Phyllis Greenberger, MSW, sounds amused that she has been named one of “The 100 Most Powerful Women” by the Washingtonian.  “Imagine!”  she says, chuckling at the notion that she shares the honor with Hillary Clinton and Condi Rice.  Quickly demurring, “I am in a different category, though,” as if that really diminishes the distinction.  The list is a who’s who of women with power and influence in Washington.

Phyllis Greenberger is the first president and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research, the nation’s only nonprofit organization dedicated to the improvement of health of all women through research, education and advocacy.  Since it’s founding in 1990, the organization has revolutionized medical research about women.   Major policy shifts and treatment innovations have resulted.  (For more information about the Society for Women’s Health Research, click here.)

Early Social Work Career

The 62 year old grandmother has been a social worker for almost 30 years.  As a young mother, she decided to go to social work school at Catholic University for her MSW.  Going back to school with 3 children under 5—she had her 3 children in 31/2 years–epitomizes how Greenberger does things.  Like the person who doesn’t hesitate before jumping into a cold pool—Greenberger doesn’t seem to think twice about what she is getting into; she is invigorated by being fully engaged, even if she is in a little over her head.

She was drawn to social work by her interest in mental health issues and she thought a clinical practice would give her the flexibility to raise her 3 little children the way she wanted to.  But her plan to be a clinician didn’t last past one of her first internships with the American Psychiatric Association. She began championing social justice issues and developed her passion for policy work.  “When I was at the APA, I didn’t feel that they were interested in women’s issues, including: parental leave, reproductive issues, the Equal Rights Amendment, which was big in the early 80’s.  I believed that they should be interested in these issues because they affected women psychologically and emotionally and what affected them emotionally affected their mental health; I thought that the APA should be involved in that.  They didn’t disagree.  They said, ‘OK.  Fine.  You do it.’”  By this time, Greenberger had gone from being an intern to an employee and so she set out to accomplish that.

Her work with the APA evolved into her being in charge of the Political Action Committees as Associate Director of Government Relations.  “I became very interested in politics.  I took it upon myself to find a lot of women who were running for Congress.  At that time, there were very few women in Congress and it was not easy to do.  I had a lot of push back, because the prevailing wisdom of the time was that women didn’t win. Of course, they didn’t win because they weren’t given money. It was a vicious cycle.”   Her strong belief that women are not considered in important issues, along with her tenacious will to make those issues heard, has become what motivates Greenberger.

Greenberger acknowledges that her work in political action probably was inspired by being so close to the hill. She also benefited from a family of journalists.  Her husband, Robert S. Greenberger has just retired from a career as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Phyllis Greenberger has been able to leverage her husband’s close contacts in the media–both print and TV–for her causes.  And until recently the oldest of her three sons and his wife were also journalists for the Boston Globe.  They have relocated to Washington, which thrills Greenberger, who relishes the contact with her grandchildren.

Love Affair with the Society

Phyllis Greenberger refers to the Society for Women’s Health Research as “the Society.”  Just the way a lover shortens a name as a sign of endearment, it is an indication of the love affair that she has with the work.  Her board chair, Nanette Wenger, MD speaks about the passion Greenberger has for women’s health issues and her organization, and how that has become part of her identity, “Now, the Society is part of who Phyllis is today.  She has been so inextricably intertwined with it.”

Passion, not planning, charts the course for Greenberger in her life and in her work.  “Sometimes it is better not to have an exact plan, I think.  Let life, if you are lucky, take you where you want to go—take you some place where you are pleased that you have ended up.”  Reflecting on the role that she stepped into as the first CEO for the Society she says, “I knew that I wanted to do something like this and I was very excited when the possibility presented itself.  It’s not something that you plan in advance.  A lot of times you have to seize an opportunity; you don’t know if it’s going to work, but when it does, it is very gratifying.  I look back at some of the things that I did and some of the chances that I took and I’m surprised.  And what can I say?  I guess I am proud of myself for what I did.”

Starting the Society as the first CEO was a monumental task.  As she describes it: “We had no money; we had no office; I had no staff.  We just had an idea.”  The story of how she turned an idea into a stunning success story defies business wisdom.  “I fought having a strategic plan.  Everyone was nervous that I was taking on too much and trying to work with too many different organizations or people trying to get things started.  My feeling was that I should throw a lot of balls in the air and hope that some of them would land.  I didn’t think that I had the luxury of picking and choosing because I didn’t know what would really work.  Without pursuing a lot of different things at the same time, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.  Some things just happen and you have to take advantage of them and take risks.”

