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Hospital Director, Spire Manchester Hospital
Joanna Wallace, MBA 91, enters the “out” door of Spire Manchester Hospital and navigates service corridors to reach her office. Though her circuitous route is temporary while the hospital undergoes a four-month facelift, it befits this health care leader who came into her career in a circuitous way, too.
“My bachelor’s degree was in architecture and planning, so people expected me to design things, which I didn’t want to do,” says Wallace, running venture capital-owned Spire Manchester (the largest of Spire’s 37 UK hospitals) since 2009. “My first consultancy job, in London, made me much more interested in the organizations within buildings than in buildings themselves.”
British-born Wallace reasoned that a U.S. qualification could help dispel her architect image while affording cross-cultural opportunities. “UK MBAs were uncommon, and I needed a loan,” she explains. “My bank would only loan for London Business School, UCLA, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley.” Wallace ruled out Stanford because it was too pricey and East Coast schools because she thought the region was too similar to England. That left Berkeley and UCLA: “I tossed a coin, and Haas won.”
Her gamble paid off. Kaiser Permanente Northern California hired her as a regional planning manager. Four years later, Wallace’s U.S. experience opened doors to the National Health Service (NHS), the UK’s publicly funded health care system.
“In the U.S., I realized how strongly committed I felt to free health care,” Wallace says. “In the UK, I took it for granted, until I saw the impact of not having it on Americans’ lives.”
At 31, Wallace became he UK’s youngest NHS chief executive, at St. Helens and Knowsley Health Authority, which oversaw health care providers in the Liverpool area and operated with a budget of £235 million ($400 million). Her bigger achievement came in 2000, when she became CEO of Christie Hospital NHS Trust, Europe’s largest cancer research and treatment center, with 1,800 employees.
“We had an undeniable need for critical care beds,” says Wallace. “Institutionally, however, they were considered a waste of money for cancer patients. I work in health care because I’m committed to the patients, so I spent five years—and all my political capital—getting a much-needed intensive care unit there.”
Her goal achieved, Wallace left Christie in 2005 and decided to test her business skills in the private sector.
After three years starting up a UK unit of biopharma company Astra Zeneca. Wallace moved to long-neglected Spire Manchester. The private hospital offers everything from orthopedic surgery to laser hair removal for a fee.
“Fewer than 12 percent of UK residents have private health insurance, so our challenge is creating new services and engaging customers in new ways,” Wallace says.
“But health care has commonalities wherever you go because it’s a profession—those in it have a very strong professional identity and ethic. How managers need to behave to succeed is similar across the board: It’s about how we build relationships and our ability to lead. It’s that simple.” –Christine Fundak Rohan