A desire to have a bigger impact on health systems globally led Ellen Feehan (MBA 08) from her career as a plastic surgeon in Dublin to McKinsey, where she is a principal in the healthcare practice, a role that has taken her from Dublin to New Jersey to Sydney and back to New Jersey again, working with clients across the world on transformation and value creation.
About Ellen Feehan
I started by studying medicine in Trinity and worked in the health system in Ireland for 10 years as a surgeon and plastic surgeon until 2005.
Then I did an international diploma in humanitarian assistance and was on Irish Aid’s Rapid Response Corps for humanitarian disaster and worked with Goal in Niger in West Africa and in Pakistan after the earthquake there.
In 2006 I joined the executive MBA in health services management at Smurfit and alongside that I worked in the Tropical Medical Bureau.
Once I finished the programme in 2008, I joined McKinsey and have been the firm ever since. I did take one spell out during my first year to work on secondment with the World Health Organization in Geneva on the Emergency and Essential Surgical Care Programme and I’ve been connected with them on an ongoing basis since.
Why did you leave surgery?
I loved every minute of my training as a medical student and my career as a doctor and a surgeon. I probably got to a point where I was wondering what was on the next horizon for me and how I could expand my impact beyond an individual patient or an individual setting or hospital and think about how the system is run on a much broader level. I considered a range of options in terms of the MBA programme I would pursue and decided the one in health services management would be a very nice bridge in that it would still be in my area of passion but would also give me a broader view in terms of how the business world works. So, I was driven by the desire to have impact beyond the individual context I was in at a much bigger scale.
What does your role at McKinsey involve?
I joined as an experienced hire associate in the Dublin office and did a lot of work mainly based in the UK but across Europe as well. Then I transferred as part of the global rotation programme where you work in two regions outside your home region. I went to New Jersey at the cusp of Obamacare, working on innovative care delivery models and reimbursement mechanisms for two years initially and then travelled to Sydney for four years. And now I have just returned to New Jersey and I’m going to stay here for the foreseeable future.
My focus the whole time has been working with health systems and services – so either federal or state health departments on the public sector side or private sector entities such as hospital system or insurers – in driving healthcare value creation and harnessing the potential of clinicians to lead transformation and change.
My focus now is going to be on the health system in the US with a minor focus on supporting health system transformation in Japan. I still maintain connections with Australia and with the UK .
What is really exciting for me is being able to work with health systems across the globe and, while there are many differences, there are a lot of similarities.
I received very good foundational training on the health services MBA around the healthcare value focus and where the opportunities were in transforming systems, and that’s been a constant throughout the work that I’ve done.
Tell us about your leadership style
Throughout your career at McKinsey, leadership is a major focus. As a junior partner, probably about three years ago, I joined a centred leadership programme that was being offered for internal participants at the firm. This programme was developed originally by Joanna Barsh. She wanted to understand how remarkable women lead and did a lot of research globally understanding what the dimensions of effective leadership are. No surprise, the dimensions of effective leadership for women are the same as for men.
Part of this programme was framed around the core principles of centred leadership. So, there are five lenses: meaning – finding and inspiring purpose that is built on strengths and using this to generate action; framing – looking at problems in new ways to find better solutions; energising – actively managing experiences to achieve maximum flow in the work day; connecting – actively shaping your network style and your sense of belonging and ability to manage change and personal growth; and engaging – taking personal accountability for your life experience and setting aside fears so you can step into opportunities.
That really resonated with me and reflected my own approach to leadership. Again, the core principle of that is trying to support self mastery and leading self before you can think about leading others and then leading organisational transformation. So that’s a three-step process.
I’ve translated that to a Remarkable Women programme in Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines and launched it for senior clients who are looking for that next acceleration in their growth to get to the senior ranks in their organisation. It’s now in its third year and it’s a very exciting programme.
For me, it’s a constant refresher around those leadership dimensions and trying to practise across those dimensions on a regular basis to be effective.
I’ll continue to support Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines in this regard for the next year or two. And I’m going to talk to the folks in the US who are part of a broader programme here to see how we can invigorate this on the East Coast.
What is your philosophy in business and life?
The biggest thing is to focus on impact and then empower others to be able to deliver against that impact. Another big thing is to make sure you’re authentic in your leadership so you’re walking the talk and able to demonstrate that.
How that translates is being non-hierarchical, trying to collaborate and bring the power of the team, thinking to the co-creation of any solution and then the surgical mind always brings me back to the implementation and how you’re going to deliver against the practicalities.
Who or what are your influences?
In the work I did in the World Health Organization I worked with Dr Meena Cherian, an anaesthetist from India, and I was really inspired by her tenacity. She identified a gap in surgical care in low and middle income countries at the primary care level. Over a period of six years she has been able to work through a very collaborative global network of surgeons and anaesthetists to get surgery in the primary care setting raised to the global level and has had it ratified as a resolution on the executive board for the WHO so it has to be a priority area of focus for countries. What was very inspiring was her vision that there was an enormous problem that was probably not being fully addressed and her tenacity in understanding where the influences lie and following up on it and driving to impact.
The other big piece I think is this centred leadership philosophy and the awakening of the ability to have a balanced leadership style – so not just thinking with the left side of your brain but harnessing the power of both sides.
What are your tips or advice for success?
I think it’s really key to follow your passion and have fun as you go.
The second thing is, identify and focus on your strengths. It’s important to really sit down and take time to reflect and identify what they are and convene with others to work out what they are, and then harness that potential and the strength’s potential in others.
The last thing is, be prepared to let the solution or the insight emerge. There’s just some element of magic in stepping back and not just taking the logical approach to where the solution might lie but thinking about where your flashes of inspiration may come from and then acting on those.
That’s been one of the core success factors I’ve had throughout my career. It’s almost sensing what’s going on, with of course hard work and tenacity, but allowing the flashes of inspiration to happen, listening and acting on them, even if they may seem counterintuitive.
What have been your biggest successes to date?
I think my entire career as a doctor and surgeon was a high point. At McKinsey I’ve loved being able to drive impact at scale in health systems, including signing a million people up for an electronic health record in every nook and cranny across Australia, working with a state hospital system to reconfigure their services to drive higher quality care and supporting private organisations through successful mergers. And I’ve loved being able to work with amazing people and to tap into the richness of a range of leadership styles through things like the Remarkable Women programme.
What about failures?
I have no regrets. But I know that areas I need to reinforce for myself are to focus on strengths and then be bold, sufficiently bold, and take action, and, instead of delaying or procrastinating, take earlier action.
Do you have any plans for the future?
I’ve just moved and I’m very excited to see at what opportunities lie here and what I can bring that’s distinctive and transformative. And I’m excited about trying to more rapidly cycle through my own transformation journeys to make change happen on a bigger scale quicker.
What are your interests outside work?
I’m very pleased to be back in New York. I love the city and I’m looking forward to re-engaging with it. I see it now as my long term home, having been very nomadic for quite a while.
And I love trips home to Ireland. My family is based there. I grew up on a farm in Castlebellingham in Co Louth and I have very strong connections there. Being in the US is so much easier than Australia in terms of trips home.
And the plastic surgeon in me is still very excited by that confluence between functionality and form. I’m furnishing my new apartment and appreciating the utility of things that are beautiful is really exciting, down to kitchen gadgets and utensils and pieces of furniture. That’s always a creative outlet for me.