USC Interim President Wanda Austin, PhD, spoke recently at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital with health care leaders from Keck Medicine of USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) about leadership, change, and inspiring the next generation. On January 11, she took questions from participants in the Keck Medicine-CHLA Healthcare Leadership Academy, addressing the nature of leadership, building morale, and balancing work and family life, among other topics.

The answers below have been edited for length and clarity. This is part two of a series. Read more here.


Q: How can we, as leaders, help support and facilitate the pipeline of students underrepresented in medicine to make sure that they’re successful?

A: I’m a big STEM advocate. I think science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are something that every child has to have as a foundational experience in school. And, when you think about the future, when you think about who the leaders will be, who our scientists and innovators are — shame on us if we have a cadre of people who are excluded, who didn’t get the opportunity to become leaders.

And we can’t wait until they become high school students and say, “Gee, would you like to be a doctor?” If they don’t have the right early math programs, early science exposure, or a role model, it’s unlikely they will see themselves as being able to be successful in that role.

What can you do? You can do the same kinds of things I do, which is take the time to do something simple, such as talking to a neighbor’s child in a grocery line, encouraging a child you know, just saying a few words. As my 7th grade math teacher said to me, “Hey, you’re really good at this. Don’t get discouraged. Make sure you do what you need to do to stay focused and have the opportunity to pursue a career like this.”

Talk to them about what you do. Tell them, “Okay, I’m a pediatrician, do you know what that means? Would you like to be a pediatrician? Do you have any idea about all the great things I get to do, and how much fun I have as a pediatrician?” And it is important to talk about the fun, because we talk about the hard stuff — the math, the calculus, the biology. But we also have to talk about the fun and the fact that it allows us to do great things. We need to share those stories. We need to invite them in.


Q: What sense of purpose do you want to communicate to leaders at USC and CHLA? What do you want us to do?

A: That’s an easy question. What I want you to do is be excellent in everything that you do — in the way that you mentor your team and the way that you show up as a leader. Be the very best that you can be. Be thoughtful in the way that you engage patients, in the way that you interact with the administration. Talk about the future and what do we need and what should we do to be invested.

I need you to really think about how we can be successful, and what’s the path that we need to get on, because this is not something that someone from the outside can come in and hand to us and say, “Okay, here’s your strategic plan and approach and here’s how you’ll be successful.”

The only way we get that right is if we get the involvement of everyone in here.  We need everyone to think about the right answer for this community, for this city. How do we serve this community to improve lives, to ensure quality care?


Q: Health care is an enterprise, but the university’s focus is academic. How do you see the balance between the enterprise in health care and the academic issue of health care?

A: As you say, there’s an academic enterprise and a medical enterprise and we need to stop talking about them like they’re two distinct things. They work together. They’re synergistic. We have to have interdisciplinary solutions. We have to have solutions that work in the global world with more patients. To come up with the world-class innovative solutions that we need for the future of health care, that takes engineering innovation, as well as great doctors.

As a team, we need to think of solutions that reach across both of those enterprises. I’m very quick to remind the academic people that the medical enterprise drives 55 percent of our revenues. The medical enterprise is a critical part of who we are, and who we want to be moving forward, so we need to draw them closer together and leverage the synergies that exist.


Q: How do you think we can improve on the collaboration and communication across our campuses?

A: The first point is communication. I would suggest that communication goes at least in two directions. So, if you’re not hearing from someone that you’d like to hear from, you can call them and get on their calendar and say, “Hey, I’d just like to stop in and see what’s going on and exchange some ideas and suggest that maybe there’s a way that we can get together.”

It’s important that as a leader you recognize that when someone is not doing what you want them to do, it might not be because they woke up and said, “Let me see how can I screw up today.” It may be that they’re either busy, or they haven’t thought of it. They don’t think that you’re interested. There are a lot of ways in which we can get to an outcome that is dissatisfying. It’s important to try to start from the assumption, “Okay, what can I do to start a conversation? How can I suggest that there may be some benefits in our getting together?”

And without the communication, there’s no chance to be innovative, because you’re not even having any conversations. There’s little chance for collaboration. Then we get to a transactional relationship where the only time we communicate is when we absolutely have to. That’s the worst time to communicate. I would encourage you to figure out a way to have a relationship. Assume that the other person is just busy, has a lot on their desk, and never got to it.

— Sara Reeve