Harbert Podcast

The value of broad-based knowledge: Leah Jones

April 08, 2021 The Harbert College of Business
Harbert Podcast
The value of broad-based knowledge: Leah Jones
Show Notes Transcript

Leah Jones, a 1992 accounting graduate, is a veteran of the health care technology field. Armed with her Harbert degree, she gained increasingly higher levels of responsibility and is currently Senior Vice President and General Manager – Ambulatory at Allscripts.

The phrase on her LinkedIn  profile, WE SAVE LIVES, reflects the impact of technology in the effective delivery of health care and is a daily inspiration, Jones says. In this podcast, she discusses the value of broad-based knowledge in management and the importance of internships for students preparing to enter the business world.

Narrator:

Welcome to the Harvard College of Business Podcast.

Currie Dyess:

War Eagle, I'm Currie Dyess.

Sarah Gascon:

And I'm Dr. Sarah Gascon. Welcome to another episode of the Harvard College of Business Podcast. Today's guest is Mrs. Leah Jones. Leah is the senior vice president and general manager for Ambulatory. Leah has worked in technology industry for more than 20 years, gaining experience in complex and creative negotiations, sales support systems and workflows, technical accounting, and team leadership.

Currie Dyess:

Today's episode we'll discuss the value of versatility, the evolution of artificial intelligence in the healthcare industry, and the critical importance of internships to your education.

Sarah Gascon:

Leah, welcome and War Eagle. Thank you for joining us today.

Leah Jones:

War Eagle. I'm so glad to be with you guys today.

Sarah Gascon:

Thank you for joining us.

Currie Dyess:

So happy to have you.

Sarah Gascon:

It's really great. So let's jump right into it. How does a CPA find her way to senior VP and a general managerial position?

Leah Jones:

So, first of all, let me tell you that when I was at Auburn and as an accounting student, I had no idea I would end up here. So there's not something that I actually planned for, but what I did find out is that, I thought that I would be in this controller type CFO path throughout my career. And I started in a general accounting role as do most people coming out with a degree. I took the private sector instead of the accounting firm sector. So I went into a public company and, or I say the industry sector instead of the partner type sector. And I did all the main functional areas of accounting. So think your AR, your AP accounts payroll. I did payroll. I also did monthly closings and consolidations.

              And I had about five years in those roles where I went very deep into very narrow areas of study and practice. And I had this transformational opportunity at one point where I was placed on an SAP project. And so a big ERP system. And I was in a role of an integrator between finance and actually in sales. So why was I there? Because I was representing all of the financial elements of setup in decision making in that system. And I had to learn the sales side so that I could actually make the right accounting decisions on the front side of transactions. And as I was doing that, I realized that I was learning the full business cycles, not just the accounting treatment, but how those cycles actually worked in the beginning. And so that became really an important piece of how I grew this journey.

              The next roles that I took, I joined some smaller companies. They were still public in nature for the most part, but in those smaller companies and the roles that I had there, I played a broader role where I got to use all those functional areas of accounting, but act more in a management position and overseeing them. And I was able to begin making decisions and being more of a consultant financial person in helping drive the business than I was just the transactional bookkeeper. And I found that that was really more interesting to me, and it actually was more valuable to the organization. And as I continued down the path, I started realizing that I was a little bit bored with just the general accounting side, and I entered into the technology market during the time when there was a lot of drama around the SEC guidance and accounting for software. And I found a little niche there where I could specialize in some complex accounting that was very integrated into operations and how decisions were made.

              And so I started out still just doing the accounting, but where I found more value and where the company actually began to push me was in creating the negotiations and the contracts and the business decisions that actually drove the accounting outcomes that we wanted, versus just taking what sales, or the organizations had decided as business decisions and letting the accounting be the fallout. So how do you want to structure it to make it yield the accounting results that you want? As I began doing that role, I found that my integration with the conversations, the leadership decisions, the negotiations, and the level of people I was dealing with continued to move up in management level. And at some point I actually had our C-level people come to me and say, we're taking you out of the controllers and accounting organization, because what you bring is an interpretation of the business rules and the financial structures to the conversation of influence in the business side. And that to us is more valuable now for you than you actually accounting for the transactions.

