As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,**” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mona Abutaleb, CEO of Med Tech Solutions (MTS). MTS serves thousands of healthcare practices nationwide with infrastructure, services and solutions. Its Practice-Centered Care™ services are supported by dedicated IT Care Teams to ensure that all IT systems support essential clinical workflows, treatments and ultimately patient outcomes.
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?
There are so many things I could say about my first job and the great leaders I had along the way. But when I reflect back on my life, and what really directed me towards an aspiration to be in leadership, I would have to take you all the way back to my 8th grade year. When I was in the 8th grade, like many others, I was a little lost. But I was lucky enough to have two wonderful adults around me in middle school: my guidance counselor and my orchestra teacher. My guidance counselor likely saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at that time, and he nominated me as the individual from my school to go to ‘leadership camp.’ It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I learned so much and it propelled me into a lifetime of leadership. From camp, I spent my remaining years either as the president or a leader of the student government in middle and high school. I knew then that leadership was my path.
At the same time, I never seriously considered a path other than technology. Technology you might say is in my blood.
I am an electrical engineer, but the truth is I come from a long line of technologists, and interestingly, mostly engineers. My father was an electrical engineer; of my four brothers, three are electrical engineers and one is a civil engineer. My husband is an electrical engineer, his brother is a chemical engineer, and his father was a mechanical engineer. I have three sons; two are electrical engineers and one is a computer scientist.
I can’t imagine a path for me other than technology and technology leadership. And while technology in and of itself is an ever-changing, always-challenging and incredibly rewarding path, leading technology teams has always been my passion, my goal and my privilege.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I joined Med Tech Solutions in December of 2019 and it was a whirlwind. I had a chance to meet with most of our employees in three of our key offices in December, January, and February, and I was opening our office outside of Washington, DC when COVID-19 struck. I ended up opening and closing our DC office in March, but for 13 of the last 16 months I have led Med Tech Solutions from home. We have had a fabulous year, and I am so proud of every one of our employees and our leadership team, but this certainly was not the way I would normally begin leading a new company or building relationships with our employees and our clients.
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?
I began my career in 1984 at MCI Communications and I happened to work in the headquarters building. I worked very long hours, as did many of my peers in our little department. One evening, around 8 or 9 pm, one of my peers and I got into the elevator to go home and there were two gentlemen on the elevator holding blueprints. I turned to my friend/peer and said, ‘glad we aren’t the only people around here that work late.’ Well, it turns out those two gentlemen were Bill McGowan, the founder and CEO/Chairman of MCI and Orville Wright, the president and COO.
I learned a lot from that incident. Outside of being embarrassed after I learned who the two gentlemen were, I learned to think a bit more before speaking. But I was very lucky. Mr. McGowan and Mr. Wright were wonderful leaders, they certainly had a sense of humor and they had the pleasure of dealing with a lot of young, hardworking individuals and they appreciated the comment. They frequently worked late and knew the value of hard work. But it was still pretty embarrassing…. albeit quite humorous….
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?
There are so many people who helped me along the way, but I will highlight one of my mentors: the most successful and one of the best leaders I have ever had the pleasure of working with, Sherry Morehouse. Sherry was the Director of Planning and Engineering when I met her. I did not work within her organization, but I was lucky enough to get invited to an all-employee meeting of the engineering organization and Sherry was one of the speakers. She blew me away. I was 21 years old, trying to learn about the company and figuring out how what I did was important. And there were a lot of people who spoke that day, and they said a lot of things, none of them terribly memorable. But when Sherry got on stage, you could feel her presence, and she simply went through the business challenges that MCI had and how we could change things, how we could make things better, how we could seize the opportunities for growth. And I was mesmerized. She just made sense, her communication style was so direct and so simple, it was amazing.
One of the most impactful things Sherry did was clearly communicate what she believed would enable our success. She had her own Top 10 list and she named them; she called them “The Morehouse Maxim’s,” her fundamental principles. The most important one and her number-one maxim was ‘patience is not a virtue.’ Sherry knew that to run an effective business in a fast-moving area like technology, acting with speed and urgency was a requirement and it was one of the most important lessons I learned from her early in my career.
I had an opportunity to work on Sherry’s team several years later and I continued to grow and learn from her for all the years I was lucky enough to be a part of her team.
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?
Quite simply, I prepare. For me, the best way to relieve stress is to be really well prepared.
If it is a critical decision, I tend to do a good bit of research myself, but I also surround myself with really great and smart folks. I trust my team and frequently ask for their input before any critical decision is made.
For a critical presentation, I tend to write out and I practice it — whether silently in my mind, or in front of a mirror. If I am confident, I know it not only relieves stress, and enables muscle memory, but allows me to do the best job possible.
And I breathe. I spend time just breathing and being grateful that I get the chance to share my thoughts, to lead, and to hopefully do good.
I don’t think you just wake up one day and know all of these things. As with many things in my career, I received an opportunity, and although it wasn’t in my direct area of expertise, I didn’t shy away from it, but instead embraced it even though I wasn’t sure where it would lead.
