Acknowledging Our Mentors: Stephen Stewart’s Four Pillars of Advice

Stephen Stewart, CIO, Henry County Health Center

Stephen Stewart, CIO, Henry County Health Center

When I think back over my career, a lot of people have had a hand in shaping what I have achieved. There are too many to mention, but when I really think of mentors, four come to mind.

First, my father. The one piece of advice that sticks with me more than any is: “No one can argue if you did your best. They may not like the results, but they cannot really argue if it was your best. Just make danged sure it really was your best — not what you thought at the time was your best, but what you know in your head and heart was indeed your best. Never settle for less than your best and expect nothing else than the best from those you choose to surround yourself with.”

It has been painfully hard at times to stick to this advice. Admittedly, at times I have failed to do so, but always, upon reflection I have known it was not my best effort and the results I got were what I deserved.

Second was one of my early bosses. He was President of a Division of Gillette, a redheaded Irishman who had a voice so deep it sounded like it was coming from his socks, and perhaps was the voice of the almighty. His advice: “There are only two functions of any entity — to make a product or service, and to sell it. I cannot tell you which one comes first or is more important, because nothing really happens without both. What I can tell you is everything else exists for the sole purpose of supporting one or both of those ends, or it is nothing more than blood-sucking, profit-draining overhead.”

I cannot tell you how often those words have rung in my head. In a hospital, care is our product, and our reputation sells that product. IT exists to support both the product and the selling of it, period. Nothing we do inherently delivers value except thru these two avenues. It is hard sometimes to remember that, but it is a fact. Our value comes in supporting those noble ends.

Third was an HR director with whom I had, at best, a strained relationship. Frankly, I was too young and naïve in my career to take a lot of his advice to heart, but I learned later how invaluable it was. His words: “Oftentimes it matters far less what the facts actually are than what the perception of the facts actually is.”

In those days, I saw a lot of things as black and white, fact or fiction. I had not grown comfortable living in a world of gray. Many times I wished I had paid attention to those words, and maybe I would have acted differently. Only after the fact a few times did I realize that perception was reality, and when I was addressing the facts, I was missing the reality that my message needed to be tailored differently to address the perception. I could have saved a lot of pain, agony, and hurt had I really grasped this meaning sooner.

Fourth was another leader with whom I had a love/hate relationship — and I am pretty sure he felt the same way. His words: “Don’t be afraid to be wrong; just don’t be wrong long, and never make the wrong mistake.” Those words carried both encouragement and wisdom. Making a mistake happens to us all. Do not fear it. But for heaven’s sake, recognize it quickly, fix it, and move on. But never make the wrong mistake. I struggled with that piece, but what it really meant was to be honest and ethical in all endeavors, because failing either is a wrong mistake from which most cannot recover. Fortunately, I figured that one out before it hit me.

The first two mentors are no longer with us, and I miss them greatly. I get great satisfaction from reflecting on their wisdom and measuring what I do against their advice and values. The longer I go on, the better I like the results of what I measure against their sincere advice.

The other two are still around; one is retired and one still active. Though I do not see either very often anymore, I remember what they taught me, and what they did for me. As I grow older, I become surer of the fact that the strained relations with these two were mostly due to my youth. Not that there is anything wrong with youth itself, but if you were anything like me, listening in those days was harder than work.

Many have had a hand in shaping what I have become. These four really stand out in my mind, and I owe them a lot. In the end, we are all just a compilation of our life’s experiences and how we worked through them. These four helped me get there. I just hope that I am paying it forward to those I encounter along the way.

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