Lynn Erdman – Her Leadership Journey from Floor Nurse to CEO

“One of the things that has helped me most in my career is learning from my mistakes.  Making a mistake, owning the mistake, learning from the mistake.” -Lynn Erdman

[00:00:00] Lynn Erdman: If you want to work for somebody your entire career, be a Physician’s Assistant. And so I thought, okay, that makes me think I’m going to do a nurse. So he was also instrumental and at least helped me think through the process.


[00:00:15] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Lynn Erdman. Lynn started her career as a nurse, but it didn’t take long for her leadership skills to be recognized. She rose through the ranks of nursing and moved into healthcare administration and ultimately into senior leadership in the nonprofit sector. Lynn holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and a Master’s in Nursing from the University of South Carolina. She served as the Vice President of Medical Affairs for the American Cancer Society and the Vice-President of Community Health for Susan G. Komen for The Cure. She was the CEO of the Association of Women’s Health Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. And most recently the Executive Director for Carolina Breasts Friends in Charlotte, an organization that provides education, compassion, and support to people experiencing breast cancer. She’s an adjunct faculty member at UNC Charlotte School of Nursing and a member of the consulting faculty at the Duke University School of Nursing. When she retired from her role at Carolina Breast Friends, she returned to her first love of nursing, where she is the nurse for a thriving healthcare nonprofit in Charlotte.

Let’s pick up on that conversation now.

So, what are people always surprised to learn about you?

[00:01:41] Lynn Erdman: I think people are surprised that I don’t like surprises.

I like to know what’s going on, what’s going to happen. And surprising me doesn’t always work.

[00:01:54] Tommy Thomas: I interviewed a nurse. I guess the third episode of my podcast was Holly Moore. She started out in nursing and got over into, I think, as I remember, she was the first female vice president of a large pharmaceutical company.

She thought that a nursing career was one of the best careers that anybody in senior leadership could have because of the forced decision-making and the methodical decision-making. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s the creativity and the ability to figure out problems that I like the most in nursing.  You’ve got a patient who’s struggling, you’ve got a team of people that can’t figure out what to do with the patient, and yet together you come up with an idea and it solves the problem.

 [00:02:26] Lynn Erdman: I certainly think there’s some decision-making in there, but I think it’s the creativity and the ability to figure out problems that I like the most in nursing.

You’ve got a problem in front of you. You’ve got a patient who’s struggling, you’ve got a team of people that can’t figure out what to do with the patient, and yet you can come up with an idea and it solves the problem. So the ability to work with lots of different people and to have the ability to question things and look for a different solution has always been something I liked about nursing.

[00:03:08] Tommy Thomas: So, think back to your first management job when you actually had people reporting to you. What are your memories?

[00:03:16] Lynn Erdman: My memories are that I didn’t do a very good job. I wasn’t sure what a leader was supposed to do. I thought if I just set the direction and said, this is what we’re going to do for this particular project, that people would follow.

That doesn’t really work. So, I had to sit down and think and say, all right that didn’t work. What do I need to do? And realized pretty quickly, that the more buy-in and input I get from the team members, the better off. Whatever project it is that we’re working on, the outcome is going to be a lot better if I’ve got some buy-in and some input.  And people at least know what they’re supposed to do and they feel like they are making a difference there.

[00:04:01] Tommy Thomas: Successful people are often asked, what makes you so successful? I like to frame the question this way. What’s a factor that’s helped you succeed that most people on the outside wouldn’t realize?

One of the things that has helped me most in my career is learning from my mistakes.  Making a mistake, owning the mistake, learning from the mistake.

[00:04:12] Lynn Erdman: Oh, my goodness. I think lots of things have helped me succeed, but probably making mistakes has been one of the things that’s helped me succeed the most. I’ve made lots of mistakes in my career where I’ve looked at something and thought this was the path to go down and found out that it wasn’t. But I think owning up to the mistake and then saying, okay, what did I learn from that?

And asking how could I do that differently in the future has been something that has helped my career and not being afraid to make a mistake and to take a risk. That’s one of the things that I think has made me successful. I’m willing to try something.

[00:04:53] Tommy Thomas: It’s been said that we often learn more by our mistakes or our failures.  If that’s the case, why are most of us so afraid to make a mistake or fail?