              That was great. You learned a lot, but now go to the front side of business and help train us and help us dictate and create what we want this to be. So, as I began doing that role more and more, I just found myself more making decisions and helping vet operational things. And to the point that I went from an accounting organization as an individual contributor, to now having 1400 people and 400 million in revenue, but it all comes back to the same thing, using your financial and business acumen and helping make business decisions, because at the end of the day, it's all about how we monetize the products and services that we have as companies, it's asset yield, where's the margin and how do you make the best of it? So, the financial background that I have actually led me to being able to make those decisions and help the company.

Currie Dyess:

That is incredible. A lot to unpack there, but really quick, I noticed on your LinkedIn, there is a phrase that just jumps right out to Sarah and I, and that is we save lives. We love it. Can you just dive into that just a little bit?

Leah Jones:

Sure. As a technology company in the healthcare industry, it's very different than widgets, and it's very different than software that provides just analytics or spreadsheets. Healthcare is part of all of our lives, whether it's yourself, your parents, in some cases, your children, or your grandparents, or your siblings, healthcare touches all of us. And for electronic medical records, we take what used to be in paper files that were filed up in cabinets and in shelves in a doctor's office. And some people maybe too young to remember this, but you'd walk in and there were just walls of files. And so the information the doctor had was only as good as the paper he could find. And it was only as good as when he had it at the point he was giving care. In today's technology, we've actually pushed healthcare forward. And it really has been a push, not a pull.

              We've pushed it forward to the point that you have the electronic medical health record that can be utilized at the point of care. And it can be also shared across continuums of care, such that it's not just where one doctor is at one point in time. So you can present at an emergency room and a doctor literally can find the information that's been in your healthcare record all of your life. And you may not be able to actually tell him your history at that moment, but it is captured electronically, and he can see it, and he can respond to it and know your history, and know your chronic illnesses, and be able to better treat you at that moment. And there was a situation that we had in a hospital in the Northeast, and I'll say the name for you, but there was a patient that had been suffering from a chronic stomach issue and had presented in her normal primary care, as well as in some urgent cares. And she ended up in the emergency room after a period of time.

              And when they actually were looking through her records to decide how to treat her, because they had this community of information, they were able to say immediately in coagulating all of these data points, she has an abdominal aneurysm, and we have only a few minutes to actually save her life. And they moved her by helicopter to the right place to be able to do the surgery immediately to save her. And so if it had not been for connected information in those electronic medical health records, those doctors would've started all over with diagnostics, trying to solve the problems that were symptomatic and not have known the continuum of the journey of that person's health.

              So that's why I say having the information that is critical to make decisions at the point of care is something that wasn't available 15, 20 years ago, and it is continuing to advance, it's allowing for artificial intelligence to help decisions to be made faster. It's also including genomics to utilize the right medications at the right time to shorten the cycles of treating patients as well. So that's why we say we save lives. It's not really Allscripts, it's not really the technology. It is the ability to put the data at the provider's hands to make decisions at the right time when it's most critical.

Sarah Gascon:

Yeah. So data acquisition improves efficiency of decision making, which in turn provides improved quality of service for patients. So in your professional opinion, and you alluded to the change in AI, what do you see the change in the future? How do you see the improvements over time with AI?

Leah Jones:

So, first of all, I think we have to be clear on what AI is. In today's technology sector AI means so many different things, but at the heart of what AI is intended to really represent is automation and processes and workflows, it's machine learning and algorithms, it's staff augmentation with technology. It's areas of analysis and how you see that analysis and data, and how you use that in the comprehension of healthcare. It's not the delivery of patient care. So knowing that is a backdrop. What I would tell you is that it starts at the very front office when you start with making schedules for appointments. So our official intelligence can actually help optimize by helping providers and business office people make decisions about what patients they see when, and when patients haven't been in for some period of time, and when schedule optimization would provide better economics for patient care and for their business.

