CK Insights

March 14, 2018

Women Who Inspire Us: Avice Meehan, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Kathleen Reynolds

Avice Meehan’s business card says Senior Vice President of Communications and Chief Communications officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). Yet her impressive title seems incomplete if you know Avice or have seen her in action. Avice is a maker and a builder. She brings heart and gusto to everything she touches – from poetic sentences and powerhouse teams, to homemade clothes and cultivated gardens. Avice’s career is like a tapestry woven with interconnected threads from many sources: a decade-plus as a reporter and advanced degree from the Ivy League in journalism, where she learned to tell stories and work sources; years in public service, including a stint as the press secretary to the Governor of Connecticut, honing a “grassroots ground game” well before it was a buzzy term; leadership at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute driving communications, events and more in support of its scientific mission; and two tours of duty at MSK, where she oversees an elite and diverse team driving success through integrated marketing. Her purview includes everything from CRM and business-to-business strategies to generating top-tier stories on the biggest breakthroughs in cancer research and treatment.

 

I’m honored to work with Avice and her team – and pleased to share a few of her insights for our CooperKatz Women Who Inspire Us series.  

 

CooperKatz (CK): Tell me a little about your role at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK).

 

Avice Meehan (AM): One aspect I really enjoy about my role is that at this point, a really a big part of my job is helping other people do things and achieve goals. Making and building – things that are complicated, simple, organic – that’s all work that I love.

 

(CK): What have been some of the most important factors in advancing your career?

 

(AM): I have met many kind and thoughtful people along the way who have been very generous with their time and attention. Both when things have been going well and when I’ve stumbled. On the flip side, I’ve also worked with people (however smart they might have been) who showed me what I didn’t want to be and how I didn’t want to be. Actually being able to put those two pieces together has been critical.

 

(CK): So what, then, is “what you do want to be?”

 

(AM): Passionate, engaged, challenging and constantly working at being a better listener.

 

(CK): May I ask a follow-up on that? Listening is something many of us, including me, struggle with! How do you work each day on being a better listener?

 

(AM): Part of it is being more mature. It’s not about winning every point or argument. This comes from some painful experiences, where people have told me that I that I can be overwhelming because I can get enthusiastic or heated or focused on doing. I’m a recovering over-doer! The other point comes from a certain kind of experience and as a great relief: my job is not to have the answers. Often, my job is – when I’m at my best and doing my best job – bringing other peoples’ ideas to light and life. That doesn’t mean that I’m not driving in a direction. But I’m creating a framework that enables other people to speak up and participate.

 

(CK): Who are the women that you admire?

 

(AM): In thinking about so many people, this is a hard one to answer. Historical figures who came to mind include a pair of sisters: Martha Coffin Wright and Lucretia Coffin Mott. They were abolitionists and part of the group of women who signed the Declaration at Seneca Falls. Martha and Lucretia came to Women’s Rights Movement through path of abolitionism. They were real path-breakers, or rather path-makers. I’ve read their correspondence and even though it was so many years ago, they complain about the same things we do today – funny things like their teeth and their feet! They also talk about the very big issues, such as the fact that women could not own property. And they came to that first by being abolitionists.  

 

Another is Huda Zoghbi, a neuroscientist at Baylor. I got to know her when I worked at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Huda is an absolutely brilliant scientist who trained as a physician. She came to this country as a teenager from Beirut. One of the things I’ve always admired about her is that she is a great scientist who is truly inspired by patients. She has made fundamental discoveries – yet she has an active humility gene.

 

A lot of the women whom I’d admire, the world may not remember them, but they are people working to make an impact on the world. They are bold but they are not somehow showy. A professor, Sarah Youngblood at Mount Holyoke College, who was also a poet, who died relatively young of ovarian cancer. She was a gifted teacher, poet and someone who had a great reservoir of kindness.

 

(CK): What inspires you to come to work each day?

 

(AM): I know pretty much every day why I am here. That is because I see patients and the needs they have every day. I have volunteered at MSK on the transplant floor. It was a reminder of our mission, why we’re here. I have a now retired colleague who said to me, “If you’re ever having a day feeling sorry for yourself, go sit in the waiting room.” What I so appreciate about MSK is that it is a really great place, first of all. And I really appreciate the opportunity to work at a place where the mission and purpose are very clear.

 

(CK): How do you tap into creativity or foster the right kind of risk among your team, when your work is inherently so serious and consequential?

 

(AM): Anywhere you are, there’s risk. You calibrate that risk in different ways. The most important things is, don’t assume that the way you’ve done something the last two years or whatever is the best and only way to do things. I’m always wanting people to take a step back and say, is there a better way to say this, do this; should we be doing something different? Being hidebound is riskier than trying something new. You always have to evaluate the risk, but standing still is as big a risk as moving. I’ve also witnessed the importance of active curiosity. It is what animates science.

 

(CK): What do you hope to see from – or for – the next generation of female leaders?

 

(AM): I see in many people starting their careers, a refreshing lack of pretense. And a desire for independence. It’s a good thing. I see that in both young men and young women. At the moment, we’re paying a lot of attention to women and that’s important, but I see young men as also worthy of care and attention. They face many challenges making their way in the world. It’s easy to forget that in the context of the monstrous behavior of a few.

 

(CK): We are at what some people call a “watershed” moment in terms of advancing women’s rights and issues. Do you agree? What is your advice to people who want to rally around this?

 

(AM): Not to get cliché, but we need to look at the broad sweep of history in these moments of forward progress. There’s this ebb and flow. There’s an opportunity to, as a country, figure out how to do a lot more respectful listening. I remember attending a meeting years ago and hearing a leader from a previous Presidential administration say something very important: “Just because people don’t agree with you doesn’t mean they’re stupid.” Today, people have become so polarized. Certain viewpoints become proxies for many other things. I think we have to become much better at listening. I think it’s important, to the extent we can, to step back from quick and easy judgment. Because none of these big movements is perfect. I visited the “Beyond Suffrage: A Century of New York Women in Politics” exhibit at Museum of the City of New York. It was a lot of fun to see Betty Friedan’s dress and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit. And it was also a reminder that even for women to achieve the vote, to finally achieve stuff, many leaders of the movement believed that they had to play on nativist sentiments. We have to remember this.

 


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