In Conversation: A Women’s History Month Dialogue with the Women Leaders of Sage Growth Partners
All March long, Sage Growth Partners has been celebrating the women leaders who help advance the healthcare industry landscape with their strategic thinking, collaborative spirit, and iterative approaches to leadership.
In recognition of Women’s History Month and all the progress it represents, we spoke with three of our very own female leaders from across the organization who help make Sage the unique place it is today:
- Stephanie Kovalick, Partner and Chief Strategy Officer
- Aubrey Westgate, VP of Account Services
- Jeanne Ross, Senior Engagement Manager
We asked them to reflect on their experience navigating and advancing within the industry. The following are excerpts from these conversations, lightly edited for clarity.
Q: In what ways do you feel like being a woman has impacted – or shaped – your career trajectory in any way?
Stephanie Kovalick (SK): “To be honest, for a long time, I don’t think I noticed big differences between being “male” or “female” in the workplace. Perhaps I do so more in retrospect. For instance, in my jobs early on, I felt like I worked with a lot more women as peers than I did men. I might even have said at the time that the Fortune 100 healthcare organization felt more female dominated than male dominated.
But then, as I began to reach the upper layers of management, the voices in the room shifted more noticeably towards male. So, when I look back on it, there was a glass ceiling after all. I just never felt like I was bumping up against it. I wonder sometimes if I had realized that, would I have advanced in my career sooner than I did?”
Jeanne Ross (JR): “I think it’s very hard to say, but personally, I think it circles back to my values. It’s all part of who I am. For instance, I tend to take on a lot. I’m a doer, and I’m competitive by nature. But, I think I’ve got that caring component to who I am too. I’m not sure if that’s how being a woman has shaped my career, but there are certain qualities I believe have helped advance it. I’m a good listener, for instance, and this is associated with being female. I feel like women tend to be perfectionistic. I know I am. I don’t know that men are always, though; they’re often like ‘good enough is good enough.’ This all carries over into the business environment and aids me in my qualitative discussions and in informing our clients’ strategic directions.”
Q: Do you think it’s harder for women to find a voice in the workplace?
SK: “I can’t say I’ve noticed that specifically. For me, it’s that I’ve always loved my job. I always loved what I was doing. If you love what you’re doing, you’re going to get it done. And you’re going to get it done well.
“Relative to my voice? I recall a time early in my career when I had just become a director. I was attending a management retreat and during one heated conversation, one of the VPs—also a woman, by the way—said: ‘I want to hear what Stephanie has to say. She doesn’t speak often, but when she does, it’s worth listening to.’ That was a pivotal point for me.”
Aubrey Westgate (AW): “I think I have a nuanced perspective not just as a woman, but as an introvert. I do know that my voice is something I need to assert in order to progress, in order to earn respect and trust. As I’ve grown more experienced and comfortable in my career, I’ve become better at speaking up and being a louder voice, but it’s still something that I struggle with and I think I always will. And then there’s always that creeping doubt after I speak up a little more strongly. Was that appropriate? Was it too loud? I think a lot of women and introverts struggle with that. I do try to be consciously aware of others who might be struggling with this balance, and to try to open up space for their input if I can sense that they might be holding back.”
JR: “I do see this more external than when I look internally at the places I’ve worked. Healthcare C-Suite roles are often male dominated, but I think it may be less so today. There are many examples of places where women have taken this challenge on; take a look at [our client] ProgenyHealth, for example. I do feel like women are looked at as having a valuable perspective, and as being valuable contributors. In my work, when I am tasked with interviewing market leaders, I look for women first. Maybe it’s a reflection of an unspoken feeling that I try to give a voice to people who aren’t typically heard.”
Q: Do you feel like it’s more difficult for working women than men to find balance between personal life and career?
JR: “By the very fact of being a woman, for instance, there are hard choices to make when it comes to advancing your career. I can remember years and years ago when I first started working as a cognitive therapist, I worked with a neuropsychologist who had just had a baby. She was working full-time; really, she was kind of doing it all. I remember her saying: ‘You know, at the end of the day, ultimately this child is my responsibility, because my husband just doesn’t think about the details and proceeds with his own agenda. As a single person, I didn’t really appreciate it in the same way I do now. But ultimately, I am the one who worries about everything.”
AW: I do think it’s different for women who have children because, and not to speak for all of us, but there’s this pervasive feeling of “mom guilt” that I think many working moms face. I know it’s not rational, but it’s not easy to let go of. Working moms also carry a lot of the mental load: the list making in our heads, the packing of lunches, the dentist appointments, the after-school activity schedules. I have the most helpful husband I could ever ask for, but still, he doesn’t carry it the same way that I do. It’s just different and it makes finding balance harder.”
SK: “I’ve always loved my work and my family, so I’ve created working situations for myself where I can have both. I’ve been working from home for a long time, so I could always have a flexible calendar. I could go be a lunch mom at school and take an hour, or even two hours and go on a field trip. I do think that families today are very different than back when I was a kid. There is much more distribution of power and responsibility across the family. If I were coming up decades ago, I don’t know if I ever could have become the Chief Officer of anything. Those women who did choose career over their family, that’s an admirable, personal choice, but I wouldn’t want to have to make the sacrifices either way.”
