A few weeks ago I was dropping my kids off at one of the last weeks of summer camp. I was trying to do the usual multitasking of a conference call, parenting and watching the clock to make sure I wasn’t late for my next call. As my kids ran to talk to a friend of theirs who appeared in the hallway, I was left staring at the poster in front of me. It was a picture of Mother Teresa and the caption, ‘Let no one ever come to you without coming away better and happier.’ I found myself thinking, ‘great sentiment, tough execution’. But of course, as leaders that’s what we strive for.
A few weeks later I was introduced to another mom at my daughters’ school. She is a friend of a friend who brought us all together based on a shared interest in figuring out how to empower our elementary school aged daughters to grow up as strong confident women. The conversation inevitably moved to our own challenges along the way. My friend, an accomplished girls’ softball head coach, was asked to take the assistant coach role so a male peer, new to coaching, could be the head coach. Because he wouldn’t accept the assistant role and, the organizers figured, she would. My new friend is a physician who, after finishing medical school, decided to take a few years off to raise her children. Dismayed by her decision, her mentors responded as follows. Her parents, both physicians, begged her to reconsider and were so disappointed in her decision that they had little communication for years afterward. All but one physician mentor excluded her from discussions and gave up their active support of her.
Since we were meeting as parents and not professionals, I assumed that this was the all too familiar story of a trained professional deciding that for now, raising capable and confident kids needed to be the priority with the return to work potentially later on. I was wrong. Yes, she spent early years with her kids. Then she returned to medicine. And decided to lead.
Before medicine and kids, she spent her first few years out of college in Teach for America, teaching East Palo Alto middle school kids. She spoke of the state of the classroom there – scrounging for supplies and cleaning up what the mice had left behind after taking up residence inside overnight. She also talked about the amazing kids and their fervent desire to learn and what a searing impression the experience had on her.
Med school was in her future though, and she got accepted to Stanford Medical School. For those less familiar with Bay Area geography, Google maps puts Stanford 3.2 miles away from East Palo Alto. Economic realities put them a universe apart. Struck by the vast disparity of resources between her two recent experiences and the clear need for access to good medical care in East Palo Alto, she spent some of her days off back at her old school, translating some of her medical learnings into kid-speak. And with the realization that some of her charges were sharing some of what they were learning at home, she saw an opportunity. She realized she could educate these kids as ‘health ambassadors’ to help them teach THEIR families about integrating healthy behaviors – even on a limited income.
Then she got other Stanford medical students and residents to join her. And then residency programs in other parts of California adopted the approach. Nearly 5 years after its inception, the Stanford Youth Diabetes Coaches Program has now been adopted by nearly 30 schools across the country.
In the first 3 years, she measured the results. In addition to improving knowledge, self-efficacy, worth and problem solving (and think just about the power of THOSE changes!) 82% of the 200+ students said they were considering making behavior change to improve their own health as a result of the program. So did they? That’s tougher to say – partially because funding is increasingly difficult to come by to do the study. But what if even 1/3 of them did? Think of the impact. Healthcare gurus talk incessantly about the power of prevention. These residents and their high schoolers are making it happen.
I left dinner with a few observations. First: while scale matters, incremental change typically comes first. And each of us can make incremental change when we don’t like the state of affairs in front of us. Second, title isn’t a prerequisite for leadership. And third, we’re lucky to be surrounded by unsung and potentially untitled leaders who make sure that those around them do in fact come away better and happier.
Having recently navigated my second corporate merger and been talking with colleagues about company strategy, I was reminded of Simon Sinek’s insightful Ted talk, ‘Start with Why’. It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it. His premise is that while most companies focus on WHAT they do – products, processes, competitive differentiation – the way to create a real and lasting connection with customers and employees is to focus relentlessly on WHY you do what you do. Not surprisingly, that’s often tougher to determine. Why do you want to make great cell phones or deliver a better MCAT course? ‘To make money’ isn’t a terribly enduring or motivating why, – and Simon argues this is a result not a why. But ‘to bring people close’ or ‘to make the practice of medicine accessible’ can be – and can make clear the guiding principles for the WHAT and HOW a company goes about its day to day.
This discussion was fresh in my mind as I was meeting with a woman I used to work with. She remains at the healthcare company where we worked and you might have noticed a bit of, say, disruption in our industry recently. Because of this and her uncertain future job prospects, she’d begun thinking about pursuing different roles. She asked if I’d help connect her with people and I asked what she wanted to do or if she had particular companies in mind. She instead talked about some of the people we had worked with and asked what they were doing now. I talked about people’s comings and goings as best I knew them and with each role, she nodded with interest.
Her responses were some version of ‘That would be interesting / I think I’d like that / I could do that!’ As she asked if I’d reconnect her with these folks, I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book ‘Are you my mother?’ When you’re not sure what your mother looks like it’s hard to tell who she might be. Similarly, when you don’t know have a great sense of your motivation behind the type of work you want to do, it’s tough to tell what might be the right fit.
‘Why’ in action
Asking her WHAT she wanted to do so I could orient her to the right folks wasn’t getting me far. So I shifted to an approach more akin to Simon’s – ‘WHY do you want to be in healthcare?’ She paused, then talked around it a bit, then paused again. And then she told me that her parents had both been doctors and had impressed on her the importance of helping people. It’s understandable then why she GOT into healthcare but not why she wants to BE in healthcare. Ultimately, it was the part about ‘helping people’ that resonated for her. And as we talked, she concluded that she needed to find a role with a more direct line of sight to helping people than her finance role offered. Which of course opened up numerous possibilities – inside her current company and industry, and out.
I’m struck by the power of this question Why, particularly as jobs move overseas or are lost to technological innovation. The expansion from WHAT we do and have experience doing to WHY we do what we do beyond the obvious financial benefits can open up an entirely different set of possibilities. We just have to be open to asking – and perhaps more challenging, answering.