2:31: "The Believer" - Ruth Browne

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"The Believer"

Ruth Browne is the CEO of the Ronald McDonald House in New York. And she is surrounded by death. This Ronald McDonald House on the upper east side of Manhattan, is built to accommodate 95 families living there at any one time. And the reason that the overwhelming majority of those families are there? They have a child who is being treated for cancer.

As Ruth describes it, “our primary mission is cancer.”

Leading this kind of organization, in which the outcome of the work is life and death, it would be easy to be afraid. Of your own judgement. Of the consequences of decisions. Of the accuracy of the information on which you based the decisions. And the talent of the staff on whom you depend to carry out those decisions.

And yet, Ruth Browne is not afraid. She makes decisions quickly. And laughs easily.

This episode is called, “The Believer”.


Three Takeaways

  • Purpose creates intention.

  • Bring people on the journey because you can’t get there alone.

  • Act with humanity.


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-31: "The Believer" - Ruth Browne

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless Creative Leadership’.

Are you afraid of dying? I ask because one in five people suffers from thanatophobia - a fear of dying that is so acute it affects their daily lives.

Most people live with some fear of death.

But for the most part, that fear is pushed into the deep background. Until something jars us out of that. And that something is usually a severe illness to someone we love. Or their death.

Ruth Browne is the CEO of the Ronald McDonald House in New York. And she is surrounded by death. This Ronald McDonald House on the upper east side of Manhattan, is built to accommodate 95 families living there at any one time. And the reason that the overwhelming majority of those families are there? They have a child who is being treated for cancer.

As Ruth describes it, “our primary mission is cancer.”

Every day, that building is filled with people who don’t take life for granted. Whose futures are uncertain. Who are afraid. How could they not be?

And yet, as you’ll hear in our conversation, when I walked into the building for the first time, I was aware, almost immediately, of the energy of the place. It was palatable. Visceral. And intensely positive. So positive that I felt it take my breath away as I sat waiting for Ruth. So positive that it made me want to cry. Literally. In the maelstrom and mistrust and hatred that we seem to be surrounded by in modern society, it is an oasis of the power of the human spirit - for good.

Leading this kind of organization, in which the outcome of the work is life and death, it would be easy to be afraid. Of your own judgement. Of the consequences of decisions. Of the accuracy of the information on which you based the decisions. And the talent of the staff on whom you depend to carry out those decisions.

And yet, Ruth Browne is not afraid. She makes decisions quickly. And laughs easily.

This episode is called, “The Believer”.

“With fear. I'm not that religious but I almost equate, fear and faith are really related. And so, I see fear as a lack of faith. And I try to make sure that my faith is strong. It's the faith in what I'm doing, the faith that it's the right thing to do, the faith that I'm very intentional about. And so, I don't spend a lot of time with the fear because I'm really focused on the faith.”

There are four words that modern leaders hear far more than their predecessors.

How do you know?

Most people want to be led. They want to know that someone has a plan. A direction. A vision.

For most of recorded history, if you were the leader of a business and if you had a plan, that was good enough for most people.

Today, it’s nowhere near enough. Today, you’re supposed to Know with a capital K. Know this is the right plan. Know why it’s the right plan. Know what the results will be.

Except - and if you’re the leader you already know this - you can’t know. It’s impossible to know. Creative businesses are built on their ability to disrupt. If a creative business can’t do that, it has no lasting value. It succeeds by charting new territories about which there is no certainty.

Leading that kind of business means you have to believe in that which you can not see. You have to believe in things you can only feel.

I am not in any way religious. And I tell you this with that in mind. Recent medical evidence shows that the power of prayer makes a material difference in the prognosis of patients.

Or said another way, the power of positive mental energy directed at a desired outcome increases the chances of that outcome becoming true.

As a leader you’ve got to decide where you’re going. That’s non - negotiable.

But once you have that destination in mind, you are left with only two choices.

To be afraid. Or to have faith.

Fear will lead to death. So will faith. But the journey will change your life. And the lives of those that work for you.

Here’s Ruth Browne.

Charles:

Ruth, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Ruth Browne:

I'm excited to be here. Thank you.

Charles:

So, I ask most of my guests this question, so let me ask this of you, are you conscious of creativity showing up in your life at a certain point? When are you first conscious that creativity became a thing for you?

