Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.
I am Naji, your host for this episode, joined today by Amy Kimball an Executive & Leadership Coach and former biomedical research CEO. Prior to launching her coaching business in 2022, Amy had been coaching professionals on the side for 15 years, while she held leadership roles in academic biomedical research. During her tenure as CEO of a midsized biomedical research institute, she led a turnaround to rebuild a culture of excellence, high performance, and people-centered service. Prior to that, she held research administrative leadership roles at large, Boston-based academic medical centers. Amy holds an Executive MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management and has completed Georgetown University’s Leadership Coaching program. She coaches CEOs and other leadership positions that feel “lonely at the top;” mentors and advises start-ups; and serves in peer coaching roles within the helping professions community.
Amy – so great to have you with me today!
Naji Gehchan: Can you share with us first your personal story and what’s in between the lines of your journey and the inspiring healthcare leaders you are today?
Amy Kimball: Yeah, so it is a bit of a story. I think there’s sort of two parallel paths to follow in this. So, um, the first path would be my pathway into biomedical research, and that actually goes back to, um, a thread that’s tied from growing up, which is growing up with undiagnosed A D H D and really struggling in school, um, having a very inconsistent experience.
And I poured my energy into persistence, grit, hard physical work. Um, instead of really finding a way to navigate the academic system that worked for me and I was actually not planning, I didn’t think that I was college material, so I wasn’t planning on pursuing a higher ed path. Um, but I was fortunate. I had a guidance counselor who invested deeply in me and basically made it his personal mission to get me into college.
And he did. So I went to, um, undergrad, just loving science and medicine and math, and wanted to pursue a pre-med track. But found out early on in my first semester during cell biology that I just couldn’t process the learning, um, in a way that made any sense to me. And I flunked out of that intro class.
Um, had a conversation with my advisor and basically it was made very clear to me, this is a four year track. You have to keep up and because you’ve already flunked the first class, there’s no way you can pursue this major. So I switched over to an English major. I struggled to stay in school. Honestly, I had a very low GPA initially until halfway through.
Yeah, again, just through sheer persistence and grit, keeping myself going halfway through my college experience, I got this sort of earth shattering, um, awareness of what A D H D really was about and got my diagnosis and treatment. Um, so I graduated with an English major. Which I really felt opened every door for me.
It was not restrictive. It was something where I could take communication skills and good research practices and really defending a thesis towards anything. And when I came out of college with, by the way, a, a pretty high GPA in the end, because of this turnaround that happened with my, my diagnosis and treatment, I was just eager to get in the workplace and get doing.
So I chose, I moved back home to the Boston area and I chose to look for just any general admin job in a hospital setting so I could be close to healthcare because I was still very passionate about it. And I found myself in a biomedical research setting within a, a teaching hospital. Um, I noticed early on that the labs were engaging in sort of, um, a very science centric only approach, and then there was this administrative sort of divide happening, the rules, the compliance, the, the black and white thinking, and I was in administration.
And I was really unsatisfied with that divide. I just didn’t understand why it had to be that way. So I took a, a deep interest in the science to try to understand what that world was like. And in the process of, of talking with folks and going to scientific talks, I learned a lot about the science that I wasn’t able to learn in that college setting.
And I started to really understand what was going on and have a deep appreciation for the work. Um, and so what I did was I basically said, look, I’m interested in everything. Give me anything you wanna give me. I’ll take it on, I’ll figure it out and I’ll try to make your life. And of course people loved that.
They jumped all over it. Um, I was given a lot. I became sort of the resident problem solver and my goal was always, how can I make science easier and less friction and more successful? Um, so I, I kind of quickly rose through the ranks within that organization and, and other organizations in town. And basically built a career on the basis of this creative problem solving.
And after a few years I, I was able to see a shift in perspective where it was moving from no longer me, the sole doer of problem solving, but really into investing in teams of people who also were interested in this problem solving and helping to lead that and cheerlead on behalf of the organization in leadership roles.
To get things done better and to. Deliver that customer-centric service to making research thrive. Um, in 2017, I became the c e o of a mid-sized organization, biomedical research organization, and through that investment in our people and in our processes, but really through their eyes. What’s the work you are doing?
What’s working? What’s not working? What would you like to see? How can we better serve our customers? We, as a team, were able to drive a very significant turnaround of an organization that wasn’t working well and that had some divides with its own customers. To an organization that helped the science thrive and really was able to advance things forward in a productive way, and also a culture that people love to be a part of where they felt valued and individually invested in.
So that’s the, the thread of biomedical research, but ending on that piece where people felt valued and invested in, there’s also this thread of my executive coaching. Which goes back about 15 years and started because people would just start approaching me in systems initially within my system. And talk to me about potential leadership development.
Um, what they were observing was something really common in systems, which is managers and leaders were getting promoted on the basis of skills and e. And like many systems, they just hadn’t been invested in in terms of their own leadership development or management development. And they didn’t know how to let go of the doing and the skills and that deeply embedded work.
And so it was frustrating for members of teams to, to live with that and feel like they couldn’t progress. So they would come to me. And the beauty of it is, you know, I think a lot of people think they want to trash talk the situation, but it wasn’t about negative talk about managers. It was about. What do you want for yourself and how can we help you get there?
And that’s coaching. So that work continued to expand on the side. Um, people just kept, kind of kept coming my way. And that work expanded beyond my organization into other organizations and higher levels of leadership. Um, and when I had completed the turnaround as C e O, I started to think to myself, you know, I’ve achieved my career goals faster than I thought.
What’s the thing in my life that really brings me the most fulfillment that I wanna invest in now? And the answer was such an obvious, it’s this executive coaching work, it’s human and people development. And, um, I took this bold risk of quitting my executive job last year and going full-time dedicated into this private practice that I started.
And I’ve absolutely loved the work completely. Thanks so
Naji Gehchan: much, Amy, for, for sharing, uh, part of your story and it’s, uh, incredible how you’re framing both of them. Uh, I’d love to start, you know, before going into your current company that you founded on your current practice, uh, you’ve been, uh, really in several leadership roles in academic and nonprofit, biomedical research organizations as you shared, uh, I would love your thoughts about leading nonprofits and.
Learnings along the way when you compare it to executives you coach in the profit
Amy Kimball: sector. Yeah, so this topic has a lot of misunderstanding surrounding it, and I’m glad you asked about it. So one thing is that people often feel that there’s a very big difference between for-profit and nonprofit work, and that can be true, but not in all cases, especially in biomedical research.
I found. Most people on the surface wouldn’t have known we were in the nonprofit sector. The only differences were, instead of shareholder value, we were focused on stakeholder value and reinvesting our profits in our programs so that we would continue to advance them. And the other thing is just simply how we derived our funding, which was a lot of federal grants and industry contracts.
Um, but day-to-day, You know, the practices are the same. And if you, especially if you’re a mission-driven leader in any sector, it’s all about thinking about the mission and perpetuating the mission’s advancement. So when I work with, and I typically do work with in my coaching people who are very oriented, I feel no difference.
And I’ve never, no one’s ever really cited a difference from me either. And, and I would really like to, People understand that there doesn’t have to be a difference, right? It’s especially in healthcare, like we’re all servant leaders and we’re all dedicated to terrific outcomes for the people we’re caring for.
Yeah, I, I’d
Naji Gehchan: say we all should be, you know, servant leaders and I think we, we’re trying, we’re trying to get there and I’m sure with your coaching, it’s something you’re focused on. So let, let’s go to the specific example that you gave about, uh, what the time when you were the C E O. Uh, and did a huge turnaround.
Uh, you talked about helping sign Thrive and the culture you created Drew and, and you rebuild this culture of excellence, high performance, and people centered. I’d love to know how you did this, because it’s usually with turnarounds, uh, it’s tough moments, tough decisions to be made, and then creating this culture.
Of people feeling safe and thriving. You used the word servant leadership. So I, I’d like to hear from you how you did that and how you’ve put all this together for its work.
Amy Kimball: Yeah, and it wasn’t easy and there were a lot of moments that were very, very lonely at the top. Um, which by the way does inspire my coaching work because, um, it’s a way to allow leaders to not be alone.
What happened was, so I came into an organization that, um, on the surface what I knew about it was that we were relying on business walking in the door and being handed to us. And I, I just, that didn’t sit well with me. I felt like no matter the circumstances or how needed we might be, we should be earning our business and we should be doing that through relationships and through our ability to serve our clients in a useful way that adds value in their life.
When I started to uncover what, what had gone on, I found more and more that just this culture had been created that represented sort of a div again, the divide in practice administration versus science. And I, I had been there and I thought, we can break these barriers down, but we have to all be in as an administrative team.
We have to all value that and care about that and want that. And it couldn’t be all but one of us. It had to be every one of us united in that mission and in that way of viewing things. So initially I started by engaging in working with the team in just talking and listen. Asking questions, asking them about their experience.
Um, why do you work here? Why do you like working here? Why don’t you like working here? Um, what’s most fulfilling in your work? What’s least fulfilling? What’s most frustrating? And we uncovered a lot of common themes between us around some of the things that, you know, that that really worked well and didn’t.
And we started to find over time. That a lot of our frustrations were the same, which is really interesting because people don’t talk about their frustrations. And I think that these subtle divides start to emerge around like, it’s your fault. No, it’s my fault. No, you don’t understand me. I don’t understand you.
How could you prioritize that? I’m prioritizing this, and it feels like they’re in competition. But when we started to openly. What’s frustrating to you? What would you like to see improved? There was more common ground than anyone realized, and then, you know, I think people would’ve ever believed. So the first moment of magic in this turnaround was when everyone, we did an exercise where we just simply listed out the things that were Bo, that were worrying us and shared it with the.
And, and we did it on individual post-it notes. And when the same theme was brought up, we would layer it on top of the Post-It and people got to see visually, whoa, there’s a lot of layering going on on this one theme. Wow, we’re actually sharing the same worries. It’s not about you versus me, it’s about us.
And then from there we started to invest in, from a bottom up perspective, what would you like to. To solve you. And I said, as leader of the organization, I said, you are closest to the work. You know it, what would you like to do to improve this situation? And that was very empowering because it had been a, an organization of these are the rules and people were very afraid to cross those lines.
So that, that energized the team around like, oh, great, I get to do something here. I get to have a say and a stake in this. And they really designed amazing solutions that, that worked for them, those the people like in the trenches doing this. Um, that we, we had to have the discipline to do in a very incremental way so that it could be sustainable.
Um, so a big, I would say that the majority of the transformation was culture. And when the cultural stuff started to come into place, the structural stuff quickly followed.
Naji Gehchan: I love this. You talked about listening, you ask questions, obviously, uh, a lot, and you listen to the answers. And it’s really about you’re bringing this idea of cowork and practically co building and let people who are operationalizing things.
Think about it and cowork and cobalt, the culture you want to create. This is, this is really great. Um, anything you would have done differently leading such a major organization? Uh, organizational change when you think of it? Oh,
Amy Kimball: I’m sure there’s a lot of things. Um, there were, you know, I, I guess I started the story by saying it was lonely at the top, and I always felt very supported by my team and by my board.
Um, they were just wonderful, wonderful colleagues, um, who were truly lifting me up in the process of lifting ourselves collectively up. But there were probably moments where I turned a little bit too inward and a little too isolationist because I felt like the world was on my shoulders alone. Um, and where I, where I could and would invest in the team.
There were these moments where I just thought, no, I can’t drag them into this. This is mine to resolve. And I just would say that’s kind of a red flag for our, our own thinking. If we think that we own a whole problem and its whole solution alone, that’s probably a trigger to start thinking how might that not be true?
And what else could we. That’s a great watch
Naji Gehchan: out. Uh, as you coach today, executives in different industries, I assume, what’s your number one capability you urge them to nurture or to develop
Amy Kimball: introspection? So it’s, a lot of people come to coaching thinking that it’s about skills building and concrete skills when it always ends up being.
Self-development looking deeper what’s going on below the surface. And it hearkens back to the earlier point about people love to, they find relief, I think, in complaining about their surroundings. And you know, my manager’s not fair to me, they’re not investing in me. But that doesn’t get anything done.
It doesn’t change circumstances. So how can we flip that into, well, what’s going on with. What do you notice in yourself whenever you get into these common patterns that make you feel really awful afterwards, what can you notice? What are the trends and how are you handling it now, and how might that be perceived by others?
And we explore all of that, and then we talk about, all right, well, what do you want for. And I think it just opens this world of, wow, I have a choice in this. You know, there’s actually some levers I can pull and things I can do differently, even though my circumstances aren’t great. That can influence outcomes in a way that’s much more values aligned for the person and also can create a new dynamic.
Naji Gehchan: It’s, can we double click on this because obviously there’s a lot. Coaches, I’ve been, you know, as, as a leader manager, obviously it’s one of your biggest job to coach people as you’ve done for several years before getting into fully your business, now being executive coaching ca, can you share a little bit more and help people understand what it, what is it about?
Because there is so many, like the coaching industry, I feel is kind of exploding. We’re seeing so many people starting to be coaches. I’d love, Kara, what is your take about coaching and how do you approach it, uh, with executive.
Amy Kimball: So I approach it similarly to what we talked about with the team at the beginning of any engagement is about me listening and learning.
So I like to get to know someone, hear about their background, hear about their story, and some of the things that have shaped them. And I think that serves a dual role of me gaining understanding about them, but also them releasing some understanding about themselves and connecting some of those dots around.
Oh yeah, this is something that really shaped and influenced the way I show up in life all the time, including work. And from there we start to talk mostly about, so in a session, someone will bring whatever’s going on in their work right now that’s frustrating them. And through some introspective questions that I’ll ask them, we’ll start to talk about, well, you know, I can understand how frustrating this situation is.
