Women in Public Affairs to Know: Linda Townsend

August 11, 2020

Pardon Our Dust

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Linda Townsend is vice president of advocacy and government affairs for CHRISTUS Health, which has hospitals and care centers in Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and South America. Prior to joining CHRISTUS, Linda worked as a legislative assistant in the Texas Senate and as an attorney for the Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas State Board of Pharmacy.

The interview below was conducted by Amber Hausenfluck, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Texas State Government Relations team.

Question: You began your career by working for one of the only female senators in the Texas State Legislature. What did you learn during this experience how did it kick-start your career?

Linda with Governor Abbott and Texas Republican statewide leadership.

Linda with Governor Abbott and Texas Republican statewide leadership.

Linda Townsend: There are a couple of things that standout to me that I learned from Senator Leticia Van de Putte. First, she was very assertive but did so in a respectful way and I have tried to internalize that throughout my career. I think sometimes women get push back when they are too assertive and they can get labeled or people might use it to attack them, but I don’t think it has to be that way.

If you can be respectful and substantive, you can work with everyone. We had an open door policy where we had to meet with everyone, and working for CHRISTUS Health now we partner with people across the spectrum. We may have friends on one issue on one side of the aisle and friends on different issues on the other side of the aisle. Senator Van de Putte was a Democrat in a Republican state, and when you’re in the minority you have to be creative about building coalitions and making friends. You have to find ways to relate to people in a way that resonates with them and be able to work with all sides. Particularly with staff, they may be a Democrat one day and a Republican the next because they switch offices. You can’t judge someone based on where they are in the moment because many are dedicated public servants and will keep an open mind to all opportunities. That was a very important lesson that I learned from her – the importance of working with everyone.  

Senator Van de Putte also had an incredible work/life balance. She has six kids, a great relationship with her husband and worked full time, all while serving in the legislature. Fortunately for me, I’m not an elected official and I just have two kids, a husband and a bunch of dogs. I’ve learned the importance of being efficient when you are at work, maximizing your time when you are in the office and multitasking to the extent that you can. I try to be present when I am at home with my family and I think that is something that I picked up from Senator Van de Putte. I have twin daughters who are six, and I travel quite a bit for work. I am blessed to have a husband who has flexibility to help out with them at home. I take a lot of very early morning flights and a lot of late night flights. To the extent that I can, I try to put as much as possible into one day. I try to limit my trips to two nights, when possible. I have FaceTime and fortunately for the kids, when I am home I do have some flexibility to spend time with them. CHRISTUS Health encourages a positive work/life balance and they give us time off to spend with family. I spend a lot of time at home on the weekends and when we travel, we take the kids with us wherever we go. We want to teach them about other cultures and make them responsible members of our society and our planet.

Q: CHRISTUS Health is a not-for-profit that places an emphasis on giving back to the community. What has been the biggest surprise working in public affairs for an organization focused on philanthropy? How is CHRISTUS helping the community in response to COVID-19?

 Legislative staff tour of the CHEF kitchen at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

Legislative staff tour of the CHEF kitchen at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

Linda: CHRISTUS values giving back to the community and its mission is to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, by ensuring that every individual has access to healthcare and has what they need to be proactive with their healthcare. It makes my job a lot easier because I believe in what I am doing. When I advocate for Medicaid funding, it feels good because I know we are good stewards of our resources. 

We care about the communities we serve and it makes me proud to work there. It is very fulfilling and it also translates to our associates, because so many people are drawn to companies with a mission like ours. I get to meet dynamic people who are proud of what they do and driven to do things because they feel like it is the right thing to do. That makes my job easier.

When I was working at the capitol, healthcare was not always the sexiest topic. Staffers didn’t want to get involved because it is very complicated. But working in healthcare, you realize it touches so much, not only from a policy standpoint, but also the workforce issues. Community relations matter because hospitals play such an important role in their communities. They’re economic drivers. People are born and die in hospitals and often have very strong feelings about them. There are other industries that are different in that respect, and I think the personal impact that the healthcare system has on so many lives, in so many different communities, in so many different ways, was surprising to me.

