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“Speak up and speak loudly”

Asante’s top women executives share what they’ve learned on their journey to leadership.


Ginger Rogers, the saying goes, did everything Fred Astaire did but backward and in high heels. It’s an apt metaphor for women who rise to the top tiers of their profession.

Asante can celebrate that it now has more women executives than ever, each of whom earned their place in the C Suite by being exceptionally good at their jobs. Getting there required extraordinary determination, resilience and hard work.

In a webinar that drew 200 attendees on Jan. 18, six Asante women leaders shared their stories and an unusual commonality: Each came from small towns or rural communities. Some were raised in poor households; others were the first in their family to go to college. None started their careers with family pedigrees.

As it turned out, their struggles proved to be their strength.

The gift of failure
Heather Rowenhorst

When Heather Rowenhorst wanted to move into leadership at Asante Finance years ago, a supervisor discouraged her. “You can’t be director of Finance if you don’t know accounting,” he said.

Technically, the supervisor was wrong, but Rowenhorst knew she’d need that credential if she wanted to be taken seriously. After 250 hours of study on top of a full-time job, she took the first of a four-part CPA exam and waited for the results.

When the mail came, her husband and mother gathered in the room. Her father was on speakerphone. She opened the envelope and read the letter.

“I failed,” she said.

“Oh my gosh,” her mother replied. “Mike, she failed!”

She retook that first test and three others, passing them all. But she still keeps the rejection letter pinned behind her monitor.

“All these failures add up over time and make you strong,” she says. “I want to thank that manager from 18 years ago who told me I would never be the director of finance.”

Rowenhorst, who was born and raised in Medford, not only became the director of Finance in 2017, last year she was promoted to vice president of Finance.

Embracing the fear
Holly Nickerson
Holly Nickerson

Fear of failure also dogged Holly Nickerson during her steady rise from CNA to vice president of Quality and Patient Safety. Because her personal mantra is “yes,” she often plunged herself into new and unfamiliar roles, each with a steep learning curve and the potential for mistakes.

Her response was to work harder, sometimes coming in at 3 a.m. “I thought I couldn’t set boundaries because if I’m not doing [the task] no one’s going to do it.”

When a nursing supervisor job came open at ARRMC, she was working nights and pregnant with her second child.

“It was completely the wrong time in my life. So I applied for the position.” Another learning curve.

“I went from a peer to a boss overnight and I was failing at leadership.”

She cried when she had to write someone up. She envied another rising star, Staci Sparks, who she describes as “strong and confident, a stone-cold Steve Austin.”

“It was the first time I was experiencing competition,” Nickerson recalls. After talking, the two agreed there was more than enough room for both to contribute as nurses and leaders.

Being authentic
Staci Sparks
Staci Sparks

Sparks, who was born at ARRMC and became system vice president of Nursing last May, shares an important trait with Nickerson and the other women leaders: She too advanced by saying “yes” when opportunity knocked.

As the first woman in her family to graduate from high school, she never thought she’d become an executive. But her manager, Sharon Cullen, encouraged her and her natural leadership abilities, which were present even in childhood.

“My mom tells me I came out of the womb bossing people around,” she jokes. “My kindergarten teacher said I needed to chill with the bossing.”

Although women bosses are often criticized for exercising authority or “changing” once they take a leadership role, Sparks learned how to flex her style for the many introverts she manages. She also learned not to apologize for being a leader.

“That’s the point — for us to walk head-first into a problem and try to solve it.”

Amanda Kotler
Amanda Kotler

Amanda Kotler, a former Heart Center RN who grew to become Asante’s chief nursing officer, also promotes authenticity as a leadership attribute. Besides her distinctive laugh, which signals to staff when she’s on the floor, she freely shares details about her life.

She was raised in the tiny town of Keno. Worked for the U.S. Forest Service, becoming a crew leader in high school. She entered nursing leadership at age 27 and an executive at 33.

“I used to be embarrassed to [say] that because I try so hard to demonstrate my experience,” she says. “But it’s important to highlight that piece because it hasn’t been by chance. It’s been because of a lot of hard work and dedication. It’s important to see there are different paths for each of us at different ages.”

