Medical Director Sally Järvelä’s career path: ”The EMBA studies showed me what leadership is really about”

Sally Järvelä is the Medical Director of Kanta-Häme Hospital District. She has advanced in her career at a fast pace, successfully combining work, family life and studies from a young age. She puts lessons learned through the Aalto EMBA program into practice in her daily work that involves leading major changes. In this article, Järvelä explains how her childhood dream of becoming a doctor has led her to steer the work of thousands of medical professionals.

Medical Director Sally Järvelä has so-called work experience days in different areas of the organization, such as the emergency services. “My childhood dream of working with patients comes true when I’m able to help people and achieve something meaningful. Patient work is grounding. It reminds a director of the daily conditions and teamwork involved in running a hospital.” Photo: Senni Luttinen.

Reetta Räty, 09.12.2019

1981 Childhood dream

“I decided I wanted to become a doctor at the age of four. I stuffed cotton wool into my nose, followed by a toy car tire a little later. I had to be taken to see a doctor on both occasions. Returning from the second journey, I announced I was going to be a doctor. In the eyes of a child, a doctor had a sure grip and knew what they were doing. It made me think that you went to see a doctor in a state of worry and returned with a sigh of relief. That dream stayed with me throughout my childhood and youth.”

1993-97 High school

“In high school, we were expected to announce our top three professions. I only had one: a doctor. I chose courses that would support medical studies later on, including a course in Latin. I started my own company offering domestic services like cleaning and gardening already in high school.

I had jobs as a waitress, cook and even a bartender. Working in the service industry is good for a doctor, as you learn to get on with people.”

I delivered ads and got hired for jobs. I left home already at the age of 15 and was soon earning my own living. In addition to my domestic service company, I worked as a waitress, cook and even a bartender. Working in the service industry is good for a doctor, as you learn to get on with people.

A piece of advice from my grandfather has stuck with me throughout my career. He said that your work is always a calling card for what comes next, so every job needs to be done well.

I had my first child Risto in my last year of high school, and became used to a life that combines family, studies and work from a young age.”

1998 Tampere University School of Medicine

“My dream came true when I was accepted to study medicine at Tampere University. I knew it was my thing from day one. Combining life with a baby with studying was a bigger deal for others than for me. My child was looked after by his father in the day, and it was my turn in the evenings and at weekends. I went to a student party just once. Life was rich and good regardless. My first proper student party was during the EMBA studies. And that sure was fun! You don’t have to do everything in life in the traditional order.”

2003 Tampere emergency service

“Tampere ran the biggest emergency service in the country. I figured if I’d manage there, I’d manage anywhere. I did classic emergency work treating patients with urgent needs. It felt like a huge responsibility, causing me to sometimes worry if I could do it all. The shifts were long and the work demanding. Induction wasn’t a done thing then, but the team spirit and good colleagues helped along the way. I’ve worked in emergency ever since.”

2004 Licentiate of Medicine

“I had my second child in 2003 when I had my specialization period ahead of me. I’d been thinking about neurosurgery or pediatric surgery to begin with, but after a summer working in orthopedics, it felt right for me. The work was very hands-on: patients regain their mobility when the work succeeds.

It was also conflicting: I was working long weeks, tired, and didn’t have much time for the children, which made me feel guilty.”

My third child was born in 2005. A lot was going on in life, but I was eager to keep learning. The field of work for a doctor proved broader than I’d imagined: I wanted to be involved in making changes and have an impact on improving patient-related matters. Work felt both interesting and challenging.

It was also conflicting: I was working long weeks, tired, and didn’t have much time for the children, which made me feel guilty. I had an internal struggle whether to limit my work and how I could be everything and everywhere at the same time.”

2005-2006 Researcher in Pittsburgh

“I had an ambition already during my studies: I wanted to do a doctoral. I just had to postpone that dream. I discovered a team in the field of neuropathology that was researching brain tumors. It became the topic of my doctoral dissertation. Doing research was a slow process and I mainly did it during my free time. Spending all my time on research was irritating at times but mostly felt like exactly what I wanted to be doing. I defended my dissertation in 2009.”

2009 Mistake

“A situation towards the end of my studies became a turning point. I had begun my specialization in 2009. A young boy injured in a serious accident was brought into emergency. He had blood in his lungs and I needed to insert a tube to drain it out – a procedure I’d never done before. I didn’t receive any instructions and was scared. The patient’s life was in danger. In the end, the procedure was a success and the patient was fine even though the incision I made was too long and I felt I hadn’t acted fast enough.

The experience made me cautious. The patient survived, but for a long time I kept thinking he could have died because of my lack of competence. The mistake felt like a heavy burden. Orthopedics is all about daring – you can’t be too careful. The feeling of failing made me less brave than what it takes to be a good orthopedist. It made me reconsider my career as a doctor. As it happens, the experience opened up a completely new path for me. I became interested in management and work development.

