Dare Me to Jump: An Interview with Jessica Harthcock

I first met Jessica Harthcock, Founder & CEO of Utilize Health, at a reception during the 2019 WBL Annual Summit in Dallas, TX. We struck up a conversation that would be the spark for this interview.  When I asked Jessica about her professional background, she literally lit up and the passion for her work started to spill out! She described how her company helps people with severe neurological conditions connect to the services they need. In offering the description and some of the success stories of their work, she left out a key fact. I asked her, “Why start a company for such a specific group of patients?” The answer shocked me: Jessica suffered a spinal cord injury herself, and this vibrant, passionate leader in front of me revealed that she has been paralyzed for nearly 15 years! Wow! Her journey was captivating, and I knew then I had to learn more.

In our conversation about BOLD leadership characteristics, one of the first statements Jessica made was that she was “always a risk taker” and as a teenager made a jump off a cliff into the ocean for a $100 bet. In reflecting back, she admits that risk-taker spirit helps her push beyond the limits and see the end goal even when others can’t. She tries to live her life not being afraid to jump. This display of confidence is our first clue that we are experiencing a BOLD leader in action.

Having Curiosity, Confidence, Trust AND Empathy

Jessica describes her curiosity starting with her sisters and the many “explorations” they embarked on as kids. Her parents helped develop this early on by letting her be curious and guiding her from a core foundation of “you can do anything.”  As an adult, she admits that she remains intensely curious, the first attribute of a BOLD leader.  When asked for a recent example of her curiosity in action, Jessica describes when a friend was embarking on adoption and she did intense research (out of curiosity and empathy—which you will soon learn is a big part of who she is!) to help her friend be successful. Research and knowledge is one of her core strategies for success.

In finding confidence, the second attribute of a BOLD leader, Jessica admits that it can be a challenge at times and is a deliberate focus of her leadership growth. Jessica was reminded of many life experiences that helped her grow that confidence as a leader: early instillation by her parents that she could (and should) be a servant leader; getting accepted to Vanderbilt; her spouse always building her up; and professors at Vanderbilt who convinced her that she could use her talents and passion to start her company. Unlike some, Jessica also found confidence (not defeat) during the VC process as firms were willing to fund her company because they felt she “knew the space more than anyone else.” The list of people who have impacted her leadership growth is long. Jessica is a believer in “always improving” and using coaches, mentors, leadership tools, and those around you to help you grow.

Trust is a third critical component, and it comes easily to Jessica. Her parents were role models in giving and receiving trust and encouraged her to give trust freely.  She admits she gives trust quickly, but also receives it back quickly. When pressed as to why she feels others trust her so easily, she confirms she is intentional in her attempts to build trust with her team by using the gift of feedback and modeling vulnerability with her team. Focusing on being self-aware and meeting people where they are is a tactic she uses often. In addition to giving feedback, she doesn’t stop there—she also asks her team, family and friends to give her feedback. Jessica admits this was hard for the team to do at first, but once trust was established, and they saw her demonstrate this with them, they got on board and now use it consistently. This makes the entire team stronger.

Empathy is the fourth core attribute of BOLD leadership, and this value is the one that Jessica clearly resonates with! Her empathy journey started with her parents, who taught her to be self-aware and serve others.  It came full circle when she suffered a spinal cord injury in a gymnastics accident and received empathy back from her community. Jessica admits that receiving was more difficult than giving, but the injury and the empathetic response of others gave her a passionate need to pay it forward and help others who were going through what she had been through. Hearing her describe the patients she talked with in the early days of her business (she used to talk to every patient herself), you can feel the sincere compassion she has for helping improve the lives of others. That same compassion comes out when Jessica talks about her “team” at Utilize Health. All the programs, tools, time and tactics she utilizes with her team to help them grow is inspiring and is an area that she is clearly passionate about!

The Loneliness of the Vision

Even when you are a BOLD leader and your co-founder is your spouse, starting a new company can still be very lonely.  Jessica was transparent about the moments on her BOLD leadership journey when she had moments of doubt, fear, and worry about the enormity of the challenge. She admits that in the early days of the company, “I felt so alone!” In those low moments, she learned that being self-aware and honest with herself and seeking out the advice of mentors and coaches who could provide a different perspective helped to balance her. It was in one of these moments when she found the use of an executive coach with whom she could have a “safe space” to explore things freely. This helped to ease the burden, and she continues to use a coach today to help maintain her balance.

Keeping the Motivation

The work that Jessica and her team do each day is demanding, sometimes draining, yet most days, very rewarding! When I asked about how she stays connected to why she built this company, I wasn’t surprised to hear that she sometimes she goes into the call center and listens in as her team helps others who are in the same place she once was. In another empathy-driven approach she implemented called “Motivational Mondays,” the team sends out a weekly inspirational story highlighting one of the patients they have helped with their intervention. This is another way the team focuses on the mission of the organization.

Six years ago, when Jessica started Utilize Health, she had a vision, the passion to execute on that vision, and the empathy for others to bring it across the finish line. Spend just a few minutes with Jessica and you will be convinced that this BOLD leader is just getting started.

Closing Question: Jessica’s BOLD story is one of daring to jump in and helping others see the end goal even if it seems impossible.  How do you make transformational change in your work even when others might not be able to see it the way you do?