This has been especially true in our battle to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. CHRISTUS was one of the first health systems to utilize antibody testing in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Our CHRISTUS team was one of the first to approach Governor Abbott with a plan to take care of COVID-19 patients who arrived in San Antonio from the Carnival Cruise ship. We knew at that moment that we needed to shift our focus to prepare for an outbreak in Texas and we haven’t stopped since. I have been able to see the best in my colleagues during this stressful time. They have all stepped up to care for sick prisoners in Louisiana, serve as a regional hub to treat critically ill members of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and even moved up the opening of a brand new emergency tower in East Texas to combat COVID-19.  For the CHRISTUS community, our work is not just a job, we all truly strive to do better for our neighbors.

Q: I understand CHRISTUS has locations in Texas, New Mexico and Louisiana, as well as in Mexico and South America. How do you help manage each of these regions and prioritize their needs in your role?

 Family Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill with pediatric patient and Congressman Will Hurd discussing the importance of Medicaid for medical complex children.

Family Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill with pediatric patient and Congressman Will Hurd discussing the importance of Medicaid for medical complex children.

Linda: CHRISTUS is a fully integrated healthcare system that operates in several U.S. states and Mexico, Chile and Colombia. We have all different service lines, roughly sixty hospitals, several health plans and approximately 45,000 employees. We are a safety net provider and go to areas where there is limited access to care. Juggling the needs of each region is one of the jobs of the Advocacy Department at CHRISTUS because we are so diverse.

In Texas we have hospitals all the way from Texarkana to Beaumont, and down to South Texas. These areas are all geographically diverse, the populations are diverse and the hospital systems themselves are diverse. They have their own boards and administrations, but they are all under the CHRISTUS Health umbrella, where we take a one CHRISTUS approach. Part of my job is balancing all of the needs of the different individuals and regions across the system, identifying and prioritizing what is best for the system and moving forward in a way that is sensitive to the various competing interests. It is challenging and it is a balancing act. It takes diplomacy and having great relationships with people within the system, as well as outside, is helpful. 

 Linda with her husband, Paul, and twins, Amelia and Isabel.

Linda with her husband, Paul, and twins, Amelia and Isabel.

Q: You’ve had the opportunity to work with strong female leaders throughout your career. How have these leaders shaped you and how are you preparing your six-year-old daughters to aspire to leadership or to lead?

Linda: My immediate boss values family and a work/life balance. That is helpful because sometimes as something is bubbling up you may feel compelled to focus on that, but I know that it is okay to step back and be present with my family when I need to. I think it’s important to give my daughters my undivided attention because if I’m constantly on a phone or on email, they are not necessarily going to think that I value what they say. I think especially with young women it is very important to let them know that what they say is important. It’s helpful to keep that in mind and know that I can have that balance, and model this behavior for my daughters, by actually showing that I value what they say to me.

My kids are twins and it’s interesting to think about raising them as leaders because what I’m doing is trying to make sure that they are successful, independent women – but that looks different for each of them. For example – we went calendar shopping and Amelia, who is very confident, picked out the calendar of “inspirational quotes for your inner female boss.” Isabel picked the calendar with unicorns doing yoga. For Amelia, it’s about guiding and coaching her on operating within the society in which we live. I teach her to respect the rules while trying not to crush her independent spirit. Isabel is a natural rule follower, is usually her teacher’s favorite, and has been awarded student of the month within a few months of being at a new school. But Isabel is not always as eager to step up and advocate for herself. We work hard to get her comfortable pushing past inherent stereotypes and getting her to speak up.

Amelia came to me the other day with the quote “Confidence in one hand and coffee in the other,” and she said, “Mom, I don’t need the coffee.” Confidence is great, but I also think you need a little Isabel in the mix, and you have to have a sense of humor about things. Especially in the work that we do, there is so much you have no control over. You may wonder how things happen and where some ideas come from, but I always remind myself not to take myself too seriously.