As a part of our interview series called “**Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Matthews.
Linda Matthews is the president of BioCare, a leading specialty distributor of life-saving therapies. Under her direction, BioCare expanded from a small regional organization and division of a blood transfusion nonprofit to a national leader which encompasses BioCareSD, CanyonCareRx and LogiCare3PL and competes with multi-billion dollar corporations. A trailblazer in the healthcare and pharmaceutical space, Linda transformed the company with a focus on saving lives and supporting patients’ unmet and urgent needs across bleeding disorders, autoimmune conditions, ALS and other rare diseases.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I have played sports my whole life and it is here where I learned my work ethic, determination, and desire to be successful at whatever I do. It taught me not to fail, to learn from setbacks and continue to move forward. I played both basketball and tennis in college for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As you may know, this school’s sports programs are very competitive, so it was a great honor. When I completed college, I played in the WPBL, the first Women’s Professional Basketball League. I played with some really talented and accomplished women and later we were all (93) inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame as trailblazers in the sport.
When I finished my basketball career, I went back to school to earn a master’s in business administration and another in Healthcare Administration and Policy. After graduation I took a consulting position in Washington, DC where I consulted in the plasma industry. Later, I helped lead the American Red Cross when they launched their plasma division and I have held progressively more responsibility in the industry until my current role at BioCare.
One story which probably best highlights my determination was the process and my acceptance into Emory University for my MBA.
When I decided to go to graduate school, I decided there was only one school I wanted and that was Emory University in Atlanta. It was the only school I applied to and it was the only one I wanted to attend. When I received my letter back from them, they said I was not accepted. I immediately called the Dean of Admissions and I said, “I’m sorry, it appears that you have made a mistake because I have a letter that says I wasn’t accepted and I’m sure that’s not right.” As the call progressed, I had her laughing and she invited me in for an interview. When I went to meet with her, I talked her into admitting me into Emory where I graduated with my MBA in 1992.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I grew up in a big family and my youngest sister battled cancer throughout our childhood. I spent a lot of time during my teens in children’s hospitals as she was undergoing treatment. I will never forget the care, compassion and love with which she and my whole family were treated. I truly believe there are many angels in those institutions overseeing the care and wellbeing of children and their families.
Early in my BioCare tenure, we had a chance to do some innovative consignment programs with some of the leading Children’s hospitals in the country (St. Jude’s, Children’s Hospital LA, Dallas Children’s, Boston Children’s, Phoenix Children’s, Rady Children’s in San Diego). We provided hemophilia products to their facilities to ensure patients could be treated immediately.
Hemophilia is one of the most expensive chronic diseases to treat and product is used episodically. With our program the hospitals were assured of having product when needed without having to carry inventories or risk expiration. They were billed only if product was used. We developed a wonderful relationship with CHA (Child Health Corporation of America) that became the core of who BioCare is and how we do business. They were the original customers who called us the “high touch people” and were so happy with our service, responsiveness and integrity that they went to their GPO (Premier), and said they wanted to add BioCare’s consignment program to their contract. The first ever GPO consignment contract was executed with BioCare in 2006 and we have been on that contract ever since. In addition, when CHCA left Premier in 2012 and went to Vizient, a condition of that deal was that BioCare be added to the Vizient contract which we still have today. CHA has been our biggest advocate over the years and instrumental in BioCare’s growth, but it is my deep and longstanding personal connection with this group that makes this relationship so meaningful to me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We were invited by Octapharma, one of our manufacturing partners, to their 25th anniversary celebration at their headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany. They invited their key partners to join them to recognize the event.
I was part of the group who was attending. My boss, who was traveling with us at the time, told me he was going to help me navigate international travel. He mentioned he takes an Ambien the first night he is there so he can sleep and get acclimated to the local time. So, I did and it worked very well. However, I put the Ambien in the same bottle as another medication. While I slept beautifully, I inadvertently took another Ambien when I awoke the next day.
When I attended the first session where a leading Immunologist in the European Union was speaking, I struggled to stay awake. I was sitting a few seats from our hosts at Octapharma (the CEO and GM for US) doing a pretty good imitation of a bobble head which continued throughout the day. Several colleagues thought I might be very sick and suggested a trip to the local hospital. It wasn’t until later that day I realized what had had happened.
I learned, ALWAYS separate medications and DO NOT to take Ambien when you are going to a conference.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of the people I admire most is Pat McEvoy, who hired me early on at the American Red Cross and again when I took the position at BioCare. I learned a great deal by his example as well as his valuable guidance and mentorship along the way. He taught me so many things, but a few which have really help steer me over the years were the following:
- Leadership is not a popularity contest. You cannot make everyone happy but what is important is being fair and looking people in the eye to explain why you made a decision. They won’t always agree, but they will respect you if you are honest and fair.
