Most Powerful Women: Dawn Rudolph

Saint Thomas Hospital CEO career highlighted by steady progress, preparation

Few people are “born leaders.” In fact, within the business world, the ability to oversee plans, processes and personnel requires skills that are honed over time and with great patience. Sometimes there is an “aha moment,” an epiphany of sorts at which point a person realizes ‘I can lead.’ In other cases, a series of general events or a string of specific incidences yields a confidence and focus within a person, allowing leadership qualities to come forth.

In Nashville, the majority of leaders remain men. But woman are closing that gap, making significant impact on the area’s business community. It is a trend that is encouraging and surely will benefit the city and the region. The Nashville Post editorial team selected the 2012 Most Powerful Women — check out our 2011 choices here — based on their leadership skills, broad influence and ability to facilitate positive change. The group represents a cross-section of area industries: health care, government, nonprofits and public relations/marketing.

We interviewed the four to learn about their leadership styles, philosophies and challenges. They came across as humble, intelligent and seasoned. We liked what we heard. Nashville, indeed, should take note of these leaders.

Dawn Rudolph’s career has been about making steady progress while staying anchored to the values and methods she learned preparing for a profession she never entered.

Rudolph didn’t set out to be a health care executive. Her mother was a nurse, but she studied elementary education at Indiana University-Fort Wayne. When the time came to enter the workforce in 1990, Rudolph’s mother suggested she look at hospital work, which had a more flexible schedule.

Rudolph’s first job was as a patient registrar at St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Wayne — which is owned by Franklin-based Community Health Systems — and she quickly grew to like being a facilitator. Being one of the first to interact with patients facing a stressful and frazzling situation helped her appreciate the classic mantra of “taking care of people.”

“There’s this idea of being 1 percent better every day in what you do; learning is a continuous process,” Rudolph said. “In studying to be a teacher, I learned to plan, present, evaluate — and connect with people — and then remediate, measure and decide whether to adjust.”

Fascinated by the energy, team dynamics and challenges of running a hospital, Rudolph quickly moved into management to help steer that energy. It was soon after — sitting at the table with St. Joseph leadership helping shape the hospital’s growth plans — that she had her ‘I can do this’ moment.

“I really liked being part of the conversation,” she said. “I had a passion, a desire to want to be at the table and have influence and understanding — and to achieve something as a group.”

In the years that followed, Rudolph was chosen to administer a surgery center connected to Dupont Hospital, one of St. Joseph’s sister facility, then to be support services team leader there. Rudolph said those transitions made her more conscious of the need for strategy and patience: A checklist can go from being a daily piece of paper to a dashboard where items might take several weeks to be completed.

“As you move up, you go from having a horizontal perspective to a vertical one,” she said. “You need to have a plan, a vision. And you need to change the way you’re communicating.”

After two more promotions at Dupont — first to vice president of operations, then to chief operating officer — she returned to St. Joseph as CEO in 2009. About a year and a half later, Saint Thomas Health Services chief Mike Schatzlein, who had until mid-2010 run the Lutheran Health Network that is home to St. Joseph and Dupont, recruited her to Saint Thomas to replace Les Donahue.

“Dawn has remarkable energy and a strong work ethic combined with a grasp of what’s needed to make a hospital or health system successful,” Schatzlein said. “When we were looking for a new CEO of Saint Thomas Hospital, it was Dawn’s engagement with and support of the medical staff that proved to be the deciding factor.”

Rudolph says not having a medical degree hasn’t hurt her ability to lead hospitals full of doctors who could look askance at an “outsider.” For one, her career arc through various hospital units has given her a familiarity with much of the trench work. And secondly, she said, not being an MD gives her license to ask plenty of questions.

“It creates a space to have an open approach,” she said. “You need a diverse team to be successful. I realized early on the value of bringing in different perspectives and asking the right questions to make the best possible decisions.”

That philosophy of asking lot of questions also is at the root of Rudolph’s advice to budding and aspiring women managers. Don’t hesitate to engage with supervisors or others you look up to, she said. Take them out for coffee, ask what they like about their job and watch what they’re responsible for inside a larger organization.

When the time comes to build your own career path, she said it’s important to know what you’re looking for and how your skills match the job requirements. Then — maybe by following the education method Rudolph was schooled in — be prepared to be that 1 percent better every day.