A Conversation with a Top Memorial Trail Blazer: Leah Carpenter
For 20 years, Leah Carpenter has been a leader at Memorial Healthcare System – most recently, as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. Appointed to her current position in 2021 after serving as CEO at three of our hospitals, she took a few moments to reflect on her years at Memorial, and what has inspired and helped her along the way.
What made you want to go into healthcare to begin with?
I went into nursing because I wanted to connect with patients and be invested in who they were as people. I loved being at the bedside, taking care of patients. But destiny had a different plan for me, and I moved my way through the ranks in leadership.
How did you end up in leadership?
Three things influenced: first, my mother’s influence in my upbringing. She taught us that we had to be engaged – we could not complain about things without taking the responsibility to come up with solutions. Second, when I first entered healthcare 36 years ago, leaders were disconnected from the people on the front lines and what they were doing. They had no idea of what was really happening at the bedside. So I wanted to be part of changing that. I wanted to be a different kind of leader, one who was responsible for making the changes I wanted to see in the world.
Finally, I was always taught that “to those who much is given, much is expected.” I’ve been blessed beyond imagination, and I’m able to give those blessings back through leading.
What, if any, obstacles did you experience?
Well, I’m deaf in my right ear. It’s something that developed over time, so I came to a fork in the road because you need all five of your senses to take care of patients. I’ve also had mentors who taught me how it should be done and some from whom I’ve learned what not to do. The best of my mentors showed me how we could change the environment for our front-line workers. I wanted to be part of positive change, to make sure that our staff had what they needed to provide the care they were trained to do.
Tell us something about your mentors.
My mother was a single mom. She is of European descent, and a Holocaust survivor. My dad was African-American, descended from enslaved people. I grew up in a primarily Black community in 1970s Newark. We were very poor but the expectation and understanding were that education was the only way out.
I had a dear friend who was one of the guardian angels who made sure my sister and I were safe and on the right path. My father’s sister, and several teachers from grammar, middle and high school, all identified my gifts and pushed me to develop them. The survival skills I developed in the inner city were not unlike the survival skills you need in corporate America. My mentors helped guide me in a world and a profession at a time when women were struggling to break through. Women and especially women of color are still in that struggle.
You came to South Florida in 2000, and joined Memorial in 2002. How did that come about?
I was CNO at North Shore Medical Center for two years. I loved that hospital and its environment, and had some amazing mentors there. But I recognized that for-profit healthcare was not in line with the kind of work I wanted to do – provide phenomenal care for people, regardless of their ability to pay. So Memorial was a whole new world. It was what healthcare is supposed to look like, the way it’s supposed to be provided. I’m surrounded by people who have the same ethics, moral compass and commitment to patients, family and our communities that I do.
What’s your advice for women who are building careers in healthcare, or in any field, for that matter?
The most basic and important asset that you possess is your integrity. Don’t let anyone compromise it. If you give it away, you’ll never get it back.
You also must find an organization that reflects your values. Find people who are not necessarily in your image, but who have similar ideals, and who are not fearful of doing a lot of hard work. A mentor once said to me, “You’ll know you’re succeeding when people think that it’s easy by watching you.” Make it so that people don’t see the struggle, the blood, sweat, and tears, and the injustices that women – and, in particular, women of color – face.
Then, do the work, Focus on the goal, and keep your eyes on the prize. If you’re passionate about something, believe in it, and know it’s something you need to get done, get it done. Don’t let anything stop you. Fight for things that are right and just. Fight for people who can’t fight for themselves. And most importantly, always do the right things for the right reasons.