I was offered an interesting opportunity (in addition to my real engineering job) when I was a mid-level manager. I was asked to host a televised program when I was at MCI called MCI TV. I was the host of a live program once per week that was broadcast across the company and where I interviewed the most senior management in the company about key topics — strategic areas, technical topics, live audience questions, etc. It was a crash course for me on every key topic happening in a big company, and it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
As a young manager it is incredibly intimidating to interview some of the most senior people within a large company and broadcast to thousands of employees each week. Every face, move, word that you say feels like it is amplified. I learned to prepare, prepare, prepare and to ensure I knew the material that I was interviewing senior management on so that I could react to both the presenters as well as the audience with knowledge.
You might ask how I prepared…. First, I studied everything I could get my hands on related to that week’s topic, and then of course I had to practice. I had very young children at the time, so many evenings, I would line up my three boys as my audience and my husband would set up the video camera and would also act as my guest. And off we would go. I can still see the three little faces staring at me as I talked and talked and talked…. I would review the tapes, modify my comments, gestures, etc. as I prepared for the interviews. And even with all of that preparation, when we were preparing to go live the nerves would start. But, luckily, I had a great director in my ear who would keep me smiling and moving by ensuring that I was breathing, pacing myself, and confident that I was prepared.
In hindsight, while very humbling, that single experience — MCI TV — taught me more about public presentation and all of the small things that can make an impact — and to always remember that when you are speaking to an audience of one or many that you are live. Your preparation, your words, your gestures… everything matters.
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?
Quite simply, in my view, diversity on teams brings diversity in thought, which makes leadership teams stronger and more agile. In my business, healthcare IT services, when issues arise, they are critical because they impact patient care or the well-being of people and their lives. And so particularly in a time of crisis or change of any kind, diverse thoughts bring the best ideas, and they deliver the most robust solutions. We are all creatures of what we have experienced, and when you bring diverse experiences together, you get the best results.
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.
I am a leader who believes that everyone has a role to play in the success of our company or our team. My practice is one of simple acceptance and communication. I both communicate outbound with employees with respect to their day-to-day tasks as well as groups. I work hard to ensure our employees know what we are trying to do and why each of them and their roles are critical to our success. And as a part of that, we share our success with our employees both through their compensation, both long-term annually as well as in real time. We recognize employees in real time, and we have established programs where they also recognize each other directly. Their voice is a critical component of how we grow and focus on our priorities.
One of the hardest things that I watched happening to women as a result of COVID was the fact that many of them couldn’t care for their children while continuing to work, even if they could work from home. And we had many women who were impacted by the COVID challenge of childcare, home schooling and work. About one-third of our workforce population is female, and most of those individuals have school-age children. We worked with every individual on our team — mothers and fathers — to ensure that we were flexible, modifying roles, modifying work hours, etc. I am proud to say that we did not lose a single member of our team as a result of the challenges associated with COVID. We found a way to accomplish our business goals by focusing on our employees and their needs.
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?
There are the areas I believe are critical in my role as a CEO:
- Keep all of my employees employed so that they can feed their families and live the life they hope for. That means stability and growth of the company, and we must succeed so that our team can achieve the success they deserve.
- The link between inside the company and the outside world. Whether that is board members, shareholders, changes from the outside that impact our business, competitors, etc. My role is to keep a balance between the pressures on the outside and the impact or direction it drives our business on the inside.
- The company’s strategic direction. Making decisions with respect to where we are going, where we invest, how to create efficiencies that allow those investments, how to get further investments, etc.
- Making decisions and being accountable for those decisions, right or wrong.
- Creating a culture that is inclusive and allows employees to thrive and to want to be a part of the team.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
- “You have it all figured out.” I work hard every day to learn, to listen, and to ensure I make the best decisions for my company and my team.
- “I make or break the company.” The company is the team; I am just a single member of the team.
- “It’s all about the money.” Most CEOs are passionate about the mission of their company/team.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I grew up in a male-dominated industry. And in the 1980s and a good part of 1990s it was ‘acceptable’ to not get a promotion because you were pregnant, for example, and going to be out on maternity leave or you might choose to be out longer, etc. I was once told by my male supervisor (a senior person in the company) that he was sorry, but because I was pregnant, he ‘had to’ give the job to another man.
And while I have been in leadership for many years, there was a time when my children were young that I nearly left the workforce because I was not able to get adequate child care for my children. And like many women in the workforce, and although I had an incredibly supportive husband, I felt that my kids were my priority.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I love my job. I thought I would be out in the field with my team and clients a lot more this past year than I have been able to be. But the most striking thing about Med Tech Solutions is the team. How they have welcomed me, their desire to succeed, their willingness to change. I was worried that as a new leader (and one that didn’t come from a deep healthcare background) that they would be suspicious, that some key folks might leave, that the pandemic would cripple our business, but it has been the opposite. I am blessed to work with an amazing team and our business continues to grow and our customers are doing the hard work of keeping us all well.
