Lasting Impact: Annette Walker Leads City of Hope Into Orange County

”From the beginning, we’ve wanted people to understand that City of Hope wants to be a good neighbor, and I mean that.”
Photograph courtesy of City of Hope Orange County

Annette Walker’s official title is president of City of Hope Orange County, but “solutions architect” works, too. That was the assessment of a test she took after accepting the job in May 2018, and it’s an accurate description of her role: Walker is designing the future of the world-renowned, Duarte-based cancer research hospital as it expands to Orange County.

After opening a Newport Beach facility earlier this year, Walker is focused on the $1 billion, 11-acre comprehensive cancer campus set to open in Irvine’s FivePoint Gateway in 2021. The Coto de Caza resident—named to Modern Healthcare’s 2019 list of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare—talks about her latest chapter.

Why did you say yes to the City of Hope job?
I was working for Providence St. Joseph Health, and even though I was based in Irvine, there was a lot of travel because that organization is so big, with 51 hospitals in seven states. I was contemplating what I want to do with this—I hesitate to say the last big push of my career, but it is clearly a significant time with the accumulation of all my experience. What did I want to do with all the things I’ve learned? When I understood what a unique organization City of Hope is and what it could mean to Orange County if it were brought here, that’s why I said yes. This has been my home for 40 years, and it was the chance to do something that would have a lasting impact on my community.

What do you do as president of City of Hope Orange County?
It falls into several categories. The first six months especially, I spent a lot of time meeting with people: community leaders, the medical community, patient focus groups, and philanthropists. So in addition to the planning that was going on, there was a tremendous amount of time spent listening to craft the vision of not only what we should be but how we should enter the community. And once we’re here, what are our responsibilities going to be? From the beginning, we’ve wanted people to understand that City of Hope wants to be a good neighbor, and I mean that. We want to work with anybody in this community who wants to beat cancer.

Anything particularly memorable from your listening tour?The thing that struck me the most that I didn’t expect is the number of people who thanked me for taking the job. It has mostly been past patients who live in Orange County who made that trip to Duarte and were so grateful for the care they got from City of Hope. But they were still very aware of how hard it was for their family to drive from here to there. People stop me and say, “I just want to thank you for taking this job because City of Hope took care of my mom. They did such a wonderful job, and I’m so glad it’s going to be here in Orange County.” Some version of that story was said to me over and over again. It’s humbling and inspiring. It’s like I accepted a responsibility heavier than maybe I had originally understood, and I feel the weight of that responsibility to past, present, and future patients.

What are you working on now for the Great Park campus?
We’re finishing up the final details on the cancer center before construction, and then we’re going to diligently work at building out the programmatic elements that need to be there when we open the site. So that’s pretty complicated. We’re also recruiting the medical staff and faculty. Some of them might come from Duarte, but we’ve had a lot of national attention. I can’t tell you how many résumés are being sent to me unsolicited; people are excited about working at City of Hope, but they’re also excited about the location. I’m very involved in the planning, the business relationships, the fundraising, and the recruitment. It’s a startup, so I do everything.

How has COVID-19 affected plans?
We are reviewing our timeline to assess the impact COVID-19 and similar factors have had on the construction industry and other partners. For us, it’s full speed ahead on fulfilling the promise we made to Orange County.

What’s the message for patients in response to this crisis?Cancer doesn’t stop because of COVID-19, and neither do we. City of Hope is continuing our mission of providing lifesaving treatments while doing everything we can to keep our patients and staff safe. If you have cancer, an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center like City of Hope can help ensure you receive uninterrupted care in a safe environment. As careful as we all need to be during this time, it’s important patients don’t delay necessary care and treatment. None of us should delay our regular screenings or important checkups.

At this point, you could rest on your laurels. How is this a good fit for you?
When I look back on my career, the things I’ve most enjoyed doing were when I didn’t have to follow a script. Strategy is my wheelhouse, and that’s where most of my career has been spent. My kids used to ask, “What’s a strategist?” I explained that a strategist is a person who caretakes the future of an organization. So my job here is to establish a future for City of Hope in Orange County—to start from the ground up and recruit people who want to be part of that. That was a big deal to me. Again, the location was important. I can’t say if it was in Arizona, I would have been interested.

What about O.C. appeals to you?
Orange County has been a wonderful place to not only have a career but to raise a family. It’s a beautiful place to live, and the older I get, the more I appreciate that. It’s also a wonderful community. I’ve spent my whole career in health care, and you hear on the news how screwed up health care is. There’s some truth to that, but there are also some things that are really good about health care. But if we did want to make health care better, where would it be possible? Orange County is one of those communities because we’re big enough to matter. So if we could prove that something could be done here, people would believe it credible. But we’re small enough that being involved in the community matters. People do care.

You and your husband, Chuck, raised six kids and you’re an advocate of work-life balance. What does that mean to you?It’s the wisdom to know when something really matters that you’re in one place, as opposed to another place. If you have an important meeting Thursday and then your child has a school event that day, how do you make the judgment call? Next week, will you remember that meeting? Or if you don’t go to the school event, would it never be forgotten that Mom wasn’t there for that? Now, you obviously can’t go to every school event, but there are some that you just can’t miss. And you don’t need to make any apologies for that.

How do you rebalance?
I love to walk, particularly on the trails in the canyons. It’s a time for reflection, and for a leader I think that’s particularly important. If you rush from one thing to the next, you’re always reacting. You’re not creating the environment to make it easy for other people to get their job done; you need to create an environment they can thrive in.

Any other leadership advice?
It’s nice to see buildings go up and all that, but the real joy comes from the people. I use the phrase, “Love your people.” When people know that you sincerely care about them and have their interests at heart, that’s the real value and reward of leadership. This kind of sponsorship, as opposed to mentorship, is an important element of leadership—whoever you work with should be better for having been with you. So if you’re a sponsor, you take care to understand for each person what that looks like. For some people, it’s gaining skills in a certain area. For other people, it’s earning a degree. A sponsor knows what those things are and actively advocates to make them happen. That’s different from a mentor. A mentor might say, “This is really good advice; I want you to do this.” But it’s different if I say, “This would be really good for your career,” but then I actively look for opportunities to make sure that you achieve that and that you’re given a chance. Projects without the people would not be satisfying. At least for me they wouldn’t.

How do you stay organized?
I’m in a learning curve because I have a bigger diversity of responsibilities in this role than I’ve had before. I’m learning how to schedule my time. I leave Fridays open to catch my breath and reflect on the past and coming week (the big things done and the big things needing to be done), and reach out to people I meant to connect with either by phone or writing them a note. Basically tie up loose ends, clear my head, and organize myself before I end the week so I can enjoy the weekend.

And you have to make time for family and your 12 grandkids.
Grandma time was another reason for taking this job. Travel sucks the energy out of you, and I’m old enough to need energy. To use it on an airplane isn’t the way I want to spend it. People ask me all the time, “How in the world did you have this career and that family?” And I first say I have an incredible husband who was a partner parent. I went back and got my master’s when I was 40 years old and had four kids, and then I got pregnant in the middle of doing it, and he always encouraged me. But I really believe that God wants to bless all of us so much if we just have the guts to accept it and say, “OK, yes, I’ll do it.” My faith is very important to me, this steadiness of faith that if I’m doing what I believe God wants me to do, I’m going to be OK. So whenever I make a big decision, I pray about it. And to the extent that I can hear (God’s direction for me), I act on it.

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