Can skiing and mountain bike riding give you more confidence as a leader? That has certainly been the case for Professor Wendy Chapman, director of the new Centre for Digital Transformation of Health. She shares her secrets to leadership success and the lessons learned along the way.
Professor Wendy Chapman was feeling elated. An avid skier, she’d just carved up a particularly challenging mountain ski run at Alta Ski Resort in Utah, in the USA. She had been eyeing the steep slope for some time, and had finally built the courage to tackle it. Having reached the bottom safely, Prof Chapman realised it wasn’t just the mountain she had conquered.
“If I could go down that hill that was so terrifying to me a year ago and make it down without dying, then I could have a difficult conversation at work,” she said.
Pushing herself outside her comfort zone and triumphing has been a big contributor to Prof Chapman’s self-confidence both personally and professionally. She credits skiing and mountain biking as contributing to her success as a leader.
For someone who has chaired a university department and run leadership programs, it’s almost hard to believe that Prof Chapman has ever lacked confidence in her abilities. “A lot of time, we see leaders and they look so confident, like they have it all worked out,” she said. “But that’s often not the case, it’s how it looks from the outside.”
Having lived across the US, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, California, and Utah, Prof Chapman moved to Australia in 2019 as Director of the new Centre for Digital Transformation of Health and Associate Dean of Digital Health and Informatics at the University of Melbourne. She specialises in biomedical informatics, natural language processing, knowledge representation, and applying informatics to clinical care and research.
Like many women, Prof Chapman didn’t aspire to leadership roles; rather, other people saw her potential and encouraged her to step up. A self-professed opinionated person, she is not backward in coming forward with ideas for improvements in her profession and wanting to make them happen. Taking on a leadership role, where she’d have the influence to make changes and to make a difference, was appealing.
But first, she had to overcome self-doubt that she was too young or too inexperienced to take on a leadership role. Prof Chapman cites the well-known Hewlett-Packard study that found women only applied for a promotion if they had 100% of the skills required for the role, while men would apply if they had 60%.
“It wasn’t until I applied for the job of Chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Utah that I explicitly went after a leadership position,” Prof Chapman said. “It was hard for me to make that decision. I felt like it was too early, that people would say ‘who is she to apply for that job?’.
Her thinking was tipped by the realisation that no women had applied to be chair. So she set aside her concerns to ensure there was a woman on the roster.
Learning to sell your skills
The decision to apply didn’t make it any easier to pitch herself as a contender. Her mentor told her to throw away the first draft of her application letter. “It ended with something like: ‘I don’t know if I’m qualified for this role, but I’ll give it my all’,” she laughs.
On completing the final draft of her letter, Prof Chapman realised that, in the process of composing it, she had convinced herself that she was capable of doing the job. Clearly she convinced the right people, too, as she was ultimately the successful candidate.
If you’re worried you’re under qualified for a role, write an application letter in defence of yourself for the position. Argue for yourself and convince yourself first. Then seek feedback from other people about how you are pitching yourself for the role. They may have insights into your skills that you can incorporate.
Coaching for leadership
When Prof Chapman stepped into her new role, the chair of paediatrics recommended she enlist a leadership coach. It was advice that she accepted and has benefitted from ever since.
“She was fabulous,” Prof Chapman said of her coach, who helped her prepare for difficult conversations, both up and down the line, assisted with strategy and was a sounding board for barriers she encountered within her work.
“She’d help me reframe an idea, asked me ‘who do you need to talk to get that done, how do you need to tell that story to make it resonate better, and who do you need to bring in to the team to make sure that happens’,” she said.
Having benefited from such coaching, Prof Chapman wanted other women in the industry to have similar such opportunities. She established the first Women in AMIA (American Medical Informatics Association) leadership program, with 24 women participating over a 12 month period, including one-on-one coaching and peer group projects. The program helped the participants build their leadership skills and confidence.
The program was so successful that other organisations are seeking to emulate it, including the Australasian Institute for Digital Health.
Defining leadership skills
Asked to identify what skill set women leaders need, Prof Chapman said it was less about a list of skills, and more about “understanding what your strengths are, and using those to become that kind of leader”.
“Leadership is not: ‘I have everything under control, trust me’,” she said. “It’s leveraging your strengths to bring people together.”
She also believes that women should embrace the traits they bring to the table as leaders.
“A lot of the qualities that are considered female qualities are needed for leadership. Such as getting buy in from everyone”. She said it is okay to express uncertainty, and to bring many people to the table to seek multiple opinions. “Finding how to be decisive and clear, but at the same time inclusive and broad thinking, to me, that’s the balance of really good leadership.”
The work-family juggle
As a graduate student, Prof Chapman had a young family and worked from home, coming into work when required and nursing her baby in the meetings. As the only woman in a room full of men, she chose not to ask their permission.
“I just figured they would be okay with it,” she says. “I’m a working mum and my husband and I are trying to navigate our careers and we have three kids. Sometimes I have to bring a kid to a meeting and that’s just how it is.”
As the children grew older and took on more after-school activities, it became increasingly difficult juggling work and family. “It wasn’t just dropping them off at daycare, they had music lessons, soccer, gymnastics … it was so time consuming and they had to be in all these different places.”
Realising something had to give, Prof Chapman and her husband decided to prioritise her career, with her husband switching to part-time work so he could take on any family-related tasks that required leaving work early.
“Is it always the woman’s career that has to give? You need to be able to have that conversation with your partner, figuring out together how to go down that path,” she said. She acknowledges the sacrifices her husband has made to support her career and the family.
The Midas touch
Prof Chapman recalls wanting to attend an eight week internship in Washington DC when she had two young children and a baby and thinking that logistically, it would be impossible.
But at the time she was reading a book that challenged her thinking. “It had a chapter about thinking like you’re Midas. If you had all the gold in the world, what would you do, rather than just cutting off your choices? So I thought: okay, let’s say I could do the internship? How could I make it happen?”
After speaking with her husband and the facilitators, it was agreed she would attend the internship part-time, staying in Washington for a couple of nights before returning home.
“I brought one child with me, sometimes, and they stayed with me and they came to work with me during my internship,” she said.
“The people at the National Library of Medicine still remember my daughter. She got her finger stuck in the glass door and it was bleeding, and they helped her. It was a very interesting two months,” she laughs. “I’m so glad I did it.”
When faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable, don’t just give up. Use out-of-the-box thinking to consider how you can make it happen, and get input from your support network.
Back on the slopes
It’s been a year since Prof Chapman has seen her two oldest children, still in Utah, with COVID-19 and border closures making it unlikely that a family reunion will happen any time soon. Nor has the pandemic made it easy to drive the new Centre for Digital Transformation of Health, especially with Melbourne experiencing severe lockdowns.
But when she experiences self-doubt, Prof Chapman gets back on her bike with her dogs, setting herself new challenges. Whilst snow is scarce in Victoria, Australia, the bike trails still provide plenty of opportunities to test her mettle, along with the knowledge that she is capable of conquering whatever challenge she sets herself, whether it’s in the boardroom or on a mountain side.
Professor Wendy Chapman’s Key Leadership Lessons
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA