Deborah Gage Interview: What it Takes to Have a Fearless Approach

Chris LaVictoire Mahai Chris LaVictoire Mahai
President of Aveus, a division of Medecision

A couple of years ago at a national health care conference, I joined a small breakout group discussion and met Deborah Gage, CEO of Medecision, across the table. I don’t remember much about the discussion, but I know we parted, exchanging business cards, with (at least on my part) a clear desire to talk more and know each other better. Lucky for me and Aveus, Deb and her team at Medecision have been customers of ours since 2013, so I’ve had an up close opportunity to see her bold leadership in action.

With a health care and technology corporate and startup career behind her, Deb now leads the transformation of a technology company inside a very large corporate health services organization, inside an industry going through its own revolution. You could not find a more complex change challenge if you tried. That’s why I asked Deb to talk with me about her bold leadership approach. I’ve concluded “Fearless” may have her name attached to the definition. Here’s why:

Deb throws herself into situations and learns her way to positive outcomes.

How many of you have ever had anyone, let alone a venture guy, say to you, “I have a check sitting on my desk and it has your name on it. What do you want to do?” This happened to Deb in a past life and it is your first clue to Deb’s fearless approach to bold leadership.

Deb said, “Boy was I unprepared for that experience. We actually did pretty well and grew fast.” Clearly Deb is unafraid to define opportunities and pursue them, as she has done many times in her career.

Deb surrounds herself with people who understand her, push her and give her energy.

When Deb got to Medecision she loved that it was not venture backed, and she has since learned that transforming a business inside a large entity has its own set of challenges. “Innovation and agility are critical to our ability to navigate this shifting market, and sometimes a business our size feels like a Wolverine in a cage.” So, once again she is learning to navigate a different set of business requirements and expectations.

Through a series of startups and turnarounds, she met several of her current Medecision executive team members—executives who chose to move with her to this company. These are people willing to sign up for a big challenge and big vision. “You have to be self-aware and know who you trust to help you think. Years ago I did an exercise that required that I define my trusted network. It really made me really think about who I needed around me.” Bold leaders surround themselves with people who understand them, push them and give them energy. (For more information, check out this blog post, “What Makes a Great Leader? 5 Actions to Look For“)

Deb thinks beyond her own organization to the broader market opportunities that need addressing.

It is one thing trying to change, start or grow a business in a relatively certain market. It is another thing when you’re trying to drive organizational change at the same time all of your clients are in the midst of trying to change—and those clients need and expect your assistance.

“When you are a leader, your job is to be a visionary. This requires a whole new level of vision and decision making when you’re attempting to also lead a market and industry transformation.” Deb’s comment is a great view into how bold leaders think: beyond their own organization to the broader market opportunities that need addressing. No one person or entity is going to solve the healthcare changes that are upon us. Who will? Bold leaders who understand how to balance their own organization needs with those of their customers will.

Deb seeks out challenges and addresses them head on.

Medecision has been around for over 25 years. “If we were a startup we wouldn’t be carrying the baggage that has grown up over the years. The market is shifting and today many clients know they need something different, but not necessarily what. If my team marches in selling ‘care management,’ we miss the opportunity to help with the real question or the pain and the problem under the question.”

“Just yesterday in our management meeting we were talking about this very thing. Our clients look to everyone at Medecision to understand the industry transformation. We have to provide that knowledge at every level. Technology does not drive strategy. In the middle of this transforming market, if we haven’t done enough to anticipate the state of our client’s business model and strategy, we can end up with a clear contract, but no understanding and a frustrated client. The CEO expects us to help them align their business model with their technology investments up front.” This vignette, I’m guessing, is repeating itself every day in many corners of an industry in turmoil. The bold leader doesn’t hide from these challenges. They seek them out and address them head on.

Deb perseveres despite setbacks. 

Taking on the responsibility to drive change for your own organization, help customers with theirs, and influence the industry at the same time is a tall task. I asked Deb how she takes care of herself. “What I struggle with is to not get defensive and angry… it is a daily battle. Earlier I was having this discussion in with myself in the shower! I always try to step back and gain perspective. Put whatever the issue is in context and develop my personal go forward plan.”

You can probably tell that Deb doesn’t mince words. She is very direct. And as she told me, “I never feel guilty about my choices.” Bold leaders set a vision, make hard decisions, manage the consequences and move forward. You can take that to the bank.

Taking a fearless approach to bold leadership requires specific attributes. What else would you add to the list?

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