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Owning Up: Women in Leadership Series

Women account for 41.9% of the workforce in 2023. Yet, the proportion of women in senior leadership roles (Vice-President, Director, or C-suite) has dropped by 10% to 32.2. At Stoltz, we know women make great leaders — and we envision a world where there are an equal number of women in leadership as men. We asked several women we admire who hold leadership positions, or are experts in their field, to share their experiences with us and what leadership means for them. Here is one of their stories.

Susie Keller joined the Idaho Medical Association in November of 2007, becoming only the fourth CEO in the organization’s 130-year history. She is the first female to hold the position. IMA is a professional membership association for Idaho physicians, providing advocacy, representation, communication, education, technical assistance, and many other valuable services.

Susie graduated summa cum laude from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, and minors in Journalism and French. Susie is an avid outdoorswoman who enjoys hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and running with her husband Jason and their dog Wally.

That Was Not on My Bingo Card — Leading Through the Unexpected

Reflecting back on 25 years working as a healthcare advocate, I can identify several steps along the way that were pivotal to my leadership journey — and completely unexpected. Here are 5 things I didn’t have on my bingo card and all the ways they’ve shaped me into the leader I am today.

#1: Moving Away from Home

I am currently the CEO of the Idaho Medical Association. Having spent my life in Wyoming, moving to Idaho wasn’t on my bingo card. At the beginning of 2007 I was the Executive Director of the Wyoming Medical Society, had just purchased my first “I-did-it-all-by-myself” home in Cheyenne and adopted a puppy.

#2: Embracing My Authenticity

By the end of 2007, I was two months into my new role as the IMA CEO. Daisy (the puppy) and I found ourselves adjusting to a new life in Idaho. I found it extremely challenging to move to a new city where I didn’t have friends or connections. However, there is freedom in going to a new place where no one knows you — it provides an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Ultimately, I found that the best use of this newfound freedom was to lean into being my genuine self. I was the one who got me here, after all.

Part of what convinced me to embrace my authenticity was learning that the hiring committee was impressed by how I didn’t back down to tough questions during the interview process. In fact, I pushed back against someone who was clearly trying to fluster me. I recall a phone call with my mom that night telling her I probably wouldn’t end up moving to Boise after all because, “I sassed the interviewer.”

#3. Persisting Through Challenges — and Burnout

My first few years at the IMA were challenging, to say the least. When you find yourself needing to hire an antitrust attorney, then an ERISA attorney, then an HR attorney to navigate one organizational ordeal after another, it’s safe to say things aren’t sailing along smoothly.

Fast forwarding to the last four years, I can honestly say that leading a healthcare organization in Idaho has never been more difficult. First in navigating the COVID pandemic, then after the fall of Roe v. Wade in 2022, facing the impacts of harmful Idaho laws targeting pregnant women. I never would have foreseen our dedicated Idaho physicians being ignored, disrespected and villainized by our legislative leaders and the public.

I’ve spent half my life representing physicians. Not only has it been an incredible privilege, but it’s also a part of who I am. In my heart and to my very bones, I’m a physician advocate. But, I’ll be candid about how our current environment is impacting me. Some days I want to scream and cry and say to hell with it all and ride off into the sunset. Burnout wasn’t on my bingo card.

#4. Learning that Showing Vulnerability & Compassion is a Strength

To me, being a strong, authentic leader means being vulnerable. It means being honest with my board and my team about how this work can be emotionally exhausting and frustrating to a point where I need to prioritize my own mental health. It means embracing the uncomfortable tension of knowing there is no perfect answer. It means never backing away from seeing the humanity in those I serve, as well as those I fight against. I’ve learned that showing grace and compassion in the face of adversity is not a weakness, but is actually one of my superpowers.

#5. Even Small Steps Matter: Fighting for Women’s Healthcare

After years of advocating in the midst of controversy, I know that a successful career can mean fighting the good fight, even when you don’t always get the win — at least not in the traditional sense. I’ve learned that small steps forward can be meaningful, and there is victory in preventing harm.

I’ve found success as a leader by balancing relentless positivity with unwavering pragmatism. I’m unshakeable in my resolve to do the right thing for Idaho physicians and patients, and for my organization. I’ve learned to temper wild-eyed optimism with realistic assessments of what is possible in an impossible environment.

Right now, Idaho is at a pivotal point, and the future of women’s healthcare hangs in the balance. As the first female CEO in the 130-year history of the Idaho Medical Association, it’s not lost on me that I’m on the frontlines of this battle.

But that was not on my bingo card.