[00:05:06] Lynn Erdman: I think that it’s the fear of being judged. Somebody is going to look and say I’m putting you in that category or wow, I wouldn’t have done that. And it’s how it reflects.

[00:05:21] Tommy Thomas: You being from the south, you would understand the expression having your medal tested.  Take us to a time in your career when your medal was tested and how did you come out of it?

[00:05:33] Lynn Erdman: I can remember an early time in my career. I had just I’d finished graduate school about a year before that, had worked on a research project that I was proud of, had worked with three other people on the project, and really wanted to get that published.

And so, I worked with them. Nobody wanted to do it. They were finished with graduate school. They were moving on. And so, I wrote up the paper, sent it to all of them, and they said, we’re not interested. Just leave our names off. We’re not interested. Anyway, to make a long story short, the journal that I turned it into accepted the article.

It was an international journal, regarded. I sent them a letter saying, we’ve been accepted, and they said, oh, then we want our names on it and we want them in alphabetical order which meant my name moved down the list. I can remember being so devastated thinking all right, am I even going to do this?

Am I going to publish this article just, you know, out of spite or anger or whatever else? The article was published. It was published in alphabetical order, but from there, I learned not only if you communicate, it doesn’t always solve the problem. You’ve got to just decide, I can accept things certain ways and move on.


[00:07:02] Tommy Thomas: Richard Paul Evans, a novelist that I read a lot, says sometimes the greatest hope in our lives is just a second chance to do what we should have done right in the first place. What’s going on in your mind and your heart when you think about giving a staff member a second chance?

[00:07:20] Lynn Erdman: Always looking at where are they in the workforce.

How long have they been working with me? That’s not a determining factor, but what are they contributing to what we’re doing and to the mission here? And what is the reason that they’ve made a mistake? Is it something that they regret? Are they remorseful at all? Those types of things. I’m looking for all of that.

But I always want somebody to have a second chance if they’re interested in having a second chance. And I found that there are times when the employee just does not want a second chance. They’re so embarrassed by whatever the mistake was that they would rather leave the organization than stay and work and deal with kind of recovering from the episode.

[00:08:18] Tommy Thomas: So many leaders have been in leadership roles where the experience was very different than they expected. Has this happened to you? And if so, what’d you learn?

[00:08:30] Lynn Erdman: Oh yes. I can remember accepting a position. I was working in Chicago at that point in time and I started on my first day, I got there, I’d read the job description, and I’d done interviews with a number of people who had described the position thoroughly.

It was a totally different role than I had expected and a totally different set of responsibilities. And so, I can remember talking to the person who had hired me and said this is not what we discussed, and I want to make sure I can do it. Because I’m happy to have the job, I’m excited to have the job, but if I can’t perform at the level, I want to be able to perform to meet all these goals, then I want to relook.

We ended up working things out, it all worked fine. But yes, I was surprised that these additional ten things were on the list, and they were more important than what we talked about in the interview.

[00:09:33] Tommy Thomas: So, I guess maybe that taught you a little bit about when you’re hiring people to make sure that everything is spelled out?

[00:09:39] Lynn Erdman:  Yes, it’s not fair to people if they don’t know what they’re coming in and being responsible for.

[00:09:48] Tommy Thomas: You’ve progressed up through nursing through all kinds of senior positions. How do you decide what a good leadership role looks like for you?

[00:09:58] Lynn Erdman: I’ve actually turned down two CEO roles during my career and those were hard choices in my life to try to decide. I had gotten all the way through the interview process, and they were ready to offer me the position and I sat down reading through everything again. And I thought I don’t think I can do exactly what they want me to do and be successful in the way.

That I want to be successful here. And so, I think I would be better served to look at a different avenue, look at a different type of position. It was a particular area of specialty that I had great knowledge in, but I had not had a lot of experience in. So, it’s a wonderful opportunity, but I decided on that.

I can remember the board being very disappointed at that type of thing, but I know it was the right decision to move on. But those are the things I don’t always see people have the ability to make that type of decision. They’ll go in and they’ll take something, and they’ll just be there and not be able to deliver on the job and that’s never a good thing.

[00:11:22] Tommy Thomas: At what point in your career did you begin to feel comfortable in your leadership skin?

