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One-on-One with Kate Becker

New UNMH CEO Kate Becker

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was the nuns who pointed the way.

Kate Becker, the new chief executive officer of University of New Mexico Hospitals, says some of her most important guiding principles on how to lead came from her time at SSM Health, a Catholic health system in St. Louis.

The nuns in charge, part of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, made decisions within their order by seeking agreement among a diverse group of people and being “willing to sit with the information and work through whatever the issues are until they have achieved consensus,” she said.

That approach influenced how they made decisions in the outside world, and it influenced Becker as well.

“That was such a big learning for me because health care tends to be very hierarchical,” said Becker, who began her new job on July 16 overseeing UNMH, a $1.1 billion annual enterprise with about 7,000 employees.

Does she plan to bring the same approach to her new job?

“I do. I would say the same advice I would give myself is what I gave my kids, which is you have two ears and one mouth, so you can listen twice as much as you talk,” she said.

Becker came to health care by way of the law, blazing some trails in the legal field – “just to give you an idea of how old I am, one of the women I graduated high school with was one of the first women to go to West Point.”

She clerked for a federal judge in Beaumont, Texas, in the late 1980s, who had had only one female clerk before Becker, and she nabbed partnership in a law firm – unusual for a woman in theI was given a lot of opportunities to kind of dive in and do things, but usually you’re the only woman in the room,” Becker said. “And it takes a while to kind of overcome, how do you participate in conversations in a way that is socially manageable, particularly we’re talking about 35 years ago now, and at the same time make sure that your voice is heard.”

Becker’s decision to move to New Mexico didn’t come out of the blue: Her grandparents owned a small pharmacy in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, and her father grew up here, “so I had been here quite a bit as a kid, in the summer and for holidays. So when the job opened up here, it was just a wonderful opportunity to come back to a place I was familiar with.”

What do you do in your spare time?

My vast amount of spare time? Well, we have four kids. They’re all grown, but basically we like to do active, outdoors things. We like to go whitewater rafting, skiing. That was another thing that was very appealing about moving to New Mexico is the active lifestyle. Now, because they’re scattered all over the country, we actually spend a lot of time traveling.

Any hobbies?

I really like gardening, but I might have bitten off more than I can chew. The house we bought … it’s lovely, but it has a lot of fruit trees – a pear, two plum, nectarine, Fuji apple, peach – which I didn’t have a lot of prior experience with, and we literally moved in two weeks before it’s time to start picking all the fruit. It sounded awesome, … lovely and so pastoral. It’s really a lot.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?

The chair of one of the departments in St. Louis once said about me to someone else, “She has never lied to me.” I think your integrity is the one thing you carry with you all your life.

How do you deal with challenges?

I have been fortunate enough to have been born with a disposition that bounces back. People talk a lot about resilience. You can develop resilience by looking back at situations where you have overcome obstacles and thinking, “Hey, I survived that; it turned out OK, I figured it out.” And so you can build that capacity in yourself. But it helps if you have the disposition just to keep popping up like toast.

What are your pet peeves?

I’m unreasonably impatient with recorded voices on the phone. Because we just moved here, I’ve called literally every service provider there is in the city … and for some reason, it just naturally starts me off at the wrong place, and I have to reset myself when the first person I hear is, “Your call is very important to us, please hold …”

What’s your favorite place?

Being at home is my No. 1 favorite place. It’s kind of an oasis, in spite of all the pears. My favorite city in the world is Paris. I’ve loved it since I was a kid.

What keeps you up at night?

I think one of the things I worry about, and it translates into a lot of things, is that we are not continuing to develop the ability to be kind to each other as a society. I think another thing that’s sort of consistent with that is I worry that we have no concept of the impact of the sort of bite-sized version of attention that social media and digitalization has led to. We literally cannot comprehend what that’s going to mean to how people think, behave, do their work, interact with each other. And I know it makes me sound really old to say that, but I do worry about that because I think that we still draw the most satisfaction in life from the things we do for other people. Lewis Carroll said the deep secret of life is that everything worth doing is what we do for each other, and I think that’s true. And I think that the more we create virtual interactions for that instead of actual interactions for that, the more we deprive ourselves.

What gives you hope for the future?

Everybody younger than me seems smarter than me, so I think that’s really exciting. I also think that it is impossible not to meet a baby and be hopeful. You cannot meet a baby, a young person and not think, ‘You know what? It’s going to turn out all right.”

Any advice for women who want to advance in your field?

I think my advice for women coming up isn’t any different than my advice for my own children. I would say one thing that is always appropriate is to do the best job you can at whatever it is you are doing. People do notice, whether you think they are noticing or not. … The way we identify future leaders is by watching their performance in whatever their current role is.

Any quirks or superstitions?

If I spill salt, I throw it over my left shoulder with my right hand … from my Irish grandmother. I’m a vegetarian, so that’s probably a bit of a quirk.

Was that for health reasons?

No. Just trying to be kind.

What constitutes a splurge for you?

I hate shopping, so that’s a tough one. I think, and I don’t know if “splurge” is the right word for this, but eating the best part of the pie or the pizza or something like that first.

What’s on your bucket list?

I would like to go to Alaska. I would like to be good at speaking another language. I am marginal at French, and I know 10 words in Spanish. But I would say the No. 1 thing on my list is that my kids, the people I care about, the people I work with … that everybody is successful in whatever they choose to do. That would be a successful life.

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