Leadership interview: Barbara Van Ess
Director of Personnel Policy, School of Medicine

Leadership hallmarks: > Gratitude and compassion > Curiosity > Working well with a variety of people and styles

When Barbara took SLP 2002, she was working as an assistant attorney general in the UW office, with most of her work focusing on employment law. Soon after, she moved into an administrative role in the School of Medicine, where she has remained.

Thinking back to your SLP experience, what has stayed with you?

The School of Medicine, and UW Medicine, have grown a lot and changed over time, and many of the learnings from SLP have been useful. It certainly formed part of my foundation as a leader here at the UW.

As I recall, at the beginning of the program, we examined our own learning and communications styles, and did some group exercises exploring approaches related to those styles. Some of those strategies have stayed with me and become almost second nature in working with a broad variety of colleagues across many units.

The COVID-19 crisis is testing our mettle in many ways. How are you managing?

I am inspired by my colleagues both within and outside of the clinical environment, and the incredible levels of resilience and generosity they have demonstrated during this time. It truly exemplifies the spirit of we’re all in this together, and I am deeply grateful to be at an institution that embraces these challenges with thoughtfulness and compassion.

In the current environment, what new innovations or strategies have emerged? What have you learned about yourself as a leader or about your team?

After the early days of the pandemic, it became clear that conditions, circumstances, rules and requirements were going to keep changing, sometimes daily. I continue to learn that we all need to be curious and adapt all the time as we move forward. Across the UW, this crisis is compelling us to look beyond our usual ways of doing things while still moving forward with our essential work and adhering to our values and mission.

As someone who has seen a lot of growth and change at the UW, what advice or insights might you have for a less experienced leader?

We are all aware that this is an unprecedented time in our lives, so I am not sure that there are any one or two ideas that are exactly right. It seems particularly important these days to make room for gratitude — to replenish our souls and spirits — and also for curiosity. We need to keep learning that there is always something new that may shed light on our circumstances, a tricky problem, or an idea that is forming. Finally, it’s essential that we have compassion, with ourselves and others, as we make our way forward.

Spring 2020 | Return to Issue Home