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Part Three: “If I Had Only Known Then What I Know Now, I Might Be Less Black and Blue” or “Hindsight is Always 20/20”

Adapted from 2011 Drake Pharmacy and Health Sciences Day Keynote Address

As one moves through life, he/she learns things that might not have been taught explicitly in school or by parents and other mentors. I have certainly picked up a few pointers as I have progressed through my career and would like to share a few chapters focusing on those insights with you. Hopefully, these experiences or life lessons will give you some food for thought as you begin your professional career.

Chapter One: People Watching is NOT Rude

As someone who has spent quite a bit of time traveling the world since I graduated from Drake, I have often had the opportunity to partake in a favorite past-time – people watching. Seriously, there is nothing more entertaining and the diversity from city to city or country to country is astounding. On a more serious note, however, I have found that this “hobby” can be quite beneficial in professional situations as well.

When you find yourself in a professional situation (or really any situation for that matter), do not underestimate the value in watching and learning. Simply by watching the way people handle situations, you can pick up pointers on what to do to be successful as well as what NOT to do. In all honesty, it’s probably been about a 50/50 mix for me. And, what is important to remember, is that this includes EVERYBODY – both Big L and Little L leaders. Although we tend to think of Big L leaders as setting the examples we might follow, you will be surprised at how many of your peers without titles display great Little L leader traits that you might learn from them.

This thought leads us to the infamous “copy cat mentality.” Remember when this was a bad thing back in elementary school with taunts of “copy cat, copy cat…..?” Well, now I’m going to tell you that copying is ok (except on your exams and schoolwork). I consider myself very fortunate to be in a position where I am surrounded by and have the opportunity to cross paths with individuals who exhibit great leadership traits every day and I try to soak up those traits like a sponge. Imitation truly can be the best form of flattery and, it really makes no sense to have everyone start from the beginning when you can become better by building upon the lessons of others. Nothing is more rewarding than both learning and then practicing a leadership trait and then observing either someone who works for you or with you or a student or resident you have mentored using the same technique, ideally with a little enhancement of their own. Learning from others and sharing with others – it’s all a part of the leadership game.

Being a student of the organization is also part of the leadership game. This applies to every situation or organization you might take part in. By observing, listening, and inquiring, literally being a student of the situation or organization, you are going to learn what works and what doesn’t work and if you take that knowledge with a degree of flexibility and adaptability, you will be successful in any situation you encounter.

Chapter Two: The High Road

Chances are, you have probably heard this phrase before. And, at this point in your life, you might have learned that it is sometimes easier said than done. Well, I am here to repeat it – ALWAYS take the high road regardless of what is thrown at you. By the phrase “taking the high road,” I mean stick to your guiding principles and be consistent. I guarantee it will pay off in either the short or long run.

I think one of the things I underestimated the most when I started out in my career was the number of times I would be in situations that require “taking the high road.” It is inevitable that you will be put in the situation where you have to deliver bad news (to a patient about their insurance coverage, to individuals about some policy, maybe to a colleague about their performance, etc). Here are a few of the things I have learned:

First, check your ego at the door. Keep in touch with what is REALLY going on in the world – not only at your pharmacy, at your institution, or in your state. The more open and aware you are of different perspectives and situations, the more comfortable you can be when having to deliver some of those messages I refer to above. I tend to classify this as “avoiding elitist mentality.” It is often easy to grab onto a message or philosophy and dig your heels in, but that is typically ego speaking rather than common sense. Common sense dictates that you need to look at the big picture and that requires doing a bit of research or getting your hands dirty as you learn about the details.

Second, be accountable. Take full responsibility and follow through on everything you deal with. Sometimes this accountability might result in positive accolades, and may sometimes in not-to-positive responses, but being accountable assists you in developing credibility with others.

The third thing I have learned is don’t risk your ideals in order to be liked but keep to the high road in order to be respected. Remember, life is not a popularity contest. Due to the nature of my work and the fact that I have had the ability to experience and view practice in multiple settings and situations across the country, I have often found myself in the situation where my perspectives might not align with others initially. Often, this is because I am considering the ramifications of many practices in different geographical regions versus making decisions with a more limited viewpoint. These discussions can become emotional if you allow that, but I try to avoid getting caught up in the emotion and/or the “but I just want them to like me” mentality. Overtime, if you are consistent and respectful of other opinions and perspectives, you will earn respect even if others have different opinions. The key is to not take reactions personally, and truly “put yourself in their shoes” so you can understand the perspective they might be coming from. Even in situations where you ultimately cannot agree, if you can express empathy with their perspective and provide logic with your perspective, respect will be achieved if not right away, over time. In my personal opinion, I have come to define leadership maturity as the ability to comfortably articulate “we agree to disagree” rather than insulting or patronizing those who have a different opinion. If you are able to develop this mentality, you will receive respect from those who are important.

Finally, I know it is cliché, but it really is a small world. Take note of who is sitting next to you, in front or behind or you, or across the room because you never know when these individuals or when people these individuals know are going to cross paths with you at some point in your professional career. Keep focused on respecting (yes, it’s that respect word again) and cultivating relationships no matter what a person’s position or title. It will pay dividends in the end.

One of my classic small world stories goes back to my early days at Drake when I was involved with one of our pharmacy fraternities. As a P1, I knew the upperclassmen, but didn’t really socialize on a daily basis with them. A few years later, at what at that time was Pharmacy Day, I sat in the audience and listened to a keynote address from one of those upperclassmen who was now an alum. Fast forward a year or two and that alum hired me at ASHP and in fact, we just compared notes in the office pantry on Monday as I questioned her about giving her keynote address at Drake several years ago. Who would have ever known that she and I would have ever even crossed paths during our professional careers, let alone interact professionally and personally on a daily basis?

