Five Questions with Courtney DeBower

Today you manage Advocacy and Communications for Texas EMS, Trauma & Acute Care Foundation (TETAF). How did your administration experience prepare you for this current role?

I was 24 when I went to work as a presidential appointee. I had a few years of policy experience, and almost no communications background. But former assistant secretary Rob Nichols recognized my ambition and encouraged me to apply. Mentorship was important to my colleagues in D.C., and has been crucial as I’ve moved up in my career.

It was also my first lesson in opening my mind to career opportunities I hadn’t expected. I knew I loved politics and wanted to be in Washington, I had no idea I would love the communications world, or even finance and the economy. In my 20s, I would have sworn I would never want to work in healthcare in any capacity. Today I work daily with physicians, nurses, and paramedics dedicated to providing the best possible patient care. It’s a role I excel in, but would have never expected to enjoy this immensely.

TETAF is an amazing organization, working with stakeholders from all aspects of the trauma and emergency healthcare system. Our strength at the Capitol comes from our ability to provide reliable, comprehensive information on emergency health care from injury prevention all the way to rehabilitation. I am so glad this opportunity presented itself, and that I took a leap of faith by transitioning to healthcare advocacy and communications.

You’ve spent the past several years working in the health policy space, first at the American Heart Association and now at TETAF. Is there an issue facing the health care industry where you think the new Congress and Administration can make positive strides?

Too often lawmakers and policy staff look for something new or different to solve a problem that already has a solution. That’s why trauma leaders are calling on the federal government to implement a national trauma care system that would integrate military and civilian trauma systems with the goal of eliminating preventable deaths after injury. Significant advances in military trauma care have occurred over the past decade. In fact, between 2005 and 2013, the case fatality rate for our service members in Afghanistan decreased by nearly 50%. Adoption of military advances in trauma care can also improve the fatality rate for civilian trauma. Our new congress and administration should give serious consideration to implementing the trauma care recommendations made recently by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

What is your fondest memory from your time working in the Administration?

One of my favorite responsibilities was coordinating the photo opportunities between the Secretary and visiting dignitaries. You spend a lot of time preparing for a photo shoot that can be as quick as a few seconds. I spent hours sitting and chatting with media from countries far and wide. It was fascinating learning about the role of the media and how different it can be in other countries. I still cherish a small collection of trinkets given to me from around the world.

In addition, I got to spend a lot of time with the American media. Many of the photographers covering the White House and Treasury (as well as the Secret Service for the building) had previously spent significant time in Waco while I was a student at Baylor. They were constantly making jokes about my (nonexistent) wild days in college and even pulled one over on me a few times. Despite the economic challenges and long hours, there was a lot of joy at the Treasury Department.

You’ve had the opportunity to work with leaders at the state and federal level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. Are there any common traits among the best leaders you’ve observed, regardless of industry?

I believe strongly in servant leadership. The best leaders lead by example and are not above getting their hands dirty. I also believe the best leaders set clear expectations. Your employees, or those working under you on a project or initiative, should not have to guess at what you expect from them.

Great leaders take time to celebrate the little accomplishments. When I was working at the American Heart Association, we set a goal to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20%, and reduce deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20% by the year 2020. This is a huge undertaking and could feel overwhelming at times. But each state that passed mandatory CPR training in schools, or pulse oximetry testing of newborns or each employer that incorporated a workplace wellness program helped move the needle and was worthy of recognition and celebration.

Good leaders recognize that you don’t know what you don’t know. No one is an expert on everything and it’s important to surround yourself with those who strengthen your abilities and challenge the way you see the world.

There are many ways to lead. While I would never change my experience in Washington, I have loved the transition to the nonprofit world and being able to work with equally dedicated individuals to affect change. There’s so much more to policy than just politics. As President Bush told me at a celebration of the groundbreaking for his library, “I miss y’all too, but I don’t miss it!”

What do you miss most about serving in the Administration?

There was room for a broad range of Republican beliefs in President Bush’s administration. I think the country was stronger for appointing Americans with a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. We learned from each other, and worked together for a greater good.

I also miss the kindness of President Bush. One day they pulled about 30 of us from Treasury into a room and told us to wait there. Everyone was looking at their blackberries (has it really been that long?) and getting frustrated that time was being wasted. All of a sudden, President Bush walks in and announces that he just wanted to stop by and thank everyone personally for the hours they were devoting to his administration and the nation. Sometimes it’s important to just stop and be present in the moment. If the President of the United States can take the time to show gratitude to those around him, we all can.