St. Baldrick’s Foundation CEO Kathleen Ruddy: “To succeed in leadership, one must know one’s own role, and value everyone else’s”

To succeed in leadership, one must know one’s own role, and value everyone else’s. This is why women are so often such great leaders. We’re built to nurture those around us, whether at home or at work. We can see the big picture as well as those of the individual (family/child or employee/organization) and we […]

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To succeed in leadership, one must know one’s own role, and value everyone else’s. This is why women are so often such great leaders. We’re built to nurture those around us, whether at home or at work. We can see the big picture as well as those of the individual (family/child or employee/organization) and we often have the knack for helping people see how their contributions roll up into a better, stronger whole. An interesting thing happens as people work together to uplift one another and ultimately succeed.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathleen Ruddy, CEO, St. Baldrick’s Foundation. A non-profit fundraising, marketing and public relations professional, Kathleen began working in the childhood cancer community in early 2001 — the same day she began planning the growth of what would become the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. The daughter of two cancer survivors, Kathleen believes in paying it forward, and enjoys managing and serving as a board member for St. Baldrick’s, in addition to being a two-time head-shavee, Do What You Want (DWYW) participant and active advocate for children with cancer. She is a frequent speaker at non-profit conferences and spends her time advising start-up charities and young people pursuing careers in the non-profit sector. Kathleen’s professional experience includes raising nearly $1 billion for religious and educational organizations, hospitals, disaster response and recovery and social service organizations, as well as childhood cancer research organizations. She has served on the Alumni Board of Directors for her alma mater, and continues to volunteer for several charities, church and political organizations. Kathleen received a Bachelor of Arts in Individualized Studies/Public Relations and a Minor in Business Administration/Marketing from Loyola Marymount University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always wanted to help people, and in my formative years, the activities I chose allowed me to do that. I was comfortable putting myself out there, taking risks and volunteering, so it was natural to gravitate toward the non-profit sector. I wasn’t afraid of hard work, so opportunities either came my way, or I created them and moved up fast. While there were times I lacked confidence or was downright scared by roles I hadn’t trained or studied for, I’m blessed with a certain degree of stubbornness that allowed me to persevere.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your organization?

It’s not one specific incident, but the feeling of belonging, of true community, that has grown from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, because of who we’re serving: kids with cancer. My colleagues, our volunteers and I often speak of surprising places where we meet other St. Baldrick’s volunteers. For example, a few years ago, I visited Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Devil’s Tower has 152 residents, so imagine my surprise when I went to breakfast one morning and met an entire family wearing St. Baldrick’s t-shirts! They said they’d been proudly shaving their heads to raise funds for our childhood cancer research program for several years and that they wear their shirts whenever they can to help promote the mission. Many volunteers have shared similar stories and told me that it is the best thing they’ve ever done to help a charity.. That sense of pride is something every cause wants to inspire.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once created an invitation for a gala event, in which the largest sponsors would be listed. A generous individual contributed a major gift and his name was of course included. I proofed the invitation multiple times and had others review it prior to printing. A few days later, I received a call from the donor’s assistant asking why his name had been changed. Indeed, I had switched two letters, turning his name into an insult. It was so embarrassing; I had been over that darn invitation thousands of times and just didn’t catch it. After apologizing up and down to the donor, I told him that henceforth, I would always elicit more feedback than what seems sufficient because even the most conscientious person can sometimes miss what’s right in front of them!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

From its inception, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation has offered volunteers an unusual way to raise funds for childhood cancer research. By holding community events where volunteers can shave their heads, we allow individuals to experience a very visible part of a child’s journey with cancer — an aspect that all too often sets the child apart from others. Friends, family members and supporters become “walking billboards” for the cause. As they experience the same stares and awkward conversations that so many childhood cancer patients do, they are given the opportunity to educate and spread awareness. It’s an immensely powerful and unique experience provided by the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’ve recently partnered with the American Cancer Society to raise funds for research projects that have the greatest potential to bring advances to childhood cancer patients and help investigate not only if a treatment gives patients better outcomes, but also why it does so. In short, we’ll be working to leverage current clinical trials to discover new ways of effectively and efficiently yielding cutting-edge treatments. This will help researchers understand what works, and what doesn’t work, to treat childhood cancer patients more successfully.