Ruth Browne:

I don't know that creativity ever became a thing for me. I know that there are times when I am taken aback at the creativity in my approach. But I never thought of myself as a creative person. But when I look at my career and what I've done in the past and what I'm trying to do going forward, my approach has been very creative.

Charles:

So, do you look at yourself now as somebody who is creative? Have you adjusted that or do you still hold yourself in that perspective?

Ruth Browne:

So, I probably hold myself back from admitting that there's creativity in my approach. But I actually I'm very conscious of the need to find outlets for creativity.

Charles:

How do you do that?

Ruth Browne:

I dance.

Charles:

Do you really?

Ruth Browne:

I would not lie to you. I dance I dance for three hours straight on Sundays every Sunday. I am a salsa dancer. I am not trying to be a performer. I'm just trying to keep up and have fun. And fun is what sort of permeates through everything I'm trying to do, which is, find ways to have fun.

Charles:

How long have you done that for?

Ruth Browne:

I started doing that when I realized that if I didn't find some kind of outlet, I would never finish my dissertation. And so, I would literally lock myself in a library for four or five hours, and every single day, I had a calendar that was written out, and in yellow highlights, it would be what am I doing after I get off this locked room. I'm going to take a dance class, I'm going to hear live music, I'm going to whatever, it was almost like a reward for the punishment of having to write for four hours.

Charles:

So literally every day you would say this is my job or this is my requirement of myself and my reward for having done this today is I will dance or whatever?

Ruth Browne:

Yes.

Charles:

And then you have formalized or codified dancing as this regular expression?

Ruth Browne:

I know that Sundays at three o'clock there's likely no reason for anyone to need me. Right? And so, I work in an organization that has lots of events. But on Sunday at three o'clock, somehow they've managed to not schedule an event. And I can actually get to a dance class not far from my house. And so I do that.

Charles:

And what does dance give you? What's the feelings it unlocks for you?

Ruth Browne:

Most of the time I'm smiling, not when I'm just learning a dance because it's frustrating. But when I'm dancing, I'm smiling. I'm happy. Just joy. Absolute joy.

Charles:

So growing up, you never saw yourself as creative.

Ruth Browne:

For a brief period, I thought I might be a fashion designer.

Charles:

Really?

Ruth Browne:

Yes.

Charles:

When was that?

Ruth Browne:

Probably the eighth grade.

Charles:

And what steered you away from that?

Ruth Browne:

I'm not very good at it. I can't draw. Other people seem to be much more talented. I was minimally encouraged when I entered a competition that I want to say Levi Strauss did when I was in the eighth grade. You send them a design your pictures, and I actually got like, I don't know what the acknowledgement was, but I didn't win but I was a runner up to whatever the pool was. But I knew that wasn't...it was too hard.

Charles:

Did you have brothers and sisters growing up?

Ruth Browne:

I come from a huge family.

Charles:

How big?

Ruth Browne:

There are seven of us.

Charles:

Growing up where?

Ruth Browne:

Brooklyn. Yeah, I grew up in Brooklyn from the time I was two years old. Originally born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My dad was Afro-Caribbean from Guyana, my mom was a Midwesterner from Cincinnati.

Charles:

Where are you in the relationship, within the seven?

Ruth Browne:

I'm the oldest girl, responsible for everything.

Charles:

Always the way.

Ruth Browne:

Yes.

Charles:

Always the way.

Ruth Browne:

Yes.

Charles:

And school was where?

Ruth Browne:

School was Brooklyn until college.

Charles:

What did you study in college?

Ruth Browne:

Creativity.

Charles:

I think we're getting this, finding out a little bit of this.

Ruth Browne:

You're going to drag it out of me. So in college, I studied some combination of economic development, political science, developments and International Affairs. And I was able to create my own major, which was called Development Studies, with a focus on the Caribbean region. So I got to travel to study at University of the West Indies for two semesters. And that's what I did.

Charles:

And why was that the area that you wanted to focus on?

Ruth Browne:

Development Studies or the Caribbean?

Charles:

Well, both actually.

