A system to track dog licenses at the Franklin County Auditor’s Office in Columbus, Ohio, set Phyllis Teater on a path to her current position as CIO of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
Teater was a clerk in the auditor’s office — having left Purdue University two years earlier — still undecided about what she really wanted to do with her life. Younger than other members of her team, she was the one sent to talk to IT about the new system’s installation. Now she manages IT and a 350-person workforce for a massive integrated health system that includes six hospitals, the Ohio State University medical school and a physician practice of more than 500 doctors.
Ohio State University’s hospitals hold the highest ranking on the Health Information and Management Systems Society’s scale of implementation of electronic medical records. They’re among only 115 out of more than 5,000 U.S. hospitals to achieve the Stage 7 level, which among other things means they’ve gone totally paperless, can exchange information with other providers and payers electronically, and use analytics to improve care.
As deputy CIO, Teater was responsible for the initial selection and implementation of the EMR system, which at rollout required training more than 14,000 workers in about three weeks. She became CIO in 2010.
The dog license system’s implementation inspired Teater to go back to college, to Ohio State. Beyond her undergraduate degree in Computer Information Systems, which she completed while also working full time, she obtained an MBA specializing in information systems.
Teater talked with Dice News about her career trajectory.
So tell me how you progressed through the organization here.
I started as a programmer in what we consider applications. At the time, we were building almost all of our own systems. So I worked on those homegrown systems and programmed them. Then after a couple of years, the leader of our group left and I was asked to interview and was offered that job eventually. My path has been in almost every case that I took my boss’s job. The same with the CIO position. I reported to the CIO. He left about 2 ½ years ago now, and when he left, I was asked to be interim CIO. Then after six months as the interim, I was asked to be the CIO.
What were some of your job titles along the way?
I was a team manager, an assistant director, a director, a deputy CIO, now I’m a CIO.
Did you have a mentor or someone who helped you make career decisions?
Lots of people and I wouldn’t be loving my job so much without them and be in the job I’m in, certainly.
What kind of advice did they give you?
Lots of good advice. Of course, everybody thinks they’ve had setbacks, when they were going the wrong direction. One time I got the dreaded special project job. I was managing an area and I was asked to step away from that and do a special project. When that first happened, I was very upset. I got some very good advice from different individuals that rather than stewing on that or letting it affect my decision to stay at OSU, that the very best thing to do was to just knock that special project out of the park and make sure you are available for the very next opportunity. Then people will remember that when you were asked to do something different, you said, “Whatever I can do for the organization,” and you did it well. That certainly improved my attitude, but also people would respect that.
Some people believe you have to move every couple of years to advance. You’ve been at OSU a long time. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve been here 22 years, so it’s not absolutely required. It might be easier to advance your career, and quicker, your salary. Those are very real issues about your ability to help support your family.
I love being part of an organization where I understand the culture, where I know a lot of people. I’ve hired a lot of outside people and they bring a wonderful breadth of experience, but this is a big, complex place. When you first start, it’s really hard to figure out how to get anything done. I know this place inside and out, and I really feel I can help our staff in IT and peers that might come from somewhere else figure out how to navigate this place.
As a woman, have you faced some challenges that perhaps men in technology wouldn’t have to deal with?
I haven’t looked at that as a barrier. I look at it more as an opportunity. It’s a male-dominated field, especially in leadership positions. And they underestimate me, which is just fine. You can pretty easily turn that into an asset.
Have you made any career decisions that perhaps you might do differently?
That’s hard because I love my job, I love my team. So when I look back, if I had done anything differently, I might be in a different place right now. There are decisions that I’ve regretted, not so much about my career, but situations when I could have helped the organization more. Every leader makes decisions where they didn’t take enough risk. But if I had made other career decisions, I might be in a different place right now.
So what career advice would you give to those just starting out?
The other category of great advice I received was how to think about the balance in your life. There may be times in your life – for instance, there was a time before when I had the opportunity to apply for the CIO job, the time before when it was open. I received some encouragement to at least apply. But I didn’t feel like it was the right time in my family life. I had twins and an older child who were still in grade school, so I didn’t apply for it. So if you give of yourself to the organization, but still protect your home life, your career will still advance. It might not advance as fast as you want or the exact way that you want, but you never know when an opportunity that feels awful, that you don’t want to do, that you were pushed to do, where that opportunity may lead you.