Acting with integrity
Kristen Roy
Kristen Roy

Like the other panelists, Kristen Roy grew up in a small town and describes herself as a “scrappy northern New Hampshirer.” She was the first in her family in rural New Hampshire to go to college (she was accepted to Dartmouth) and possibly the first in her town to go to law school.

She says she doesn’t remember a moment without struggle or loss, and those challenges are what helped her develop the work ethic and determination she values today.

Although she rose to become vice president, legal officer and general counsel for Asante, her roots led her to a passion for equity, belonging and inclusion.

“These roots have helped me develop my own core values,” she says. “For me, integrity is what matters most. I always fall back on that.”

While working in the best interest of the organization, she also works to balance her job with her home life as she raises her 3-year old son, Lionel.

“Define your core values and fight to protect those, she says. “Be the voice of dissent. Use your voice to advocate for things that you care most about — for me, it’s diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Kotler echoes this. “There have been so many moments over the past few years where I have sat in the room and didn’t speak up to promote equity and inclusiveness, and I should have. That regret is what taught me to speak up.”

Rejecting limitations
Andrea Reeder
Andrea Reeder

Andrea Reeder was raised in a conservative rural community (her grandfather was Amish and her father a Mennonite).

She envisioned success as marrying a farmer so she herself could farm. When that groom never materialized, she decided to become the first member of her family to go to college. After owning a restaurant and later a catering company, she fell into event planning. This in turn led to working with nonprofits, which brought her to Asante Foundation.

Even there, her climb would be steep. Women account for just 20% of nonprofit executives. She had a choice to limit her beliefs based on the odds or change them.

“It was really important that I examined my own thinking that was getting in my way,” she says.

After her success in raising funds for the AsanteForward campaign, she bucked the national trend and was named vice president and executive director of Asante Foundation.

Her secret to success is the same as the others. “Just put in the time. There is no replacement for experience. When I’m stretched and doing something new, that’s when I’m growing.”

Advice from the top

“Courage isn’t heroism, but the thousands of small moments, like showing up when you’re feeling scared.” — Amanda Kotler

“The biggest strength I’ve brought to the table is being me.” — Holly Nickerson

“It’s OK to fail. It’s how you react, what you learned and how you come back.” — Heather Rowenhorst

“We are unique humans. We don’t have to be anything else and anyone else.” — Andrea Reeder

“Many people want to live without regrets, but we learn from every stumble, crawl and mistake.” — Amanda Kotler

“Ninety-nine percent of the time people are approaching things with a positive intent.” — Staci Sparks

“Be authentic. People aren’t necessarily inspired by polish. They’re inspired by struggles, heartaches and imperfections.” — Amanda Kotler

“Never forget your roots. Own it, embrace it. It has shaped who you are.” — Kristen Roy

“Help people and ask for help.” — Andrea Reeder

“Integrity means choosing courage over comfort.” — Amanda Kotler

“Boundaries are sacrificed when you don’t take care of yourself.” — Holly Nickerson

“Just do it afraid.” — Andrea Reeder

“Speak up and speak loudly. Be the voice of dissent.” — Kristen Roy

Watch the presentation
Coming in February

Over the next six months, each speaker will hold a noon Q&A webinar on leadership. Details to come in Asante News.

A message from ABIDE

The Asante Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity team is proud to kick off the new year by celebrating and recognizing Asante’s female executives. ABIDE is also excited to have the support from the incoming chair of the Asante Board of Directors, Peter Angstadt.

“I had the opportunity attend the Women in Leadership panel discussion,” Angstadt says. “The panelists shared great insights and useful ideas with all of us. I am impressed with the quality of leadership and dedication exhibited by these very talented women. I’m going to play this webinar for our high school age daughter.”

Patricia Wintemute, the board’s new vice chair, shares this sentiment. “I am so pleased to see Asante’s dedication to diversity, inclusiveness and equity, and their recognition that we all have meaningful stories to share.”

Tags: ABIDE, Amanda Kotler, Andrea Reeder, executives, Heather Rowenhorst, Holly Nickerson, Kristen Roy, leaders, Staci Sparks
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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Stephanie Samuel
    January 27, 2023 2:20 pm

    This article is so beautifully written! I love how it eloquently highlights that each leader shared so openly about the struggles that each of them has faced and the positive ways they overcame! It was so inspiring and it was such a blessing to take part in chat that day! God bless all the beautiful women in leadership, Asante is in good hands.


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