Trio of Women Lead Mercy Hospitals

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Though they’ve each taken different paths to reach the positions they now hold, the women who lead Mercy Health-Youngstown’s hospitals have found camaraderie with each other, sharing their expertise, experiences and ideas.

In a field where most of the executives and high-level leaders are men, Genie Aubel at St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital, Kathy Cook at St. Joseph Warren Hospital and Kathy Harley at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital have all risen through the ranks to become presidents of their respective institutions.

Two of the three, Harley and Cook, rose through the ranks as nurses, while Aubel worked her way up on the administrative side of the medical field.

Harley’s first step into a leadership role came when she was looking to move from an inpatient surgery nurse at what was then Trumbull Memorial Hospital to the outpatient side of the field. Her director, however, discouraged her from applying for an open position.

“I applied for the surgery center manager job so she could see me in a different light. After I interviewed, they said they wanted me for manager of the acute care hospital, which I was truly blindsided by,” she says. “It’s not what I was going for. I just didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one role.”

Eventually, she rose through the ranks at Trumbull Memorial before moving on to administrative roles at East Liverpool City Hospital and Heritage Valley Health System in western Pennsylvania. She was named president of St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital 2½ years ago.

For Cook, the opportunity to be a leader at Mercy Health came after the 1985 tornado that struck Trumbull County. As a nurse in St. Elizabeth’s intensive care unit, she worked a 16-hour shift, helping to take care of those injured by the F5 tornado, the strongest recorded anywhere in the world that year. When her shift ended, one of the hospital leaders told her there was an opening as an assistant nurse manager and that she should apply.

“That’s where it started for me. It was never a thought that I’d one day be a hospital president, but I had great mentors, including Genie and our CEOs,” said Cook, who was named president of St. Joseph Warren Hospital in 2013. “There have been wonderful opportunities at all three of our hospitals, as well as outpatient care.”

As for Aubel, her experience after an administrative residency and fellowship at Mercy Health-Youngstown led to other positions throughout the system, starting as administrative director of medical affairs. Eventually, she was named to vice president roles – leading the ambulatory services and the home, hospice and durable medical equipment divisions – before being named as the first president of St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital as work on the project began.

“When I got the Boardman position, it was a grassy field. This is my baby,” she says. “There was a team involved and we got to design it, do the community assessment on what needs were there and what community residents wanted from a hospital.”

Although each runs their own hospital, the trio has found their skill sets complementary and often lean on one another when working on something they aren’t familiar with.

“We work collaboratively as a team. It’s nice knowing we have each other to bounce things off of. We’re a cohesive team. If there are more clinical things, I lean on them,” Aubel says.

Adds Harley, who is the newest of the Mercy Health-Youngstown hospital presidents, “As I’m trying to look at new processes or understand operations, I can ask them their history and what they did before. I can pick up the phone or text anytime there’s a question. You don’t want to blow something up when there’s a good reason it was like that.”

And in a changing health-care field, that shared knowledge is more important than ever. With more people seeking outpatient care, Aubel, Cook and Harley are seeing the role of their institutions shift. Soon after St. Elizabeth Boardman Hospital opened, work started on an adjacent building to house ambulatory services. In September, the Medical Office Building will begin offering outpatient medical and oncological infusion care, Aubel says, with the next addition after that being maternal and fetal care.

“It all stems from what we’re doing in the hospital and expanding that outward, making it easier for people to access,” she says. “In the 30-plus years I’ve been here, Mercy Health has been very good about being dynamic. This organization, from the first day I stepped in, has continued to grow and change with the needs of the community.”

At St. Joseph Warren Hospital, Cook says as outpatient volume increases, so does the hospital’s inpatient work. That’s by design, she says.

“The more outpatient services we provide, that serves as a feeder to our inpatient work,” she explains. “In order to sustain our viability in this health-care world, outpatient is where we need to see growth.”

While not unheard of, it’s uncommon to see the top of an organizational ladder have this many women. According to health-care industry analysis and advocacy firm Advisory Board, women account for 83% of frontline staff, 76% of frontline leaders and 65% of directors. But at the executive level, just 43% of that group is women.

Having three women in a single market leading the area’s largest hospitals bucks the national trend.

“I think it’s a great role model for young women in the Valley, whether they want to get into health care or some other field,” Aubel says. “When I came into this job, I was hired by the CEO who was not only a woman but also a nun. I’ve been blessed to always have strong female leaders, especially with [the Sisters of the Humility of Mary].”

And all three say that mentorship and experiences in a field that’s often led by men have guided how they lead their hospitals.

“You have to establish your credibility and maintain that. That lends itself to respect. You have to have a strong backbone to stand up for what’s right. My focus has been on patient care and staff,” Cook says. “When others see that’s what I’m standing for and that I know what I’m doing, that brings with it the respect that comes with the position. You have to earn that. I’ve gone toe to toe at times – it’s part of the job – and if I couldn’t, I don’t think I’d be in this role.”

Adds Harley: “I don’t wake up every day and say, ‘Gee, I think I’m going to be confrontational today.’ But some days you have to be confrontational. Some days you have to because it’s the right thing to do.”

And for young women who are early in their careers – or maybe still thinking about what they want to do in life – Aubel has a motto that she hopes can provide some guidance.

“You get one crack at life. Dream big,” she says. “What is it you want to be and how do you want to give back? Set your sights high. Put a plan together, know that it takes time and take one step at a time.”

Pictured: Genie Aubel, Kathy Cook and Kathy Harley.