Leadership & Professional Development

My Entrepreneurial Path to CEO: Lessons Learned

December 20, 2017 2:17 pm

Life provides challenges and ongoing opportunities for growth. When faced with obstacles, we have the opportunity to forge our own unique path, which leads us to who we are today. Looking back on my health IT entrepreneurial journey, my success was propelled through my experiences with transformational leadership and the individual path I chose.

To perhaps jumpstart your own action plan, I wanted to share my personal leadership pathway to becoming the CEO of a healthcare IT (HIT) consulting firm with more than 180 employees, while highlighting a few lessons I learned firsthand along the way.

Starting From the Ground Floor

My path to becoming a HIT entrepreneur and CEO started as an entry-level hospital pharmacy technician with a bachelor’s degree while I was pursuing another degree in computer science. I needed a jumping-off point and was eager to take on more responsibilities. Within a year, amidst the hospital implementing a new computer system, I was appointed as a trainer, representing the pharmacy department for a data system project. This led to an analyst role and me transitioning fully into IT. The position was a challenge, but it allowed me to interact with clinicians and produce improvements for their clinical workflows and enhance end-user support. Seeing projects from start to finish was rewarding, which fueled my passion for the next phase of HIT.

Lesson Learned

Be willing to step up. Volunteer for team-building committees, serve as a super user, and jump at the chance for new training. In an industry that is constantly changing, women professionals need to evolve individually while showing drive and multifaceted depth.

Gaining Vendor Experience

After serving on the provider side, I worked for an electronic health record (EHR) vendor for eight years as an installation director in their most successful sales region. It was an exciting time in health care when the transition from paper records was just starting to gain momentum. Half the battle was convincing the end user that an EHR would be helpful down the road.

Lesson Learned

Recognize that sometimes timing is everything. A solution that is needed is not always embraced due to budget or resource constraints, current or pending legislation, or even a lack of foresight and unwillingness to take risks. To make some headway, take time to identify the issue your solution solves and how key stakeholders might perceive this solution. Consider the impact of whether the change is adopted from several perspectives including clinical, operational, patient engagement, and physician satisfaction standpoints. 

Committing to a Job Well Done

My work with the EHR vendor was nonstop. I was driven to prove myself despite the politics of a large organization in an evolving industry. For example, when others took credit for my work, I buckled down and kept working hard. It paid off; I was selected to lead one of our region’s hospitals through the company’s beta project for a new radiology-management system. This was a major stepping stone in my career.

Lesson Learned

Find your true north. When you live authentically and perform good, honest work, you won’t become susceptible to workplace politics. Even if others take credit for your contributions, know that your dedication will pay off. 

Balancing Roles

Then came time for the juggling between my personal and professional life. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) did not exist back then. At the time, there was not another woman, let alone an installation director, who had ever had a child while working in the position I held. Fortunately, company leaders recognized my quality work and overall value to the business. A superior vouched to management to let me work three days a week from home so I could be with my newborn, an unprecedented change at the company.

After nine months, I went back to full-time, onsite mode. I was selected to manage the rollout of the company’s flagship product, Invision. Some doubted my ability to take on this responsibility, thinking their experience was a better fit for the role. Instead of succumbing to the pressure, I made it my mission to anticipate conflict with a thorough action plan and team communication.

Shifting the Path

After the success of the rollout, I was ready for change. I started a new job at a progressive hospital in Pittsburgh and moved into management. It was a blessing because I had the time to have my second child. Within the organization, and at every turn, there were opportunities for improvement and innovation, which I pursued and worked hard to achieve. I focused on growing the talent in the department, boosting employee morale and skill sets.

Lesson Learned

Support and guide, but empower others. “If you want something done right, you need to do it yourself,” is a popular saying, but it’s unrealistic if you want to grow a team—and an organization. Empower individuals within your organization who share your vision and uphold your trust. Micromanagement creates resentment and distrust within an organization, hindering open communication.

Aligning Marketplace Need With Vision

While in hospital management, I was always thinking of the next big thing and realized my vision stretched beyond what my current employer could offer. With the industry experience to back this vision, I started my own HIT consulting firm.

Founding Stoltenberg Consulting was a compilation of events, marketplace needs, and choices I identified during my previous 15-year journey. It was not an overnight revelation. The business started as a favor for a former colleague, who asked me to assess a full EHR system conversion. She was responsible for this massive project and asked for my project management and technical guidance to ensure its success.

Lesson Learned

Look ahead. Always think of how you can improve current processes, workflow, or industry pain points. Many times, it just takes sitting down and looking at something as if you were putting a puzzle together.

The consulting business plan I created for the EHR system conversion project became the foundation for Stoltenberg Consulting. The plan had everything to do with creating a better way, providing opportunities for others, exceeding customers’ expectations and working to help people in HIT find balance in their lives. Today, Stoltenberg Consulting remains a leading independent IT consulting firm with 22 years solely serving healthcare providers.

Throughout each step in my professional path, I learned valuable insights to apply toward leading a company. They center on an empathetic, proactive, and forward-thinking approach to leadership— characteristics I could not have developed had it not been for my unconventional journey to healthcare entrepreneurship.

Thank you for allowing me to share my journey with you. I hope there are takeaways you find useful for pursuing your own leadership path. 

Sheri Stoltenberg is founder and CEO of Stoltenberg Consulting, a healthcare information technology (HIT) consulting firm. She has more than 35 years of professional HIT experience and serves as an active member of the advisory board of the Dicke College of Business Administration at Ohio Northern University.


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