Transitioning Between Civilian And Military Life, Learning The Skills To Be An Effective Leader In Both Settings

Brief Biography:

Administrator | CarePoint Health System

Administrative Supervisor | Bayonne Medical Center

Captain | United States Army Reserve

Education & Training:

Doctor of Nursing Practice, Leadership and Health Policy | Yale University

MS, Nursing Administration | New York University

BS, Nursing | New York University

Dr. Lydia Cristobal has a multi-faceted life that requires juggling several leadership positions as an Entrepreneur, Co-Founder of Nurse Media, Transitional Care Unit Administrator of CarePoint Health System, Administrative Supervisor at Bayonne Medical Center, and Captain in the United States Army Reserve. Since childhood, Dr. Cristobal has had a business mind. She created her first business selling fish crackers to schoolmates at 7 years of age, in the Philippines. Standing at 4’10” has never deterred her from pursuing her passions and becoming the leader she knew she could be. Our Program Manager, Sharon Mwale, chatted with Dr. Cristobal to talk about how her experience in the military and as a civilian have shaped her leadership style and impacted her effectiveness.

Looking back at your early career choices and academic pursuits – was becoming an entrepreneur part of your plan?

I exhibited characteristics of an entrepreneur early on in my life as a child. My father had a business buying and repacking cornstarch and my grandfather always gave me fish crackers – so many I couldn’t finish them all. I started to think about how I could make money from the fish crackers. I had access to free materials and labor from my father’s business. So, I had the fish crackers individually repacked from large sacks and sold them at school while on the school bus and in the classrooms. This went on for months and I was able to earn over $1000 (USD). 

My career path was largely shaped by my parents and family. Growing up in the Philippines, I didn’t have much of a choice other than to pursue the academic plan for which they were willing cover expenses. My grandfather was a chief surgeon and so I began going to medical college until we emigrated to the states. When we arrived here medical school was too expensive and so I instead continued my clinical path as a nurse. Even still, I decided that I could leverage that expertise and knowledge and become a healthcare entrepreneur. Being at Yale helped shape and cultivate the entrepreneurial path I’ve always wanted. At Yale, I received support that reinforced the vision I already had for myself, that “yes, as women we have the power to make things happen for ourselves.”

What makes a good leader? Is a leader born or can he/she be shaped?
In my experience, I was shaped. As a young woman, I had intellectual hinderances and I was emotionally abused to a point that affected my speech and confidence to speak that I struggled academically. I was a severe introvert and didn’t have any friends through middle school. The Army definitely taught and trained me to become the woman I am today. Through that experience I found my own way to learn and realized that the traditional setting was not conducive to my learning needs. The Army pushed me and made me realize that I had the potential to become a leader. Through the years I’ve watched leaders rise and fall. Their failures especially have taught me hard lessons that I take active precautions to avoid their mistakes as I gain rank. I’ve had my share of toxic leaders who constantly fail other people, break them down and have even made me cry. So, I’ve promised myself to be a better leader in the future and mentor the next generation of leaders.

Talk about a challenging time through which you had to lead –was there a defining moment? Looking back, is there anything you would do differently? Keep with you moving forward.
For some reason, I always make my life more complicated than it already is. One of the challenges I face constantly is the balance between my civilian and military life. The differences are so stark, but the military groomed me so that is my default. The military style is defined as being strong, tough and getting the job done.  My transition from sergeant to officer, one setting is direct management of soldiers barking orders and having an austere demeanor and the latter relatively softer because it involves indirect leadership through tactical and strategic level. However, the greatest transition I have to deal with is being a leader in a civilian setting. Dealing with my civilian staff, I have to take into account many more factors that in the military are not considered – most notably, being sensitive to their emotional needs. So, I have to constantly ask myself ‘who is my audience?’ And ‘who am I working with?’ If I don’t ask myself these questions, I start to treat my civilian staff as if I am their sergeant and for civilian setting its too direct and insensitive way of communicating. It’s harder, for me, to switch to civilian mode. The importance of buy-in, collaboration and partnership aren’t much considerations in the military and has taught me a lot of patience.