- Don’t hire people you don’t like personally. This does not mean hiring people that only look like yourself but people you respect and admire. Pat encouraged me to surround myself with the most talented people, give them a voice, collaborate on the best answer and recognize appropriately.
- Understand the nuances of managing people. When you are holding people accountable and making them aware of a developmental need they have, you must be precise in what message you are sending them. You need to be keenly aware if this is an employee you want to keep and develop. If they are generally a solid performer, you could easily lose them with a flawed message delivery telling them they are “unsuccessful.” Words matter.
- Managing people often has parallels to raising kids. Being fair isn’t always being equal. Different people need different things. One size does not fit all.
- Be authentic and honest.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
There are two main ways I deal with stress. Prayer is my primary stress reliever. I never forget who is in control and where my strength comes from. Prayer is core to who I am and how I start each day. I pray for the right words, the guidance to make the right decision, and to be the kind of leader to which I aspire. My second stress reliever comes from exercise, yoga or meditation. I believe you must have a mechanism to quiet your mind to escape tension and regenerate.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
This is such an important question. But I have to say it is more than just a diverse executive team. That’s just one component. A business needs to address diversity, equity and inclusion on all levels-not just leadership. Of course, it is critical to have a leadership team that is diverse, and one that will actively champion the diversity, equity and inclusion vison of the organization.
We are at a pivotal juncture in this country right now. Every business has a responsibility to ensure a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for its people. If we are going to be successful in the world, we need to reflect the way the world looks. Moreover, it is important to embrace different opinions which come from different perspectives in life and allow these opinions to be heard without fear of retribution or micro-aggression.
You want people who are a collective tapestry of what the world looks like and to bring with them their experiences and perspectives. Good leaders seek people who are diverse in every definition, will challenge their thinking, bring their authentic selves to work and feel free to speak truth to power. This is what drives growth and innovation in a company. It’s what differentiates a company on the way up from one whose best days are in the rear-view mirror because it hasn’t embraced the changing landscape. It is what cultivates a positive culture, builds loyalty and creates employee contentment. These things are good for business.
We can learn so much from people who are not like us. At their core, people are the same, but their individual walks are all different and they have distinct ways of living and expressing. There is value in all of it. Great ideas come from everywhere. Good leaders build great businesses by allowing these ideas to seed, blossom and flourish.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
First, make it a priority by weaving diversity, equity and inclusivity into every aspect of your organization. BioCare has a robust DE&I initiative. We have created an executive council tasked with creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. This requires more than just holding cultural competency trainings. Our council is the conduit to initiating crucial conversations and creating safe environments across the organization for employees to participate and speak freely.
We are creating channels for these discussion forums and are actively addressing current events which affect some or many of our employees on a personal level (i.e. recent aggressions against the Asian American community).
Start with a measurable initiative with your leadership team which encourages more inclusivity. Be ok with the road bumps along the way. Grow and evolve this effort. As you stand on firmer footing, do outreach in your sphere of business influence. Be a radical disruptor in a positive way. If we all take ownership of this charge as leaders, at some point our work will converge with the work of other leaders like us and eventually society.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
At the end of the day the CEO is responsible for results. Each member of the executive team has responsibilities in their area of expertise, but the CEO is the choreographer who brings it all together. In my mind there are three responsibilities that are key to any CEO’s success.
- Vision: the current and future objectives of the organization. All decisions should align with stated philosophy and goals.
- Culture: a set of collective beliefs, values and attitudes.
- Managing a Team: more than just hiring the right skill sets. Involves ensuring the team works well together and remain focused on the right priorities. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” but “Talent trumps everything.”
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Many people think that when you have reached this level in your career you answer to fewer people and have more “freedoms.” In truth, you actually interact, influence and answer to many more people including your board, shareholders, customers and your team. I feel a great deal of responsibility to the people in the organization. It is a privilege to be able to lead but there are many responsibilities including fiscal, moral, societal. CEOs have a voice and a chance to impact change either positively or negatively and it can be a lonely job as you don’t have as many peers.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The corporate environment has evolved since I first began my career but there is still a long way to go. In my first job as a consultant, I had a partner come in my office and ask me to stand which I did. Then he asked me to turn around, which I slowly did. He then proceeded to tell me I looked good and asked me to attend a meeting with him. After I closed my mouth, I gathered my things and attended the meeting. Thankfully, those things don’t happen anymore (or at least are much less common).