              And we'll go back to their business is still about not only patient care, but making money so that they can stay in business. So it starts at the very front office, but it continues on throughout the healthcare journey. So we see artificial intelligence coming up now and actually working through data analytics and demographics to provide care plans and order sets for patients. So let me make it really this simple. When you go into a doctor's office and they ask you for a list of symptoms that you've gone through, and you say, well, I have a sore throat and I actually, my stomach was hurting for the last 24 hours and I've run a fever. And the doctor's putting those things in. It truly is artificial intelligence that says, oh, let me throw up this order set, or this list of things you should ask this patient.

              Have you been around anyone with strep? Have you had a fever for more than 24 hours? Have you actually done a strep culture on this patient? And if you have, and it presented back as positive, have you prescribed this list of antibiotics as choices? So that's really starting to become part of normal patient care, is just that list of questions and answers and decision trees, but it keeps going. So we are seeing artificial intelligence now coming into play machine learning for even radiology type things. So artificial intelligence can look at scans MRIs now, and it can recognize objects or anomalies from film to film, or from image to image, or even it knows that cancer looks like this. And so it can identify and flag those things so that when a radiologist actually looks at those films, he knows to focus on those flags so that he then can use the art and science of medicine to apply to something that he may have had to research and go pull five different films and look at and do comparisons over time.

              So they can present that with artificial intelligence and say, based on the last three images, this one has grown and you need to be concerned, or this image looks like a swallowed toothpick, and not like some type of growth. It can be that simple, but it also probably most commonly goes into back office processing, which you see not just in healthcare, but you also see in areas like accounting transaction processing. So how do they look at denials and how do they look at payment application, and how do they look at filing claims? That's probably the more general one, but I think you're going to continue to see this in more and more applications. So you're going to see innovations in actual devices and how devices integrate with our life.

              So Bluetooth technology that does your blood pressure and your weight that feed into your patient portal and into your record and flag doctors to say difference in weight and activity level in this patient, you might need to call them and tell them that they need to come in because something doesn't look right and maybe their medications are off because their blood pressure is higher than normal. So I think that that should help people put it into real terms of how this can impact their lives and what's happening in technology to automate some of the flags for healthcare, but it will never fully replace, I believe the true patient provider experience that takes place today.

Currie Dyess:

Yeah. That's going to be pretty hard to replace, but do you ever foresee a future in which artificial intelligence would be able to predict an illness before the patient presents?

Leah Jones:

I think it's already there. I do believe that looking at the dynamics of the data, you can say that based on, so different characteristics of a patient. So they know in certain areas of the country, that you will have a higher incident rate of diabetes. And so you can look at a patient as they progress in a journey in their medical record and their data, you can look at it and see changes in weight, changes in activity levels. So these things like Fitbits, I have one on, and their scales and even motion detectors they can put in people's houses and tops that you can put on pill bottles to determine if they've been opened each day. All of those things add up to data that actually create predictors of problems. So you could diagnose that someone's coming close to a heart attack, or a diabetic episode when they don't have certain data that presents on a regular basis, or it goes erratic and goes off the normal scale.

              So I do think we're seeing it today in some cases. I think this whole COVID pandemic is going to actually create a whole other level of tracking of symptoms inside of populations to help predict if we have those types of things happen again. We were not prepared for that type of information collection today, but I can tell you there's a lot going on in the technology world and funding on behalf of the government to say, how do we prevent these pandemic spreads going forward? How do we begin to say that these populations are more at risk than these others? And how do we prevent things from traveling from place to place? So I think you're going to see more of that in the future. And I think it's probably happening many other industries, healthcare is just always been very slow to adopt technology.

