Annette Walker draws upon her faith in her leadership role at Providence St. Joseph Health

By Meg Waters     3/13/2018

Annette M. Walker is a visionary. She doesn’t see celestial beings, but she does make it a practice every morning to commune with the divine through coffee and prayer. As president of Strategy for Providence St. Joseph Health, she is charged with keeping an eye on the future of medical service for the third-largest health system in the country. Walker leads from a position of strength – her Catholic faith. 

Walker grew up in Pomona within a large Catholic family with a number of relatives who were priests and nuns. Long before she came to St. Joseph Health, she had formed a deep affinity for the sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. They taught at her elementary school, St. Madeline, and she remained close to them through high school at Pomona Catholic. She completed her undergraduate studies at Loyola Marymount, and received a Masters from the University of Minnesota. If Annette Walker had a baptismal contract it would have a non-compete clause on Catholicism. 

“The moment that most defined me happened in my junior year at LMU,” recalls Walker. “I became pregnant. Being unmarried, having a baby alone, and keeping her, established the extent of my faith in God and his goodness. I’m so glad I trusted and felt God’s hand in my life. After that experience, I have never been afraid.” Chuck and Annette have been married for 37 years and have been blessed with five more children and 10 grandchildren. 

The next significant turning point came early in her career. “I was working as a lab director and was forced to lay off hard-working individuals because the leaders had failed to take care of the future of the organization.” This insight, that leaders must be vigilant in monitoring the health and sustainability of the organization for the good of everyone, made a lasting impression.  

It is no wonder, then, that Annette Walker’s favorite saint is Joan of Arc. “Who would have listened to her – a mere child from the country. But she was fearless! I think she is a magnificent role model, I’m never afraid in business.”  

She worked for other health care systems before joining St. Joseph’s in 2005. “In most corporations there is a lot of societal pressure to keep faith at home and the higher you go in management the less you can express your faith,” says Walker. “At St. Joseph’s you are not only allowed to bring your whole self with you to work, it’s expected. I feel that I’m leading a ministry, not just a hospital.” Walker’s leadership was instrumental in bringing St. Joseph Health and Providence Health & Services together as Providence St. Joseph Health in 2016.

In practical terms, integrating faith into work elevates everything from the mundane to the highly strategic in terms of how it serves a higher purpose. Making hard decisions isn’t easier when they are made in the context of Catholic social teaching. “We do make hard decisions, but we try to make them in the best, most just way possible. We use discernment to find the best, most just decision.” As an example, Walker points to a decision a few years ago to make changes in the employee benefits packages. “We had to make a 20% cut, but we also considered who was disproportionately affected by the cut. We asked ourselves: have we been just in mitigating how this affects the community?” 

Walker says that a Corporate Strategist is the person who is the caretaker and architect of the future success of an organization. “We look at what is going on around us – for example what does the merger of CVS and Aetna mean for our business?”

In a world where women who embrace life, have big families, a strong marriage to one man and an enduring faith in God are dismissed, Annette Walker is a warrior for the counter-culture. “Who I married made a big difference because we have the same values and are clearly aligned. I was told I can’t have all these children and a career. As soon as we had our third child, people started to comment, when we had more than four they got downright rude.” It wasn’t easy and for most of the time she was raising her children, she wasn’t a senior executive. But it not only can be done, it is well worth it.  

One of the first things one notices upon entering her office is a desk placard, not with her name or title but with a simple directive: “Let all that you do be done in love.” 1Cor 16:14. It takes real strength to lead with love.