A lover of brainstorming, hospital board chair and AHA Committee on Governance member Barbara Wilson has put her intellectual mettle to the test in many arenas in her professional life. Against the background of a dynamic career in telecommunications, Wilson has lent her expertise to state committees, educational institutions and the Federal Reserve. As a long-time board member of St. Luke's Regional Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, she still relishes the chance to tackle tough challenges. "Brainstorming is one of my favorite activities—problem solving and strategic thinking," Wilson says. "I've got a fertile, active mind and [I enjoy] the creative process and the energy of working with sharp, dedicated people."
With a bachelor's degree in finance and economics and an M.B.A., Wilson began her 27-year career in telecommunications in Pacific Northwest Bell's sales and marketing division. "Wherever you start in your career, you look at [your work] through that lens," Wilson says. "Pac Bell had tremendous sales training, and it gave me a fabulous foundation for marketing. It's the reality of where the rubber meets the road in any business."
After moving up through division and department level positions with Pac Bell, Wilson joined its regional successor, U.S. West Inc., in the mid-1980s as vice president of implementation planning. From there, she became president of USW's Information Systems subsidiary, then vice president of its human resources department. In 1992, she became the Idaho and regional vice president for the northern region of U.S. West Communications, pushing through "groundbreaking legislation," as she describes it, that created a more competitive telecommunications marketplace. When U.S. West became Qwest, Wilson assumed responsibility for all state legislative and regulatory strategies and advocacy at the federal level for seven Western states until she retired in 2001.
Rick Hays, formerly Qwest's Montana president, has known Wilson for 20 years, working extensively with her on telecommunications public policy issues. "Her political strengths are developing relationships within key federal and state bodies, knowing those who are well-connected with legislators and senators," Hays says.
Wilson has been appointed to numerous Idaho Governor's Task Forces and councils, including the Governor's Economic Stimulus Committee and the Governor's Science and Technology Advisory Council. A particular passion is promoting better science and math education. "We need more technologically competent people ... we're behind as a country in math and science," she says.
After a year as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's Salt Lake City Branch, Wilson became its chair, which she calls the "greatest honor and privilege of my life." Following that appointment, she was elected to the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank itself, where she served on its audit and executive committees. "The economic presentations I saw, the relationships and caliber of individuals I met ... being on the inside of what's happening to the U.S. economy ... it was a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Wilson says.
Her Federal Reserve Bank experience has proved very helpful to St. Luke's. "We did Sarbanes-Oxley work ourselves, and risk management reported to me. We learned about fraud issues this way," Wilson explains. "I gained expertise that helped the transition [from three hospitals] to a health care system. It helped us increase our sophistication on risk management and public policy."
St. Luke's Health System's immediate past chair Skip Oppenheimer has worked with Wilson for more than a decade, both through St. Luke's and several other boards, including the Idaho Business Council and Boise State University's Business School Advisory Council. The CEO and chair of Oppenheimer Companies Inc. in Boise, Oppenheimer says Wilson brought "a deeper and broader way of thinking" to every boardroom they shared. Oppenheimer says he admires that in spite of her numerous commitments, Wilson "doesn't try to do everything, so she can do the right kind of job."
On the St. Luke's board, Oppenheimer says Wilson is proactive. "When we've had legislative ideas and initiatives, she knows how to best communicate the hospital point of view, how to be sure that the community benefit that the hospital provides—the good work we do—is understood and presented in a clear and understandable way."
This has been a distinct advantage in her advocacy work with the AHA's Committee on Governance. "You have a limited time to talk to a congressman," Wilson notes. "You have to be crisp, focused and have a lot of data to support your point of view. And you have to get others to support your position so it's not just you asking. Politicians need to see a consortium."
In her first year as chair at St. Luke's, Wilson focused on making the board more efficient and agile. "As chair, you have to motivate your fellow board members to get involved [when they] are already busy," she says. "I run a tight meeting—and I always want to push the envelope." She has worked to restructure committees, created more tightly focused board self-evaluations and changed board terms to get more new members at the table.
"It's critical to all boards to get the right people [in order to] move forward," Wilson says. "We've ramped up the board development process—it's one of my legacies, I hope." For example, she thinks boards could benefit by seeking trustees with Internet skills that could lead to better connections with patients and the hospital's community, and trustees who understand the need for strong public policy and philanthropy efforts. Trustees also need to understand the importance of physician relations, be able to judge how well the continuum of care is working in the hospital, and prioritize collaboration with other health care entities, Wilson believes.
"No matter what happens with health care reform, patients need the right care," Wilson says. "Boards need to have the ability to advocate, to see change and work for change. They need to be more literate on quality issues and ramp up their engagement."
"I get enormous psychic income from being a part of St. Luke's," she says. She has gotten a similar charge out of her corporate life, her advocacy work and the task forces with which she has been involved. "Being able to see that, because you were there, it made a difference, is extraordinarily rewarding to me," she says.
Laurie Larson is a freelance writer in Chicago.