Q: Male or female, who has had a marked influence on your career?
AW: “This is something that I wasn’t expecting, but which I feel so lucky to have found: deep friendships through work. Some of my best mentors are my current and former colleagues (both male and female) who have helped me navigate my career in so many ways. I’ve also found deep connections with many of my female clients. There is an honesty and a transparency that we can share with one another, based on this shared experience of being female within this industry. I love seeing them grow, watching them proactively work to champion their teams, and prioritize the work-life balance of their teams. I see them trying to navigate being moms and pursuing successful careers. In this way, we can be such a support network for each other. We can honestly say to each other: ‘How are you doing?’ And we’re very honest; it’s very real and refreshing.”
SK: “I have always been pretty self-motivated and self-mentored, but I have had some fantastic inspiration through the generations. I come from a line of strong women. One of my grandmothers single handedly brought her kids from Latvia to the United States at the end of World War II, and was living in displaced person’s camps for a couple of years. The other grandmother raised four boys toward the end of the Great Depression. My mom worked for as long as I can remember and she was very successful. She didn’t have a college education and she worked at the same place as my dad, but she just progressed, she worked herself up the ladder. They just had to be strong and they were. It might be in my genes! And, early signs indicate my daughter is following suit—that makes me happy.”
JR: “Oh yes, I had a lot of [mentors], as luck would have it. I always talk about my mom first, because she studied math at Tufts at a time when that was not really a thing. Then she went on to work in the Department of Defense – with computers! Which also wasn’t typical. I say to her, ‘you know, you should never have left that job!’ She says: ‘Well, then there wouldn’t be a you, if I didn’t do that.’ While she always worked different jobs as we grew up, it was never that job; it struck me that it wasn’t so stark as ‘all or nothing,’ but more of a nuanced ‘dream job vs. any job.’ At least how it traditionally was. Then, later, when I was in graduate school, I worked for the Dean of the School of Engineering. She was a very strong leader, a true role model. She was fair, decisive, clear and supportive, all at the same time. I remember seeing her example and thinking she was a lot of the things that I would aspire to be one day.”
Q: Do you think remote work has any impact on culture?
SK: “I do one hundred percent think that Zoom has been an equalizing force. Maybe it’s just that we only see this one small part of a person, maybe it’s that we don’t have to think about how we shake hands or bump elbows. It’s definitely changing things for both young men and young women starting out, leveling the field.”
Q: Do you feel that being female influences your perspective as a leader?
SK: “I just think that I am who I am. I will say, women are naturally more nurturing than men. Not like it’s a competition, but it may just lend itself to different leadership styles. I consider myself a leader and a boss who is nurturing and helpful. I think that may be an innate part of being female.
“I like to encourage trying things. I would encourage anyone to realize that you just have to take risks and know that that risk is worth taking. It’s not always easy and not always comfortable, but you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to break that mold or that pattern of thinking and remember that your gender doesn’t define who you are. Just don’t think about it. Just be a person who knows she has a valuable perspective, who can contribute to society and nothing can stop you.”
JR: “I always say ‘give credit where credit is due’. I always try to mentor. I think it’s so important to help build people’s careers, and not just people already in the field, but you know, the college kids just starting out.
I’ll do a little shout-out now. Take Amy [Reisdorf] on our team, for instance, she is all about this. She is a really strong woman who is connected with a lot of women in business groups. She inspires me to want to give back and elevate the voices of women on our team and in the industry.”
Q: When you reflect back on your career, what is something that you wish you knew when you were just starting out?
AW: “I love this question. There are two things I wish I knew.
Firstly, when I was just starting out and interviewing for opportunities, I was so preoccupied with just getting the job. It was about: ‘I need to get this job; I want this job because it looks good on paper.’ I wish that younger me knew to step back and ask some important questions first. For instance: ‘Would I like working with this manager? With the team? Would they have a positive impact on my life?’ I will say, I’ve been very lucky in most situations. I’ve had wonderful bosses and wonderful teams. I would advise people just starting out in their careers to really think about the team you will be working with, because the right team will bring out the best in you and make even the hardest days easier.
Secondly, I wish I had more confidence at the beginning of my career. I was intimidated. I felt like there were all these people who were older and wiser, who had so much experience. I spent a lot of unnecessary time questioning my abilities. I feel like this is something a lot of women struggle with.”
SK: “While I don’t know if I know that answer for sure, a memory does come to mind. My very first job was as a marketing assistant, which as it turns out, was being his personal secretary. I had a little desk outside of his office and a little typewriter, too. He was very misogynistic, I recall. I just wish I had a slightly different perspective and that I didn’t put up with him or being in that position. I remember realizing after eight months that it was not at all worth it. Maybe it’s just listening to your instincts earlier, or not settling for something that doesn’t help you achieve your goals.”