Ruth Browne:

So the Caribbean, I just wanted to learn about my roots. I grew up at schools where most people did not look like me, whether it was elementary school, middle school, high school. I was really interested in applying to some of the universities in Africa but I wasn't on time. Our schedules didn't sink and someone said, “Why don't you apply to University of the West Indies?” And I was like, “Never heard of it. Okay.” And I did, and it was life changing for me.

Charles:

Because?

Ruth Browne:

Well, one, just in terms of wanting to be surrounded by people who look like me, professors who look like me, students who look like me. That was the university experience. And I went to university of the West Indies in Jamaica for two semesters. And that's the experience I had. But also, because I was interested in Economics and Political Science, a lot of times in other parts of the world, when you travel outside of this country, people are much closer to the realities of their circumstances and have a very different relationship with their governments.

And so, I was taught by the people who were making policy, literally. Taught by the folks who were running for office, and surrounded by students who were totally engaged in what was going to be the future of their country in a very real way. Whereas studying political science in this country was kind of much more removed exercise.

Charles:

At least used to be, right?

Ruth Browne:

Yeah. Exactly. Oh, yes. It used to be.

Charles:

Sadly, less so now. I think we liked it better when it was more removed, maybe not. Tell me what it's like to grow up in an environment, which is you've said a couple of times, you were around people who didn't look like you, and then be in a position, be in a situation where you were surrounded by people who look like you? I've only ever known what it's like to be surrounded by people who look like me. I've taken that for granted almost all of my life, probably until the last two or three years I suspect. Tell me what that's like, what's that comparison like?

Ruth Browne:

Sure. Well, I think most people have the experience of being surrounded by people who look like them. I went to a public elementary school but I moved into a community where it was very much Jewish, Irish families. I learned early what cultural diversity meant. And then when I went from, in the fifth grade, I went to an elite private girls school. There may have been three African American students in my class, in the whole grade rather. And then college, similarly, I went to elite Ivy League schools. So being in the minority is something that I have experienced most of my academic career.

And I think you crave, you crave a sense of what does it feel like to not be in that position, because being in that position brings a whole lot of pressure. You're constantly, you know, a lot of times when you are with people who have shared experiences, you're not explaining, you're not constantly trying to fit in something else, right?

Charles:

And you can relax, right?

Ruth Browne:

You can totally relax.

Charles:

Because the reference points are all commonly understood and the experiences are the same and there's a sense of real connection when that happens.

Ruth Browne:

Yes.

Charles:

Yeah.

Ruth Browne:

Yeah, so that's really what it was about for me, and that's why I was determined to travel abroad, and particularly, to know more about my own roots.

Charles:

What did you discover? What did you find out about yourself in that process?

Ruth Browne:

Interestingly, that there are lots of folks like me as opposed to being the exception, which this whole concept of being an exception has its own set of challenges. That there are many folks like me. And when you understand where you come from, your future is better defined. And so, most young African Americans in this country don't learn a lot about the history of Africa unless they become African Studies majors in college. And those of us who have roots in the Caribbean definitely don't learn about the Caribbean. And so those things I think strengthen you as a person. When you know where you come from, it's much easier to forge your path for the future.

Charles:

What did you decide you wanted your path to be?

Ruth Browne:

Well, I loved being in the Caribbean so much that I was like, “I need a marketable skill that's going to get me back here.” And that's when I decided to go into public health.

Charles:

Because there was such a need for it.

Ruth Browne:

Right. Because remember, I was doing economics and politics and I was like, “I think they got that covered. I'm not sure I have a lot to offer them there. So, what's going to get me back to this wonderful, creative, beautiful environment?” And I was very interested in international anything. But public health I saw as a marketable skill that was greatly needed around the world, particularly in that region. And that would, if I could hone my skills there, I could travel abroad and work and support myself and help others.

Charles:

Is that how it worked out?

Ruth Browne:

No. As a matter of fact, I did do some international work. But I realized that there's such a diverse community here in New York that I'm almost practicing international health being in New York City. And so when I look at the work that I've done, has been focused on urban minority populations and immigrants. And so, my approach to doing international health really became domestically focused and supporting the health needs of folks who came from abroad.

Charles:

And why those areas, specifically?

Ruth Browne:

Which areas?

Charles:

Working with minorities, working with people who, working with minority, working with immigrants. Yes, exactly.

