Did you ever have one of those individuals who had a brief yet tremendous impact on your life? An encounter where one sentence changed things forever? If you had an experience like I did, consider yourself very fortunate.
My experience happened in my first job out of college in 1977. I had just started in my role as a hospital social worker. My boss was Sister of Mercy Anna Mae McKenzie, director of social work services at a suburban Catholic hospital in the Philadelphia area. I was in this position for about six months when one day Sister Anna Mae came into the office, which I shared with two other people, and she stood in the doorway for what seemed like an eternity. Finally while looking straight at me, she said, “Get the hell out!” And with that, she disappeared into her adjacent office and slammed the door. Now being raised Irish Catholic my first thought was, “How am I going to explain to my mom I just got fired by a nun?”
Dazed and confused I remember my immediate supervisor, who was in the room at the time, said, “Just go talk to her; everything will be all right.” So after about 30 minutes of pure hell I got the guts to knock on Sister Anna Mae’s office door.
As I entered expecting the worst, she was sitting at her desk, smiling and then asked, “How can I help you?” I did not expect that reaction. I stammered and asked her to explain what she meant by “get the hell out,” and with that came the explanation for my life-changing event. Sister Anna Mae went on to tell me I was young and talented and that I should go back and get whatever additional education I needed for my career before I got married and started a family. So in a few short sentences I went from thinking I was fired to getting some of the best career advice ever. Great message though the delivery left something to be desired.
That encountered forced me to think seriously about my career and what I wanted to do with my life at the young age of 22. As the saying goes, the “rest is history.” I knew I loved health care, so I set as a goal to become a hospital CEO by age 40. I returned to school, earned a master’s in business administration degree in health administration, and entered my second career as a healthcare administrator.
Experience, great mentors and some good fortune helped me reach my goal by age 39. My success in the health care field included becoming CEO of an academic medical center and also a member of an executive team of a national healthcare system. Now I am in my third career as the CEO of my executive leadership development firm, oftentimes helping individuals develop and advance their career plans.
I often think back on that fateful encounter with Sister Anna Mae with great fondness and gratitude. Without that “jolt” of reality who knows if or when I would have taken control of my career. There are two important life lessons I learned from that experience. First, I was fortunate to have someone be brutally honest with me at a time in my life when I needed a “push” to get my career on track. Secondly, I realize what an impact we all can have on the lives and careers of others if we take a chance, get involved and have an honest conversation.
It is with sadness to share that Sister Anna Mae passed away recently at the age of 92. In her obituary I found this very telling sentence: “Anna Mae was a colorful and fun-loving person who enjoyed a good time with her family and friends.” Yes, on that fateful day in 1977, she was “colorful” and in her eyes might have been “fun loving,” but I am eternally grateful for the interest and impact she had on my life.
Be that person who will take a “leap of faith” and challenge others and say, “Get the hell out” regarding their career plan. You and the other person will both benefit from such a gusty statement. Go ahead, I dare you to try it. You may just launch a successful career like Sister Anna Mae did with me many years ago. The reward will well be worth the risk.
Daniel J. Sinnott brings 35 years of diverse leadership experience to his role as CEO of Sinnott Executive Consulting, a leadership development company that specializes in developing the business and leadership skills of leaders preparing for or already in the C- Suite.
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