What are the traits that have served you well during crises? (Patience? Grit? Willpower? etc.)
Most important aspect of leading effectively, knowing what and how I need to change. To that point, what has served me well is learning how to adapt and adjust. Based on whether I am addressing my military subordinates or civilian staff, working in Houston or here in the Tri-state area, where there’s a difference in pace. Such experiential learning diversified and strengthened my leadership. Taking into consideration the many factors and people involved before making a decision when feasible. The front-line staff are experts in their field that their input is valuable.  Especially when establishing a culture of having everyone involved takes time. The culture and operational paces are different between the Midwest and the East Coast. Adjust and understand ‘why am I in a hurry’. If they are not concerned by time, why am I? Careful consideration of the staff’s buy-in for change is important because there is a distinction of doing it [a task] because they were told to, not because they want to. Most important aspect to be an effective leader: knowing what/how change is accepted. Always lead from the front so that the others will follow.

From your experience, what has changed the least, yet still has major impact regarding gender parity within entrepreneurship, technology and healthcare?
I think I’m an outlier and have never believed in gender inequality because it’s how you look at it. I got into this discussion frequently during my doctoral program at Yale about “who is better at leading, men or women?” The Mars vs Venus argument. In my opinion, it’s not about gender, but about personality. There’s a female general who said she’d suffered more because of gender disparity through the ranks and not being accepted as an equal leader within the military because of her gender, and now women have it easy. I don’t have the experiences as she had, and I don’t see my successes or failures through the lens of gender. I think of myself as a person who brings their own story, leadership style and capabilities. This doesn’t stop other people having perceptions of me, but in those instances where I hear remarks like “I’m shocked you’re in the military because you are so effeminate,” I just keep moving. I’m a healthcare entrepreneur and a leader, the rest does not matter. I highly believe in gender parity within entrepreneurship, technology and healthcare. Many have changed over the years such as organizational diversity and allowing more nurses to have an equal position in the board room.  However, many women are faced with work-life balance dilemma because of what society dictates such as women should be the one to stay at home and care for the children. Women entrepreneurs are successful because they are fortunate to have partners who highly supports them and are not intimidated by their position, power, and successes.

What is your advice to women and what actionable steps can they take as leaders or aspiring entrepreneurs in the health & tech industries?
My advice for women is to follow your passion. If you truly follow those passions everything else will align accordingly. We will always have challenges in life. It’s just a matter of fighting those battles to overcome. From a military perspective, I see each situation as a battle for which I need to develop a strategy to win. To do that we have to know who the enemy is and then learn about them to know how to win. Essentially, don’t let hinderances and our weaknesses get in the way. Learn what your weaknesses are and figure out a way to strengthen them, so you can move forward to get through those challenging times. It’s preferable to show up a front, not to intimidate but if that’s how it’s interpreted then it can be a useful means to overcome the enemy. Similar to playing poker in a way to make opponents give way. It’s a mind game. So be the stronger and better fighter. It is better to fail and learn from those mistakes than regret not having tried. Be a lifelong learner and always examine how to improve the products or services you offer. Never let anyone tell you it cannot be done when you know in your heart that it is possible. Let your leadership principles and moral compass guide you in making difficult decisions. Be the change agent the world needs. Our desire to make the world a better place will be our guiding light for us to choose the right path. Proudly carry that bright torch and ensure you pass it on for the next generation of leaders to continue and finish what you have started.

A fun question to end on, what is one interesting fact about you we can’t learn from Google?
You can search and find that I am a drummer, my stage name was Kissing Drummer Girl. One of the songs you will find is ‘Make You Feel.” What you won’t find out about that song is that I composed and produce it in the recording studio of my house.

Lecky’s Final Thoughts

Leadership is a recognition of both strength and areas of development.  What makes a true leader is listening to both the inner and outer voice of how one can contribute to the betterment of a given situation. Lydia exemplifies the compassion and balance of both the military and civilian world and how that voice brings reason to impactful resolutions.

If you would like to recommend a female entrepreneur in healthcare technology to be featured, we encourage you to contact us.

Contact information:
Sharon Mwale       Program Manager        [email protected]