Leadership Perspective of Jennifer Alderfer, CEO of North Suburban Medical Center

Q&A with Jennifer Alderfer, CEO of HealthONE North Suburban Medical Center and CWCC Member

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How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?My mom has always been a very influential person in my life and raised me to express gratitude, show compassion, value education, and treasure connections with others.  For those reasons, I gravitated to the healthcare industry to pursue my career, where I strive to be lead both with my heart as well as with my head.  Since healthcare is a people business, I feel it’s important to lead my team in such a way that hopefully inspires them to create positive memorable experiences by honoring those we serve.

How did your previous employment experience aid in your role at North Suburban Medical Center?
In between undergraduate and graduate school, I worked as a certified nurse aide (CNA) at both a nursing home and in a hospital.  That direct patient care experience from years ago helps me keep the patient at the center of the business and operational decisions that I make in my current position as the CEO at North Suburban.  I also feel that past experience helps me, in some ways, relate more effectively to the clinicians on my team.  I sometimes tell the nurses and physicians with whom I work that I am just a “want-to-be-clinician” at heart.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am blessed to have an incredibly supportive and hands-on husband who helps care for our three children, ages 14, 12, and 10.  I couldn’t do my job and be the wife and mother that I want to be without his partnership and support.  I also try to use technology to help me balance work and home priorities.  For example, I try to leave the hospital in time to have dinner with my family, but after my kids have finished homework and gone to bed, I will log on to my email and go through other paperwork or reading from home.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at North Suburban Medical Center?
One of the challenges during my tenure at NSMC involves the transition of a patient care service provided by one physician group to another physician group.  Maintaining medical staff relationships during a time of uncertainty and unfamiliarity with a new group presented some challenges, but through the experience I was reminded of the importance of providing consistent, regular communication and status updates to those impacted by the transition.

One of the highlights during my tenure at NSMC involves the development of the business case for, design of, and opening of the Northeast ER, a freestanding emergency department that opened in May 2012 in northeast Thornton.  Being able to take this from concept to reality has been quite rewarding, especially since this emergency department provides trusted emergency care closer to the homes of some of our community members.

What advice can you offer women looking for a career in the healthcare industry?
I love working in the healthcare industry and would share with other women looking to pursue a career in healthcare that, in my experience over the past 15 years, the rewards of impacting the delivery system of patient care far outweigh any of the challenges.  I can’t think of a better career than one in which you’re able to care for others in a very real and personal way in times of physical and emotional need or vulnerability, such as during times when health issues arise.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing women in the workplace?
I think a challenge for both men and women in the workplace involves striking the delicate balance between work and personal priorities.  For women with families to care for at home, this can sometimes be an issue, as women can feel torn between the desire to have a successful and fulfilling career and the guilt that comes with not having enough time to devote to motherhood.  I also think it can be a challenge carving out time to care for oneself when busy with work.  I tend to feel my best at both work and at home when I am taking care of myself, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating well.  When I get off balance and stop working out and not getting enough rest, I feel as though things at both work and at home suffer.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I’ve been blessed by mentorship throughout my career.  I have found it to be helpful to have someone with more experience and professional maturity to use as a sounding board and to seek counsel on different issues.  In return, I have pledged to try to pay it forward and often try to make myself available to others in undergraduate or graduate programs or early in their career seeking guidance or wanting to hear what it’s like to do the work that I do.

On the personal side of mentorship, I have an older sister (nine years my senior) who I can talk with about raising children and balancing work and home, as she too is a professional with four children and has experienced aspects of motherhood before me.  She’ll be a great resource for me in a few years to share how to get through a high school graduation and how to send your oldest child off to college.  I remember after I   had my first baby, I called her and asked her in an admittedly rather accusatory tone why she didn’t share certain details about childbirth with me, since at that time she’d already had three of her four children.  She wisely responded that she wanted me to focus on the positive aspects of the experience and that she barely remembered the harder aspects of childbirth.  She then joked that it was why the world wasn’t full of only children families – because women were resilient and tended to hold on to the positives and let go of the negatives.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
In my first “real job” after graduate school, I worked as an administrative resident at a hospital in Wichita, Kansas.  There was a female physician executive on the team there in a vice president of medical staff affairs role.  She taught me several things about working with physicians that I still reference today, even though that was almost 14 years ago since we worked together.  She worked clinically part-time and administratively the other half of the time, was married to a physician with a busy outpatient practice of his own, and was raising three children.  I admired her ability to function at a very high level in all of her many roles – as doctor, as hospital administrator, as wife, as mom, and as friend.

I’m also fortunate to work within the HealthONE system in Denver, with many high level female executives at the division level as well as various executive levels at the hospitals within the city.  I admire many of these female colleagues for various reasons, but usually it is because they’ve achieved a high degree of success in a demanding industry but maintained a sense of themselves as individuals and not just as professionals.

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