Donna Lynne, the new senior vice president and chief operating officer of Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and chief executive officer of ColumbiaDoctors, is shown in a portrait taken in her office.

Donna Lynne on Extreme Sports, Lessons From the '60s, and Taking CUIMC to the Next Level

April 23, 2019

It’s no understatement to say that challenges motivate Donna Lynne. She took up mountain climbing when she was 52 because she wanted to push herself, and she spends time outdoors every chance she gets—distance biking, skiing, and scaling ice-covered rock faces with just her harness, ice ax, and the unshakeable belief in her ability to get to the top.


Now, she’s embracing another challenge: her dual appointment as the new senior vice president and chief operating officer of Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and chief executive officer of ColumbiaDoctors. While it may not bring the adrenaline rush of extreme sports, for Lynne, it’s no less exciting.


The appointment comes with an enormous portfolio for which the longtime health care leader is uniquely suited. A child of the '60s, she chafed at the then-prevailing inequities that marginalized women, people of color, and people from underserved populations. Describing herself as “a bit of a fighter,” Lynne did what came naturally to her. She paired her battles with hard work, earned undergraduate and advanced degrees, and continuously pushed for a seat at the table. She got it.


Before coming to CUIMC, Lynne spent nearly 40 years in government and health care. Most recently, she was the state of Colorado’s lieutenant governor and its first chief operating officer. There, she worked closely with Gov. John Hickenlooper and his cabinet to improve performance, accountability, and transparency in state operations.


Lynne—who has a DrPH in public health from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health—also served as the executive vice president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals. Before that, she spent 20 years in New York City government, working as the first deputy commissioner in the Office of Labor Relations, director of the Mayor's Office of Operations, and senior vice president of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation.  

I like games or sports where you don’t keep score. Where the score is internal, the score is about your own personal accomplishment and what you get out of it.

Lynne says health care encompasses four Ps: patients, providers, purchasers, and payers, and she has been in all four roles. Academic medicine is a new frontier for her, and she is eager to build on Columbia’s excellent reputation while taking the medical center to the next level. Right now she is particularly focused on the EpicTogether implementation and how changes in health care could affect CUIMC. 


“There’s lots to learn,” she told CUIMC Today. “I’m learning a lot about research, about education, about the training and thinking behind building the next generation of researchers and clinicians who are going to be taking care of people.”


Building culture and empowering people to give feedback to her are key to her management style. “There are so many different points of view that I want to make sure I take all those into account,” she said.


She also likes to push people a little. “I’m a risk taker outside of the workplace, but I’m a risk taker inside the workplace as well. I think if you don’t take risks, you have no idea of what’s possible.”


And, she noted, to avoid all risk is to lose out on powerful lessons. “There’s a lot of reflection you can do around failure, and failure teaches you how to do something better next time.”


As if her dual appointment weren’t enough, Lynne will also continue to teach a class at the Mailman School, where she has taught on weekends for the past 14 years. Since she’s on campus now, she’ll do an evening class instead. Asked how she keeps up with such a demanding schedule, she laughingly said she doesn’t sleep much. 


That must have helped when she was raising her three children on her own while earning her degrees and taking on roles of increasing importance. Lynne admits that it was a challenge. But, as always, she dug in. “I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “Nor would I have said to myself, ‘I’m just going to coast.’ I did it for my children because I wanted them to see what was possible. I know it’s corny to say it, but I believe in hard work.”


She’s getting plenty of that at CUIMC, and she’s more than equal to the task.


In the past decade, Lynne has climbed to the top of more than 70 peaks—each of them 14,000 feet or higher—on four continents. Later this year, she’ll take on the mother of all mountains when she climbs to Mount Everest’s base camp.




“Because I can do it,” she said. “It’s there, and I’m going to do it.”


And then, with that challenge completed, it’ll be back to business.