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Leadership in Practice: A Conversation with Patty Arnold, President, St. John’s Mercy Foundation
Q: Can you give me a two minute synopsis of how you got to where you are now?
A: I have been at St. John’s Mercy Foundation for about 2 ½ years. Before that, I was with the Missouri Botanical Garden, and spent most of my professional career there. I started at the Garden in the early 1980’s. I was their membership manager, and moved up to work in the development office as a development manager. I eventually became the director of development at the Missouri Botanical Garden for 12 years before coming to St. John’s. Before the Garden, I worked for Senator Eagleton. My degree is in political science, so I was anxious to work in the senate office, and was lucky enough to have that opportunity. I worked in his senate office for a while, and then on his political campaign, which was his last run in the 1980 election. It was a very interesting time but I also realized at that time that I was interested in other things, and that going to Washington or staying in politics was probably not what I was going to do. I was lucky enough then to go to work for the Garden after that.
Q: How has your leadership style changed over the years?
A: As a leader, the important thing is to make sure that you’re always challenging yourself to change. I think leaders that don’t change don’t stay leaders very long. Early in my career, I was really focused on goals, metrics, and achievements. I think over the years what I have learned is that follow-through, relationship building, and taking ownership for your work are more important.
Q: Are there any critical experiences that have shaped your approach to leadership over the years?
A: The most important thing that I have learned is from watching my bosses over the years. You learn what works for you, what you want to take and improve upon, and what you think you can do without. I have had bosses that put you inside the information loop and bosses that keep you out. I learned very early that the more I knew about what we were trying to achieve and feeling like I was in the inner circle, work was much more motivating. I have always tried to remember that for the people that I work with, making sure that we are all part of the process and everyone feels a part of the ownership of the success.
Q: Have you had mentors over the years?
A: I have had lots of mentors. My most important mentor in my career has been Peter Raven, the president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, watching his management style and watching and learning about people from him. The other mentor that I had in the development career has been Pat Rich. She is a partner in EMD Consulting. I learned a lot from Pat. She had a position at the Garden before I did, and she has always been someone that understands the business of fundraising and able to help with strategic planning as well as trends.
Q: What role does mentoring play in your leadership style?
A: I hope that I am a good mentor. In development you always want to bring people along in their careers. I have always encouraged professional development. I try to give staff members the tools to learn more things and give them appropriate challenges to advance their careers. The biggest thing that I have always done and part of my management style has been to be accessible. Being open to questions and talking to staff outside of the regular work time and providing them with an opportunity to learn from my experience has been an important part my job.
Q: How do you describe the leadership culture of the St. John’s Mercy Foundation?
A: The leadership culture here is very strong in that it is very centered on the mission. With the mission of the Sisters of Mercy and the healthcare mission here, we have a commitment to success, and a commitment to do the right thing. I think that is one of the things about Mercy that sets it apart; we live the mission here every day.
Q: Thinking about a mission driven organization, how does it affect your business?
A: Keeping with our mission has kept us focused. Our fundraising effort has been geared to advancing the mission. We do a lot of fundraising around serving our community that uses the hospital that are either underinsured or uninsured, as well as advancing and funding programs that help with the overall health of the region. So, it keeps us focused.
Q: How do you build and maintain that culture of leadership?
A: For Mercy overall, we have lots of training programs and professional development is encouraged. Keeping our leadership culture at the highest level is just a part of what they do here. You can have all the training and provide all of that information but what I really believe is a differentiator for us is that our leaders live that culture every day. It is through their examples that leadership is built.
Q: How do you develop the next generation of leaders?
A: You want professional development as well as personal growth. I think that good leaders in any organization have a real strong knowledge about the community in which we live. I think we have to be good citizens of St. Louis and know about other organizations and be involved and volunteer other places. We want an understanding of the needs of the community, about what is happening outside of the medical center to be able to bring that dimension back to what we do here.
Q: So I imagine there is both teaching about the Foundation and participating in the community but also then bringing back ideas from what people see.
A: Absolutely. Bringing back ideas and helping to shape and broaden a vision that is ever changing. The world has certainly changed over the last few months. If we don’t know how other people are affected or adapting to that change, we can’t adapt as well.
Q: Was there anything else you want to add on your thoughts on leadership?
A: Leadership is also about looking outside of your own organization and learning about what makes a good leader in other organizations, always finding out what those keys to success are. Not only just around St. Louis, but also looking nationally and internationally and knowing what the skills are and how you can bring some of that to bear in what you do.