Ruth Browne:

Those are my people.

Charles:

That was the instinctive draw, to help your people?

Ruth Browne:

Yes, everything. So I have never, I've had so much opportunity, education wise, experience wise, and I have never been distanced from my own community, which is very easy to do when you have the privilege of experiencing things outside of your community.

Charles:

Why do you think you maintained such a strong emotional connection to that community, having had so little contact with it? I mean, obviously, your parents were a connection to it.

Ruth Browne:

I lived in my community, I lived in a community that eventually changed from Jewish to Irish to African American, Afro-Caribbean, Puerto Ricans, and it became very much a community that resonated with me. And so, every time I came out of my community, I was the only one or one of very few.

Charles:

Got it, got it.

Ruth Browne:

It's infinitely easier. Just to be clear, it's infinitely easier to be, well, for some people, to be in their own community. But for me, it's about responsibility, right? I truly believe in, and it's a lifelong mantra of lifting as you climb. And so, everything that I've done has had relevance to where I come from.

Charles:

You make it sound obvious, and clearly it is to you, that kind of desire to connect and to give back and to help others and to lift as you climb is not true for everybody. Why do you think it was such a big part, why do you think it is such a big part of who you are, where did that come from?

Ruth Browne:

Maybe because I spent so much time outside of my community.

Charles:

And you were able to look at it more objectively?

Ruth Browne:

No. Really craved the comfort, the surrounding the belonging, the not being an exception, all of that, that I only got there. But I think what you say is true, a lot of people don't have that same desire at least not consciously. And for me, it's very conscious that I want to give back, I want to contribute, I want to uplift and I truly believe that, what's a good way of describing it? I'm never going to be successful unless the community I come from is also successful.

Charles:

Is that proven to be true for you?

Ruth Browne:

Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's true in the sense that everyone in their, particularly in their professional life is seeking mentorship, is seeking examples. And when your examples constantly are not looking like you, you're not getting the same close connection.

Charles:

So, I'm interested in this tension point between you having such a clear perspective about who you are, where you come from, what you want to contribute, how you can contribute. I mean, that seems to me to be very self-aware, environmentally aware, socially aware. And yet, you persist in believing that you are not creative.

Ruth Browne:

I don't really think as much, I don't spend as much time thinking about it as you do.

Charles:

But your instinctive reaction was, “I'm not that,” right?

Ruth Browne:

Yeah.

Charles:

Clearly, from my perspective.

Ruth Browne:

And directed.

Charles:

Explain that.

Ruth Browne:

Directed me, I'm very intentional about, you know, I'm goal oriented. I have found the creativity along the way.

Charles:

But you still don't see yourself as that?

Ruth Browne:

No. I think of creative people as people who are dancing full time as a job or drawing or creating things that are in the arts or writing books. I have been an academic as well as an active community based practitioner, and I have never looked at those as particularly creative, but in many ways, they are.

Charles:

Yeah, I think, yes, I agree, they are. And I think it depends on your definition of creativity. The way you've described yourself obviously is accurate. You would know better than I but it certainly resonates as accurate. It seems to me that you are above all else a problem solver.

Ruth Browne:

Yes.

Charles:

Right?

Ruth Browne:

Yes. I have great difficulty when I can't find a solution because I don't know what to do with myself.

Charles:

And I wonder whether maybe creativity is actually at the heart of problem solving?

Ruth Browne:

Yes, definitely.

Charles:

Which should make you pretty creative, actually.

Ruth Browne:

All right, you win.

Charles:

Not trying to win.

Ruth Browne:

It's okay.

Charles:

Just interested in how people come up with...because I think a lot of leaders go through live with this belief that they are in and of itself not creative because they have a view of what creativity stands for, and it has a physical manifestation usually. If we can see ourselves as true problem solvers and able to apply lateral thought to how do we get around the obstacles which you face, which are many, I mean, you're faced with some of the most challenging problems of anybody that I know, right? So let's talk about Ronald McDonald. And how did you come to this job and why did you take it?

Ruth Browne:

I was recruited for this job at a time when I was ready to do something else. And why did I take it? I took it because it offered me the opportunity to remain in the healthcare sector and to be in an environment that was very different from the one that I was coming.