[00:11:28] Lynn Erdman: I’m not sure that I ever got completely comfortable. I’m always learning. I love to read articles on leadership or look at different things and obviously, I’d love to have a mento. I’ve been a mentor to a lot of people, but I always have someone that I think I can learn from and look at how they manage certain things and learn from them.

I think I can always learn. I’m certainly comfortable in the leadership role now. But again, I think it’s something you can always get better. 

[00:12:07] Tommy Thomas:  What do you remember about your first mentor?

[00:12:12] Lynn Erdman:   My first mentor was the person who hired me at Presbyterian Hospital.

He was the CEO there. And I remember the reason he was part of the interview process is because I was their first clinical nurse specialist that they had ever hired at this large hospital. And so, he wanted to be in on the process because he said, I don’t even know what a clinical nurse specialist does.

If I’m going to have one of these on my team, with 450 plus employees, then I want to know what she’s going to do. So that was very interesting. I developed a relationship with him and he was one that taught me a variety of things about how to care for people.

He was an amazing leader at that hospital and I just watched him be respectful and caring of any and everybody that he came in contact with and that made a huge impression on me. And he used to always say, I live by the golden rule. And I think he really did. You do unto others like you would have them do to you.

[00:13:23] Tommy Thomas: So, was that more of an informal process, or did y’all set up a weekly tutorial?

[00:13:28] Lynn Erdman: We met a lot. Yeah. He ended up moving me from the oncology clinical nurse specialist after I’d done that position for several years and in that position, I was consulting with physicians. So, if there was a person in the hospital who was having an issue or had just been diagnosed with cancer, then I was the one called in to say, would you please come talk to this patient and family?

I was the intermediary and the liaison between the physician, the patient, and the family. But after I’d done that several years the president of the hospital called me down and he said, I want to form a cancer center. I really want to build a cancer center here. And he ended up putting me in charge of the cancer center.

So, I was the founding director of the cancer center at this large hospital. And that’s when I developed a lot of my leadership skills and responsibility.

[00:14:23] Tommy Thomas:   You’ve had several CEO slots in different kinds of organizations. Is it fair to ask you what’s been your favorite senior leadership position?

[00:14:36] Lynn Erdman: I think my most favorite was the director of the cancer center at this large hospital. I did that for a number of years, built it from the ground up, hired the physicians, hired the researchers, hired the social workers, the chaplains, opened the first inpatient hospice unit in the state, opened a pain management or palliative care unit, just a number of different things.

And so, the learning and the experience in that time was overwhelmingly rewarding, and all the patients that I worked with during that time. So yes, I would label that as the top one.

[00:15:16] Tommy Thomas:   Was that one of your early P&L responsibilities where you had a budget to manage?

[00:15:22] Lynn Erdman: Oh, I had a huge budget to manage.

Yes, and that was great learning. Lots of work with the CFO and the whole finance team, and yes, adding lots of different experiences and knowledge to the nursing background, essentially worked all the way through an MBA course without having to sit in the classroom, but getting it the other way.

Spent time at Wharton during that time and went through the huge management course for hospital administrators, those types of things. 


[00:16:00] Tommy Thomas: Maybe not in your current job, but in maybe one of your previous CEO jobs, if I had to come along and you let me be in a staff meeting and we had dismissed you and I got a chance to be with your direct reports, what do you think they would have said would have been the most trying part of working with you?

[00:16:18] Lynn Erdman: That I would listen to all aspects of a situation and then I would make a decision, instead of making one as a gut reaction or a knee-jerk reaction. This is on fire. Make a decision. Instead, I want to know if this is on fire, what else, what started the fire, what happened, what’s around it, what’s going to impact it.

And then I’ll make the decision as to what we need to do. And if so, fire might be a little bit exaggerated because obviously, you go put the fire out. But I would want to know all the aspects before making a decision. I think that was frustrating to people. They wanted me to just instantly decide what I wanted to do.

[00:17:05] Tommy Thomas: Let’s flip that. What would they have said was the most rewarding part of being on your team?

[00:17:11] Lynn Erdman: Oh, that I had lots of empathy and understanding. I always knew what was going on in their personal lives for what they would share. And was extremely concerned about whether they took time off for themselves.

