“Do Not Be Distracted by the ‘Noise’”

An interview with the 2020 Woman of Influence

By the FORUM Magazine editors

FRM MayJun ITK WomenInfluence

Deborah Bowen, FACHE, CAE
President and CEO
American College of Healthcare Executives

1. You’ve had a successful career in association management. What led you to this work? And what made you stay? 

I began my career as a social worker working with heroin addicts. Often, heroin addicts have difficulty getting better because the systems around them do not support their recovery. I started thinking about how to change the systems, and that led me to a physician—the chairman of the Wisconsin Medical Society. He convinced me to work there, and I have never regretted the decision. Associations play influential roles in the lives of others, and I love the work. Being able to influence decision-makers to make a difference in healthcare is challenging but very rewarding.

2. What is important to you in your career? What makes you successful?

I never really thought about my career per se. I have always focused on doing the best job I can, which helped me succeed. That being said, there is no substitute for a good career plan. I once heard: “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

3. There are so many technologies and communication channels vying for our attention today. How do you stay focused?

Like everyone, I am challenged with keeping up. I get more email than I can responsibly respond to. I think it is important to keep in mind technology is a powerful tool for communicating with our members and stakeholders. Therefore, I try to leverage it in the work today. Also, hiring talented professionals who have more experience in this arena than I do has helped us drive momentum and innovation.

4. Who has influenced you in your career?

I have been fortunate to have great role models—from my mother, to (former ACHE CEO)Tom Dolan, to the team I work with every day. I am always learning.

5. How do you balance work and the rest of your life?

I am not particularly good at this, but I am trying to get better. I live and work downtown, but I escape to nature as often as I can. I am also working on more family time. I try to support my team in their work-life balance as well.

6. What advice do you have for women starting out in the association industry?

  • Be a student of your industry.
  • Understand your strengths and development needs.
  • Have courage.
  • Do not be distracted by the “noise” (whether it is the voice in your head or external messages that do not help).
  • Look for opportunities to expand your skills.
  • Network, network, network.

7. You have two master’s and one bachelor’s degrees, and you completed the executive program in healthcare management. How has learning and continuing education impacted your career?

Learning and leadership go hand in hand. Healthcare is changing rapidly and as a leader in healthcare, it is my responsibility to make sure we are paying attention to change. I also believe the process of learning allows you to reinvent yourself. As Don Berwick, the founder of the quality movement in driving to zero harm said, “We must do the work and improve the work.”

8. Healthcare is seeing more changes now than ever. How do you stay innovative? What advice can you lend to associations in other industries facing new technologies and disruption?

I learn from others and pay close attention to disruptors. As associations and individuals, we need to disrupt our traditional paradigms and approaches to ensure future success. Technology partners are also key. I am a big believer in importing expertise to build speed. That is the beauty of the association community—supplier partners and executives all working together.

9. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

I relish all wins. I have been fortunate to have the work of ACHE be acknowledged by Association Forum and Baldrige. This is a people business and I like to celebrate the great work that everyone does—people need encouragement and I am grateful to have a great team.

About the Author

Written by the FORUM Magazine editors

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