Charles:

And you were coming from?

Ruth Browne:

Organization wise, I was coming from the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health where I had been for a long time.

Charles:

Right. Been there for like 12 years or something, right?

Ruth Browne:

So I was CEO for 12 years but I had been there before becoming CEO.

Charles:

Oh, wow. Okay. Okay.

Ruth Browne:

And I was promoted to CEO. And so, coming to the Ronald McDonald House and also coming to an organization that was 40 years old, my organization, I was the first staff person at Arthur Ashe. So I actually was handed an idea on paper. And unfortunately, the late great Arthur Ashe literally announced this and died three months later.

Charles:

Oh my heavens.

Ruth Browne:

Right. So I was handed an idea on paper with a wonderful champion who was no longer alive.

Charles:

Wow. The loss of that for you must have been extraordinary.

Ruth Browne:

Well, I didn't know Arthur. I was hired three months after he passed.

Charles:

Understood. But the loss of him or the power supply must have been extraordinary for you. 

Ruth Browne:

Yes, absolutely.

Charles:

Here I am to do this thing through this lens with this person powering it, his thinking, his ideas. And suddenly, that's all gone.

Ruth Browne:

But it was an incredible opportunity.

Charles:

Oh, why?

Ruth Browne:

Because when you have something that is an idea on paper, you have to be creative and figure out how you're going to make it work. And I learned everything I could possibly learn about how to build and manage a not for profit on the job. I never built or managed a not for profit before coming to Ashe. And then when I looked at the mission, how do you serve underserved health needs of underserved populations, everything that I was interested in I could bring to the table in creative problem solving. And so building models and incubating models was what the organization was interested, you know, was what the mission was. And so, it's experimentation. It's trying this and seeing if it works. It's building part partnerships across, bringing disparate parties together that don't even realize that they have a common interest. Government, academic institutions, community partners. And all of that coming together in creative ways to create models that could actually impact and improve community health.

Charles:

So how do you start that process? I mean, when you've got, as you said, a piece of white paper, and now a deceased inspiration, how do you start, how do you go about actually turning that into something real?

Ruth Browne:

From a programmatic point of view, health was my background. The organization was focused on health and educational equity. So bringing together the education part being, how do you create a pipeline of young people of color who will serve their communities in the health professions. And so, if there's no cheat sheet and there's no prescriptive plan, then you can kind of do what you want. And if you're building a board at the same time, you're also helping to contribute to, what is the vision and mission beyond the idea on paper?

Charles:

I was going to say, I imagine that telling the story, coming up with a story, is critical in that situation because suddenly the story is gone.

Ruth Browne:

Right. And so there are a lot of things that can influence that story.

Charles:

Such as?

Ruth Browne:

The people, the partners, the changing economic and social circumstances, the diseases, you know, Arthur died of AIDS. And so things that were really epidemic at the time influencing what you decided to do and how you decided to distribute resources and build your resource base prioritized.

Charles:

And I imagine you've got to convince people that you stand for what he stood for?

Ruth Browne:

Oh, absolutely.

Charles:

You've got to adopt all of that.

Ruth Browne:

And what a great, what an incredible responsibility. Arthur Ashe was a class act, and it's great imprimatur that you also have a responsibility to protect the legacy.

Charles:

Yeah. And have to prove that you are worthy of living up to it as well, all at the same. Ton of responsibility.

Ruth Browne:

And so here, you ask me about what brought me here, I looked at this as a traditional children's charity. So, health charity, cancer specifically. But it was so much more and had an incredible reputation for the good work that we were doing here, that was being done here. But what attracted me to it was how we could articulate it in a different way. I come from a social justice tradition. And so, that is what propels me to do the work that I do. And this organization is very much a social justice organization but never described itself that way.

Social justice organization in the sense that we are providing accommodations, transportation, food programs, wellness programs, educational programs, language programs, cultural competency for people coming from all over the world and all over the country who are in medical crisis. And if this house did not exist, they would be medical refugees. And so, when you think about that really, really heavy circumstance, everything that we're doing is addressing the social determinants of health. Everything we're doing is about distributing the incredible resources that are brought to the table through our fundraising, through our partnerships, through our incredible board. Distributing those resources equitably in the form of programs that actually help people heal while they are attending to the clinical care of their children.