Um, what can you notice about. And so it really goes very quickly into that introspective place, and I, I believe that that’s the role of executive coaching. There are other forms of coaching that can be very skills development oriented, and there’s a great place for that. Um, but executive coaching, people who have risen to these levels have the skills they have.
They’re incredibly smart, incredibly driven, incredibly skilled skills, is not the problem. If there is a problem, it’s about have you been able to look deeper and, and by the way, the higher up you get, the less direct feedback you get from people around you. So have you been able to look deeper and think about and process what could be going on that you can do something about rather than just the external environment?
Naji Gehchan: I would give you now a word and I’d love a reaction, uh, that comes to mind. So the first one is,
Amy Kimball: So I think leadership is about an ability to make decisions under uncertainty that are for the collective good and the collective whole. So moving beyond yourself and what benefits you to, what benefits the whole system.
What about mentorship? I think mentorship has a really important place in this too. I think mentorship is more around being a direct sponsor for someone and serving as a role model. Um, and that’s where some of the life experiences and the shared approaches and exchange of ideas really comes in more directly through mentorship.
And that’s about enabling yourself to learn from other people’s experiences. And help shape what decisions they wanna make.
Naji Gehchan: What about lonely at the top? And you said it a couple of times.
Amy Kimball: Yeah. Um, I think lonely at the top is in inevitability in some ways. Um, there is a lot of weight on the shoulders of leaders and. There isn’t a lot of direct feedback. Um, there are a lot of resources and there are a lot of support structures, but there isn’t a lot of direct feedback, and I think loneliness at the top involves not having a, a real sounding board.
And I think that’s another role for executive coaching is just having someone to air some of these challenges that you really can’t bring the whole system into in a safe, confidential space. The reality is while you’re working through the ambiguity, there are moments in time where you just can’t bring the team into every single level of that ambiguity.
Once it’s ready in some way, I believe in sharing some of the uncertainty and being very honest about the way things are, including when they’re not good. But I do think there’s some working out that needs to happen, and that’s part of that loneliness at the top.
Naji Gehchan: And does this, uh, touch all the part of like, being supported?
There’s, you know, I, I had the pleasure to talk with several, you know, coaches, thinkers, and even executives who share, uh, you know, like, I, I don’t wanna use the word mental health, right? But it’s, it’s somehow the loneliness that you feel leaders. We don’t take care of ourselves enough. Sometimes we are really thinking about others organization.
To, to a point where unfortunately sometimes it’s a little bit too late until we realize we need to take care of ourselves. Is this something in the lonely at the top that you think of or you discuss with, with executives and leaders?
Amy Kimball: Yeah, that’s such a good way to put it, naji. It’s, it’s so true. Yes. It, that has been a universal quality that I think every one of my clients has felt and expressed, and as you said, we aren’t taking care of ourselves, so in many cases, I think it takes us a long time to even realize and be willing to admit to ourselves that it’s true.
Because I think that in our drive we have so much ambition and so much passion that we just put ourself and self-care and self-compassion, not even on the back burner, but not on the burners at all. Um, and I’ve noticed this correlation between. Highly driven people who have really risen to the top and a desire to please and a somewhat of a perfectionistic tendency that we often break down and challenge and talk about.
Um, even just exploring how has the path that’s led you here changed who you are today and how is who you are today? No longer needing to be anchored to the way you were, because that’s another point that a lot of people sort of have a hard time realizing, like, I’ve crossed the threshold that I’ve driven my energy towards all this time.
Now, what do I want for myself?
Naji Gehchan: The last word is spread love in organizations.
Amy Kimball: I think it’s really great what you’re doing with this. I, I couldn’t agree more that love needs to be spread in organizations. Um, it’s what it’s all about. You know, we, especially when we’re thinking of concrete skills, we could apply our concrete skills in just about any setting.
What makes us wanna stay with an organization, hopefully is the culture and part of that culture is. And is finding joy and mission and passion in what we do. And I, I hope that we can do more, finding that love and that more leaders can really lead with more heart, so that we can all just feel human in the place that we’re giving most of our energy too.
Naji Gehchan: I couldn’t agree more. Amy, any final word of wisdom for leaders around the world?
Amy Kimball: Oh, I love that you said leaders around the world because it really is a global community. Um, global is a small community in so many ways, and we’re so interconnected. Um, I just hope that we can keep working to break down these perceptions of competition and divide and just think about what are our common goals and how can we lift ourselves?
Naji Gehchan: Thank you so much for being with me today. Thank you.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to spread love and organization’s podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform
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