Meet the Leaders: Donna Harris

Professional Development

Donna Harris knows what it means to start from scratch. As the inaugural CEO of the newly opened Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Waco, she built her team from the ground up. With more than 25 years experience in healthcare, she was prepared for the challenge. Harris started her career as a unit secretary and served in various roles while eventually working her way up to becoming the CEO of a brand new hospital.

Along the way, she’s learned a lot. First, she said, you have to be open to new opportunities and challenges. For those looking to grow their career, she offers the following tips.

Challenge Yourself

Harris is always looking for a new challenge; it’s how she ended up as the CEO of the new hospital in Waco, Texas. Starting her career in healthcare as a unit secretary, Harris worked to become a human resources director, and as she further developed her management skills, she was able to fill the CEO position at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Jonesboro, Arkansas. Harris wasn’t stopping there, though. She continued to look for ways to challenge herself. When she learned about a new Encompass Health hospital opening in Waco, she welcomed the opportunity. Those looking to build their career, she added, have to be open to new challenges.

“Say yes to the new experiences presented to you, and proactively look for new experiences and opportunities on your own,” she said.

Finding new ways to contribute to your team is an easy way to challenge yourself on a daily basis. Even if those opportunities seem nontraditional, she said, be open to the challenge; those are usually the ones that will teach you the most.

Invest in Future Leaders

Harris doesn’t shy away from putting in the hard work and effort. She believes in investing the time to help others learn, which in turn prepares them to become a leader.

“Potential leaders need someone to show them the way.” she said. “We aren’t born leaders; we have to learn from someone, and then work for it.”

For Harris, this means leading by example and allowing her employees to take on leadership tasks as they are ready for them. Harris points out that “experience builds confidence.”

It’s what a natural business cycle should look like, she added— current leaders building up future leaders by encouraging them to put in the extra effort to gain the confidence needed to excel.

Harris is passionate about investing in the next generation of leaders. She enjoys working with young leaders to help them grow their careers and reach their goals, whatever they may be.

“Leaders see things in people that those people don’t see in themselves. It’s the job of the current leader to help them act on those qualities,” she said.

Harris feels like she’s made an impact as a leader when her employees feel like they’ve made an impact.

Serve Your Staff

To be a truly successful leader you need to incorporate servant leadership and lead with empathy, Harris said. Once employees feel like you care about them, the entire environment of a workplace changes.

“Be a servant—no, it’s not just a cliché,” she said. “You are here for them to help them when they need you. Be present, available and encouraging.”

One of the ways Harris serves her staff is by encouraging input and suggestions. She’s also quick to admit when she doesn’t know the answer. Vulnerability and transparency can be hard things to do for a leader, but Harris said the power of being honest with her staff and leveling herself to a place where she is able to serve them is worth it. This allows for everyone to be on the same informational playing field, resulting in honest conversations and producing real results, she said. Embodying a servant style of leadership means sharing information with staff, valuing their opinions and helping them whenever possible.

Change Your Perspective

To grow as a leader, Harris suggests pausing to understand different perspectives. Harris was overlooked twice for a CEO position. Rather than being upset, she took a mental step back and asked herself “what can I learn from this?”

Looking back, Donna is grateful for not being selected for the positions because she learned so much from the individuals who took on those roles.

“Things happen for a reason,” she said. “Find the reason that it happened. Even if it’s negative, there is something to learn from it. Every situation is trying to tell you something; listen to what it has to say, and grow from it.”