Generally, I still feel like women must be better than their male counterparts to get the same consideration. They need to be aware of style and substance in conversations. A woman must consider her tone and tenor as much as the point she is getting across. They should be tough and capable, but without crossing the line of too aggressive or hard. Dress and appearance are much more important to a women’s success.
Women have a much higher bar to hurdle in order to prove themselves and be considered “part of the club.”
To put a finer point on this, The Harvard Business Review had a great article on this and cited a research study by Catalyst which showed that among S&P 500 companies women currently hold just one-quarter of executive and senior leadership positions, not quite one-fifth of board seats, and only 23 corner offices (4.6%). The research went on further to state that assertive women are punished for being unfeminine; women who conform to stereotypes are deemed too meek for top jobs.
While we have made huge strides in some areas, there is still a way to go before we are at parity.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
This is an interesting question. I started in this business when we were very small ($17M). As the company grew the job developed over time into what it is today (almost $900M). I helped shape the job I have and really didn’t have an expectation of what I thought it should be. I am most proud of the team I have built and while I miss being involved in every aspect of the business, I am happy that we have built a culture and a team that I can manage and with whom I can collaborate.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
My sports background has helped me immensely with this. I learned that when you get knocked down, you have to get right back up and do it again. Nobody feels sorry for you and there are others just waiting for an opportunity to take your place. Playing professional sports taught me two very important lessons which I feel are key to being a successful leader. One is you are only as good as what you just did and two, every day is a new day. You must be strong and tough. You also need to be able to take the setbacks. For me, the setbacks made me more determined than ever. Determination and the ability to bounce back and not take things personally are tremendously important as an executive.
You won’t be able to please everyone. One of my mentors once told me (tongue in cheek), if you aren’t making somebody mad you aren’t doing your job. There is no way to make everybody happy all the time. With leadership comes this responsibility of balancing the business needs with those of your staff; you can do is try to be fair and equitable. It is essential for me to be able to look people in the eye and tell them why you made a decision. A successful executive can’t have thin skin and must be able to bounce back from disappointments. Also, they must be on an even keel, knowing that things can change quickly whether they are going great or your organization is struggling. Stability is important and staff need to see someone who is steady at the helm.
For anyone aspiring to one day become part of a C-Suite the following traits would not serve them well in leading their organization:
- Being overly sensitive. Decisions aren’t personal, it’s all part of the business and not about you.
- Being thin-skinned. There are many things which will hurt your feelings or bruise your ego. You need to rise above them, head held high and move forward.
- Be too self-focused or narcissistic. You have to be focused on the good of your staff and the organization and can’t be too driven by your own ego.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
The most important advice I would give is to be authentic and true to who you are. Invite and listen to different perspectives and allow people to disagree with you; this only makes you better. Seek the best answer, no matter where it comes from and give credit where due. Acknowledge and praise staff and approach your job as the opportunity and privilege to help everyone grow.
Communicate well, be fair in your assessments and decisions and above all be honest. If people don’t trust you then your effectiveness as a leader is significantly diminished.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My success has allowed me to support other organizations where I have a strong affinity. I use my leadership voice to speak out when I encounter injustice or prejudice
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- There are nuances to every answer you give. Know your audience and be mindful of how you present information.
- How you say things is more important than what you say. There are many people who hear a message and the delivery is key. Words and phrasing matter and especially in a diverse organization you must work to communicate effectively.
- You can be exactly right and still lose the day due to timing or circumstances. Life is not always fair, and you will face challenges at unforeseen times.
- You always need to be “on”. As a CEO, or top executive people watch you all the time, your example matters. Whether at work, after hours, at dinner or shopping, you must be aware.
- Your responsibility goes well beyond your job; other women (other executives), employees, family, society. You are privileged to have a platform and a voice to make a difference, use it wisely.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The persistent vitriol and polarization in this country is deeply concerning to me. I would like to inspire a movement where we treat all people with respect, listen to their viewpoints and perspectives and return to civil discourse in our businesses and politics. I feel like we have regressed fifty or one hundred years in the progress we made in civil liberties and I would love to develop forums to turn the tide. Education is needed to fight the ignorance and fear that is so pervasive, but that can only be accomplished by bringing people together and getting them talking. Business leaders are beginning to take steps towards social justice, and I believe our support and leadership can make a tremendous difference.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” T.S. Elliott
I have always tried to push the boundaries and move things forward. Especially, as a woman there have always been constraints and people telling you that something can’t be done.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Condoleezza Rice. She is brilliant, broken down many barriers and appears to be an extremely ethical person. I had the chance to hear her speak and was struck by her grace and kindness.