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Codman Square Health Center Executive Director Sandra Cotterell Reflects on Leadership

Sandra Cotterell

This past October 24th I found myself stunned to learn my name was listed 26th on the Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts. The list, published by The Commonwealth Institute and the Boston Globe, is comprised of the top 100 women-led businesses based on revenue, number of full-time employees, workplace and management diversity, and innovative programs and projects. I never envisioned I would find myself on such a prestigious list, next to so many extraordinary and innovative leaders; however, it is a great honor and a privilege to receive this recognition on behalf of Codman Square Health Center. As an African American woman, my pathway to a rewarding and exciting career that brought me into such an exhilarating leadership role was not an easy stroll, but rather an amazing journey as I worked my way through the complex maze of the health care and business world with a remarkable determination and passion to succeed. Nonetheless, amidst countless difficulties, challenges, and sacrifices, I am proud to be, not only a leader here in the progressive state of Massachusetts, but more importantly, I am proud to be a representative of the great community of Dorchester.

This recognition has given me cause to reflect upon my own journey, and to offer advice to young, professional women, particularly African American women in our community who aspire to one day serve in a leadership role. First and foremost, I believe that the best leaders are compassionate leaders. I fought no battles on my way to the top, but instead listened to those around me. Through caring for and understanding my colleagues and the mission of the organizations where I have been most fortunate to have worked, I earned the trust and respect that are critical success factors to being a leader. I asked questions and remained open to the perspectives and insights of those around me. I knew it was okay not to have the answer and to be more of a learner at times.

In addition to being compassionate, leaders need to be innovative and not afraid to take risks. It is a difficult decision to risk the possibility of failure in a place like Boston, but all of our great leaders have done so, and we cannot be afraid to try something new or something old in a new way. Especially in our frequently changing healthcare system, we have to learn to adapt and innovate to a rapidly changing landscape. Remember that as the leader you don’t have to necessarily come up with all the ideas. I continually credit my staff, and at times even the patients at Codman Square Health Center, as they are the real brain of innovation for our organization. It does not matter from where ideas are originated, you have to be willing to believe in them and move them forward.

Lastly, I never would have had the courage to take risks if I had not learned how to listen to the right voices. When I think about my mentors and other leaders who have greatly influenced me, two individuals have been invaluable voices of encouragement, inspiration and empowerment, are the first that come to mind. During my time at Bay State Health Care I was given my first opportunity as a manager, and despite not seeing the potential in myself, the incredible belief that my supervisor had in me was so strong that I had no other choice but to also believe in myself. Throughout my time at Codman, prior to stepping into the role of CEO, I also had a leader, Bill Walczak, who believed in my abilities and constantly gave me opportunities to reach my potential to exceed. There are always going to be voices of discouragement, telling you you’re not good enough; sometimes it’s the culture, sometimes it’s your own inner dialogue; however, learning to listen to those positive, inspiring voices instead is a critical step toward becoming a leader.

Above all, this award makes me most grateful for Codman Square Health Center, our board, staff, and patients, for undoubtedly, my 20 years with this organization and its people have contributed greatly to who I am and what I have accomplished as a leader and as an African American woman. I am humbled, and recognize that without the love, support, encouragement, and tremendous vision of those around me, I would never have been able to achieve such an accomplishment alongside so many esteemed leaders.

Sandra Cotterell is chief executive officer of the Codman Square Health Center.