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Christine White
Career Diplomat
The chief aide to the dean/CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine talks about her career, her management style, and what it takes to work for the boss


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Karen Boyle
Chris White in the board room.

In 1997, when Johns Hopkins Medicine was formed, you were given the title of assistant dean for medicine, responsible for reaching out across the boundaries of the new organization to the Hospital and Health System. Why were you also recently named executive assistant to the dean/CEO, Edward Miller?

As Dr. Miller looked at the various duties I have—the day-to-day management of the dean’s office, my expanding duties with Hopkins Medicine, including overseeing various initiatives and making significant decisions independent of the dean/CEO—he wanted to give me another title. So now I am executive assistant to Dr. Miller. My role is similar to Jerry Schnydman’s. He’s executive assistant to Dr. Brody, University president.

Since you joined Hopkins in 1977, you’ve been executive assistant to three deans: D.A. Henderson of the School of Public Health, Mike Johns of the School of Medicine, and now Ed Miller. It takes a certain amount of adroitness to adapt to three different leadership styles.

I love organizing, managing, figuring out a way to accomplish what people think can’t happen. D.A. started me on that path. He was a mentor, the kind of person who allowed me to take on as much as I could.

To Mike, I was more of an adviser. I took on senior responsibilities. He leaned heavily on me, which was great.

Ed is very similar to D.A. He’s a great mentor, he allows me to make all the decisions I feel I want to make. He stands back and gets out of the way.

But there must have been tough times, especially when escalating tensions between the School of Medicine and the Health System precipitated the formation of Hopkins Medicine. How did you weather that storm?

It was tough but not quite as tough as some may think. The institution, the faculty who work day in and day out to make the discoveries, treat the patients and teach—all that continued. We didn’t lose any ground there. It was just at the top; it needed to be fixed. I put great faith in the trustee committee that addressed the problem and put us on the right track.

What’s it like to work so closely with trustees and serve as secretary to the board of advisers, the governing body of the School of Medicine? 

I started working directly with Mike Armstrong in 1992 when he was chair of the board of advisors. He’s now chair of the board of trustees. Getting to know people like Mike, understanding their thought process, observing their leadership styles, feeling the commitment these trustees and donors have for Hopkins has been a real joy.

You’re operating in the very top echelons of academic medicine. What’s it like up there in the stratosphere?

I think I’m one of the most fortunate people at Hopkins. To be where I am, work with the people I work with, go to great places and meet great people from all different backgrounds—it’s an opportunity that most simply do not get.

You know, for almost three years after D.A. stepped down, I was director of alumni affairs and government relations at the School of Public Health. I broadened my skills, but once you’re part of what’s going on at the highest level in the University, you miss it, you really miss it. So when I was offered the position here to work with Mike Johns, I took it and never looked back.

What qualities are important for a person in your position?

Confidentiality is incredibly important. You have to have impeccable judgment. You have to think about how the decisions you make will affect the institution, not your own position or career. At times, it can be very stressful, very tense, and you’ve got to be able to handle that. You’ve got to accept that you can only do so much.

It sounds all-consuming.

It’s important for me to have fun in my job. There’s got to be laughter, kidding. You can’t do all this, go home and come back the next day and have the job the only thing you think about. My family, friends and outside interests are very important. I was always a strong athlete and played just about every sport. Now I play golf, and when I’m on the golf course, my job is very far removed from my thoughts.

Do you ever play golf with Hopkins colleagues?

All the time. I pick up my golf partners by who I meet. Among the many colleagues I play golf with are Roger Blumenthal, Ron Werthman, Judy Reitz, Charlie Reuland, Joe Coppola and Bill Baumgartner. He’s an awful good golfer. Oh, and Stu Erdman, he’s very, very good.

So who are the best of the bunch?

I’d say it’s a toss-up between Roger and Stu.

In the corporate world, golf has long been an entrée into inner circles. Is it so in academic medicine as well?

It really helps with networking. I have called upon those people and many more I’ve played with because now I have a friendship with them, and that transcends so much.

You’ve been a woman in a predominantly man’s world. Are you happy with the way things have evolved for women in this institution, or do you think there’s still a long way to go?

Fortunately, at Hopkins, if you do a good job, people recognize it. Having said that, however, I do think it has been tougher for women to be recognized at certain levels. You just have to keep moving forward and do your best. Currently, there is a strong commitment by Dr. Miller that women at all levels are treated equally, and I’ve witnessed a change.

Did you ever think you would wind up in a job like this?

When I was about 18, my father used to say he thought I would be chief of protocol for the White House. I guess that’s because I was diplomatic and always trying to fix problems and be in charge. I didn’t get to the White House, but perhaps Hopkins Medicine is the next best thing—or maybe even better.

Surely there’ve been some disappointments?

I certainly thought that by the time my mother was in her 70s I would beat her in golf. She’s now 78, has a handicap of nine and was club champion at Pinehurst, N.C. All I can do is stand back in awe. I still can’t beat her.  

—Anne Bennett Swingle

 

 

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