Kate Walsh is funny.
Yes, she’s the President and CEO of Boston Medical Center, the teaching affiliate of Boston University School of Medicine, with an operating revenue of over $2.8 billion, which serves many low-income patients.
And yes, she was just voted by her peers to be the next Alumni Fellow of the Yale Corporation.
But, she has a great sense of humor, coupled with tremendous humility.
In Kate’s 2014 commencement address to Suffolk University College of Arts & Science grads, she said: “There are many uplifting and inspiring graduation speeches out there. This is not one of them. So, please Google one of them if you’re feeling the need for encouragement.” She then proceeded to say that she’s a practical sort, a mom (of two), and that she was going to tell the 1,100 assembled grads about how to keep a job, and balance work and family.
She describes her promotion to CEO of a major medical institution, after serving as Executive VP and COO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston as, “Not a meteoric rise to the top."
Kate’s story of that rise, irrespective of speed, is inspiring. One of five kids, and the daughter of a Brookline, Massachusetts police officer, she was the first in her family to attend college. As Kate says, laughingly, “Irish from Boston, from central casting. I should have been a nun.”
Her parents valued education, moving to Brookline for better schools. When it came to college applications, Kate sent out four or five, and went to look at schools by herself. Being a first generation student at Yale today would be tougher than it was for her, she says. With the greater income gap now, there are more pressures on lower income students. Today, Kate says, “you need a cell phone, a data plan, more stuff.”
When she started at Yale, she recalls, with her usual humor, all she needed were good boxes for moving. As she puts it: “I worked at a grocery store and I was very proud of my boxes. I could choose really good ones.” More seriously, she says, “I can’t imagine asking my parents for the stuff we bought our kids when we moved them into their dorms.”
As humble as Kate is in conversation, what others say about her demonstrates her true regard in the field. A colleague of Walsh’s from her days at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Gary Gottlieb, CEO of Partners in Health, characterizes her in a Yale Daily News article as someone who makes quick decisions rather than “[wasting] time and sort of lumbering along.” (Walsh actually describes herself “as not belaboring issues that clearly fall into the ‘yes or no’ category.”) The same News piece also quoted Janet Eisner, President of Emmanuel College, where Walsh served as board vice chair, as saying how much she valued Kate’s advice on financial matters: “Fifteen minutes with Kate can be worth hours with others.” Kate herself took business courses at Columbia and encourages women, who often shy away from finance, to get an MBA.
She has more wisdom - this is a sample:
- Apropos of her self-described, non-meteoric rise, Kate counsels patience to those expecting to be quickly crowned CEO: “I wasn’t thrilled 100 percent of the time in my jobs,” Kate says, but she always liked her field. Approach your career, she advises, as a lifelong learner, rather than worrying about how fast you can race to the top. And, in truth, she didn’t race. She picked up essential experience after getting her MPH at Yale, working at a number of New York institutions, before moving back to Boston.
- The best mentor isn’t necessarily the person three rungs above you – often it’s the other people who are doing what you’re doing. “Look over the wall of your cubicle,” Kate says. She recalls one of her mentors, another Yalie, who had different strengths. “I would have paper all over, and I remember her helping me sort it out on a Friday so that I could better start work on Monday. She knew what I needed because we were doing the same job.”
- Kate says her career made the biggest jump when she took the greatest risk, in her case, moving from the hospital sector to work under Mark Fishman ‘72 as COO of Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, which later set her up to be COO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “The last time I had worked for a taxable entity, I was a waitress,” Kate comments.
- On the importance of team building, Gottlieb calls Kate “probably the best team builder I’ve ever met.” Kate admits that she thinks women are better at this: “It’s how we manage our lives. Teams of moms who keep the family afloat.” It’s also a loss in a society where we think that “we can do everything by remote control.” Kate says she probably spends too much time in meetings because she chats with others about their lives and lets people wander until they get to their point. Why? When people feel they are being listened to, they are more creative and thoughtful, she says.
- You can’t predict how your career will unfold. For Kate, choosing hospital administration was “total dumb luck.” A grant from Yale to spend a summer in an urban agency of her choice led her to the Brookside Health Center in Jamaica Plain, MA. (“My dad didn’t want me hanging around the courts.”) Instantly, Kate knew she wanted to run a health center like that, falling in love with its offerings from daycare to medical services.
And finally, Kate’s wisdom on health care: She is an evangelist for the mantra that health shouldn’t be dependent on zip code or other social determinants. For example, the hospital sponsors a one-of-a-kind therapeutic food pantry where cancer patients can get prescriptions for protein-rich food or families can receive a 3-day food supply when benefits run out. Kids get jump ropes to take home because, as Kate says, where there’s urban violence, parents won’t send children out to play. “I care deeply about access to healthcare,” Kate says. “It’s a fundamental right, especially in the richest country in the world.”
Elisa Spungen Bildner ’75