Pat Keel is the executive vice president and chief administrative and financial officer for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She oversees numerous departments vital to campus operations, including Human Resources, Financial Services, Environmental Services, Facilities Design and Construction, Facilities Operations and Maintenance, Food Services, Biomedical Engineering, the Gift Shop and Security.

Keel says that early in her health care career, she learned that to be a leader to all, she had to step outside her comfort zone. This is part of an ongoing series.

How did your career in health care begin?

As a college student, my original goal was to be a nurse practitioner or a veterinarian, but I had to change my major because I couldn’t juggle work and clinical rotations. Accounting was easy for me, so that was the major I chose. I was working at a bank and had a son who was about to start school, so I wanted to get back closer to family (in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where I’m from). I applied for an opening in a new rehabilitation hospital and that was how my health care career began. I’ve now been working in health care for more than 30 years.

Describe an experience that impacted your career.

Five years into that position at that rehabilitation hospital, my fifth CEO in five years started. My evaluation was due 60 days after he began. He asked for a 60-day extension. I had five years of “perfect” evaluations under my belt, with no constructive input, but when he did my evaluation after only 120 days, it was mediocre. I was angry, hurt and wanted to quit.

This CEO said that technically, my performance was pretty close to perfect; however, he needed me to be a leader. He required I shadow the nursing teams for two weeks. I thought they would kill me as I had spent five years writing memos (back when you wrote memos) requiring them to jump through all kinds of hoops to obtain staffing, equipment and other things. And they did put me through the wringer! But from that experience, I learned about leadership and understanding operations. I learned to be a member on a team working toward a common goal and to really build a community and unity. This CEO pushed me outside my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to really grow. It was so rewarding. 

What do you know now that you wish you had known as a student or early in your career?

I wish I had known how important and how fulfilling it is to build relationships at all levels inside and outside your organization. I wish I had known that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, to learn to fail – and be ok with it – as long as you learn from it. I wish I had known to have mentors, to ask for and get constructive input, and to give constructive input.