The balls did land.  Because of the Society’s work concerning sex differences in medical research, women are now included.  That has led the way for minorities, pediatrics and geriatrics to also be included.  “Until we fought for this, it was one size fits all—you had a drug and you tested it on white, healthy young men—and that was it.”  Thanks to the work of the society there is recognition that it is not it.  As Greenberger points out, barely a day goes by when the outcome of this paradigm shift is not felt, when some research comes out announcing, for example, as happened recently, that there is a sex difference in the kind of lung cancer that women get and the treatments that they should get for it.  The same is true for cardiovascular disease and depression.   And the list goes on.

Chalice Power in Action

Phyllis Greenberger is a model of what Riane Eisler has described as “chalice power.”  Eisler, author of The Power of Partnerships and The Chalice and the Blade discusses the need for power to be redefined from a model based on domination to one of partnership.  Eisler believes that partnership relies heavily on collaboration and draws on the idea that all relationships should be nurturing and caring, attributes that come more naturally to women, but as Eisler is quick to point out, are not exclusive to women.  Partnership does not exclude competition.  Instead of competing against others, in the partnership model you compete with them.  So that, for example, if another organization does something better than yours, the question you ask is not, how can we do it better than them, but rather, how can we learn what they are doing to improve what we do.

Greenberger, of course, doesn’t refer to her style as chalice power, but listening to Wenger tell how Greenberger pulls off the Society annual gala is a description of chalice power at it’s best.  Wenger likens what Greenberger does to an orchestra leader.  She is able to enlist a wide range of stakeholders, including members of Congress, business leaders, community leaders, scientists, people from the arts and the media to all become engaged in the vision of the Society.  Everyone in the room has a role, according to Wenger.  Everyone has a contribution to make, and each person is able to step up in a way that calls upon the best that they have to give. “That is the secret, I think, of the success of the organization.  Phyllis instantly convinces people about the importance of their contribution, no matter what the contribution is.  She has a skilled way of making people realize that what they contributed–whether it is money, advice, time, advocacy or skill–is a contribution to women’s health.”

Perhaps the most telling outcome of Greenberger’s chalice power is that in the politically charged atmosphere of Washington, she does not seem to have created any enemies along the way. After she was named one of the 100 Most Powerful Women, the high regard felt by others for her became apparent.  She received cards that said: “We have always enjoyed working with you.”   “We always knew it!”  “You are finally being recognized.”  Greenberger confesses, “I think I was actually really good in not creating enemies.  If we didn’t work and play well with others, we wouldn’t be successful.”

Greenberger gives examples of friend-building activities that she has engaged in: helping scores of organizations set up committees on women or focus on women’s health issues; including other organizations when the Society is holding briefings or events; inclusiveness with the experts from the Institutes, actively seeking their advice and giving them recognition; and participating on other organization’s boards.

Inspired Future

The challenge and fun for Greenberger is always doing new, creative and innovative projects.  She reels off a daunting list of projects that the Society is launching. The work of the Society is spreading around the world and a new international society is in the incubator. They are raising money for a data base that matches qualified women scientists and engineers with major awards, “because we feel that women scientists have not been given the recognition that they deserve,” to elevate the status of women scientists.  They hope to fund research regarding sex differences in muscular skeletal issues.

Phyllis Greenberger is everything that the social work profession could ask as our representative on the 100 Most Powerful Women list.  As social workers, we believe that effective leaders cultivate relationships, live by their values, share information widely and welcome participation in decision-making.  Most important, we believe that a leader has responsibility towards the greater good.  Greenberger does all of that and more.  Best of all, she has fun doing it on the power field in Washington.

Author:   Dr. Lynn K. Jones

Dr. Lynn K. Jones is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach based in Santa Barbara, California and a sought after coach and consultant for organizations and individuals across the US.   Her doctoral work completed at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University concerned organizational culture; she coaches, consults and trains organizations on what they need to do to create organizational cultures that are aligned with their vision and values using a process of Appreciative Inquiry.  She coaches individuals on achieving their reflected best selves.  An MSW@USC faculty member, Dr. Lynn K. Jones, MSW, DSW, CSWM, teaches Human Behavior and Social Environment.