Charles:

So what's the stated vision of the organization? What's the goal of the organization?

Ruth Browne:

Of Ronald McDonald House?

Charles:

Yeah.

Ruth Browne:

So Ronald McDonald House is a temporary home for families whose children are undergoing cancer care at one of the 14 cancer care partners here in New York City.

Charles:

So the entire family comes and moves in?

Ruth Browne:

Well, we can accommodate up to four people in a room and there're 95 rooms here.

Charles:

So you could have as many as 95 families here?

Ruth Browne:

Yes, absolutely. And we do. I think yesterday there was one room free that I could actually show on a tour. Yes.

Charles:

So at any one point, there are 90 plus families dealing with the same….

Ruth Browne:

Yes. The overwhelming majority of our families here, are families whose children have a cancer diagnosis. There are a few families that are non-oncology families, but our primary mission is cancer.

Charles:

So, I am struck-

Ruth Browne:

At this house.

Charles:

Right, at this house. I am struck by the fact I've walked in the door here for the first time half an hour ago. And I walk into a lot of different organizations, I mean, a lot of different organizations and have learned over the years, I have a pretty strong sense of intuitive sense in any case, but I've learned also to pick up cues from the organization. So I can tell very quickly, is this company in growing mode, is it positive, is it happy, is it excited, is it despondent, is it in despair, is it mediocre? I can tell a lot within the first couple of minutes of just being in the reception area.

I am not sure that I've ever felt such a sense of goodness in an organization standing in the reception just waiting for our session to start. There is a palpable air of positive energy. It is extraordinary. I mean, it really is kind of almost emotional in the feeling that it provides. How have you been able to create that in an environment in which 95 families are dealing with the threat that they might be losing a child? How have you done that?

Ruth Browne:

So, I think it's we who have done it. And I will say that I had the same experience you did when I was interviewing for this role and came up to visit the Ronald McDonald House. I couldn't get past the front desk but when I walked into the lobby, I saw a therapy dog here, kids running around playing hide and go seek around the polls. So many people have the misunderstanding about what the house is. There's been so much advance in cancer care, pediatric cancer care, that people thought, I think for a long time, that this was a hospice. And it's true, we've turned on its head. It used to be that 80% of the children who came here didn't make it. 80% of the kids who come here do make it.

And so, we have the benefit of the advances in pediatric cancer care aligned with what the house is providing. If 20% of your health and wellness is determined clinically, then 80% of it is socially determined. And we're dealing with that 80%. So, we want to create a sense of normalcy for families, not just the patients but the siblings traveling with them. The moms, the dads, the aunts, the grandmothers, everybody who travels with that family. We want to create that sense of normalcy and to give them the support that they can get from each other. So living communally with people experiencing, having the same shared experience, they get the good advice, the tips that have worked, kids see themselves the same as other kids. Our kids can be bold walking around with IVs, so are the other kids. So there's no sense that I'm different here.

And then for family, being able to talk to other families, live with other families, experience with other families, take the journey with other families is a great sense of support. But our programming meets the needs of everybody in the family, whether you're a caregiver or a child. I will say that, and to answer your question as well, our people who work here and volunteer here are our best asset. And you have to be special to want to do this kind of work and to do it every day with a smile and want to come to work in this environment. I think the folks who do that both staff and the volunteer are exceptional. And people tend to stay.

Charles:

People tend to stay working here.

Ruth Browne:

As volunteers as well as employees.

Charles:

Because why do you think that is?

Ruth Browne:

I think they develop a love for the mission of the...it's very hard, you know, in social justice work that I have done for most of my career, it takes decades to see incremental change. I'm committed to it. And so, I've done that and I continue to do that. When I open my door here, I see very tangibly the difference that my day made in the lives of the families that we serve. And so, that's the experience you get every day. Sometimes it's just a bad day, it's sad, you might have lost a child that day. But at the end of the day, the majority of the people who come here have a good experience, and I would say that when children leave and come back for check-up scans, etc., or even if they have an adverse circumstances where they're coming back because cancer has re-occurred, they can't wait to get back to the Ronald McDonald House. Either can their families, because of the wonderful memories they're able to create through the experiences that we offer to them.

