Wide Awake: Sister Elizabeth
My first example of a CEO

Earlier this year, I attended a memorial service for Sister M. Elizabeth Corry, who was president of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center for 22 years. During four of those years, I was the PR director there. I was fresh out of college. So in the late ’80s, my first “real” job was for a very large company – run by a woman.

Sister Elizabeth held a Master’s degree in hospital administration from Columbia University, so her business decisions were wise and well respected. She is credited with starting the cardiology program at Lourdes, which continues to thrive today. She also established an organ transplant program and an outpatient dialysis unit – both in operation at Lourdes today.

I watched Sister Elizabeth in many meetings where older men in blue suits, who clearly had a good amount of money and power, listened intently to her opinions and abided by her decisions. Some of those men were doctors, and at that time, physicians rarely listened to a woman’s business advice. But these physicians listened to Sister Elizabeth.

She was pleasant, rather soft-spoken and knew every employee’s first name at the hospital. I would often see her stopped in the hallway speaking to an employee, listening intently and speaking quietly. It always struck me that the company president was standing in the hallway talking…looking as if this person was her best friend.

Here’s something that hit me when I sat listening to her former co-workers speak of their time with her: In my first professional job, I worked for a female president who was super smart and believed in doing good. She dedicated her life to that, and she brought it into our business environment. She believed everyone who worked at the hospital should be doing good – helping patients and also helping the people of Camden. This came across in everything she did.

At 23, I must have soaked that in; I believe it helped shape who I am now.

One summer day, my vice president got a call from Sister Elizabeth. She had just found out that one of the food services employees – an older woman – had a heart attack when she was getting off the bus that morning to come to work. A young man, also on his way to his job at Lourdes, was getting off the same bus. When he saw the woman collapse, he picked her up and carried her about two blocks to the ER. He saved her life.

Sister Elizabeth wanted to honor him – that day. So we quickly put something together for lunchtime in the employee cafeteria. I called the young man up, told the story of what had happened, and everyone applauded and made it clear they thought he was someone great. I had not realized that Sister Elizabeth had snuck into the back of the cafeteria. She wandered up front and hugged the new hero.

As I walked away, she touched my arm and whispered: “That was a great thing you just did.” It was the only time she complimented me, and it wasn’t for a press release I wrote or a story I pitched to the news. She wanted to recognize that young man for the good he did, and she was recognizing me for the good I had done.

This impressive company president showed me that you can run a company and do good. Not many people have the chance to see that firsthand at the start of their career. I was fortunate to learn from Sister Elizabeth’s example. I look for leaders like that now, and I’m trying to be one.

July 2015
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