“So, what do you do?”
It’s a question my friend Alex has started to dread, because as a first-time mom on maternity leave, she’s no longer sure how to answer it. Unfortunately, it’s become the gold standard conversation starter, and so Alex has had to piece together a standard response, as many of us have.
But how can we capture what we do in just a few words? And if we do, does it paint an accurate, compelling picture of who we are?
I thought about this after a recent conversation with Tim Stettheimer, VP and regional CIO for Ascension Health Service. That, of course, is his title, but to those who know him, he’s more than that. He’s a mentor, friend, a father, a speaker, and someone who is defined largely by his faith. Perhaps it’s because of all of this that when he wants to get to know someone, he doesn’t ask “what do you do” or even “where do you live?” Rather, he says this:
“Tell me about where you’re from.”
It’s a subtle difference, and yet the answer can reveal so much more about who a person really is than just his or her job or home base. When I first heard his question, I thought about my hometown of Madison, NJ. It’s a suburb of New York City, but much more than that, it’s a community where people know each other’s families, where you can walk into town and visit stores that have had the same owners for decades. It’s a town where the people who went to school together or bonded at their children’s sporting events become lifelong friends. Growing up in a community like Madison has had a profound impact on who I am as a person, and has given me a blueprint for what I want my own children to have.
Similarly, there are other questions that can dig a little deeper and help get to truly know someone. For example, when interviewing a CIO, I’m always interested in how he or she got into health IT. But instead of simply asking that, I’ll inquire about their early career, because it’s a window into where they came from, and how they started on the path to leadership.
One of the best examples is Dan Barchi, CIO at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Long before his C-suite days, he was an officer for the US Navy, where he was tasked with leading a large group of people at a young age (most of whom were older than him). It was an experience that paid off immensely, said Barchi. “When I started in healthcare, I had 200 to 300 people working for me who knew far more than I did about any of the tools, yet they looked to me to be their leader. Having done that same role in the military allowed me to work smoothly into it.”
Another example is Theresa Meadows, SVP and CIO at Cook Children’s Health Care System, who talked about the perspective she gained during her early days in nursing. “I think about things less from a technology standpoint and more, how is this going to impact the process, how are people going to be engaged with this, and is this something that’s really going to work for the person who has to use it versus it just being cool technology,” she said in an interview last year. Having spent time as a nurse helps her to “make judgements more holistically,” which many believe is a key characteristic in any leader.
It’s amazing, by talking about their past experiences, Meadows, Barchi, and so many others offer a window into who they truly are, and how they got there. It’s a window that’ll never open unless you ask the right questions.