Ep 16: Susan Heichert: CIO Builds Her Career on Joy

We’re honored to chat with Senior Vice President, and CIO of Allina Health, Susan Heichert, in this episode. Susan first started in the health IT world by entering nursing school. She practiced nursing for several years, and suggests it as a great route towards health leadership positions.

Discovering an interest in her first employer’s nursing union, Susan went back to school for her master’s degree in industrial relations. This taught her finance, accounting, and coupled with learning computer languages in undergrad, she discovered her affinity for technology. She remembers buying an Apple II computer when they first came out and wondered how it could help the healthcare world.

In the 1980’s, her hospital was looking for someone to help install clinical applications. She thought she’d try it as an “experiment” but it was one important step that led her down the path to becoming a Chief Information Officer. She originally wanted a job negotiating for unions; and she expertly employs those negotiation skills now.

“I think that’s one of the lessons of your life journey. You pick up random skills and never know where they might lead you,” she comments.

Susan accepted the technology job, inventing her own role as an Informational Systems Nurse Coordinator. After moving to Iowa, she fell into another role with a startup technology vendor. She was an early employee who helped the startup develop clinical information systems products with early artificial intelligence. She learned sales, product development, and more aspects of the technology world.

“Those were great experiences,” she says. “You don’t know what you don’t know!”

Her husband’s job called for more geographic moves, and Susan took each of those as opportunities to try new positions wherever she went. She missed implementing technology, so she took on a role at St. John’s Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Then, moving back to Minneapolis, she migrated into a managerial role at a children’s hospital, where she installed CERNER solutions. She remembers many people telling her not to go down the route, but, to her, it looked like fun! Susan often asks herself if a new position looks fun before diving in.

Subsequently, Susan and her husband moved to China, and she did not work for two years but traveled and learned the culture.

Then, her husband's work called them back to Minneapolis where Susan joined Allina as manager of hospital applications. In 2008, she became the CIO of the largest health system in the twin cities with 13 hospitals, and many pharmacies and clinics in the region. Allina’s mission is to serve communities and partner with patients. They want to enable their caregivers and their patients to collaborate in their healthcare together.

“It’s extremely mission-driven and it’s a mission I align with closely,” she says.” If you don’t have good information you can’t be a good partner.”

Susan manages over 550 people in Allina’s information services department, including medical records, and clinical engineering (often known as biomed) services.

The three characteristics of Susan’s character that strengthen her team leadership are: her background growing up in healthcare, adaptability, and optimism. She does say it’s hard to make change health IT, but it can happen.

Does being a women influence her career? Susan says that nursing is a female-dominated career, so she maybe didn’t have challenges breaking a “glass ceiling” in a world of women. She sees it as a positive circumstance, helping her to understand more points of view, practicing empathy and listening — , characteristics women often have.

Getting your first management or leadership role can be difficult, Susan warns.

Her top pieces of advice for women leaders are:

● Put yourself forward and try leadership positions. If it looks fun, just do it.

● It’s all about taking opportunities to learn. Project yourself into that position. Think about how you can start to manage / lead.

Listeners can email susan.heichert@allina.com, if they’d like to talk with her any time.

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