Sarah Gascon:

Yeah, most definitely. You opened up by saying that you wanted to sit at the table with the executives, and it seems as though you were pretty eager and willing to pull up a chair, your own chair actually. So what was it about your journey and your own personal characteristics that gave you that confidence to do that?

Leah Jones:

Wow, that's a really great question. And it's a pretty thought provoking one, because when you're in the midst of your decision making and conversations, you don't necessarily think about what you're asking for at the moment, it's just a continuation of what you've been part of. And I think for me, it started with just a hunger to make a difference and to take the work ethic that I had learned in college, as well as from my family, and a thrill of success for me. And it fed into my career. And so I've always worked really hard and I've watched people around me, and recognition by title is not something I've ever really chased, it's more recognition for satisfaction of having to solve a problem, or to help someone else. So for them to look back and say, hey, thank you so much for that advice and that insight, that was very helpful. And I found that to be extremely gratifying for myself.

              And then also just knowing that I'm not done, I've not wanted to retire yet. I don't see that yet. Am I praying for it? Sure. But I just don't want to sit still yet. I continue to want to work. And so I've continued to challenge during my performance reviews each year of what's next? What else can I do? And I've continually tried to make sure I've trained and worked and collaborated with people around me to make myself obsolete. And that can be a little bit fearful at times because you don't know what you're going to do next, but let me just tell you, anytime in my career that it's been at a company with opportunities worth having, if you will work to make other people better than yourself, and that you will also be ready for your next assignment, it is really gratifying to be able to get those opportunities.

              So much of what I've achieved has been simply in saying, what else? What next? What can I do to help you? And then delivering with a level of confidence and also follow through and making sure that the quality of what I've delivered has been what was expected, or better than expected by those that I was delivering to, but being trustworthy and dependable, and then just having the desire to do more and asking for it and stepping forward. So those, I think have been some good characteristics, but it all comes coupled with your intrinsic motivation and drive as well as a level of humility, because as you step up and you ask from more, you can't come with it asking for a title and asking for more money, because you've got to prove yourself before you'll be rewarded, but you also have to make sure that you open yourself up to learning, because there will be opportunities to take on more where you don't necessarily know how to deliver what you've been given.

              And you have to be able and in a safe environment to say, I understand these three things, I've done my research, but here are the things that I need help with. And being able to admit what you know, and what you don't know, and that you have actually done the diligence to get to the point to ask an intelligent question, I think it's been very helpful for me, because I don't come and just say, show me how to do this. I know nothing. It is, I've read through this, I've researched this. I've talked to these people. This is what I've learned, here is where I'm at crossroads of knowledge and action. And so I would like for you please, to help me work through the next step. And I believe my options are these three things. And then you position yourself as is humble enough to take criticism, but at least confident enough to have done your diligence, to have an intellectual conversation and not just a sponge and expect people to feed you.

              So, I will always say that humility is a big part of it and being very genuine and personal in what you do. I also have watched people around me work their careers at the expense of others. And I can tell you that it may work a couple of times, but eventually you're figured out and it will be career ending at some point, because people will not trust you ultimately and find you to not be a team player. And I've often been asked sometimes, do you not feel like you are giving other people too much of the expertise that you bring to the table? And once again, I'm going to say that it's my job to make sure those around me can replace me, because I can't learn and grow if I'm going to hoard and stay with what I know today.

Currie Dyess:

Leah, that's really great advice. And your energy is, yeah, it's outstanding, it's clear that your passion and your intelligence are unparalleled, but one thing that really sticks out to Sarah and I is how well rounded you are. What's your perspective on the importance of being well rounded?