Charles:

So by creating community and shared experiences and essentially normalizing for this group of people who are here, what they're all going through, you're taking away some of the stress, some of the uncertainty, some of the feeling of, to your point, of separation or being different. You're taking a lot of that away. Not sure whether theory is the right word, but the thinking is that by doing that, you are also eating the chances of their recovery and their survival.

Ruth Browne:

Absolutely. Everything that we do here is family centered with intention. We believe that the family unit is going to be more influential in the health and healing of that child than anything else beyond the clinical intervention. And so, keeping families together helps with that health and healing.

Charles:

So this is, I don't want to simplify this down because I'm just literally in awe in all of the work that you do. But this is about creating positive energy to have a physical impact, essentially, to contribute towards having a physical impact.

Ruth Browne:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And so much more.

Charles:

Yeah, for sure.

Ruth Browne:

Yeah.

Charles:

But there is lots of research, I'm not religious, but there's lots of research that talks about when you get prayer focused on people who are suffering, that the impact that that can have is extraordinary. So this is in some ways a version of that, that kind of positive energy surrounding you can only help increase your likelihood of recovery.

Ruth Browne:

And just like prayer, it's hope, right? And that's definitely, this is the house of hope.

Charles:

Do you use that as a phrase?

Ruth Browne:

Some people do, I don't usually. But yes.

Charles:

It's good. It's good. As you said, some days are bad days, inevitably. And a bad day here is very different from a bad day at a creative, typical creative business, right? Bad day there is they lose an account. Here, you lose a life. How do you help the people that work with you and for you through those moments? How do you keep them forward-facing thinking about ways to continue to improve the experience that the families and the patients are having here?

Ruth Browne:

So I do, I think it's a great question, Charles, and I will tell you that we actually need to do more of that. We have been introducing some of the supportive services for our staff. We have expanded on the offerings of our HR department. We're doing more touch bases with staff during the year, which we have a beautiful wellness center that's available for families. So we are at very specific times, we're offering that opportunity to participate at the Wellness Center with our staff so that they can get the benefit of the wellness opportunities and activities as well, to fortify them so that they can continue to do the hard work.

Charles:

Within this overall context, this is a question I ask pretty much every week, what's your relationship with fear?

Ruth Browne:

With fear. I'm not that religious but I almost equate, fear and faith are really related. And so, I see fear as a lack of faith. And I try to make sure that my faith is strong. It's the faith in what I'm doing, the faith that it's the right thing to do, the faith that I'm very intentional about. And so, I don't spend a lot of time with the fear because I'm really focused on the faith.

Charles:

And how do you reinforce that? How do you strengthen that faith?

Ruth Browne:

One, I think I'm pretty lucky in that faith has not failed me. How do I do that? Life is short, and if you take it too seriously, it's even shorter. And so, building fun into your life is really important because those are the things that actually feed your faith. The bad times pull on your faith and the good times feed your faith. And if you are putting more and more good times into your life with intention, then I believe that that will help to fortify faith, and it does for me.

Charles:

That's very powerful. You said that people tend to stick around here, people that work here and volunteer tend to stick around here. What kind of people are you looking for? How do you know when somebody walks in the door when you're interviewing them whether that's a good fit or not?

Ruth Browne:

Well, for me, there's a lot of intuition. And if I have to really, really work hard to relate, it's probably not a good fit. One of the most challenging parts of being in this role is that you're constantly reaching out, you're constantly looking at strategic partners. You're constantly fundraising and trying to connect with donors. I used to do very heavy intellectual lifts, very different work. And now, part of the biggest challenge is making connections with people I don't naturally have a connection with. And so, that can be exhausting.

I do believe I'm a good networker, but when you are, and we are connecting around the needs of children and families in medical crisis. But making connections with people who may have very different experiences from your own, and finding and making sure that that connection is not just a one off, but deeper connections, that can be exhausting. And so I take that same approach with the folks I attract to the organization or want to attract. You have to find the common interest, and you can't, you don't want to spend too much time trying to dig it out.

Charles:

How often do you find people walking in here who are here because they're looking for something for themselves?

