Barbara Butts Williams, Ph.D.
It’s not unusual for Barbara Butts Williams to sit quietly during presentations and discussions. When she’s ready to talk, others scoot forward in their chairs, sit up, and pay attention.
“Barbara is an exceptional listener, and she really tries to deeply understand issues,” says Dr. Penny Wheeler. The CEO of Allina Health Systems often sees Williams’ expertise and influence in action during board meetings. “When she asks questions, they always get to the deeper issues involved: What cultural implications will a decision have and how will employees be affected? How will it line up with what you’re trying to do strategically? She’s always connecting to the larger picture, and that’s one of her greatest strengths.”
It happened recently as the Minneapolis–based health system negotiated a contract with a specialty physicians’ group. While others focused on the transactional components, Williams dove into questions about how this partnership would affect Allina’s relationships with similar physicians’ groups and other goals like providing consistent care systemwide.
“What I love about Barbara is that she challenges us, which we really want our board members to do, but in the most supportive way. She’s been a model for servant leadership,” Wheeler says. “We say, ‘Never forget who you are serving and why.’ She understands that from the business side, and how you align people with our mission and support them.”
Williams joined the Allina board in 2015, and currently serves as vice chair of the human resources committee. She’s been a sought-after board member for a wide range of institutions and organizations over the past 35 years. On top of her vast experience at the intersection of business, education, and community affairs, Williams is known as the kind of advisor who goes deep into the heart of issues and helps leaders understand the broad impact of their decisions.
She’s worked at Minneapolis–based Capella University since 2002 in a variety of leadership roles—including dean of the School of Business and Technology and dean of the School of Education. They unite her interest in helping adult learners get the education and tools they need to advance their careers.
In her current role as executive dean of external relationships and partnerships, Williams focuses on how best Capella can give back to the community. The job gives her an opportunity to tap into her substantial knowledge of Minnesota and its challenges, strengths, and resources to solve problems and improve people’s lives.
It suits her mission to help others reach their full potential, whether through teaching, research, or expertise in technology and organizational development. “I’m doing a lot of work focused on corporate social responsibility as it relates to community involvement, and that has been a wonderful alignment with my personal values,” Williams says. “I leverage the capabilities of Capella back to the community and guide resources in the right direction. That has been really powerful and fulfilling.”
It’s a fitting role for someone who has always blended career, leadership, and service. Williams moved to the Twin Cities in the early 1980s to join Control Data leading executive education and leadership development. Then she held positions in leadership development, talent management, education, and sales and marketing for The St. Paul Cos. and Wilson Learning. With curiosity and a drive to contribute at work and in the community, Williams has devoted significant effort to board leadership throughout her career. She believes that these dual tracks help her do well in both lanes. She says she enjoys a kind of yin and yang: diving into the details and day-to-day operations of her job, contrasted with analyzing a wider scope of issues facing an organization.
Williams wanted to be an Allina director because of her concern about community health disparities and an interest in health care that dates to her early job as a training director for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. She joined boards like the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to champion equity, entrepreneurship, supplier diversity, and economic development for all.
“I’m always interested in giving back and contributing in any way I can,” Williams says. “The whole part of who I am is represented in the boards I’ve served on and contributed to.”
In all of her board work, Williams says she tries to share best practices from different industries while helping organizations establish and maintain strong leaders.
“I have a reputation of being an engaged board member who wants to contribute, who learns fast and jumps in,” Williams says. “I think I have been able to bring a fresh perspective because I’m not sitting in their environment every day.”