Willingness to Take Risks ‘Absolutely Integral to Success’

Ellen M. Zane, B.A. ‘73, vice chair of the GW Board of Trustees, spoke about her leadership experience during a George Talks Business event.

George Talks Business with Ellen Zane
School of Business Dean Anuj Mehrotra (left) speaks with Ellen M. Zane, B.A. ‘73, during a virtual George Talks Business event.
September 21, 2020

By Kristen Mitchell

When Ellen M. Zane, B.A. ‘73, became CEO of one of the country’s leading medical centers, she had no clinical background. To gain the trust of the physicians, nurses and other medical professionals she aspired to lead, she quickly learned the importance of knowing what you don’t know.

At Tufts Medical Center in Boston, she surrounded herself with a team of experienced physicians and experts and leaned on them for advice in order to take decisive action. These are traits every leader needs, said Ms. Zane, vice chair of the George Washington University Board of Trustees and chair of the board of the GW Medical Faculty Associates (MFA). 

“There are many, many attributes of leadership, but being willing to do hard things, being willing to take risks, and surrounding yourself with really excellent people who are smarter than you are, are I think absolutely integral to success,” she said.

Ms. Zane, who also serves as CEO Emeritus at the Tufts Medical Center, spoke about her experience as a business leader Wednesday during a virtual George Talks Business event. The discussion, hosted by the GW School of Business, was moderated by Dean Anuj Mehrotra.

Ms. Zane said that growing up, her father encouraged his daughters to take risks as they entered the workforce. Without career risks, “you can be really, really good at what you do, but you will never be great,” he told them. That ethos stuck in her mind like glue, she said. 

Effective leaders need to be willing to tell the truth—even when it’s bad news—and manage conflict, she said. They must be willing to hear different ideas, defend their message and take on challenging tasks. Being a leader is about more than the title and prestige, she said.

Humility is also an important trait for a business leader. One of the worst things a person can do is get cocky about their success, Ms. Zane said, because luck can change quickly. Even the most profitable companies can easily be overtaken in the marketplace if they do not innovate.

“No one can take anything for granted,” she said. “We all have to realize that we are only as good as our last smart idea that we executed on.”

As a leader in health care, Ms. Zane has been closely monitoring the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents for the medical enterprise. The public health crisis has brought existing inequities into focus and presents an opportunity to correct disparities moving forward. The pandemic also has popularized the use of telehealth as a means to connect with clinicians virtually and encouraged medical professionals to rethink aspects of in-person patient care.

The university has been closely involved in COVID-19 public health efforts. GW is one of about 90 sites in the United States participating in a clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, and university researchers developed a new COVID-19 diagnostic test that is used to monitor transmission within the university community. GW’s entire medical enterprise, including the Medical Faculty Associates, is working jointly on these broader efforts.

“The innovations, the way people have stepped up, is absolutely remarkable, and we should be very proud of our country,” she said.

The next George Talks Business event featuring Board Chair and President of Charles Schwab Foundation Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, M.B.A. '87, will be at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23.

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