Two years ago, America’s Essential Hospitals launched an important new project to help rising female executives in essential hospitals develop and enhance leadership skills.

The association’s biennial Essential Women’s Leadership Academy (EWLA) responds to a wide gender gap in top health care jobs (e.g., only 19 percent of hospital CEOs are women, and women run just 4 percent of health care companies). Using senior mentors, coaching, periodic in-person training, and online networking, EWLA helps participants gain the skills they need to command a diverse workplace in a rapidly changing industry.

We spoke with two alumnae of the 2015 EWLA program — Felicia Tornabene, MD, medical director at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, in Martinez, Calif.; and her mentor, Ericka Brown, MD, MBA, chief operating officer at Harris Health System, in Houston — about their EWLA experiences.

These interviews have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

What is one of the biggest challenges facing women hospital executives today, and how did the Essential Women’s Leadership Academy help women leaders face that challenge?


Felicia Tornabene, MD. Photo courtesy of Nancy Rothstein Photography.

Felicia Tornabene: Through the Essential Women’s Leadership Academy, we learned that women fall away significantly at executive levels and as board members when compared with the presence of women in entry level or even middle management positions. This is despite the health care workforce being made up of more than 75 percent women. Through its design, the EWLA sought to combat the effects of that landscape by deliberately setting up a program to provide peer coaching through the develop of a cohesive cohort, but also by setting up a mentorship alliance with an executive designed to develop our leadership skills, our knowledge base, and to provide strategic guidance for professional and career decisions.




Ericka Brown, MD, MBA. Photo courtesy of Harris Health System.

Ericka Brown: Learning to manage personal responsibilities while striving to break the “glass ceiling.” The Academy gives women with similar experience a network for discussion and tangible practices for management. It also provides valuable insight into individual leadership potential and focuses on harvesting that potential to achieve the best professional growth opportunities.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned from participating in the program?

Tornabene: Participating in the EWLA was particularly helpful in developing confidence and a comfort with my leadership voice. By spending time with both my mentor and my cohort, I was able to work very explicitly on defining my values, my vision for leadership, and my goals. Some of the women in my cohort have become valued friends and trusted peers, to whom I now turn for professional support.

My relationship with my mentor was particularly meaningful. The development of a longitudinal relationship with my mentor, Dr. Brown, helped me to improve my leadership focus, to meet my goals, and to get uncomfortable in order to learn and grow.

Brown: Through our experiences, we all already come with so much valuable leadership experience to share and develop into limitless potential. The Academy provides a forum to harness that experience.

Why is diversity in hospital leadership so important?

Brown: America’s Essential Hospitals represents such a diverse group of member organizations striving to improve the health of the community. Not all communities are the same, and [they] require appropriate representation and perspective to ensure we are actually reaching the diverse communities we serve.

Tornabene: Embracing diversity in all areas of a health care organization is critical to being able to serve patients equitably, with dignity and respect. The patients and families who arrive daily through the doors of our hospitals and clinics bring with them a wealth of backgrounds, cultures, ideas, education, and experiences. Ideally, this diversity is reflected in health care providers irrespective of role: chief executives, department managers, physicians, social workers, peer navigators, nurses, environmental service workers, and many more. When a diverse hospital leadership team models a culture of inclusion, this sets the tone for a radical welcome — using a term uttered recently by our CEO, Anna Roth — for patients and families.


Interested in the program or know a promising woman leader who would benefit? Applications for the 2018 – 2019 Essential Women’s Leadership Academy are open now. Apply online to be a mentee by Nov. 6.