Picture an Orchestra Conductor: An Interview with Carrie Whitcher

At my request, colleague (and BOLD leader himself), Matthew Taylor, Vice President of Information Technology at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield introduced me to Carrie Whitcher, Vice President of Health Care Improvement at Excellus BCBS. Within 5 minutes of talking with Carrie, I knew Matthew got it right. Carrie is a BOLD leader!

Carrie led our conversation with the “why” she is passionate about making healthcare better.  I ask, “Why devote your career to improving healthcare quality?” Carrie describes being fueled in this pursuit from an early age having been raised with a younger sister with special needs that often required the support of her older sister. She vividly describes a day when she was pulled out of her 2nd grade class  to go to her sister’s kindergarten class and help console her. The big sister role is one she is honored to play and says the role gave her the ability to put her sister’s needs and inclusion “over all other.” Carrie admits that her sister continues to drive her work ethic today focused on healthcare quality improvement and reflects that the diversity her sister brought to their family made her into the person (and leader) she is today.

This display of confidence in her belief that she can improve healthcare quality is our first clue that we are experiencing a BOLD leader in action. Carrie also mentions that sometimes being in the work of orchestrating change can feel like being “the lone dancer on a beach.” It requires courage, perseverance, and an ability to influence continuous change, especially when others may not clearly see, or want to act on, the same opportunity.

The BOLD Four: Curiosity, Confidence, Trust and Empathy

Carrie attributes her current role to improving her curiosity skills, the first attribute of a BOLD leader. She describes how the role requires her to think about new ways of solving quality problems that have existed in healthcare for years. The need to be creative and step out with new approaches helps her ask the “how” questions so she can learn from other cross-functional team members about different options that might be implemented.

In finding her confidence, the second attribute of a BOLD leader, Carrie describes her passion around helping support and mentor local women leaders.   This has been critical to helping her grow her own confidence. In addition, she uses a strategy of taking small risks to get small wins. That, in turn, fuels her confidence to then go after the larger risks. Carrie also feels blessed to have a husband who is her biggest fan and supports her every step of the way and parents who, from a very early age, instilled in her the mantra of “you can, and you will,” making nothing in life seem impossible.

Trust is a third critical component of BOLD leaders, and Carrie gives example after example of how she both gives and receives trust. Carrie feels strongly that team building = trust building and is intentional about establishing strong, productive relationships. Carrie, thinking of herself as the conductor and change orchestrator for the team, demonstrates her care and commitment to the people she strives to inspire by helping them lead from where they are, learn, iterate, and ultimately achieve improved results.

Empathy is the fourth core attribute of BOLD leadership. Carrie credits her relationship with her sister in forming that natural connection within her leadership roles. Carrie strives to meet people where they are in every interaction. She appreciates the importance of humility and kindness and is willing to expose her own vulnerability to connect with others.

Orchestrating Change

Picture an orchestra with a conductor. That is how Carrie frames up her life’s work of trying to improve healthcare quality for her friends, family, community and the members her team serves. Carrie comes from a musical background, so it is no surprise that her passion for improving healthcare quality in this country is the need to “orchestrate change” and her role in this transformation is to be a “conductor.”

Early on, Carrie recognized that she needed to inspire others to believe that “quality is everyone’s job” and approached other teams as the “experts” in her change orchestra. Knowing she needed everyone to help with the transformation led her to construct an approach focused on building a team of experts. To lead – or serve as the conductor—would mean “conducting the orchestra” through the change by communicating openly through the process, providing transparent measurement of the work, and then committing to continuously improve and inspire others. Blending servant leadership and a sincere concern for the people she works with (and serves) into her performance improvement framework has allowed her to lead her teams to great success.

I shared with Carrie that I have never met a Quality Improvement leader that is more passionate about her work! When she describes the healthcare quality changes that can be achieved for the members (and community) she and her teams are serving, it is inspiring! The confidence in the transformation fueled by her tenacity and deep empathy to leave healthcare a better place than when she started her career is her guiding purpose from which she does not veer.

Energized by Faith

Admitting that healthcare transformation is hard work with sometimes slow rewards, I ask Carrie, “How do you stay energized to keep up this fight?” There was no pause at all for an answer. Her faith is where the energy comes from. Carrie gives all the accolades of her accomplishments to God and says that she is driven by her faith and strives to live her life focused on Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Her faith foundation shows up in many ways in her life: She volunteers to help lead a local church board and supports the development of women leaders in her community. She was recently recognized nationally as one of 132 “Women Worth Watching” leaders for all she has achieved professionally in areas of leadership, executive responsibility, innovation, and mentorship.  After spending some time with Carrie, I agree…this is a “Woman Worth Watching.” The healthcare improvement transformation she has committed her life to orchestrating, supported by her unwavering faith foundation, is a combination that is destined to deliver results.

Closing Question: Carrie’s BOLD story is one of being willing to be the orchestra conductor.  Even when she feels “alone on the beach.” How do you orchestrate change even when you might feel alone on the beach?