Leslie Ballantyne says Eleanor Roosevelt has inspired her both personally and professionally.
“The breadth of her accomplishments and commitment to her causes is just astounding,” says MSK’s Vice President of HR Legal and Regulatory Affairs. “She was ahead of her time in being an advocate for poverty solutions and racial justice. There’s a statue of her in Riverside Park and somebody put a mask on it. So even years later, she’s still setting a good example.”
Just like her heroine, Ms. Ballantyne has always shown fierce dedication to her passions. Growing up in Rockland County, New York, she sang, played clarinet, and studied ballet. After majoring in government at Harvard, she interned in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s administration and worked at a law firm and the Justice Department in Washington, DC. She returned to Boston to attend Harvard Law School and then moved to New York City.
After she graduated from law school, Ms. Ballantyne could have pursued the drama of the courtroom, explosive lawsuits, the intensive path toward making partner, but she wanted none of it.
Instead, she was fascinated with labor and employment law, a field she calls “so relatable.”
“I want to help create an environment where people feel empowered to do their best,” she says, “I like that in this field of law, we can problem-solve in advance. We can put policies into place to foster a good working environment.”
Coming to MSK was an easy decision, she says. After a decade in private practice, she realized she wanted to join an organization whose mission she could get behind. She had a relative who battled cancer and knew the institution’s highly regarded reputation. “It felt very personal,” she says.
Ten years into her career at MSK, she faced the professional challenge of her lifetime: helping MSK employees get through the COVID-19 pandemic. An avid runner, she first realized how serious the pandemic was going to be when her trip to Japan for the Tokyo Marathon in early March was canceled. Daily operations at MSK shifted soon after.
Taking Care of Employees during COVID-19
As employees continued to care for patients, Ms. Ballantyne and her team made sure that MSK’s 22,000-strong workforce felt cared for, too. She and her team made it a priority to ensure every employee was still paid, even if their role had been temporarily curtailed. They also took aggressive steps to protect everyone’s wellbeing by designing processes for screening and testing employees for COVID-19.
Ms. Ballantyne and her team recognized the tremendous toll the pandemic was taking on employees’ lives outside of the office, too. With support from colleagues, board members, and donors, MSK established the Employee Relief Fund for staff experiencing financial hardship. The fund helped cover critical expenses such as childcare, housing assistance, commuting fares, food, and more.
“It was important to us that people could continue looking after their own needs, families, and finances,” Ms. Ballantyne says. In the midst of the pandemic, she was also part of the team that established a Bright Horizons childcare center for MSK working parents.
A Second Challenge
As racial justice demonstrations took center stage over the summer, employees — especially those working the night shift – needed to navigate the city safely. MSK expanded its jitney service schedule and provided documentation allowing workers to be out after curfew.
Ms. Ballantyne credits MSK’s Hospital Incident Command System for moving swiftly to make sure MSK kept up with the constant changes.
“We were able to keep going and keep adapting,” Ms. Ballantyne says. “We could put solutions into place and adjust them as needed. The staff showed unbelievable resilience.”
As the pandemic raged on, Ms. Ballantyne relieved her own stress by running in Central Park, taking ballroom dancing classes — first online, then in-person with proper social distancing — and participating in virtual book clubs.
“Being able to run was huge,” she says. “Just being able to get out and go – for any time or distance – added some normality. Little bits of normal life snuck back in.”
She missed her parents, too, and was delighted to finally be able to visit them in person when she tested negative for COVID-19 after a screening at MSK.
Those moments of normalcy motivated her.
“We were all in it together,” she says. “I drew off the energy, resilience, and commitment of my colleagues.”
Looking to the Future
When the pandemic ends, the flexibility employees have shown over the past year will leave a lasting impact on the future of work at MSK, says Ms. Ballantyne. The way MSK goes about its mission might look a little different, but the mission will be the same.
As frontline workers cared for sick patients, Leslie Ballantyne worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure MSK staff members were paid, fed, and protected. She is humble about her contributions, but she stepped up in crucial ways to keep MSK going through the pandemic, reflecting the spirit of her role model.