International Women’s Day: ‘There is nothing holding you back but your own fear’, says Surgery Director Penny Walcott, who gives candid interview on 41 years at MGH

International Women’s Day: ‘There is nothing holding you back but your own fear’, says Surgery Director Penny Walcott, who gives candid interview on 41 years at MGH

MAIN - Penny Walcott w Sarah Downey_4522Penny Walcott, Director of Surgery and Sarah Downey, President and CEO at MGH.

By: Sarah Downey, President and CEO

Women are rising up – 2017 marked an extraordinary year for women and men alike, speaking up and using their collective voices to influence and demand real social, economic, cultural and political changes.

With the rise of human equality movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s important to continue these conversations on gender parity and inclusivity in all domains, be it at home, in the community or in the workplace.

While women make up approximately 75 per cent of the health workforce, often representation at higher levels of health leadership is limited. Today is International Women’s Day, and I wanted to pause and celebrate the remarkable achievements of the strong female healthcare leaders we’re fortunate to have right here at MGH.

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Penny Walcott, Director of Surgery, to reflect on her impressive career at this Hospital. Here is our conversation on leadership, career challenges, her experiences here as a woman of colour, and why she’s proud of the Hospital she’s chosen to call home for 41 years.

Sarah: With your retirement, it’s a sad time for us, but a happy time for you. Can you paint a picture of your 41-year career journey?

Penny: It was never a well thought out, straight-lined plan like people think. I came up here as a young, sweet thing from the Islands wanting to be an interpreter. My forte was foreign languages and I applied to the University of Toronto. There were a number of strikes at the time and I was unsure about job prospects when my sister said, “You can always be a nurse.”

I went into Centennial College’s first cohort of nursing school. I used to take the tunnel from the Ellen McClain School of Nursing into the hospital. In 1977 when I graduated there were no nursing jobs but since I had worked as a patient care assistant in the pool, the manager knew me and gave me a part-time job to help with summer relief.

I have been afforded the opportunity to make mistakes, make friends and I had my child here. I became known, learned of processes, served on committees, and developed interests over my 41 years here. I could not have been more satisfied in terms of challenges and opportunities.

Sarah: You made the transition from nurse to manager. Why did you make the choice to leave bedside nursing?

Penny: I had worked in several areas: Medicine which was 2 Southwest at the time; Emergency which was the highlight of my nursing career and shaped me as a leader, and Special Care Nursery. But I always knew I wanted to continue with my degree. I still wondered about interpretation but ultimately I went for administrative studies. There were aspects of accountability, flow, controls, plus budgetary responsibilities that were quite foreign. I recall speaking to the Chief of Anesthesia at the time, Dr. Noel Samahin, and I told him what I wanted to do. He said “You know what… that might actually be a really good idea.” And I thought, “Okay, I’m going for it then.”   

It was difficult at first to come out among my colleagues as a leader, but I led from the beginning with transparency. You may not always like, or agree with what I have to do, but you can understand why I need to do it.

Sarah: I think that characterizes your style very well.  What is one of your proudest career moments?  

Penny: After Recovery, I opened the first swing unit; it was on A2 and operated much like the Medical Short Stay Unit runs today. Then, I managed Outpatient Urology for a while. One of my proudest achievements was being a part of the leadership team that brought the first hemodialysis program to the hospital.  Having it come to fruition felt great – I can look back years later and say “I actually did that.”

I was selected as the first program manager, which looks different from today. It was very lonely being the first one. There was nothing to pattern yourself on yet. You had to go into it yourself and understand the principles you had to lead by, the relationships that you wanted to develop and pull on your deepest instincts.

Sarah: What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Penny: My style is to know the people you work with and where they’ve come from.  When you have to make personnel changes, it’s someone’s life you’re impacting.  When I make these decisions, I have thought them through. I need to feel like I can stand up in front of that person and tell them that there was no other alternative. I have not targeted them or their job; this was something necessary for the survival of the organization. It’s the most challenging and painful part of the job. Then you have to continue on, build and reinforce what’s left.

Sarah: What does the future of surgery look like?

Penny: For Michael Garron, we’ve had to deal with being a small fish in a big pond over the past several years.  We’re focused on deep partnerships in Surgery which make us indispensable, but at the same time, we still have to do the full range of services to remain a general community hospital. This will become more and more challenging.

A model for this kind of work is seen in thoracic surgery. As a cohesive group, the team has come together to demonstrate strong relationships internally and externally; they set out ambitious and deliberate long-term plans; they have developed a broad range of specialties among the team but they share and cross-train each other with each contribution. It’s a very collegial atmosphere. We should continue to harness this collaborative approach across the organization.

Sarah: What factors do you attribute to your success?

Penny:  Forgiveness. As you go further into the organization, you have fewer people to bounce ideas off of.  You need to own up when something goes wrong.  There is no shame in making a mistake; there is shame in doing it twice.  The ability to think through an idea with someone is crucial. I have valued this with all the Vice Presidents I’ve had. You can talk to them without judgement and they challenge you to fix it.  I’ve felt this with the Surgical group too.

Sarah: Is there anyone in particular that has helped you in your career that you’re thinking about now as you approach retirement?

Penny: I’ve had a lot of people help me through the years. They may not have been formal mentors, but people who listen and acknowledge the road I was on was challenging. These are the times you grow and develop the most. I have family, friends and other community organizations I’m a part of that have helped me. Carmine Stumpo is turning out to be a pretty darn good vice president, too.

When I receive pushback on something, by virtue of the pushback black people have faced collectively in society, racial motivation is always in the back of everyone’s mind. I don’t want to attribute every point of opposition I face to racism because that makes me powerless. And I’m not powerless.

Sarah: What are some of your final thoughts to your colleagues?

Penny: This organization has been an extremely positive work environment. I have nothing but good things to say about the opportunities given to me. Every time I’ve succeeded, I’ve received adequate credit. I like the leanness of this organization, although there are days when it’s challenging. The leanness gives you autonomy and authority to think much more widely than your job description might. You need cohesiveness and sense of family to make sure everyone, every department survives, not just surgery.

And I want to send a special message to the people of colour at this organization. There is nothing holding you back if you are a person of colour at Michael Garron Hospital. In my experience, this Hospital has proven to be more than willing to support you in becoming the person you’re capable of becoming.

You should approach any challenge with the attitude of “let me see if I can do it with the help of the people around me.” Don’t let anyone hold you back because of their perceptions or anyone else’s experiences. There is nothing holding you back but your own fear.

Sarah: I want to personally thank Penny for her extraordinary leadership, invigorating the organization with compassion and honesty, and dedicating her career to our community. She has accomplished so much and leaves an exceptional legacy behind. You will be missed, Penny!

Learn more about International Women’s Day, here.