Had they taken their vacation? If they were sick, how were they? I’m texting them to see how they are. Are the children okay? Those types of things.  I think the compassionate understanding when things go wrong in life, that you can still roll with it.

[00:17:42] Tommy Thomas:   You mentioned earlier that you’re a risk taker.

Frederick Wilcox said that progress always involves risk. You can’t steal second base with your foot on first. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and how did it come out?

[00:17:56] Lynn Erdman: The biggest risk I have ever taken was to start a completely new operation when I was the CEO of a large national nursing organization in Washington, D.C. and decided that I had heard comments from the board, we had talked through things and decided that we needed a new part of our organization to be able to meet the needs of a wide variety of nurses that were beginning to have a special interest in an area that we were covering. We started that and we needed to back it up and actually regroup several times within the project itself.

It was a huge risk, not only because of the money that was going to cost to get it started, but was the revenue or the outcome going to be where we wanted? And were we going to be able to make a difference for the people that we were creating all this for, which ultimately were the patients. And it turned out that it was fine, but it was a very rocky road there for a period of time.

Ended up pulling in people from all over the country into several talk sessions, think tanks, and those types of things to make the process move forward.

[00:19:26] Tommy Thomas: What’s been your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?

[00:19:32] Lynn Erdman: My biggest failure, let’s see I’ve had several where I had to back the truck up. I would say my biggest failure was choosing not to communicate with someone who I knew was very upset with the decision that I had made and tried to reach out to them. They didn’t respond. And so, I just said I’m just going to put this to rest.

And it turned out that we should have had a conversation. I should have pushed, and we should have talked all of that through, which happened later, but all of the in-between should not have happened.

[00:20:15] Tommy Thomas: I interviewed a guy recently, and he said he was writing a book on the burdens of leadership.  The burdens of leadership that only the president or the CEO bear. If you were writing such a book, what would you cover?

[00:20:29] Lynn Erdman: Oh, my goodness. Things that you see that you know need attention, but you’re not sure how to deal with them. People that bring you problems and just dump them in your lap because you are at the top of the heap and expect you to solve them, but don’t expect to have any part in solving them.

In other words, they don’t come with a solution, they come with a problem.  To me, that’s one of the hardest roles within CEO. But the other biggest burden is not having anyone to talk with. It’s a very lonely role at the top. Because you can’t just say I’m going to talk to the board chair. Because it might be something that you actually shouldn’t be sharing with the board chair.

You need to figure out how all this is going to work before you do that. And so not having that person within the organization, I think, is one of the hardest. It’s a big burden. So, you have to find your resources outside of the organization that you can trust and share with.

[00:21:40] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most dangerous behavior that you’ve seen derail leaders’ careers?

[00:21:46] Lynn Erdman: Lying, just being dishonest. When it happens the integrity of everything is destroyed. And I’ve certainly seen that with people, lack of communication, trying to think that I can just move forward. It’s my decision. Or taking credit for others’ work. When that happens, that is, these people are sitting in your audience and you are taking credit for something and you didn’t do that work, they did.

But you’re not calling them out and saying, I’m really thrilled that this team came up with all these great ideas.


[00:22:27] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to a little something lighter maybe. If you were a judge on a nonprofit Shark Tank, and some of these young entrepreneurs were coming to your panel of wealthy investors with these ideas.  What have you got to know before you open your pocketbook?

[00:22:47] Lynn Erdman: I want to know what their mission is. I want to know what they’ve invested in this nonprofit. And I want to know who their other sponsors are. And if they don’t get the money from Shark Tank or whoever is giving it, what’s plan B?

How are they going to move forward? And once, even if they get this money, what’s the sustainability afterward? When this runs out, how are they going to keep the project going?

[00:23:24] Tommy Thomas: In the same vein, if you were building a dashboard to look at the health of nonprofits, what would your dashboard monitor?

[00:23:32] Lynn Erdman: Oh, I think it would monitor volunteers.  How many do they have?  Who’s following their organization? Social media, how much money do they have coming in? If I’m looking at a dashboard and how many people are reaching out for their services, I always want to know. It could sound great. But if nobody is calling and needing their services, but they are continuing to raise the money, then there’s a big red flag and a question about how much is this really needed.

And then volunteers and staff as well. Are they dedicated to the mission? Have they got the right people in the right seats? Those types of things.

