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Women in Healthcare Leadership Spotlight: Johnese Spisso

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   January 07, 2021

The UCLA Hospital System CEO shares her journey from nurse to health system CEO, and how she strives to be an "inclusive, collaborative leader."

Before climbing her way up the C-suite ladder, Johnese Spisso, RN, MPA started her more than 30 yearslong healthcare journey as a registered nurse specializing in critical care, emergency care, and trauma. From there, her career path brought her through the C-suite of several academic health systems.

"[Over] the years, I took on progressive management responsibilities [and] went from being a staff nurse, to eventually a charge nurse, to a unit nurse manager, to an assistant director of nursing, to a director of nursing, then to a chief nursing officer, a chief operating officer, and [to a] CEO role," Spisso told HealthLeaders.

She currently serves as president of UCLA Health, CEO of UCLA Hospital System, and associate vice chancellor of UCLA Health Sciences. She assumed these roles in 2016, after serving in various C-suite positions for UW Medicine in Seattle.

During her tenure at UW Medicine, an academic healthcare system with over 300 care clinics across Washington, Spisso was promoted through the ranks of the C-suite to eventually serve as chief health system officer and president of medical affairs for the University of Washington.

Spisso said that her nursing background has helped shape her understanding of healthcare leadership.

"Having a background as a nurse gave me expertise in patient care, not only for what nurses do, but since nurses are often the leaders of the team, understanding what everyone else on the healthcare team does to bring what's needed to serve patients and their families," Spisso said.

Each step on her career path may have not been planned, but they helped bring her to the top.

"Every role that I've had, I've been able to learn more and master that before moving on to the next role,” she said. “It's not something that I planned, there were just opportunities that were available. And I was fortunate to be asked to apply and, following national searches, being selected for those positions."

Mentorship and strong role models

In recounting the mentors and role models she has had throughout her career, Spisso cited her parents' work ethic and values.

"My mother was a teacher and one of the first women principals of the school district. I had strong female role models in successful leadership [roles]," Spisso said.

Spisso said she's also had great mentorship opportunities at "every position" she's worked, including positions held at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of California Davis, UW Medicine, and UCLA.

"Working in teaching institutions, there's always the opportunity to learn. I like that type of environment, which [is] one that [inspires] learning and inclusiveness," Spisso said.

Spisso has also seen that inclusiveness when it comes to being a woman healthcare leader.

"This is another area that I've been fortunate in," Spisso said. “I've never felt that the fact of being a woman has limited my ability. I felt that I chose organizations wisely and looked for those that supported women in leadership. And as I was making career decisions about where to work, [I looked] at the makeup of the organization. The institutions that I've [worked] in promoted women in leadership."

She has also worked to lift others along the way, including women executives, whether through mentorship activities or creating an environment that breeds success for leaders.

Leading through collaboration and commitment

When it comes to recruiting, Spisso said that being inclusive is important and that she strives to be “a collaborative leader.”

"What I've learned is you often have to make sure that you are casting a wide net to get people to want to participate in the new positions … and make sure that everybody's been given those same opportunities for success," Spisso said. "I like to hear input from all levels of the organization. Having started my career at the bedside and working at every level, I, as an employee in those positions, always wanted to be able to have input.”

She continued: “I try to make sure we are paying attention to different opinions and different ideas, so that we can collectively come up with the best plans for the organization."

According to Spisso, she also has a strong focus on efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) among the workforce and in healthcare.

"As we're [turning out] more efforts into creating more equity within healthcare, and more diverse, inclusive organizations, it's about making everyone feel that they belong in the organization and have a voice," Spisso said. "Recently we've been continuing to educate our leaders about the importance of our commitment to DEI and making sure that leaders have the skill set they need to foster that type of environment."

"I'm excited about the work that we're doing right now on DEI. We have a renewed enthusiasm and commitment of our staff to address the issues and get on that road map to being an organization that is truly anti-racist and looks at providing the best opportunity for everyone," Spisso said. "It's been great to see the enthusiasm of our staff [address] the difficult issues and being part of our plans to improve."

Spisso said she's proud of the work the staff does "24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide exceptional patient care to patients, to support their family, to deliver on our mission of excellence, and deliver acts of kindness to patients and their families."

"It's so inspiring," Spisso said. "I feel so fortunate and privileged to be able to work with such a dedicated team of healthcare professionals and support staff."

Advice for future C-suite leaders

Spisso's advice for those in the workforce who want to make their way up into the C-suite is to "continue to do your best in the position that you're in” and “look for opportunities to take on more responsibilities."

"Senior leaders notice staff who are going the extra mile for the institution, and tend to seek them out for additional opportunities," Spisso said.

She also suggested making career aspirations known. "Continue to let others know of your interest on your career path and look for ways that the organization can help support you on that path."

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:04 a.m., January 7, 2021.

“As we're [turning out] more efforts into creating more equity within healthcare, and more diverse, inclusive organizations, it's about making everyone feel that they belong in the organization and have a voice.”

Melanie Blackman is a contributing editor for strategy, marketing, and human resources at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA. Photo Courtesy of UCLA Health


Johnese Spisso, RN, MPA has served in healthcare for over 35 years in various roles from nurse to health system CEO.

UCLA Health has a strong focus in diversity, equity, and inclusion among the workforce and in healthcare.

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