Ladder to Leadership Fellow Builds Connections in a North Carolina Community

    • April 10, 2013

The challenge. As a radiation therapist, Christopher Lee Wood loved the personal and sustained interactions he had with cancer patients. But when his career path moved from the treatment side of patient care to his first management role at a comprehensive cancer program in Rocky Mount, N.C., Wood knew he needed more leadership skills.

An emerging—and unexpected—community health care leader. Wood was originally interested in diagnostic radiology, not radiation treatment. However, a chemistry teacher at a community college sparked his interest in becoming a radiation therapist—someone who administers radiation treatments for cancer patients.

"I realized that while I liked the diagnostic process, I liked the treatment aspect of radiation oncology more," said Wood, who obtained an associate degree from Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1997. "It was a much more personal side to radiology. You develop a bond with your patients—you don't just take a film and they go home. They are with you for six or seven weeks at a time."

Wood also did not plan to become a health care administrator. But after working as a radiation therapist at three health centers in the eastern and Piedmont regions of North Carolina, in 2005 he became manager of the Nash Cancer Treatment Center, part of Nash Health Care Systems in Rocky Mount, where he had worked as a radiation therapist since 2001. "It was a progressive thing, realizing that I wanted to move past the treatment aspect to administration, to managing," said Wood. "I didn't expect it."

New responsibilities reveal gap in skills. In his new role, Wood oversaw the departments of radiation therapy, tumor registry, and clinical research at the Nash Cancer Treatment Center, which treats nearly 1,800 patients a year. His job included budgeting, staffing, software integration, and clinical duties, as well as oversight of the construction process for the center's expansions.

For example, Wood played a key role in creating a wing for the radiation therapy department and installing two new linear accelerators—advanced machines used in radiation therapy. He also started up Nash's clinical research program through an affiliation with the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. And he guided the treatment center to an outstanding achievement award in 2008 from the Commission on Cancer Accreditation Program of the American College of Surgeons.

He soon found himself bombarded with invitations to speak about the many advances at Nash. However, he was uncomfortable with public speaking. Through interactions with staff, it also dawned on him that he was not a good listener, and that he lacked critical conflict resolution and team-building skills, as well as the ability to plan strategically with health care partners.

"At that time, everyone understood that health care was moving in more of a collaborative direction"—including across community organizations, he noted. Providers had to "work with other agencies to do more with less. I needed those skills." To acquire them, he became a fellow in Ladder to Leadership: Developing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders, a program created for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.

Wood found out about the program after he had been a manager at Nash for several years, and the vice president approached him about applying. "She thought I would be a good fit," he noted. "She talked a lot about being involved in the community. But I was not from the Rocky Mount area, I didn't live here, and didn't know a lot of people here. I commuted to work here and went home." For its part, "one of the reasons RWJF looked at me is that I was a new manager, still refining my skills."

Ladder to Leadership. From 2008 to 2012, Ladder to Leadership sought to develop a cadre of leaders to enhance the capacity of nonprofit health organizations that serve vulnerable populations, and to cope with an exodus of senior leaders as the baby boom generation retires. The program trained early-to-mid-career professionals to nurture organizational change and work across organizational barriers, develop more constituent-focused services, and adapt innovations from other fields.

Over five years, Ladder to Leadership trained 219 health care professionals in eight communities: Albuquerque, N.M.; Birmingham, Ala.; central New York state; Cleveland, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; Newark, N.J.; eastern North Carolina; and Portland, Ore.

From January 2010 to May 2011, Wood was one of 19 in the North Carolina cohort. Together they represented seven eastern and Piedmont counties with an 11 percent unemployment rate and an 18 percent poverty rate at the time.

Learning a new vocabulary. The 16-month program included training sessions at the Center for Creative Leadership, one-on-one coaching and mentoring, and a team project focusing on the fellows' own communities. Wood credits each facet with helping him become a more accomplished leader:

  • Training sessions at the Center for Creative Leadership helped him acquire conflict resolution and team-building skills. "In the health care arena locally, people have different initiatives and conflicts can come up—such as competition for resources," said Wood. "This gave me the skills to work through that on a personal level and a team level."
  • He worked with his personal coach to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses, become a better listener (partly by analyzing videotaped role play), and improve his public speaking skills.
  • Wood worked with other North Carolina fellows to develop BRIDGE (Bridging Resources to Impact Diverse Gaps Everywhere), a toolkit enabling health organizations to collaborate to improve a community's health and well-being.


By then a leader of the local United Way chapter (helping it raise more than $260,000 in four years), Wood credits the program with spurring him to become more invested in community collaboration. For example, when a local breast cancer coalition lost its funding, Wood, a member of the advisory board, helped the group remain intact. "Without the Ladder to Leadership program, I would have sat there that day and not recognized that that was important," he said.

With the Nash County and the Edgecombe County health departments, Wood and the Nash Cancer Treatment Center received $66,000 in 2011 from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a foundation that fights breast cancer. The center used the grant to provide mammograms and breast cancer screening for underserved women in those counties.

According to Wood, former fellows are "breaking down the silos of working on our own and starting partnerships with other institutions. That comes from our team project and learning the vocabulary of health care and collaboration."

Attaining personal milestones. After completing his fellowship, Wood was determined to finish his bachelor's degree. In August 2012, he graduated cum laude from Mount Olive College with a degree in management and organizational development. He now plans to earn a master's in business administration.

After graduating, Wood hung his diploma alongside his certificate for completing Ladder to Leadership—but he had to put them both in a new office. He became director of the Nash Comprehensive Cancer Program, in charge of oversight, growth, and strategic planning. His promotion, Wood said, was a direct reflection of the skills he learned as a Ladder to Leadership fellow. "It allowed me to acquire the skills to help grow this program."

The leadership training program also spurred him to expand his investments in his community, coordinating a fundraising campaign for Nash General Hospital and buying a house in Rocky Mount with his wife. "The program really does keep giving back to the community," he observed.

Wood admits that as he advances up the career ladder, he will never completely leave behind his roots in patient care. "Even where I sit today, I miss that part of my job," he said. "I love talking to people and getting to know their stories."

RWJF perspective. RWJF has nurtured leaders in health and health care since its inception. "The Foundation's Human Capital Portfolio aims to ensure that we have a diverse and adequately trained health and health care workforce," said Program Officer Sallie Anne George, MPH. "The Foundation has a 40-year history of supporting the development of 'human capital.' However, we saw a gap concerning the leadership capacity of community nonprofits. We designed Ladder to Leadership to close that gap."

"We recognized that many nonprofit leaders are so focused on providing services to the most vulnerable that they are not looking to see where they fit into the larger system, and where it makes sense to collaborate," George noted. "We hoped that Ladder to Leadership fellows would gain confidence in their ability to lead regardless of their formal position, to think more strategically, and to collaborate effectively.

"There is evidence that we are strengthening collaboration in communities, and hopefully leading them to be healthier places to live, learn, work, and play."

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#LadderToLeadership trained 19 community health leaders from North Carolina, including Christopher Wood

“In the health care arena locally, conflicts can come up—such as competition for resources. This gave me the skills to work through that on a personal level and a team level.”—Christopher Wood