Of No Illusions: An Interview with Penny Wheeler, M.D.

Dr. Penny Wheeler skipped directly from her obstetrics/gynecology medical practice to chief clinical officer and then to president and CEO of Allina Health. Allina, just to give a few stats, employs over 29,000 people, has over $4.1 billion in annual revenues, and each year has more than 7 million care interactions. In other words, Dr. Wheeler leads a very large, complicated, dynamic healthcare organization. “I’m of no illusions that I know everything or have all the answers” was her remark when reflecting on the leaps she has taken into new areas and ever-widening scopes of responsibility.

BOLD leaders, fitting the Aveus definition, are those who think and act beyond the existing organizational limits, are imaginative, and are willing to take risks to get rewarding results. They value the contributions of many. They know they need to tap the knowledge, abilities, and support of others to solve any significant challenge. Dr. Wheeler is a BOLD leader.

Others see in her the curiosity, confidence, empathy, and trust needed to lead boldly. These characteristics almost ooze out of her as she talks. They are naturally integrated in the way she speaks and shares her experiences. She attributes much of her curiosity to her parents, who instilled in her the desire to always stretch herself, grow, and at the same time serve others. And she mentioned that during one executive assessment, she was told that she was “too empathetic” – that her high empathy scores would actually inhibit her ability to be an effective leader.

During our conversation, one story kept resurfacing. It was the story of a painful, expensive nurses strike against Allina in 2016 that lasted 44 days. A strike that made national news. One that pitted nurses, who in their strike efforts repeatedly reminded the world “they put the care in healthcare,” against the health system administration led by Dr. Wheeler.

The Star Tribune, on October 13, 2016 when the contract was approved, explained the dispute this way: “Health insurance was the dividing issue during 22 negotiating sessions, as the nurses wanted to maintain four low-deductible union health plans that they viewed as extra protection against the injuries and illnesses that come with their jobs. Allina wanted to phase out those costly plans, which would be subject to a new federal tax in 2020, and move nurses to its corporate plans.”

One would think a leader who was “too empathetic” would not be up to leading the organization through this painful conflict with its own nursing staff. But, in her reflection, Dr. Wheeler emphasized, “Painful as it was, it was the right and equitable thing to do for all our employees and constituents. And I would do it again, because it allows us to better invest in care and invest in all our employees, including nurses, in the years to come.” One BOLD lesson in this story was her ability to empathize broadly, not selectively. Yes, with the nurses, but also with all Allina employees and constituents under her leadership. That balanced empathy, if you will, allowed her to make difficult choices and bring her organization with her.

Dr. Wheeler also saw this conflict as a test of “short-term pain for long-term benefit.” She has that BOLD leader ability to see beyond the organizational limits of today and imagine possibilities long past this chapter. She demonstrated the will to take risks and confidence to accomplish what she knew needed to happen.

She could have delegated the specifics of this challenge to others, but she didn’t. Some even counseled her to step back. But she also knew the whole company had to begin the healing process after this experience. She knew she had to be the face of the decisions being made. She believed what they were doing was right and in the best interests of her organization. Dr. Wheeler was supported by many others, but she knew she needed to be out there. Speaking with integrity. Being open. Building trust.

Many of the BOLD leaders we have interviewed shared stories like this. They must be curious and imaginative to find options others don’t. They need to have and exude confidence – often over extended periods and difficult choices. Empathy helps them stay “other-focused,” meaning they think first of the impacts on the people around them, more than they think about themselves. And they need to demonstrate trust and be trusting.

This conversation with Dr. Wheeler was inspiring because she is all those things, and she is completely approachable. She probably would prefer to just be called “Penny.” She doesn’t wear her CEO title as a badge. She doesn’t act like she has arrived. She sees herself in service to her community, her organization, and its mission to “serve all.” She knows she is responsible for finding new answers to the many complicated healthcare challenges facing organizations like hers today. And she seems very up for that challenge and well-suited for it, too!

Anyone who leads an organization, large or small, faces significant challenges at various points in their careers. When did one test all your skills and make you stronger for your experience? We’d love to hear your story, too.

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.