Advice for future public health leaders: Build partnerships before crises occur

From left: program organizers included Elizabeth Casstevens, Xiao Yu, Tanvi Dandawate. Tiffany Lin, Stefanie Kraus, Megan McMenamin, and Ruth Flint.

May 2, 2016 – Making connections and building partnerships with other people and organizations is key to handling a public health crisis—and it’s particularly important to do so before the crisis hits. That was one of the leadership lessons that 115 students and alumnae heard at the 5th Annual student-alumnae Women in Leadership Conference on April 9, 2016 at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Organized by the Harvard Chan Women in Leadership student organization and sponsored by the Office for Alumni Affairs and Career Advancement, the conference’s theme wasBuilding Partnerships and Accelerating Change to Improve Lives.”

Julie Gerberding
Julie Gerberding

Keynote speaker Julie Gerberding, executive vice president of strategic communications, global public policy, and population health at Merck & Co., Inc., emphasized the vital role of “connectors”—people who connect different parts of a network or organization. As U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director from 2002–2009, she worked with such “connector” individuals in dealing with more than 40 emergency responses to public health crises, including anthrax scares, an outbreak of the SARS virus, and natural disasters.

“You want to make sure that you include the person in the center, the connector, because sometimes, you can’t bring all these people into one partnership,” Gerberding said. “If you have someone who’s connected to a bunch of other people, you essentially have the whole rest of the network in your partnership.” It’s crucial, she added, to establish relationships with such people before an emergency occurs. “It’s much better to exchange business cards when you’re in a dress rehearsal than when you’re in a crisis,” she said.

Gerberding’s talk was followed by a Q&A, panel sessions, and a workshop led by Harvard Chan faculty and alumni. Panelists included leaders in health care, business, and politics.

‘Leave behind more than you take’

In closing remarks, Dean-Designate Michelle Williams, Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health and chair of the Department of Epidemiology, shared leadership tips that she has learned over the past three decades.

“Decisions you make early in your career have vast potential to shape what comes later,” Williams said. “What you do now matters. Leadership isn’t something that arrives down the line once you’ve chalked up a certain number of experiences and accolades. It’s something that you live into. It’s a process, not an end point.”

She advised audience members to “leave behind more than you take,” to have a strong work ethic, and to be caring, kind, and warm to the most underprivileged of people. “Every one of you can show respect and courtesy. Leadership is rooted in such qualities. They are the soil that nurtures trust and collaboration—as essential to true leadership as a business plan,” Williams said.

Marge Dwyer

photos: Sarah Sholes