The Stoltenberg Blog

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From Pharmacy Tech to CEO: Five Lessons From an Unconventional HIT Entrepreneurial Path

Sheri Stoltenberg, Stoltenberg CEO

Life provides challenges and ongoing opportunities for growth. When faced with obstacles, we have the opportunity to form our own unique path, which leads us to who we are today. Looking back on my journey of starting my own company, my success was propelled through key leadership experiences and the individual path I chose.

In an era when female leadership is gaining more traction, it is time to push back against the status quo to define your way. To perhaps inspire a jumpstart on your own action plan, I wanted to share with you my personal leadership pathway to becoming the female CEO of a healthcare IT (HIT) consulting firm with more than 180 employees, while highlighting a few lessons gained firsthand along the way.


Starting from the ground floor
My path to becoming a health IT entrepreneur and CEO started as an entry-level hospital pharmacy technician with a four-year college degree while pursuing another degree in computer science. I needed a jumping point and was eager to take on more responsibilities. Within a year, amidst the hospital implementing a new computer system, I was appointed as a trainer representing the pharmacy department for a data system project. This led to an analyst role transitioning fully into IT. The position was a challenge, but it allowed me to interact with clinicians and produce real improvement for their clinical workflows and enhance end-user support. Seeing full-cycle projects from start to finish was rewarding, which fueled my passion for the next phase of health IT.

Lesson Learned #1
Be willing to step up. Volunteer for team-building committees, serve as a super user and jump at the chance for new trainings. In an industry that is constantly changing, women professionals need to evolve individually while showing drive and multifaceted depth.


Gaining vendor experience
After serving on the provider side, I worked for an electronic health record (EHR) vendor for eight years as an installation director in their most successful sales region. It was an exciting time in healthcare when the transition from paper records was just starting to gain momentum. Half the battle was convincing the end user that an EHR would be helpful down the road.

Lesson Learned #2
Recognize that, sometimes, timing is everything. A solution that is needed is not always embraced due to budget or resource constraints, current or pending legislation, or even a lack of foresight and unwillingness to take risks. To make some headway, take time to identify the issue your solution solves and how key stakeholders might perceive this solution. Consider the impact of whether or not the change is adopted from several perspectives including clinical, operational, patient engagement and physician satisfaction standpoints


Committing to a job well done
Work for the EHR vendor was nonstop. I was driven to prove myself despite the politics of a large organization in an evolving industry. For example, when others took credit for my work, I buckled down and kept working hard. It paid off; I was selected to lead one of our region's hospitals through the company's beta project for a new radiology management system. This was a major stepping stone in my career.

Lesson Learned #3
Find your true north. When you live authentically and perform good honest work, you won't become susceptible to workplace politics. Even if others take credit for your contributions, know that your dedication will pay off.


Balancing roles
Then came time for the juggle of personal and professional life. Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) did not exist back then. At the time, there was not another woman, let alone an installation director, who had ever had a child while working in the position. Fortunately, company leaders recognized my quality work and overall value to the business. A superior vouched to management to let me work three days a week from home with my newborn — an unprecedented change at the company.

After nine months, full-time, onsite mode kicked back in. I was selected to manage the rollout of the company's flagship product, Invision. Some doubted my ability to take on this responsibility, thinking their experience was a better fit for the role. Instead of succumbing to the pressure, I made it my mission to anticipate conflict with a thorough action plan and team communication.


Shifting the path
After the success of the rollout, I was ready for change. I started a new job at a progressive hospital in Pittsburgh and moved into management. It was a blessing, as I had the time to have my second child. Within the organization, and at every turn, there were opportunities for improvement and innovation, which I pursued and worked hard to achieve. I focused on growing the talent in the department, boosting employee morale and skillsets.

Lesson Learned #4
Support and guide, but empower others. "If you want something done right, you need to do it yourself" is a popular saying, but it's unrealistic if you want to grow a team – and an organization. Empower individuals within your organization that share your vision and uphold your trust. Micromanagement creates resentment and distrust within an organization, hindering open communication.


Aligning marketplace need with vision
While in hospital management, I was always thinking of the next big thing and realized my vision stretched beyond my current employer. With the industry experience to back this vision, I started my own HIT consulting firm.

Founding Stoltenberg Consulting was a compilation of events, marketplace needs and choices I identified during my previous 15-year journey. It was not an overnight revelation. The business actually started as a favor for a former colleague, who asked me to assess a full EHR system conversion. She was responsible for this massive project and asked for my project management and technical guidance to ensure its success.

Lesson Learned #5
Look ahead. Always think of how you can improve current processes, workflow or industry pain points at hand. Many times, it just takes sitting down and looking at something as if you are putting a puzzle together.


The consulting business plan I created for the EHR system conversion project became the foundation for Stoltenberg Consulting. The plan had everything to do with creating a better way, providing opportunities for others, exceeding expectations of customers and working to help people in healthcare IT find a balance in their lives. Today, Stoltenberg Consulting remains a leading independent IT consulting firm with 25 years solely serving healthcare providers.

Throughout each step in my professional path, I learned valuable insights to apply toward leading a company. They center on an empathetic, proactive and forward-thinking approach to leadership— characteristics I could not have developed if it had not been for my unconventional journey to healthcare entrepreneurship.

Thank you for allowing me to share my journey with you. I hope there are takeaways you find useful for your own leadership path.


About the author:
Sheri Stoltenberg is founder and CEO of Stoltenberg Consulting. She has 35+ years of HIT professional experience and serves as an active member of the advisory board of the Dicke College of Business Administration at Ohio Northern University.



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