Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. Meet Helen Irving, President and CEO at LiveOnNY.
I met Helen several years ago through Vistage, a business advisory organization. Her deadpan British wit and deep compassion for people make her uniquely qualified for one of the most demanding jobs in the world – leading a team of healthcare professionals who are responsible for the organ donation program in New York City. LiveOnNY is a nonprofit organization committed to helping New York live on through organ and tissue donation and to caring for the families touched by donation. Read about Helen’s career journey — from nurse to chief executive officer.
Q: When did you realize you were doing your life’s work?
A: Growing up in England, my family always told me I was going to be a nurse. I left home at 18, didn’t go to college, got myself job, ended up getting married really young and then I went to nursing school. I kind of did everything backwards and I think that’s been the story of my life. As a nursing student, you were supposed to be young and single and live in a dorm. I was a married woman in the UK in the 80s, but that was really not the way most students went through nursing school.
When I graduated, I remember caring for a couple of patients. One was someone waiting for a heart. One night we got the call that there was a heart for him and that we had to get him ready to transfer him to the hospital where the transplants were done. We were so excited, getting him ready and calling his family. But when we took his vitals, we saw that he had a fever. He had an infection, and as a result, we had to deny the heart transplant. He never made it.
About a year after that, I was working in different critical care unit and we had a trauma victim come in. Clearly he had suffered significant injuries and he was brain dead. So we asked his family if they would consider donating his organs. Much to our shock, the family said “no.” Quite honestly, I didn’t understand it because it’s something I would’ve done in a heartbeat.
As my career moved on I never forgot those two patients. It wasn’t until I came to New York and started working here that I saw an ad in a newspaper asking for a nurse with a bachelor’s degree and transplant experience. At the time, I had “none of the above,” but I applied and next thing I knew I talked myself into a job and that started what is now a 25-year career in transplantation and organ donations.
Q: You mentioned that most of your life has been done backwards. How did you catch up to have all of the education and experience that you have now?
A: When I was first hired in New York, they gave me a critical care exam and I failed it! All of the acronyms are different from the UK to the US and I couldn’t understand what the questions were. So, I went back to school to become a critical care registered nurse. Then I took my certified Procurement Transplant Coordinator exam and then my clinical transplant exams and passed those. Then I thought, I really need to go back to school and do my bachelor’s. I ended up going back to school for business for six and a half years every weekend. I earned my bachelor’s followed by my master’s in health and systems management. That was when I transitioned from the bedside over to administration. At that point, philosophically, I felt that if you take great care of your staff, your staff will take great care of our patients. I wanted to take care of the staff and make sure they had everything they needed to do a great job and that was where my love was. That was the reason I went into the business side — so I could use my knowledge to develop programs and help people get the education they needed to be a better bedside nurse.
Q: When you made that transition, from the bedside to administration, did you miss the contact with patients?
A: No, I didn’t miss it at all because whenever I need to get grounded, I can take myself off and go sit and talk to a patient. As an administrator, you handle problems and complaints. You can start to question why you’re there. So, I go talk with the patients. An hour with a four-year-old patient post-liver transplant is all I need to know that we’re doing good work.
Q: When you think of what you’ve accomplished as a health administrator, what are you most proud of?
A: I’m proudest of the team at LiveOnNY. I’m proud of the fact that when my team is out doing what they need to be doing that they are honoring and respecting someone’s wishes right until the end.
Q: What’s the one word that would best describe you?
A: Tenacious. I’m known for being a thinker and I’m not the loudest in the room ever, but I’m the one who will listen the most. Once I’m set on a path that is what the tenacity comes in.
Q: What’s the one daily practice that you do that energizes you the most?
A: I always have that 10 or 15 minutes in the morning that’s just for me. It’s that cup of coffee, listening to the news time or looking through emails. I love to look out the window at the world and the weather and see the trees move or hear a bird. That 10 or 15 minutes is for me, crucial.
Q: Thinking about your role as a CEO, how would you say your ability as a communicator helped you to become an effective leader?
A: I’ve learned in the last eight years that how you show up to work and how you show up for yourself is very key to your leadership style. It’s old-fashioned to say, but you have to practice what you preach! I tell my team that working in this organization, the minute you accept a job here, you’ve lost the right to a bad day. All of our patients that we care for are having a far worse day than we are. The day-to-day minutia quite honestly goes away when you work here.
Q: Who is the most interesting influencer for you right now?
A: So I’m a child of the Margret Thatcher era, and I was a big Margret Thatcher fan growing up — not necessarily for her politics, but more because she was the first woman Prime Minister of the UK. She did a tremendous amount for the stature of women in England at that point in time.
Q: What motivates you?
A: It’s all from within. For me, it’s still that little girl who wanted to be a nurse. I went into nursing thinking that if I could help one person or one family then that would be success. I didn’t realize that I would be helping hundreds of people over the course of my career. What motivates me is being able to use my knowledge to help anyone who needs it in terms of advice and guidance. I think amongst friends I’m always the one people call when they need help with the healthcare system. What motivates me now is my ability to give back. I think I’ve had a tremendous career that’s not over, but I want to be able to continue to give back in a meaningful way.
Q: You obviously value your team. How would you advise other CEOs to uplift and encourage their own teams?
A: Take the time in the day to sit yourself down somewhere within your organization and talk. Just watch, listen, observe. As nurses we’re really good at observing body language. We can sense pretty quickly who’s happy and who’s unhappy, but take the time everyday that you’re at work to walk the floors. Just walk and engage with people about their day and their weekend. Just sit down and ask what they’ve been working on, and how things are going for them that day. Be present. Those are the type of things that make a difference when they know you are giving them the time to talk to you on a different level. They aren’t showing up in your office with a complaint. You can just ask how they’re doing. As a leader your job is to help your team succeed.