We’re also planning the 20th Anniversary of our first head shaving event, which took place on St. Patrick’s Day 2000 (hence our name, a fusion of Bald + St. Patrick’s), celebrating the fundamental impact we’ve made in childhood cancer research since then. Not only have we helped train a new generation of researchers, but we’ve also helped usher in the dawn of immunotherapy as the fourth “weapon” in the fight against cancer. Immunotherapy has the potential to be even more powerful than chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Since we opened our doors, we’ve been a proud part of virtually every advancement in the field.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

To succeed in leadership, one must know one’s own role, and value everyone else’s. This is why women are so often such great leaders. We’re built to nurture those around us, whether at home or at work. We can see the big picture as well as those of the individual (family/child or employee/organization) and we often have the knack for helping people see how their contributions roll up into a better, stronger whole. An interesting thing happens as people work together to uplift one another and ultimately succeed.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Decision making is an imperfect process. I try to make sure I have the most relevant information, and that I’ve consulted all key stakeholders before deciding. Sometimes the path emerges from a clear consensus. When it doesn’t, you cannot get stuck, and you must be OK living with uncertainty because it’s your job to carry that burden and provide clear direction. I had to grow into that because I used to want unanimity, until a colleague told me my biggest problem was that I wanted everyone to be happy. My immediate reaction was, “what’s wrong with that?” As I really considered her feedback, I had to admit that kind of harmony is unlikely. People understand their own role best so it’s their priority. Your job as a leader is to know how all the dependencies work together to make the bigger picture, so you can help an individual see how they contribute to the whole. This helps build enduring trust in both a leader and a team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been blessed to have many “teachers” in my life. I used to internalize all the feedback I received until a colleague helped me realize that respecting someone doesn’t make them right all the time. I guess it came from a place of insecurity in me, that I didn’t trust myself, and that’s because I had been listening to people who didn’t know what I knew. It took several teachers to help me see that; one was my coach, another a consultant, another a colleague.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m fortunate because in my work, I have that opportunity every day in a very concrete way. In my personal life and in the extracurricular areas where work and life tend to intersect, I’ve tried to be the person I hope others will be. Kind, caring, generous. I want to set positive examples, to be available, to listen and hear others. I try not to take myself too seriously and am willing to make myself the butt of a joke to ease tension or help others feel accepted and secure.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Be mindful of time. The sacrifices you make for one part of your life may be difficult to bear long-term. Women tend to put others before themselves. When you’re young, you don’t yet have the experience to fully accept the consequences of such decisions and you never imagine you’ll run out of time. It’s important that you take time to pursue personal goals and dreams and appreciate the little things in life that turn the ordinary into extraordinary.

2. While it’s hard to watch people struggle, it’s even harder to resist trying to spare them the struggle. Sometimes you can’t afford to let them, but when you can, it’s allows true growth and confidence to emerge from rising again.

3. Embracing strengths and accepting weaknesses is right and responsible. Doing so makes room for everyone to contribute positively and is a better use of human capital than toiling to become ‘just mediocre’ at something.

4. Helping someone else accept their strengths and weaknesses is usually a thankless task…until years later when they thank you.

5. Leaders doubt themselves. It doesn’t make you a fraud — it means you’re humble enough to keep learning.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ve often joked that when I retire, I will bring authentic Italian gelato to the American public as a humanitarian service. (Anyone who has gourmandized their way through Italy knows what I mean.)

Seriously, I’m content being part of a movement that allows people to help save children’s lives — this has been my greatest joy, and I’ll never do anything else that equates.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We are all threads.”

Years ago, I called my friend Beth because I knew she’d understand the rage I felt at that time and not judge me for it. She was a mom of a childhood cancer survivor who helped other families through their journeys with childhood cancers. I was so angry: several kids I had known had died in the same day and I felt like a failure, like nothing we were doing mattered, and I was angry with God because kids kept dying. Beth listened and calmly said, ““We are all silken threads.”

It took me a minute to hear her before I finally said, “I beg your pardon?”

“We are all silken threads.” She was silent for a moment, then continued. “We are twisted, yanked, contorted and pulled in all directions. We are put through trials we cannot comprehend. We see the awfulness of our immediate situation but not the larger picture. That’s because we are part of the story.”

I listened.

“Had we the Weaver’s view,” Beth continued, “we would see that we are all integral threads in God’s masterpiece of humanity, and we would know our purpose in that great tapestry.”

This was so simple, eloquent and beautiful, and it was just what I needed. This lovely imagery helped me find my way back to my faithful, purposeful self, my trusting self, where I could be open to my beliefs and what life has in store for me.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I wish I could go back in time and meet Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or St. Francis of Assisi.

H.R.H. Princess Dina Mired of Jordan is one of the foremost cancer leaders in the Middle East who recently adopted a broader international role in the fight against cancer. She’s the mother of a childhood cancer survivor and I’d love to get her in a room with Melinda Gates and Priscilla Chan — two more women who deploy their resources for maximum impact! It would be phenomenal to see what we could come up with to address pediatric cancers, the #1 non-communicable disease of childhood.

Thank you for these great insights!

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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