This past weekend I attended a memorial service for one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. He was one of my first bosses. John hired me one year out of college for my first Director-level position for a hospital in Southern Oregon. I had exactly one year of hospital experience and three years of HR experience at the time. He saw potential in me. He hired me with knowledge that we would be merging with another hospital in the same town and I knew I would be reporting to the other HR person when that happened and would no longer be the director.
John got the CEO job over the merged hospitals and he was no longer my direct boss. Not much time went by before he quickly saw that the other person was not right for that job. Shortly thereafter, she was gone and he promoted me. Again, another vote of confidence in me that far outweighed any level of confidence I had in my own capabilities at that time.
Here I was, a mere two years out of college, 26 years old and now the Director of Human Resources for a 600+ employee hospital organization that was going through a merger of two competing hospitals in a small town in Southern Oregon. Who gets opportunities like that? He gave me a shot that few people get and I sure worked my tail off showing him I could do the job that he already knew I could do. I will be forever grateful to him for giving me that chance. Together, with the rest of leadership team, we went through four of the toughest years one can go through professionally, but we did it together as a team…and he led us through it with grace.
Leading through a merger is stressful and character building, to say the least. I learned so much from John through those years about effective leadership. He handled it with such strength, positivity and a sense of calm. We had to reduce staff and costs, address significant wage and benefit inequities, physical campus disparities, and a name change. He approached all of these things in the most humane way possible. Perhaps the greatest stressor of all was the decision to buy property on the other side of town across the river for the future site of a new hospital, which was met with a huge community and physician partner uproar. John met every one of those challenges with patience, kindness and compassion. He kept us focused and he acknowledged the difficulties and sense of loss that many were feeling as they adjusted to the many, many changes that they were facing.
John listened to everyone’s concerns…from the housekeeper (which was often the first person he asked) to the local physician partner to the community member and patients. He found compromises and made the best decisions he could for the community. He had a strong belief in backing his employees and I’m certain that this is what got us through this challenging time without any hint of a union organizing campaign, even though we were also affiliating with a larger health system that was already unionized.
The employees trusted John and our leadership to really listen to the needs of the staff and do what was right. He knew that if we treated the employees well, they would treat the patients well. That didn’t mean that they always got what they wanted. When we were faced with needing to cut $1.2 million out of the budget, John went to the front-line staff and asked them how to do it. And they came together and figured it out. We still had to cut the costs, but they figured out how to get that done in the least impactful way to patients. And they weren’t necessarily the ways leadership would have done it. But John knew the staff would deliver if given a chance, and they did.
I learned a lot from him about the importance of having faith in the people that work for you, sharing the problem with them, and letting them help you figure out the solution. When you trust them, they will deliver. He was not a top down decision maker and he spent as much time walking the halls talking with the dietary staff as he did engage with anyone at the corporate office in Medford. In fact, he preferred it that way.
John would often wander into the cafeteria at lunchtime and sit down with a group of employees and eat his lunch. I loved this about him…how unassuming he was and how comfortable employees were with him. I’ve never met another CEO who did this and whose employees felt so comfortable with them. It made him very approachable and he had a way of making people feel at ease. John’s way had a lasting impact on me and I was devastated when he left the hospital to move to Alaska. It just wasn’t the same without him and I left the organization less than six months later.
Looking back, leaving was probably a good career move for me because it led to other career opportunities, but that transition time was sure a sad one as I’d lost a great mentor. John and I kept in touch for a while and then lost touch, but did get reconnected through Facebook a few years ago. I’m grateful he had the chance to see how my professional and personal life had unfolded and that I had the chance to see what he and his beautiful family were up to.
I do have one regret, however. And that is I never got a chance to see him again in person and tell him what a lasting and positive impact he had on my life. I never told him how much he meant to me and I wish that I had. During the four hour drive down to the memorial service I had a lot of time to reflect on this.
We focus so much on showing the staff who report to us recognition and gratitude and yet, for some reason, we often hesitate to show those who lead us gratitude in return. Why is that? The only thing I could come up with was a concern that I might be perceived as sucking up in some way.
During my drive I realized I have had many great leaders over the years who I have admired and that have taught me some important lessons. Lessons such as:
While I haven’t always appreciated these leaders in every moment at every time, especially when they have pushed me out of my comfort zone, in reflecting on all of my experiences, I can see what I’ve learned from them with much greater clarity at this time.
My task now is to track down these leaders who have impacted me and give them my gratitude for the lessons they have taught me over the years. Some I’ve remained in touch with and others I have not, but I will give it my best effort. And I challenge anyone reading this to do the same.
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we spent more time telling those whom we respected and cared about all of the positive ways that they have influenced us instead of spending our time on negative energy criticizing others?
Think about someone who has influenced you in a positive way and consider reaching out to them. Tell them how they have done that and express your gratitude for it. I regret that I didn’t have a chance to tell John how much his lessons meant to me and how much I loved working with him. I can only hope he knew.
Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.