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Madeline Bell Knows the Secret to Success and Wants to Share it

POSTED: April 28, 2016
By Maggie Hart

LSH’s 11th annual Women of Courage Awards Ceremony will honor Karen Hudson, Program Leader of the of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Homeless Health Initiative, and is fortunate enough to have CHOP as one of its sponsors.  Madeline Bell is the first woman president and CEO of CHOP, a mother of 7, wife, author and mentor. A dedicated advocate for women in leadership, brave innovator, and skilled storyteller, Madeline is nothing if not an inspiration for women looking to succeed in positions of power. We sat down with her in March to discuss woman in leadership, why she started a blog, and the origins of the Homeless Health Initiative. 

As a woman on the career path what were some of your primary obstacles?

I am the first woman CEO and I was formerly the first woman Chief Operating Officer. I followed someone who was a man and a physician, and being a nurse and a woman, I had to overcome stereotypes about what may be seen as traditionally subservient roles. A number of people asked me, “How are you going to do that job when your predecessor was a physician/scientist?” I always say to them, being a good leader doesn’t mean that you’re trained in a specific profession or technical area. When you have certain leadership skills, it transcends any profession. When people ask, “How are you going to do this, as a nurse?” I think they are also implying “as a woman.” I’ve encountered some bias, but my focus has always been, OK, acknowledge it, and don’t worry about it.

So what does it mean for you to be the first female CEO of CHOP?

CHOP is a place for opportunities, no matter who you are or where you are in your career, a place that fosters internal growth.

I want to be a good example for nurses and be able to say to them “You have a lot of opportunities. Look what I did with my career.” Even outside of CHOP, I am one of the few woman CEOs in the Philadelphia area. It’s pretty stark, actually, to be in a room and look around and be one of only a couple of women. To me, it’s my duty to be out there and to be visible, and to be an impactful leader so that other people, women, see that it is possible and will hopefully follow in my footsteps.

Could you tell me about Karen Hudson and the Homeless Health Initiative?

Karen is wonderful; she and I have known each other since the ‘80s. I was a nurse and she was a social worker and we worked in the same units, with the same patients together. I’ve known her for nearly 30 years, and we were even pregnant around the same time.

The Homeless Health Initiative began in the late ‘80s as a project that our residents, some of whom are now attending physicians here, started as part of their advocacy work for the community. Originally we were bringing health services to the shelters and then realized that that system was not sustainable. Of course you want to bring health screening and health education to the shelters, but more importantly you want to help people connect into health care systems. Outcomes are much better when homeless shelter residents have a primary care physician and have health insurance. Our advocacy therefore moved from more direct services to enabling access to more permanent care.

Like capacity building?

Yes, exactly. I think we were sort of putting a Band-Aid on it, and then we stepped back and said, “Why exactly are we doing this?” We should be stepping back and thinking of how we can make this more sustainable. Its aim was to recognize that CHOP is part of the surrounding community and we wanted to be good citizens of that community. People who work here have a lot of expertise and a lot to give back. The Homeless Health Initiative was built on that basic premise.

I’ve read that you’ve lectured on women in leadership and I was wondering if you could tell us about that and why that’s important to you?

There are not a lot of women CEOs/leaders that can come and talk with younger women about how to navigate their careers. What makes me sad is that every time I’m speaking at an event, I look out at the audience and women are furiously writing down everything I’m saying. It makes me realize that there is such a lack of information out there for women. Where is the roadmap?

Often there will be a line of women at the end of my talks asking if I could mentor them, and unfortunately I just don’t have the bandwidth to do it. So I started a blog, and each blog post is about a different topic related to these issues. It’s called “Heels of Success: Elevating Women in the Workplace.” The goal of this project is to assemble the topics I use to mentor women and inspire them.

For example, I was just mentoring a woman physician recently who was working within a group of national physician researchers and felt like she was doing all of the work and getting none of the credit.

I asked her, “Are you the one who takes the notes for the group?” And she said to me, “How did you know?” I told her, “Because you’re the only woman, and the woman is always the one who takes the notes!” I advised her that next time she enter into the group, she should play a part in assigning tasks to people and get recognition for her work. That was the inspiration for one of my blog posts, which are frequently based on real-life interactions.

Do you think it’s important to have spaces to specifically acknowledge and honor women?

Yes. I think it provides an opportunity for other women to see what is possible. So many women I talk to juggle so many responsibilities and end up taking more of the load for childcare, household work, and then also have careers. We all have a tendency to be Superwomen. To show women that there is a way to navigate that and change that dynamic is very important.

What does this year’s Women of Courage event mean to you?

I think it is really a great opportunity to put women in the spotlight and show what other people can do and what people are capable of overcoming. Karen’s story is an inspiration. She has overcome such tragedy in her life, and is so strong. Women of Courage is a celebration of CHOP’s longstanding relationship with LSH, it’s a celebration of Karen and her leadership, and it’s an opportunity for other women to see that they can also overcome adversity in their life. I’m really thrilled about it.

For more information on this year’s Women of Courage Award Ceremony & Luncheon, click here.
To learn more about the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, click here.