I could share many, many small world pharmacy stories with you just as anyone who has been in the profession for a few years could do. The reality is you never know where these “connections” will manifest and you never know how long these “connections” will persist. Recognize the importance of these relationships now and look forward to a future of building on the positive aspects rather than avoiding the ramifications of negative experiences.

Chapter Three: To Be or Not To Be… A Mini-Me

Through the work of Sara White and others, mentorship has been identified as an important component of developing both Big L and Little L leaders. However, what we often overlook is that it is important to recognize that identifying and cultivating mentor relationships does not mean you need to become a “mini me.” You can have admiration for mentors and learn important skills from them but you should have your own individuality. A good mentor will encourage that.

Recognize and be proud of your individuality. Use some of the techniques outlined in Chapter 1. If you are a student of the organization, you will quickly identify where and when your individual talents and contributions will be best received and utilized.

Age is just really not that important. I have learned some of my most important leadership skills from those who are early in their career and have learned some my “what not to do” insight from much more seasoned practitioners and vice versa. The important thing to know is that every age can bring a unique perspective and it is important to incorporate all of those perspectives into our decisions and actions. Recognize that you can learn at any stage in your career from someone else who is in an earlier stage, the same stage, or much more seasoned than you.

Mentorship is important but does NOT have to define you. Seek out different mentors for different purposes. As our generations continue to evolve our professional lives to acknowledge work/life balance, you will find that you might seek out different people for professional mentorship and others for professional/personal mentorship – I know I have. In addition, you might find that you define and establish a formal mentor relationship, as in “he or she is my mentor” or take advantage of more informal mentoring by utilizing the “watch and learn” strategy we discussed earlier. Personally, I have found informal mentoring to be invaluable, but acknowledge that I have other colleagues who would tell you the opposite – that formal mentoring is where it’s at. Explore both and figure out which works best for you.

One other thing on mentorship is don’t rely on “matching” programs to find your mentors. Take an active approach to seeking out mentors on your own. This is so easy now with social media. Recognize mentoring relationships are dynamic and unique. One of my funniest mentor stories happened to me when I was a student at Drake. I participated in a mentor matching program and was so excited that I was going to have the opportunity to meet up with a local pharmacist and get some insights. When I received the information that indicated the name and where this pharmacist worked, I moved forward and contacted my “mentor” by phone. Here is a snippet of our conversation: “Hi, my name is Jill Nickols and I am a student at Drake. I just learned that you were named as my mentor in the matching program and wanted to reach out and see if we could work out a time to get together.” Her response, “Oh, Hi Jill. Actually, I only participated in that program because one of my friends is the coordinator and talked me into it. I really don’t know if we need to get together. If you have any questions, feel free to call me sometime. Bye.” Needless to say, I was discouraged. However now, with 20/20 hindsight, I realize that really isn’t the way to find a mentor. In fact, when I started at ASHP, one of the first things I did was re-develop the ASHP mentoring program where we placed the “responsibility” of finding compatible mentors on the participants versus having someone play matchmaker. Not a perfect solution because it still doesn’t fully account for the fluid dynamics required for a fulfilling mentor / mentee relationship, but a little more realistic.

Another piece of advice about mentors is to beware of hero worship. As you move forward and grow your career, you will take different paths and encounter different folks. It is easy to fall under the spell of “hero worship”, especially if the person(s) you admire are strong, persuasive leaders with great communication skills. Continue to explore other perspectives and further expand your viewpoints. Recognize that someone who might have served as inspiration for you in the past might no longer align with you in some areas but will always be respected as a contributor to your personal growth. This really coincides with my last point which is to seek out and embrace different perspectives. This is not the first time you have heard me mention this concept today. If you can understand and acknowledge people have different perspectives, even if you ultimately don’t agree with those perspectives, you will build credibility and respect and it will have a positive impact on your ability to influence.

One of my friends often uses this quote to explain friendships, “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. When you figure out which one it is, you will know what to do for each person.” I think it is applicable to professional mentoring relationships, and it summarizes the point of this chapter. “Mentors come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. When you figure out which one it is, you will know what to do with that relationship.”

Chapter Four: Become the CEO of Your Career

With the advice from my previous chapters, I extend to you a challenge: become the CEO of your career. Explore your career options. I never knew when I started pharmacy school how many potential paths exist for pharmacists. Don’t limit yourself. Take advantage of this time and check things out.

Seek out unique experiences in your rotations, practice experiences, internships, and shadowing opportunities. Don’t just accept the status quo but take advantage of “alternative opportunities” and you will NEVER regret it. When family and friends asked me about what various internships and rotations I was doing or planning, I often got the following response, “You’re doing THAT as a pharmacy student?” I LOVED hearing that and am happy I found a career that elicits similar responses when I am asked about what I do every day.

Meet pharmacists practicing in your areas of interest. Participate in local, state, and national organizations. Go to meetings and participate in online opportunities. Seek out volunteer or shadowing opportunities. I know, from personal experience, that the Iowa Pharmacy Association is good to students in the state of Iowa so take advantage of it! Some of my best college memories are from my involvement with national organizations as I was able to travel and expand my professional network. In fact, I just had dinner last weekend with one of my good friends who I met through my involvement with a national organization when I was a student and he was a student at the University of Florida. Fifteen years later, he is a part of my family’s social calendar.

Look beyond what you know. Don’t establish geographical restraints or practice setting restraints regardless of where you settle or where you practice. Keep your eyes and ears open to learn and recognize different perspectives. This has always been important and is so easy to do today with all of the access we have on the internet. Don’t be so narrowly focused that you lose the opportunity to have credibility or respect with others.

And last, but not least, discover your PASSION. When you start your career, recognize that it is hopefully something you are going to be doing for a long time. Do something you LOVE and you will find your PASSION.