Leah Jones:

Another great question, Currie. I think I learned early on that if you will invest in others and what they do, they will give you more time and respect and understanding what you do. So when I actually think back to a job that I had early on in accounting, it was capitalization of software development labor. And if I had gone in and actually said, I need to apply gap and SEC guidance to capitalize your costs, I think from a development IT software engineer, I probably would've been kicked out of their office. So I had to learn more about what they did in order for me to actually apply what I knew. And I have found as a business partner bringing in my financial knowledge, it's like a foreign on language to them and they don't really care about it because ultimately it didn't change how they developed their products, how they produced their widgets, how they build a house, it's the financial backend of that process that matters to your CFO and to your investors and to those who are looking for the cashflow out of that business.

              But if you will invest some time to understand what they're doing and why, it will allow you to apply much easier what you need to do from a financial side, but it also will allow you to understand more of the data and the inputs and the outputs that they have on their side to give you to do your job. And it creates more of a collaboration than a transaction handoff. And I would tell you that as you go through leadership steps in management, you're expected to know more about the business. They want you to know more about what's going on in the operational components, to understand what's happening in HR. All of those things are triggers, even legal and compliance. They're all triggers to what happens to your financial statements.

              So for an accounting person to be very valuable, just applying gap, I'm going to tell you that artificial intelligence is going to take over in that area at some point in time, and there's going to be less and less human interaction in that. But being able to actually help drive those decisions and help to explain as a business partner to others why it matters, will be much more valuable to you. And I think the other thing is knowing a bit, so you can't know everything very deep about all areas. If I were to walk into a car manufacturing operation today, I'm not going to know a lot about all of their processes, but I know a high level business that you've got to sell something, you've got to procure materials, you've got to manufacture, you're going to have working process. You're going to have inventory. Inventory's going to create balance sheet items. So how do you get your balance sheet items out? You sell cars.

              If I know a little bit about all of that and can logically speak to it, I will gain more acceptance in a conversation around it versus walking in and saying, hey, I need to do my debits and credits. It doesn't work as a business partner. So I just think it adds credibility. And also knowing what you know, and knowing what you don't know, but creating the relationships with all the experts around you is invaluable. If I could tell you one thing as you go into business and as you take on real life, it's make sure you know where your experts are. I call them unicorns.

              So I may be a financial unicorn, but I also knew who my sales unicorn is, I knew who my marketing unicorn is. I also know where my legal unicorns are. And we all rely on each other. And as we approach each other for assistance, we say, if you ever need something that I have, I am always here to help you. And thank you very much for educating me and helping me with my decisions. So it's a give and take and always making yourself available for those unicorns that you also know you will need to reciprocate with later.

Sarah Gascon:

That fits right into our next question, which are talking about internships. Our students find value in internships. So what's your perspective on internships and how that compliments with one's education?

Leah Jones:

My first advice is do it. Don't even question. I'm just telling you now they're hugely important. And here's a couple of reasons. When you enter the workforce, you need experience and your experience working summer jobs while it's great and shows some dedication and it shows commitment, and it shows your ability to work and interact with people, it is not the same as taking an internship role in areas of study that you plan to be in your career and in your major. It also gives you an opportunity with less risk to try out a company, to learn more about what real work life is, because I can tell you, education helps you learn discipline, and it helps you learn how to learn, and it helps you figure out where resources are, but ultimately it doesn't train you for your job. If all I had was my experience from Auburn and walked in and did not have some work experience to go with it, my first role would've been much harder, but I walked in adding more value because I had actually been in an internship. I understood office dynamics.

              Sometimes it's just that simple, of understanding communication etiquette, understanding what work life really is, understanding where levels are and how true transactions or true business works, and it's not education anymore. So I think it gives you an opportunity to meet people. And when we have interns here at Allscripts, I highly encourage them to make time with many different people, even if it's for 30 minutes, or take them to lunch, or just sit down and make time, to understand what they do, things they learned along their journey that they would impart to a new college grad or someone early in their career. And it allows you to say, I find what you do more interesting than what this person does. How did you get into this, and what do you feel your prerequisites are? And do you feel like your education in accounting or in finance or in computer science got you here, or did you have to augment that?

