A couple months ago my boss Nancy Fennell asked me to help greet guests at the alumni event she hosted for Advisory Board Chairs of the Nevada Women’s Fund (NWF). I was minutes into an inspiring conversation with Dawn Ahner, the current Chair of the NFW Board and Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer at Renown Health, and asked if I could feature her story on my blog. With her stature, title and tenure, people often have a certain perception but it’s not until you ask the right questions that you find what makes someone excellent.
A week later, I was honored to unpack her story in detail. After 80 minutes in her executive office and five pages of interview notes later, I asked if there was any other piece of advice she’d give to aspiring executives. She said, “find a mentor and make it be someone outside of your industry”. I let that statement sink in for two seconds before I responded, “Okay, do you have room for one more mentee?”. Without thinking, we all want to be influenced by someone admirable and I’m incredibly humbled and honored to share how Dawn’s experience, education and desire to be a mother shaped her to be a woman of excellence.
Her story starts in Baltimore. She was born there but at a young age moved across the country with her mother and siblings to the Bay Area in San Bruno, California. They later moved to Sacramento where Dawn grew up from 6th grade through College. She landed her first job at Burger King at the age of 16 and within a year moved into a management role — hiring, firing and training new recruits. This early leadership experience gave her the means to pay her way through school, and her first employer out of College said it’s what set her apart from the competition.
I’d suggest it may also have been the fact she played three instruments, competed in high school basketball, volleyball and passed all four parts of the CPA exam before completing her degree. With her background and personality for perfection, it’s not a surprise she was selected for an interview with all of the “Big Six” accounting firms (now it’s just the “Big Four”). She received offers from five of the six and chose an entry level position at KPMG because she liked the people there the best.
Nine to 10 months in the position, KPMG experienced some layoffs and Dawn found herself responsible for running the audit at a bank in downtown Sacramento. With absolutely no experience in this area, she pushed ahead to execute her work with confidence. Reflecting back, Dawn said that this is what shaped her career to always dig in and figure out how to do what you’ve never done before.
With three years of accounting experience, a CPA license under her belt and a boyfriend studying at the University of Nevada, Reno, Dawn applied for a position to be a budget analyst at Washoe Medical Center and Chris Bosse selected her for the job. Her first day of a 23+ year tenure at what is now called Renown Health started on January 13, 1993. Within her first 5 years, she got married, completed an MBA from the University of Nevada, Reno and gave birth to her first child. Within 10 years, she became the mother of three girls and continued to increase her responsibilities at Renown.
After 10 years at Renown, Dawn became the Interim Vice President of Finance and has been moving up in the executive ranks ever since. It’s highly unusual for someone to have a tenure like Dawn as most people work at one organization on average seven years. Her goal wasn’t to maintain longevity in her tenure as she recognizes that it can sometimes be a detriment. Instead, she intends to stay with Renown as long as she continues to grow and can be an asset to the organization. As a result, Dawn has held nine different positions with increasing responsibility leading to new challenges, learning and growth opportunities, both for her personal progression and for the systems at Renown.
Dawn’s Tenure at Renown:
Budget Analyst (1993) –> Budget & Cost Analyst (1993) –> Finance Manager (1994) –> Director of Finance (2001) –> Director of Internal Audit (2002) –> Interim VP of Finance (2003) –> VP & Chief Accounting Officer (2003) –> Chief Financial Officer (2006) –> Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer (2014)
At this stage in her career as an Executive Vice President at Renown, Dawn found there are some things you can learn if you think in a different way. Last year’s decision to go back into academia after 20 years has challenged her to think differently, and it’s through that process she’s uncovering new perspectives. In a doctorate of science program in healthcare administration with a cohort of eight other healthcare executives from across the country, Dawn is challenging herself to re-examine how she thinks about the healthcare system and design a dissertation focused on a topic she can use to benefit Renown.
I’m in awe of Dawn’s career and couldn’t wait to ask her number one tip to maintain excellence. She said, “you must build your confidence early on and raise your hand at every opportunity.” Dawn is not afraid to take on challenges and instead seeks the chance to grow and learn something new. She is excellent by using influence and empowering a strong team to make decisions to get things done. When hiring, she selects candidates who are strong and intelligent leaders that challenge her by asking good questions.
Dawn’s continuous drive, ambition and assertive personality have contributed greatly to her accomplishments. She also describes the value of raising children and how it’s changed her in a way she could not have otherwise experienced. Her kids have given her a sense of empathy and calmness and that’s made her a better boss. Work used to be the “be-all and end-all”, but now she has a higher level of appreciation and understanding for people and what they need for work-life balance.
As I write this article, I’ve stopped to think a number of times how Dawn’s story impacts me the most. Even in this modern day, it can seem impossible to walk both the life of a successful career woman and a mother. After contemplating Dawn’s words, I’m publishing this story to tell you how important and incredible it is that a woman like Dawn always planned to have a family. She made that dream a reality through finding a complimentary partner who has supported her advancement as an executive in their first 20-years of marriage.
When asked, Dawn said that her greatest accomplishment is her three beautiful daughters. It’s become a tradition for Dawn and her daughters to dress up for Renown’s big foundation dinner and attend Magic. It’s an opportunity to put themselves out there, learn how to shake hands and hold conversations. As a mother she sees that the greatest lessons come from exposure in social settings and new circumstances, whether local or around the world. The root of this lesson and of Dawn’s entire story is one of encouragement: “stretch and push yourself to build the confidence that you can achieve anything you want.”
Dawn Ahner is the Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer at Renown Health | Chair of the Nevada Women’s Fund | Wife and Mother of three daughters | Follow Dawn @AhnerDawn | Follow Renown @RenownHealth
PC: Dawn Ahner