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Women in Healthcare Leadership Spotlight: Annette Walker

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   November 05, 2020

The president of City of Hope Orange County shares her professional journey and how she has spent her career creating opportunities for people and communities.

California native Annette Walker has been interested in healthcare since her formative years. She currently serves as president of City of Hope Orange County, a cancer research and treatment center in Irvine, California.

"I was increasingly [drawn] to the disciplines of the science, because I love science, and that's how I entered healthcare originally as a clinical laboratory scientist. I ran a clinical lab for the first 10 years of my career," Walker tells HealthLeaders. "There was something about healthcare—and, I think it persists today—that this is important and meaningful work."

While Walker enjoyed working the clinical side, she was also attracted to leadership early on.

"I was fascinated by the clinical work and I loved the environment, but I quickly could see I had an intellectual and emotional attraction to helping organize the way things got done. I could look at a situation and say, 'I think we could do better if we did it this way.' She then decided to go into management.

Walker has over 40 years' experience working in the healthcare sector. In the past, she served as president of strategy at Providence St. Joseph Health and served as interim president and CEO of St. Joseph Health before St. Joseph Health and Providence Health and Services merged.

Walker holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Master's in Health Care Administration from the University of Minnesota.

Annette Walker, president, City of Hope Orange County (Photo courtesy of City of Hope Orange County)

PROFESSIONAL TURNING POINTS

Before she worked in the C-suite, Walker was working in upper management where she came to a turning point in her career.

"I was working for an organization where we ran on rough times several years in a row, and I ended up having to lay off people who had done nothing but do a great job. And I remember an individual [named] Francisco and he had been a lab scientist, just like me, from Cuba, where he immigrated to the United States. But he didn't have a license, so he had to work as a phlebotomist," Walker says. "Here I was laying him off when he was supporting his family. … I was so upset because I thought it was management malpractice."

This experience changed the trajectory of Walker's professional journey. "Something clicked in my head that I would then spend my career trying to build things that created opportunities for people and for communities, and I moved into strategy." she says. "Everything has faithfully been in that direction since that point. I've had a lot of different job titles since then, but they've all given me the ability to do that."

Another turning point in Walker's career was when one of her sponsors made a generous deal with her. "I knew at the time that I wanted to be an executive. I needed to go back and get my master's, but I had four little kids at home and I couldn't afford it. He made a deal with me that if I stayed, he'd pay for my degree," Walker says. "Think of the impact that had on my career. … It was such a generous thing to do that it made all the difference for me."

Walker's sponsors and mentors helped her build confidence and created opportunities for her to succeed. "Those are the kind of sponsors I was fortunate enough to have, people who were that generous in either their guidance, or intangible things like assisting to getting a degree. And that changed my career. … All of us can be good sponsors and we've got to pay it forward."

LEADING TO INFLUENCE

Walker describes her favorite things about being a leader.

"It's being able to see that what you did matters; that it has tangible results and tangible benefits," Walker says. "I think my favorite thing is knowing I have influence and seeing how I can use that influence for good outcomes whether it be for people, or services, or entities."

Walker's leadership style is about stewardship.

"When you take on a responsibility, you are accepting stewardship, or responsibility, for the mission of that organization, for the people of that organization, and for the community that is to benefit from what that organization does. … A great leader stewards the organization and leaves it better than when they received it when they leave it," Walker says.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

One of Walker's biggest obstacles in her professional life was the way she was treated for being a working mother. She was denied her first professional job because she was pregnant.

"People said it too often, 'Oh, I can't believe you could do this job with all those kids.' At one point it's a compliment, and another point is if I were a man, you would be saying, "Oh my gosh, he has four children, isn't he stable? We should probably give him more money." Instead, for me, they question whether or not I can do it," Walker says. "And then I went on to have two more children, so I have six altogether. Almost every one of these questions came up and I was successful of burning through it."

And that coincides with Walker's career advice. "Wherever you want to end up, you need to see your career is more like an iceberg," she says. At first glance, a career journey can look perfect, but if you look deeper there are obstacles that have been overcome.

"If you look down to the waterline of the iceberg, you would see the hard work, you would see the extra hours, you would see the discouragements, you would see the opportunities I wanted that I didn't get, you would see overcoming adversity. Nothing substitutes for hard work and talent. You can't skate your way to the top. You've got to understand that what you see in people's careers is only above the waterline, that you have to understand below the waterline," Walker says. "And I'm not saying that as a way of discouragement. I'm actually saying when things get rough, don't give up. … Everybody has to work through adversity, and it makes you better and it makes you stronger and more creative."

CREATING A DIFFERENCE FOR THE FUTURE

Walker's professional journey eventually led her to lead City of Hope Orange County, where she's lived for the past 40 years.  

City of Hope opened its first Orange County location in Newport Beach, California, in January of this year.

"Orange County is actually a very close-knit community, and since we raised all our kids here and have lived from North County to South County, we have great appreciation of it. The opportunity to bring City of Hope to Orange County is something that's important," Walker says. "This is a service that this community needs. Orange County has a very robust health system, but it doesn't have a lot of specialty cancer care."

In June 2019, City of Hope announced a $1 billion investment to build a new comprehensive cancer campus at FivePoint Gateway in Irvine, which is slated to open in 2021. The campus is expected to include an outpatient facility, clinical research center, integrated cancer preventative center, and a specialty hospital focusing on treatment and curing cancer.

"We purchased 11 acres and we're building an outpatient cancer center as well as a hospital in Orange County, which this community is welcoming with open arms. It's really been a wonderful experience so far, and I can just see it's going to get better and better until it's here and on the ground and we're serving the people in Orange County."

In this new monthly segment, HealthLeaders features women healthcare leaders who share their career experiences, accomplishments, and leadership styles.

“A great leader stewards the organization and leaves it better than when they received it when they leave it.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: IRVINE, CALIFORNIA - 25 APRIL 2020: Future City of Hope Medical center building at at FivePoint Gateway. / Editorial credit: LunaseeStudios / Shutterstock.com


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