These days I go around talking to doctors about the importance of supporting people who have made mistakes. Failing to process mistakes or simply sweeping them under the carpet prevents health care from developing. I aim to support my own subordinates in finding ways to develop structures that prevent mistakes, and if they do happen, to provide encouragement.”

2014 Specialist in orthopedics and traumatologyMedical director Sally Järvelä has so-called work experience days in different areas of the organization, such as the emergency services. “My childhood dream of working with patients comes true when I’m able to help people and achieve something meaningful. Patient work is grounding. It reminds a director of the daily conditions and teamwork involved in running a hospital.”

“I didn’t get full-time work in orthopedics at the university hospital, so when a vacancy for deputy chief physician became available in the emergency service, I was picked for the position. I worked in both areas. I began to see that doctors were ready to be directed only by other doctors, but they aren’t necessarily natural leaders. Medical studies aren’t enough.”

Being a doctor has proved more rewarding than I’d thought, from encounters with patients to research that can discover new information to help people. The only thing that bothered me was the rigidness of hospitals and health centers in reacting to changes. The systems and practices didn’t always support patient encounters. I felt there was a need for change, and as a supervisor, I could be involved in making those changes happen.

2017-2018 Executive MBA at Aalto EE

“I wanted to develop myself in leadership. The health care sector was facing major transformations, and I was motivated to take part in the changes. I felt strongly that I could do with general leadership training, not just studies in my own field. I’ve come to see what a huge role professional leadership plays in the quality of health care.

“The EMBA program gave me completely new thoughts on growing as a leader.”

I did my homework on the best option for completing an EMBA degree. I compared programs and asked around for reviews. I soon realized I wouldn’t have to look too far: Aalto EE was the place. I paid for the studies myself. I figured I was doing it for me.

The Self Development section in the EMBA program was particularly significant, highlighting that I didn’t need to be apologetic to those above me if I had a development idea. Similarly, I try to listen to my own subordinates and encourage them to share their ideas. I put other lessons learned on the program into practice, too. After each module, I’d share what I’d come to realize and suggested changes and experiments. This led to improving our meeting practices and aiming to solve issues without immediately focusing on limitations and what won’t work. This was noticed also on the level above.

I put lessons learned on the program straight into practice. After each module, I’d share what I’d realized and suggested changes and experiments.”

It was really empowering to see the takeout from the training working and proving useful in practice.

The social welfare and health care reform in Finland made many in my field realize that the operating environment would be changing so much that directors need financial expertise and leadership training. It was a joy to notice many colleagues from different hospital districts were also completing the program, although it is fruitful to exchange ideas also with people from different sectors. The EMBA program gave me completely new thoughts on growing as a leader.”

2018 Head of Division at Tampere University Hospital

“The post of head of division became available during my EMBA studies and I was chosen for the position. I hadn’t imagined such a wonderful leadership opportunity would open up so soon. Together with my team at the university hospital, we managed to advance a number of issues and became close-knit. The post would have been longer, but after 1.5 years, a vacancy for medical director in Hämeenlinna opened up. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave my own team and tell them “thanks for walking in this direction with me, but it’s goodbye now”.

Everyone understood my decision and wished me well. I now follow the progress in Tampere with pride.”

2019 Medical Director at Kanta-Häme Hospital District

“After being selected for the role, I had a vision of making the hospital the most humane in the world. Patients need to feel heard – and employees have to feel the same. Management needs to put in every effort to make it happen."

Before the EMBA program, I thought leading meant leading by example: when you do everything well and are the brightest star, others will follow. The program made me see it’s not how it goes."

It's challenging with so much going on at the same time – designing a new hospital, collaborations in the district, the health care reform rearing its head once again… Enough major changes to potentially take up all of one’s working hours. Prioritization becomes key. 

Before the EMBA program, I thought leading meant leading by example: when you do everything well and are the brightest star, others will follow. The program made me see it’s not how it goes. Instead, a leader needs to create the preconditions for people to do the right thing and work towards a shared goal by default. Good operating models are scalable. Structures and values need to point in the same direction. That’s what my work here entails as well. Leading by example can get some people onboard, but I have to make sure everyone is given the opportunity to succeed. A leader creates those preconditions. Succeeding in this creates a sense of safety, quality and humane touch for patients. I want to work in a place where you never hear “it’s not my business.”

I’ve worked in the public sector almost all my life. I feel it’s where I can impact the conditions of as many patients as possible. The work isn’t what I imagined when I was young. The scale is much broader. But I’m happy. Together with my new team, we are taking one step at a time towards our goals.”

The Aalto Executive MBA program is designed to enhance the participants’ personal skills and competencies as leaders and individuals. You will acquire a multidisciplinary perspective on business and develop globally relevant competencies with an emphasis on strategy and leadership. Read more about the program.

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