Spotlight Interview: LeAnne Stewart

Note: The following transcription represents highlights of our interview with LeAnne Stewart. Full-length commentary is available in the video above.

Today’s topic is around rebranding, pivoting, adapting, growing – both personally and professionally. LeAnne Stewart is the Chief Financial Officer of Axia Women’s Health, one of the largest healthcare organizations in the US solely focused on Women’s Health. During LeAnne’s tenure they have expanded to serve in over six states and continue to grow. LeAnne leads not only the finance and accounting functions, but revenue cycle, IT, and more depending on the needs.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Can you share a bit of your background, how arrived at Axia, and how you’ve grown and changed throughout your career?

A: I am the eldest of three sisters and went to an all-girl’s school, a women’s college. Then I headed off to career adventures in public accounting. I’ve been CFO of a couple of multi-billion dollar public companies and have since been the CFO of a handful of private equity sponsored companies, most recently in healthcare services. I landed at Axia because women’s-centric missions are super important to me. When I was approached about the opportunity, I thought it would be a chance to continue my career in a different way – different challenges for a company like this versus companies I’ve worked with in the past – but also allow me to double down on women’s-centric missions. We are a women’s healthcare company. We are unique in a lot of ways and are focused on providing an all-inclusive healthcare opportunity for our patients. I love what we are doing and what we are building.

Q: It’s been fun to work alongside, assisting and cheering you on! Given your background, have there been any pivotal moments in your career or life that have led you down this path?

A: I say this, and it doesn’t sound professional, but there is an element of me making it up as I went along. I was the first in my family to go to college and I had to figure it out by myself. I have approached my career in a similar fashion in that I’ve been opportunistic and observant of what is going on around me, and to some degree, followed others because I didn’t know what I was doing. From all of it, I have no regrets. I’ve enjoyed all the twists and turns and learned a lot along the way, but it’s really been about taking advantage of the opportunities that were presented.

Q: Good advice for anyone. How different have the changes been as you’ve gone through your career regarding industries, leadership types, etc.

A: Every situation is naturally different, but there are often common themes. I started at EY, and I had just about every type of client from an industry perspective, but also size. One thing that’s been a hallmark for me since then, is that I really appreciated those different opportunities. If I think about when I earned my accounting degree, accounting is accounting. Then I got my MBA from the Wharton School, and finance is finance. How you can apply accounting and finance, and then experiences beyond that, is what I think is fun. Learning about different companies, and what makes them tick, has been a fun part intellectually.

Q: Reflecting, I imagine some of that is advice you give to your team or others in how to adapt in their careers – is that fair?

Yes, that and the previous question on being opportunistic. Combine that with wanting to continually learn. I’m a big believer that life is one long experience in learning and being curious and asking questions you might be nervous of asking. We all hear there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but we all worry about asking a stupid question – just ask it. Even in my role today, I ask questions because I can pretty much guarantee there is someone else in the room that wants to ask it and they just don’t. And if someone thinks it’s a stupid question, well then that’s their problem and not mine, I’ve learned something.

Q: Today’s business environment is not the same as it was even five years ago, and people entering the job market may need to be nimbler and more adaptable. From that, what potential changes do you see in the future as we think about the office of the CFO, healthcare, and other industries?

A: There’s no question the world is continuing to move faster and faster all the time. So being nimble in how you think about things, problem solve, and make decisions is really important. The world is much more data-driven now than earlier in my career and that’s a fabulous thing. Decisions made by data are important, but you also need to be practical and let your gut kick in sometimes, so you don’t drown in analysis. At some point, you have to say, “I have what I need”. CFOs are continually challenged to expand outside the traditional CFO role, focused on finance. Most CFOs today that are effective and enjoy their jobs have their fingers on a lot of different things and their ears open. You have to be at the table with the other members of the executive team thinking about where the company is going, how to drive it in that direction, how to prioritize, etc. You must have a strategic operations hat and a lot of other talents to add to your overall effectiveness as CFO.

Q: Echoing the data remark, you implemented a decision support function at Axia. The concept of using data-driven decision making exists in healthcare and other industries you have worked in. Do you see anything else coming that others need to be looking out for?

A: Everyone realizes the cost of healthcare in the US is untenable. So, there is an increasing level of focus on how do we be more thoughtful around the cost of healthcare, delivering the care that’s needed, in the most cost effective way, and also taking care of the patients. That’s a force that exists now and will continue to spiral and grow. You see more types of companies and capabilities entering the healthcare space that will influence what it will ultimately look like. I remember when I first joined the world of healthcare, people remarked that the pace of change was remarkably slow. It may still be true, but it’s getting faster and faster all the time. That is the challenge and focus for all of us. How do we widen the conversations around healthcare, its delivery, and effectiveness such that we can continue to improve beyond where we are at right now.

Q: Bringing on stakeholders such as payors, providers, and management entities, all focused on the same mission?

A: Exactly, it has to be all of those constituencies working together. No one person or entity or aspect is going to solve it all. We have to be working together collectively, and frankly, there need to be some conversations people don’t want to have around value, and is it worth it, and those are thing people don’t like to think about or talk about when it comes to their healthcare.

Q: Turning it around, as an advisory shop focused on helping good companies get better and adapt their business models for change, how do you think service providers can really stay relevant for their clients?

A: The greatest benefit third-parties can bring are outside views and perspectives. It can be easy to get wrapped up in your own stuff and not be aware of what else is going on, to bring in new ideas and say, “have you thought about this?”, or “have you looked at that?” is an important part of what a company like yours can do. Certainly, SLKone has helped on specific, tactical things, being a resource where we needed help. Having confidence in a third-party provider to fill roles, and help you think through what it should look like, being a thought partner for what a company can be in a year, or two years.

Q: Some of those opportunities may not exist for someone entering the workforce now. Are there any characteristics you think about when you look at hiring someone entering now?

A: Yes, several things. I mentioned curious earlier today – that is important to me. Courageous is another one – we talked about adaptability – being able to adapt and go with the flow in your job is important. A person will grow and develop as an individual, the company will benefit from the talents that you have that may not have even been identified yet – or the organization hasn’t identified they need. At Axia, our COO coined “being comfortable with ambiguity”. I am hiring for what a role really should be because we are still figuring it out. The people joining have a role in building and creating alongside me.

Q: Do you think there’s any influence or component of a company’s brand?

A: I don’t know that I’ve thought about it, but I would say yes. I would have jumped more to culture, but the two are intertwined in a significant way. Axia has a culture of creativity and that is embedded in our brand and how we go to market.

Q: Do you think COVID-19 had any impact on the brand at Axia?

A: For those of us that work at Axia, I believe it will have influenced our view of Axia and consequently what our brand means. To the external party, we wanted to ensure our patients felt safe. Obviously great care, but we needed to make sure they felt safe. COVID-19 has embedded that in our brand in a way that may have not been there before.

Q: Any last thoughts you would pass along to executives, leaders, or anyone even coming up in their careers?

A: Embrace it, roll with it, have fun. You never know what life is going to bring to you.