Social justice and change are at the heart of all stages of Margaret McKenna's prolific professional journey. In a high-profile career that has spanned civil rights law, education, and philanthropy, the well-respected leader has been on the front lines of social and political history and has had a noticeable impact on nearly everything she has touched.
"I grew up in that era where it was really in your face-the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the anti-war movement," she explains. "I was one of those people who really believed that you could make a difference and that you should."
A member of the Board of Directors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and chair of its recent CEO search committee, the former president of Lesley University and the Walmart Foundation is lending her vision of equality and breadth of leadership experience to the medical community. "It seemed like a natural fit to be involved with an organization that cared about the underserved when it was created and also cares about indi-vidual people now," says McKenna, who started her career as a civil rights lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice working on unemployment and discrimination cases. "It is an incredible history."
Beth Israel Hospital was established by the Boston Jewish community to meet the needs of the growing immigrant population, and New England Deaconess was founded by the Methodist deaconesses to serve the city's sick and poor residents. The commitment to equality in patient care stands to this day. "It is a place where people really paid attention to you, where you weren't a number, and where there was a team of people who were coordinated to work on your care," she says. "I just think it is heads above the other hospitals in patient care. I think it is important to build on the historical strengths of the medical center and keep reminding people of those strengths."
McKenna initially joined the BIDMC Board of Overseers and the Medical Education Committee in 2007. A few years later, at the urging of former Chair of the Board of Trustees Ted Ladd, she joined the Board of Trustees and became its vice chair. When Ladd asked her to lead the search committee to find the new president and CEO for BIDMC last year, she welcomed the opportunity. "It was such a critical time for the hospital," she says. "This institution needed a leader who could engender trust and respect.
McKenna relied on her extensive leadership experience and assembled a diverse committee, which, at first, appeared to feature too many strong and differing opinions and needs. However, under her guidance, it thrived. "We gelled as a group, and a lot of trust and friendship developed over a short, intense period of time," she recalls. "In the end, we really came to a consensus about the top three and a consensus about the final candidate. We never took a vote. We got to a point where people listened to each other. There was true respect for other views."
After the extensive and exhausting national search, Kevin Tabb, M.D., was the unanimous decision. "While I think several candidates had experience and smarts, I think his leadership style, his sense of being who he is, showing who he is, being respectful of people, and his warmth and courage made him by far the first choice," she says.
While her recent venture into the medical area is new territory, McKenna has been successful in all areas of her varied, social-minded career to date. "My interest in life was social change," she says. "The way you can engender that is to create an environment for young people to introduce them to social change and responsibility." After a successful career as deputy counsel in the Carter Administration and deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, McKenna took over as president of Lesley University, where she tripled the size of the student body, diversified the campus, and made the school a national leader in teacher education during her 22-year tenure. Not one to sit back and relax, in a brief stint at the Walmart Foundation, the largest corporate fundraising program in the world, she implemented policy to become the largest donor of food in the United States.
"They are things I believe in," McKenna says. "I cared so much about the potential impact. In both places, I knew I was going to impact peoples' lives in a positive way and that is a great opportunity." She puts the same energy into her role at BIDMC. "I really believe Beth Israel Deaconess is a very special place," she says. "If you can have extremely high quality and at the same time maintain a humane culture, you have really succeeded and should be supported."