A CIO's leadership advice for female executives

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Dignity Health CIO Deanna Wise belongs to a club that remains small – female CIOs. The 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey recently found that women still make up less than 10 percent of the global IT leadership ranks (including CIOs, CTOs, and VPs of technology). That's the same percentage as noted in last year's survey, even though 35 percent of respondents said their companies now have diversity programs.  

For Wise, Dignity Health marks her fourth CIO role. Dignity Health (formerly Catholic Healthcare West) is a nonprofit organization with 60,000 employees, operating hospitals and health care facilities in 21 states.  Previosuly, Wise served as CIO at Vanguard Health Systems, Vanguard Health Systems’ Abrazo Health Care, and for the Maricopa County, Arizona Health District.

For other aspiring female CIOs, and executives in general, Wise suggests following 10 rules that she says helped build her own successful 23-year career.

“Throughout my career, I have never labeled myself a ‘female executive’ – I’m an executive,” she says. “But if I can help one female employee break the glass ceiling or be more content in her career, I am happy to be that inspiration.”

Here are the rules Wise says helped her reach success:

1. Focus on successful outcomes 

Wise says she has a note in her drawer that she looks at every day. It says, “What have you accomplished today?” “It reminds me to stay focused on the items that are most important,” she explains. “Many people work hard, work long hours, and put in great effort, and even though it’s appreciated, what have they accomplished? Your success will ultimately be judged by what you deliver.”

2. Don’t see yourself as an outsider

"I think about the value that I bring to the conversation."

“I don’t sit at a table full of male executives, look around, and think about being one of the few female executives,” she says. “I think about the value that I bring to the conversation and how can I support the success of the team and company.” Her presence at the table means she’s already proven her value, Wise says. So she focuses her attention fully on how to deliver successful outcomes for patients and caregivers.

3. Choose to build relationships

“This is a decision, not an ability,” Wise says. We all have the ability to build the positive relationships that will make us more successful in our organizations and our lives, she says. “Don’t just build relationships with those who you think can grow your career,” she adds. “Have the genuineness to treat everyone with respect.”

4. Speak up!  

If you see wasteful spending or a process that could be improved, or if you have an innovative idea, have the courage to say so, Wise advises. But make sure to do it in a positive manner. “No one wants to appear to be negative or sound like they are complaining, so don’t,” she says. “Even though your ideas might challenge the status quo, deliver them in a professional, non-confrontational way,” she says. If you do it right, speaking up about something that could be improved can be a great way to build trusting relationships, she adds.

5. Once a decision is made, get on the bus

Question and challenge the things you disagree with during meetings and in the decision-making process, Wise says. But once a decision is made, support it even if you think there was a better choice. “Be one voice with your team and company,” she says. “If you don’t get on the bus, you might get kicked off the bus, or worse.”

6. Commit to other people’s success as well as your own

“This is so simple, but sometimes so challenging for many of us,” she says. “Why do we sometimes feel we are in competition with everyone?”

On the contrary, she says, celebrating other people’s success shows confidence and leadership skills. She recommends sending a personal note to congratulate others when they get promoted or to welcome new employees. Share the credit by recognizing individual contributors, or offer what she calls a “simple hallway congratulations” to people who’ve had successful outcomes. Doing this will go a long way toward building valuable relationships, she says.

7. Lead by example

“Be the person you expect others to be,” Wise says. “Or, if you want to undermine your career, behave in a way that contradicts your leadership philosophy.”

The way you present yourself in a formal situation when you’re in the spotlight and people are watching should be identical to the way you present yourself one on one. “Many people call this transparency,” Wise, a transplanted Midwesterner, says. “In the Midwest, we call this integrity.”

8. Follow through

“If you say you will deliver an outcome on a certain date, deliver it on that date, or earlier. If you say you’ll look into something, look into it. If you say you’ll get back to someone, get back to them,” Wise says. You will raise your visibility if you deliver early and exceed expectations, she adds. 

What if something happens to prevent you delivering on time? “Call to explain with the explicit details – and own it.” 

9. Invest in yourself

Lead by example and take a few minutes in the morning or the evening to learn about something new, Wise says. “Do not be the leader who says, I am so busy at work I don’t have time for anything else.”

You need to invest in yourself – in your mind, body, and spirit, she says. That will make you a better leader and co-worker, and also a better wife and mother, she says. “I always make time to renew my PMP certification every year, no matter how difficult it is finding time,” she adds. “Find it!”

10. Look for a healthy blend of work and life

“I know the popular vernacular is work-life balance, but I think the word ‘blend’ works better for me,” Wise says. “For many of us, it’s difficult to switch from work mode to personal mode. Our passion for the work we do naturally tends to blur the lines between work and personal life. Don’t fight it, manage it.”

As an example, when she goes on vacation, Wise wakes up early and goes online for a short time while everyone else is asleep. “I try not to do this every day, but I know I can enjoy the day better if any issues have been addressed,” she says.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.


I live by this philosophy also. It's so nice to see it in writing.

Ms. Wise is a great leader and I could not be more proud to work with her and her team as their Talent Acquisition business partner.

I'm glad I read this article. Humankindness and positive thinking go hand and hand.

Great topic! We're hosting a webinar featuring other female IT Leaders and their insights on July 20th: http://council.cio.com/webinars/women-know-tech/