              And it also allows you to create relationships right out of the gate so that when it's time for you to graduate, those companies remember you. And oftentimes if you've done well, we'll give you preferential treatment in that hiring cycle. And getting jobs today, it is so competitive and everything you can invest to try to make your opportunity better, it's all an investment in your ultimate success. So they're also really great, they're paid. So you're going to get paid for the work you do in most cases as well. So take the opportunity. There's so many, when I was at Auburn, there were so many opportunities in the out placement service to do internships. And all you had to do was go ask and go through the interview process, fill out the forms and they would find you a place to go and people love Auburn talent. So I would encourage you so much to do that. It's an investment in yourself. It's an investment long term in your career and your ultimate success.

Currie Dyess:

Leah Jones, your wisdom and your insight is truly invaluable to our listeners. As we wrap this up, what is some advice that you would pass along to them? What is some of the best advice that you received in your career?

Leah Jones:

I'm going to give you probably about three, if I can hold it to that. The first one is say yes. When people ask you to step up and to participate, say yes. You'll figure out all that, the logistics and the balancing of your calendar, and all the implications later, but you may never be given that opportunity again. And so when someone says, would you like a seat at the table, say yes, show up. And if you don't even feel like you have value to add, take from it, absorb, learn, but don't say no, because it may never come up again. And there's a reason someone asked you, and you may not understand that reason at the time. Don't question it too much, just go. So that can happen in many different facets, just say, yes. The second one is strive for perfection, because sometimes working toward perfection is hard and frustrating, but if you will always strive for perfection when you actually mess up, and you will, and you will not hit perfection, you hope that your integrity and diligence to actually pursue perfection protects you from having catastrophic mistakes.

              And I learned this trying to reconcile accounts in payroll, and I actually would get within a million dollar accounts at Georgia Pacific, I would get within a few dollars and I would say, can I just stop? Literally it's a 20 million account and I'm within $15. And they would say, no, you can't. And I would like, literally I will pay you $30 not to make me do this anymore. And they said, do you understand that the result of your laziness to not want to finish this could be million dollar transactions that are offsetting, but both of them being equally as wrong and hugely material to us as an organization. So strive for perfection, because if you happen to screw up, maybe you only did it by 10 cents and not a million dollars. So you can apply that in many different ways, but I continue to tell myself it's never good enough. It's as good as I can possibly make it.

              And then the last one is, someone told me one time to quit looking for boxes on an org chart, to actually just work, accept what you're given, deliver really well. And the boxes on an org chart will find you, they will create themselves, or they will opportunistically come available. And I actually found myself in this role by doing exactly that. So I just did pitch catch with my leaders. They would pitch me something, I'd catch it, I'd run with it. I'd bring it home, close it down, wait for the next catch. And when I did that, all of a sudden, my role from accounting moved to sales operations, which then moved to an SVP and general manager. So I would just tell you to do your role, look for extra, not wait for a title, the title and the money will eventually find you.

Sarah Gascon:

That's great. So exciting to speak with you today. How can our listeners get in contact with you?

Leah Jones:

I'm on LinkedIn, and that's probably a really great way. Also, you can find me on the leadership page for Allscripts. And I do believe that my email address and contact information is there, but it's Leah.Jones@Allscripts.com. So, if there's ever anything I can do, further conversations that people want to have, I'm always happy to help fellow War Eagle colleagues to extend their careers and learn more about what's the art of the possible.

Currie Dyess:

Wow. Thank you so much.

Sarah Gascon:

Yeah. It's been a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you for joining us.

Leah Jones:

You guys have been awesome. I really appreciate the opportunity and War Eagle to all of those out there listening.

Currie Dyess:

War Eagle.

Leah Jones:

War Eagle.

Narrator:

Harvard, inspiring business.