wow, that’s a great question. So I’m going to, I’m going to, I have two people in mind. One is particularly topical, just in the Derm, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, I have been inspired by her for a couple of years, I’ve really enjoyed watching her lead and her style. And I read one of her quotes just a week or so ago, which was really interesting to me, she said, one of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong. And I thought it was such a fantastic quote, to your point around being in the room and experiencing other women and women CEOs being inspirational. I would tell you kind of the flip of that that has been interesting for me in my career is I’ve met some incredible women leaders and certainly people who I aspire to. But I’ve also met a lot of women leaders who have been successful and perhaps made it to the top. But haven’t had to had to do it in a way that I think has been against some of those morals and values and ability to be supportive of people because they felt the only way to get there was to behave a certain way.
Renee DeSilva 31:19
Interesting. I certainly are city mindset in some way. Yeah,
Liz Bickley 31:23
Yeah. And I hope that that is changing. I believe you can absolutely be who you are and be successful. But we do still live in a world sometimes where sometimes I think women think they’ve got to behave like a man to get that job. And I hope that we can get rid of that soon. And the other person I’d love to have at my table and maybe this is a funny one, just based on on where I’m from but would be the queen. I would love to have a cup of tea with her but I just think as a female leader, she is one of the most exemplary examples that sits out there she is She led by example for an incredibly long time with amazing poise. She had respect for everybody she encountered. She was hard working. She embraced change. She had amazing curiosity. And ultimately she she had a purpose and duty and a commitment to service that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. So they would be my two people that
Renee DeSilva 32:31
would be so just send her in the queen that would be lots of stories and a fascinating set of conversations for sure. Well, Liz, it’s been so lovely to chat with you. I hope this won’t be the last time and I appreciate the work that you’re doing and and keep helping us with these rocks in the ocean. I think if we’re going to move healthcare, it’s going to be through that the talent webs that we create. So we appreciate your work on that front.
Liz Bickley 32:57
Thank you so much. Pleasure to be here. Bye bye.