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?
- Great communication skills — successful leaders talk to their teams.
- Great listening skills — successful leaders listen without a predisposed opinion.
- Strong analytical skills — the ability to understand and form opinions, create direction based upon data.
- The ability to learn on your own and through others’ past experience.
- Willingness to take calculated risks and accept responsibility for those risks.
- The ability to read/adapt to different people and employ different management skills.
- The ability to focus on the key items for success.
- A strategic vision that drives day-to-day decisions.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
- Play to your strengths.
- Find mentors.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
- Take risks, be different.
- Communicate and be bold.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am so grateful for what I have achieved in my personal and professional life and I try to give back at every opportunity possible. Most importantly in my mind, I lead with humility and I respect and treat others with dignity. I work hard to donate my time and dollars to those who need assistance. I joined the healthcare IT services space specifically to help make the world a better place. The intersection of healthcare and technology is what will allow all of us to live healthier and better lives, and my goal is to make that a reality in my small piece of the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Management/leadership looks a lot easier than it actually is. I was likely promoted to a manager for the same reason most technical individuals get promoted into management. I was very strong technically, so I was promoted; but I didn’t really know anything about management. I thought everyone on my team would just do what I did — I could just tell them what to do and we would be off to the races. So, I kept on doing what I had been doing — doing the work myself and assuming everyone else on the team would just do what I do — because of course I was convinced I did it better than anyone else. What it took me some time to learn is that leaders don’t just keep doing. They coach, they show, they teach, they train. Because your success is no longer about how good you are; your success is about the team you create.
- Surround yourself with a great team. I have been lucky enough to work with great teams, teams that are invested in each other as well as the business and I have also been unlucky enough to work with teams that are not great, not invested in each other or the business. There is no greater attribute in building and maintaining a successful business than a strong team. Great teams find ways to overcome obstacles, learn from their failures, and celebrate successes and each other. On the flip side, the lack of a great team can slow or stall a business, cause needless finger pointing and discord within the business. People want to work for great teams, and they want to run from dysfunctional teams.
- Run the business and not each part of the business — that is, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. We all tend to fall back on the things we are ‘good at.’ So, it is easy to fall back into the role or roles that brought you previous success. But to run a business, you can’t just run a piece of it or stifle your team members who need to run their piece of the business. That doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally get more involved in certain aspects of the business, but it means you must stay focused on the whole business, the external factors that enable your business to succeed as well as the internal factors and not a single factor. That is why the team is so critical. With a great team, you can remain focused on the whole business while allowing each of your team members to focus on their specific goals and objectives. You are the conductor of your business. If you sit down and start playing an instrument, then there is no conductor/leader.
- Things will not go as planned, growth is bumpy. As with life, business is bumpy and sometimes things don’t go as planned. And so as a leader we must limit risk or take calculated risks, ensure you have a plan b — a contingency plan — and sometimes we have to course correct. There is no better lesson than analyzing a failure, understanding the root cause, and ensuring that you limit the chance of a similar issue or failure in the future. Assign accountability, not blame, and revise your plan so that with a course correction you can still achieve your objectives.
- Celebrate victories, learn from failure. We all learn lessons from failure, but we often forget to celebrate victories, small and large. The celebrations are as important as the lessons of failure. The successes cheer the team to drive harder to bigger victories and they glue a team together.
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.
I would transform healthcare in the United States. It’s a significant effort that many are involved in and I count myself lucky to be involved in a small piece of it as well. It is why I do what I do today. There is an incredible amount of opportunity with technology associated with healthcare — much of it underway — we just need it faster. Pocket-sized Internet-enabled technology that reduces the cost for consumer tests (IOT devices that connect to your phone), artificial intelligence (AI) that can accumulate data and create probable diagnoses/patterns faster and in more detail than your doctor, virtual reality for rehabilitation, blockchain technology for patient data storage and transmission, robotics for medical care and subscription/direct pay facilities… And the area I am most involved in today, cloud services — simplifying the electronic health records process for providers and making the records available to consumers. I am proud that many of our clients support underserved populations that need those capabilities the most.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson is from Harland Sanders or Colonel Sanders for the fans of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It goes like this, “I made a resolve then that I was going to amount to something if I could. And no hours, nor amount of labor, nor amount of money would deter me from giving the best that there was in me.”
That quote is relevant in my life for two important reasons: 1) I immigrated to the United States with my parents and four brothers when I was four years old, and I know the sacrifices and struggles that my parents made that afforded me the opportunities that have been before me, and 2) when I was a teenager and wanted more than we could afford, my mother made a huge sacrifice and went to work at our local Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was so hard on her for many reasons, not the least of which was her pride, but none of that mattered; nothing could deter her from what she perceived we needed.
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
Melinda Gates — I am fascinated by the work the Gates Foundation is doing and how they are working to solve our toughest global challenges. She is a champion of women’s rights and I would be honored to meet her whether in a private or larger setting.