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Women in Business: Q&A With Carladenise Edwards, Chief Strategy Officer, Alameda Health System

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Chief Strategy Officer Carladenise A. Edwards, Ph.D. leads strategy development and execution at Alameda Health System to position the health system for long-term success as the Affordable Care Act changes the healthcare landscape.

An expert in health policy, public and private health services, managed care programs and health information technology, Dr. Edwards has deep experience as an administrator, educator, researcher, and as a policy and business analyst.

Dr. Edwards came to AHS from a successful consulting practice providing strategy and business development services to health care provider groups, health plans, technology companies, community-based organizations and state and federal government agencies.

Tell us about your journey to where you are today.
I have always been drawn to public health. As a child, I professed to my family that I wanted to be either the U.S. Secretary of Health or the U.S. Surgeon General. I went to the University of Pennsylvania with every intention of going to medical school, but I quickly realized I did not like the physical sciences. I preferred the social sciences, so I switched my major and spent years trying to figure out how to marry my interest in health and wellness with my desire to use my leadership skills. Each professional opportunity has prepared me for the next and I honestly believe that my current role as the Chief Strategy Officer for Alameda Health System (AHS) was created just for me.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I inherited the gene for service from my parents. Watching them serve in leadership roles and seeing how they empowered others, supported the personal and professional development of their teams, and how people loved and respected them always made me proud. My father is a retired Marine Corps Officer and he not only studied leadership, but he had the opportunity to teach leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy and other places. My mother was, and still is, a public servant. She worked in public schools, government, and for non-profit community based organizations.

I grew up wanting to emulate my parents and other African-American leaders about whom my parents raved. Anytime a Black person would accomplish something, my entire family would celebrate --the first Black person to do this or to do that was always cause for celebration. I wasn't sure if I was going to be the first to do something, but I knew I wanted to do something that would make my parents and community proud.

What have you learned from your challenges and successes?
The greatest lesson I've learned is that the worst events imaginable, such as the death of a loved one or the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, can be blessings in disguise. For example, I relocated my family from the East coast to the West coast for a dream job and within 14 months the dream job went away. As the primary breadwinner for my family, a seasoned professional, and a dreamer, this was a very low moment in my life, but since that time I have been able to look back and say "Wow...had I not moved to California I wouldn't have my current job and my kids wouldn't have had the incredibly diverse life experiences they have had." In the end, you have to be mindful that everything happens for a reason. We may not know why things happen, but challenges can lead to a greater good and clearer understanding of our purpose.


What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Alameda Health System?
My biggest challenges are trying to keep up with the fast moving health care environment and simply not having enough hours in the day. Health care systems are experiencing significant growing pains. We are adapting to new technologies aimed at improving the patient experience. We are preparing for huge shifts in the payment structure and wondering how we will get paid to deliver care to the neediest and most vulnerable in our community. We are in a race to improve quality and increase accountability or transparency, so that patients select us as their health care provider when they are sick and when they are well. All of this change makes for a very busy day for the Chief Strategy Officer.

The highlight has been the incredible people with whom I work at AHS. People choose to work for our public health system because they believe in our mission of Caring, Healing, Teaching, Serving All. It is such a pleasure to work with the doctors, nurses, support staff, executives, and volunteers at AHS who share the same goals and values that I have embraced throughout my professional career. I absolutely love it.

What changes has Alameda Health System implemented with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act?
The most significant change has been our approach to marketing and communications. Very few public health systems or hospitals have invested money in advertising or building their brand. AHS launched a brand and commercial marketing campaign in October to align with the rollout of Covered California, the new health care marketplace. We are airing television and radio commercials. We have highway billboards and bus backs, as well a social media strategy. All of this is new to us and to our peers. But we felt it was important that we let the community know we are open for business and that we have a lot to offer. We are tracking our community image using a national survey tool and continuing to establish our value proposition, so as people select their health plans they remember to choose us as their primary care home.

We also have built a new business development unit. We have a team of business analysts who are helping us define our strategy and explore new business opportunities that we can use to re-invest revenues back into our mission. This work is very exciting and fits nicely with my background.

What advice can you offer those seeking a career in the healthcare industry?
You don't have to be a physician or a nurse in order to have a career in healthcare. There are so many opportunities. It is wonderful when medical professionals are able to work on both sides of the aisle - clinical and operations, but it is not a requirement. It is important to be patient centered, a problem solver, and an advocate with experience managing complex systems and people.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have always struggled with this. I love my family and often tell people I am a full-time mom who works to support my family, but honestly I spend far more hours at work than I do at home during the week. I reserve the weekends for the family. From Friday night to early Monday morning is mommy time. I do my best not to break my weekend commitments to my husband and our kids.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I fully agree with Sheryl Sandberg in regard to the need for women to "Lean In." She told several stories in that book that resonated with me. My favorite was about the parking space. The same thing happened to me. I never thought to ask for a parking space and was shocked when I realized all of my peers had one and had actually negotiated either the space or payment for the space before accepting the job. It never occurred to me to do that. I was always just so happy to get a job offer. I feel women need to assert themselves and make sure that we help promote a work environment that meets the needs of women executives or leaders, as opposed to trying to maintain or replicate a male-dominated cultural paradigm. Many of Sheryl's critics missed this point in their reviews: As more women become leaders, our capacity to ensure the work environment reflects the strengths and talents of women increases as well.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The two most influential mentors in my life are women who gave me the opportunity to serve in roles for which, on paper, I did not appear to be the best candidate. Their confidence in my ability inspired them to take a risk. Zoila Airall gave me my first job at the University of Pennsylvania and Rhonda Medows introduced me to state level health care service. I am so grateful to them both. I try to honor them by paying it forward: I do my best to create opportunities for others to learn not just from me, but from my network of peers who have the time and desire to do the same.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
At the risk of forgetting someone: Juanita Armbrister, my mother; Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox; First Lady Michelle Obama; Zora Neale Hurston, anthropologist; Arianna Huffington; Oprah Winfrey; and Madeleine Albright. To me, these women represent entrepreneurship and innovation. They have all succeeded by following their passion and their dreams. Each has demonstrated a commitment to service and diplomacy. I don't know any of them personally, other than my mom, but I am thrilled to have this opportunity to publically thank them for their leadership.

What is one word that sums up where you have got to today?
Nirvana