[00:24:15] Tommy Thomas: I’d like you to respond to a few quotes before I go over into board service. I came across this quote this week. I attributed it to Mark Twain but who knows who originally said it.

The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.

[00:24:28] Lynn Erdman: True.

[00:24:30] Tommy Thomas: Obviously you’ve been through a lot of change in health care over the years. What have you learned about change and how to get through it?

Change is constant. If we are going to keep up and be innovative, we must change.

[00:24:39] Lynn Erdman: Change is constant. We used to call the American Cancer Society when I worked there, “always changing something”.

That’s what it stood for ACS, always changing something, which was indeed true. But when I look back, I think part of the reason was things change in the world and if we were going to keep up and be innovative then we best be doing the same thing as well. I think we don’t like change because we get comfortable with a particular way of doing things.

And then all of a sudden when that’s gone or doesn’t look the same, then wait, how am I going to find that? I think we all struggle with change, although it makes the world go round, it’s good for us.

[00:25:24] Tommy Thomas: You won’t rise to the occasion; you will sink to your level of preparedness.

[00:25:31] Lynn Erdman: Yeah. That’s true. That often happens. You’ve got to rise to the occasion many times. If you just stay with what you’re prepared for, you will make absolutely no progress. So you’ve got to do something. I can remember when I was asked when I was at Northeast Medical Center and I was Vice President of Women’s and Cancer Services and the President of the hospital called me one day and he said, I’ve got a project for you.

And I thought all right, this would be something in cancer or women’s services. Let’s talk. And he looked at me over his desk and he said, I want you to change the culture in this hospital. And I thought, excuse me? This was a huge medical center, part of the Atrium system. And I looked at him.

And I thought I know this isn’t in my job description. I didn’t say that out loud, but I thought it. And he said, I know you can do it and I’m putting you in charge. You can pick your team, but I want to turn around patient satisfaction and culture in this entire facility.  I left his office thinking I have an open book, a completely open drawing table. And I don’t know where to go. I remember going back to my office thinking, all right, he believes in me. I’m sure I can do it. And I ended up pulling together a committee. A pretty big committee, because I wanted people from all over the hospital. And then a team, an executive team, that was going to do the work.

We did training at Disney, and went through their whole program. Anyway, it was just fascinating. But I can remember sitting back across from this president in his office saying, you will do the training with the employees. Because if we’re making this change, you have to be part of it. Because if you’re not part of it, none of the rest of the employees think it’s important to them or feel that they’re going to need to do this.

He went to both trainings and did the trainings as well in the hospital for all the employees. It was an incredible project. I worked on it for more than two years in addition to doing the job that I had which was to be over the cancer center and all the women’s services in the hospital. When I think back that was one of the most rewarding things too that I have ever done in my career because not only did I watch myself grow in that process, but I also realized that somebody saw something in me that I did not see. And I didn’t just turn my back and say I just can’t do that. I went with it and it happened and the scores changed dramatically. We were written up all over the country for the incredible change that it made in patient satisfaction scores.

We had Press Ganey coming to visit our hospital to find out what had been done. And to this day, I still have lunch with the four people that were part of that team. And none of us live in this area. We all come back in together and we get together at least six times a year. So, it’s amazing sometimes what people see that you don’t see.

[00:29:07] Tommy Thomas: President Eisenhower said, I guess when he was a General, in preparing for battle, I’ve always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

[00:29:18] Lynn Erdman: How true. Yes, the plans. Many times I throw the plans out the window because I’ve written them down. I’ve thought, okay, this is exactly what we need to do.

And then you start working and it’s not working. So you throw those out, you pull the team together, you get the best ideas and you move forward.

[00:29:42] Tommy Thomas: From one of President Eisenhower’s peers, General George Patton, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”.

[00:29:55] Lynn Erdman: This is true. I can remember when we needed to redo all of the programming. We just didn’t have people attending programming for women with breast cancer and we had a plan, we had put things together, and it just wasn’t working. And so we sat down and said, all right, here are all the different options, go be creative and come back with a solution.

And wow, it looked so much better and so different than what we had ever started with. And that was when we had plans and threw them out the window and recreated and had something that people were flocking to. So yes I definitely agree.

“The thing about mentors and mentees is each person can always learn something from the other.” -Lynn Erdman

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