Deb Sanford

Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center is honoring women leaders in healthcare as part of Women’s History Month, featuring a conversation with Deb Sanford, MBA, MSN, RN, vice president of Nursing and Patient Care Services, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, a role she’s held since 2015.

Deb grew up in Troy, New York. Prior to joining Northern Light Health in 1996, Deb was a nurse leader at Strong Member Hospital, University of Rochester; an adjunct faculty member at St. John Fisher College and a Financial Analysist for Morgan Stanley & Company.

Deb contributes to her profession and community by being involved in a variety of organizations. She is a member of the Maine State Board of Nursing, a board member and past board president for the Heart of Maine United Way and is a Rotarian and Paul Harris Society member. In her free time, Deb enjoys skiing, gardening, and spending time with her family, with special affection for her granddaughters.

Who inspired you to be a leader and why?
I never aspired to be a leader but to be the very best nurse that I could. Early in my career at the University of Rochester, our nursing professional practice model focused on balancing practice equally between clinical excellence, research, leadership, and teaching. This has been my concept for practice since then. My first nurse manager encouraged all nurses to strive for excellence and be a voice for nursing and patients through advocacy and leadership.

When you began your career, did you know you wanted to be a leader?
My career took a detour that led me to Wall Street in a significantly male dominated profession. This detour honed my negotiation and influential leadership skills in order to succeed during a time when women leaders were not the norm. From that experience, I committed to mentor and support women in their pursuit of successful leadership endeavors. Little did I dream that I would lead a nursing organization that is rich in talent, empathy, and caring.

What do you enjoy most about leading others?
Coaching and mentoring, especially women, to be their own advocate and not apologize or be fearful of taking risks. Acting courageous and taking leaps of faith to accomplish all that they can.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? / What has been the most significant barrier in your career? I think the most significant barrier to female leadership is changing the way the world views women leaders. Women are still seen as the “softer” gender and have to work harder to earn the respect of their peers in the workplace. It’s about striking a balance in the perception of assertiveness versus being seen as aggressive. We have come a long way but still have a way to go.

How did you navigate power structures EARLY in your career versus LATER in your career when you had a more formal leadership role?
I have learned patience, active listening, and gaining trust of the team. As a senior leader, I use these same skills to remove barriers for other members of the team so that they can meet the needs of our workforce and patients.

What are the ways you stay grounded and take care of yourself?
I continually seek feedback from team members on improvements and ensure that I round throughout the hospital to remain connected to the work done every day by our staff. I take time for “me” on my off hours to relax and do things just for myself. I rely heavily on my family for support and honesty.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
The same that I give to all young leaders, especially women: you can have it all, an education, a career, and a family. A messy house or piles of dirty laundry is not a sign that you cannot but an acceptance that there is balance. Being present, showing kindness and empathy will provide you with the influential leadership skills necessary to move mountains and place you in a position of power. Informal leadership is the first step to successful growth and development.

What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
It is a time to celebrate the strides women have made in the shifting dynamics of the workforce and to continue to push for changes around diversity and equity.