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HOW I DID IT Allison Pitman Giles: Gaining Strength from Challenges
Published Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alyson Pitman Giles was 38 in 1992 when she landed her first job as a CEO, leading Lake Shore Hospital, a failing psychiatric hospital in Manchester. She had a job nobody wanted with a salary below what most mid-level managers earned at the time. Yet Giles, who started her career as an occupational therapist in 1977, saw it as an opportunity to gain career experience.

“What I would say to all women and men is the best way to get to be CEO is you take on more than you know how to do. Every time someone leaves, you offer to take  [on] their roles without any added salary and continually stretch what you know. That’s what I did over the years,” Giles says.

After one year at the helm of Lake Shore Hospital, Giles was tapped to become president and CEO of New London Hospital. Within another six years, she was named president and CEO of Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, which she led until January of 2012. As the head of Catholic Medical System, Giles oversaw a 330-bed acute care hospital with more than 2,000 employees, the New England Heart Institute and an ambulatory surgery center. During her tenure, she went from leading a hospital losing $6 million a year to one with an operating margin of over $3 million. She oversaw the split with Elliot Hospital, reestablished OB/GYN services—opening The Mom’s Place—and transformed the hospital into a high-tech medical center with the first DaVinci Robot and first 64-slice CAT scan machine in the state.

Her secrets to success are simple: Be passionate, be involved, be yourself, take risks, watch and learn from other leaders, listen, recognize when to speak and when to stay quiet, and don’t take things personally.


Under the Microscope

That last lesson is one Giles knows well after Catholic Medical Center’s very public battle over a proposed affiliation with Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the personal attacks she bore over her base salary—which was reported at $1.36 million. But she says that figure is deceiving as it included a one-time bonus and deferred compensation. Her actual salary was $553,626 and in line with other hospital CEOs in NH.

When her salary first appeared in the media in 2010, people began threatening her in the online comments section on The Union Leader’s website. She had to be escorted to her car for safety. While her family told her to ignore the comments about her in the paper, Giles couldn’t help but to steal away to read them. “How could you not read things like that?” she says.

Giles decided against trying to set the record straight about her actual salary and declined to say much publicly as she thought it would only fuel the controversy. “In this day and age, whether you make $500,000 or $1 million, it’s a lot more money than most people make. You can’t say it’s really only $500,000. Imagine the backlash of that?” Still, Giles says the outrage over her salary was heightened because she is a woman.

Last year, CMC came under intense scrutiny for its proposed affiliation with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Opponents feared it would no longer remain a Catholic institution and there were regular protests at the hospital. As the face of the hospital, Giles asked her board a few times whether she should resign, but the board said no. Finally, last November, Giles decided it was her time to go. “I didn’t want to be the lightning rod of the hospital,” she says. “ I loved CMC and the people there.” So she told her board, “I think you should have a Catholic leader. I’ve done everything I can think of doing for the organization.”

Giles doesn’t deny those battles hurt, but she says they do not define her career. Asked about her most challenging situation, she harkens back to the 1999 split with Elliot Hospital.

“The work days were endlessly long, and the work was contentious. Many of the community leaders blamed CMC for the break up. All of the senior management went to the Elliot and I was the only senior manager at CMC. It was one of the most difficult times and one of the proudest. The spirit of CMC came back and everyone there was willing to walk on hot coals to bring CMC back to a vibrant, proud, Catholic hospital,” Giles says.

This included handpicking a new management team, turning a $6 million loss into a positive operating margin in 18 months and reestablishing medical and surgical programs that had previously been cut.


Gender and Leadership

Her career trajectory has not been a smooth uphill climb, and she says those dips along the way made her a stronger leader. Prior to her term as CEO of CMC, Giles was hired at Catholic Medical Center in 1987 by a man who gave her stretch assignments and welcomed her to the management table as the first vice president for specialty services. The next year she was demoted out of management when her boss was replaced by another man who told Giles, she “would never be accepted as chief operating officer because it was men who ran a lot of ancillary services.”

Giles started looking for a new job and was hired three years later as CEO of New London Hospital. She says she does not believe what she experienced in the late 80s would happen in the current corporate landscape, as “it doesn’t matter your gender if you are able to get your job done. Once your staff recognizes that you are capable of getting them what they need to do their job well, you become genderless.”

Female leaders do face challenges men don’t. Giles struggled with infertility for six years starting when she was 25. By the time she had her first child at 31, she had spent six years climbing the corporate ladder. “I don’t know if I would have done that if I got pregnant right away,” says Giles, who has two children and two stepchildren, all now adults. “By the time I had kids I was hooked on working.” She was also hooked on motherhood. Giles was there in the morning, went to all of her daughter’s field hockey games (even coaching one team) and brought her kids to CMC events. She would return to work at 6:30 p.m., when the games and dinner ended.

When asked about her leadership style, she says she leads like a mother. “As a mother you want your children to have autonomy and you want to support and encourage them and you want to have a context in which they are living.” She says, “You can’t sit behind closed doors. You have to eat in the cafeteria, gown up and go in the operating room, and put on an apron and serve meals in the kitchen. It really improves your credibility. This might be more female. It’s what I’ve always encouraged people to do.”

Giles’ awards and honors fill nearly a page in her resume. Most recently, she was awarded the American College of Healthcare Executives Gold Medal last year, the highest honor for a hospital CEO. She is also one of only two women named Business Leader of the Year by this magazine during the competition’s 22-year history. Looking back over her career, Giles says her legacy at CMC is “bringing a hospital back from plans to close to a modern, vibrant, proud, high quality Catholic medical center” with “outstanding” staff. She is also proud of mentoring three women and one man at CMC who later became CEOs at hospitals around the country.

At 59, Giles’ is now in a transition. She concluded her role as a consultant at CMC in June, and is being recruited by hospitals from out of state. “I am too young to be retired and what I really love to do is lead an organization … I want to retire in New Hampshire, but I think it would be fun to do something in another part of the country. I have no grandchildren yet, but I will want to be back [in New Hampshire] then.”

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