Ruth Browne:

I think a lot for. First of all, I think everybody is including myself. Everybody is looking for something for themselves in a job that you're going to spend hours and hours and hours of your day in. This is not the organization you just come to because you need to check. And so, individuals have to figure out what that is for themselves in their roles. I'm driven by social justice. I see the opportunity here to make sure that this organization has a strong social justice mission and talks about it. And that everyone has access to the opportunity here.

I said earlier that we're focused on cancer, but we've expanded beyond cancer with the family room, and the only Ronald McDonald House family room in a public hospital is our family room in Brooklyn at the largest public hospital in New York City.

Charles:

And that provides what?

Ruth Browne:

And that is respite for those caregivers who have a child in the neonatal intensive care unit at that hospital or the pediatric intensive care unit at that hospital or the behavioral health unit at that hospital.

Charles:

And what kind of support do they get in that room?

Ruth Browne:

So, first, it's staffed by volunteers and staff. One woman who had a child in the NICU said, "I'm so glad I have this room to come in for respite because all I hear is beeping all day." And you know, that's very real. You can sit, rest, have a snack, talk to the volunteers, you can color, you can play a game, you can talk on the phone if you need to make a phone call. And we're trying to enhance the services that we're able to provide. We also have a hospitality cart that goes down the hall in the pediatric unit. You know somebody's coming. You getting a visit, a smile, a snack, a drink. And if you have a need, there's someone to tell. So, respite is really important. And the extension of what we do through family rooms is a growth strategy for us. Family room settings that we will create in hospitals.

Charles:

That strikes me so powerfully, that notion of living with beeping, as bott in that period, critical.

Ruth Browne:

Living with?

Charles:

Living with beeping.

Ruth Browne:

With beeping, yes.

Charles:

Listening for it because the beeping is affirmation that there is still life. And yet the sound drives you crazy.

Ruth Browne:

Right.

Charles:

Right? And so, the tension between both of those things must be overwhelmingly hard to deal with. I can't even imagine.

Ruth Browne:

Imagine the anticipation that that beeping will stop.

Charles:

Right. Is it still there, yes. Is it still there, yes. Is it still there, yes. Wait, is it, oh my gosh.

Ruth Browne:

Exactly.

Charles:

Terrifying, right?

Ruth Browne:

It couldn't have been better said.

Charles:

Couldn't have been better said.

Ruth Browne:

I get a break from the beeping. And any of us who've cared for loved ones, whether it's a child in the NICU or someone who's had a cardiac arrest, that beeping is just torture.

Charles:

Yeah. And you don't want it to stop.

Ruth Browne:

And you don't want it to stop.

Charles:

Yeah, yeah, that's extraordinary. I've never thought of that through that lens. So for you, social justice. Why else do people show up here wanting to work here and volunteer here?

Ruth Browne:

Well, there are a lot of people who just want to give back. Many people who've had an experience either their own, with a sibling, or with someone they know who's had a child, an ill child. And our children happens to have cancer here at this house but any ill child, and understanding the toll it takes on a family, the whole family, not just the parents, but the other siblings in that family. And so, I think there are many people who've had that experience as well.

And then we create an incredibly robust, we have an incredibly robust volunteer program here. So there are all kinds of things that folks can do. You can be a regular volunteer and come as part of a nightly team, let's say your night is Monday. You are prepping and serving meals to families. You can come and lend your professional expertise to some need that the house has. And you can come and do service projects where you might claim the play room or, we have all kinds of people who volunteer and do, masseuses, manicures, pedicures. We teach Reiki and meditation and yoga and Zumba. And all of these things happen for caregivers in the wellness center. Overwhelming majority of those people who provide that service are volunteers.

Charles:

Amazing. What a community. I mean, really, what an ecosystem you've created. How do you deal with loss? How do you as a group deal with loss because it must happen way more often than you want it to Obviously?

Ruth Browne:

Yes. Someone reminded me that it used to happen more often but it still happens. And so, I think that all of us are very comforted in the fact that regardless of what the outcome is for the family on that journey, that their time at the Ronald McDonald House is joyful and supportive, and that they're either, there is nothing that they need that if we can't give it to them, we can't find a partner who can. And so, there's a great sense of comfort in knowing how much influence you can have in that journey, along that journey.

Charles:

So you can't control the outcome, but you can control the process of it.

Ruth Browne:

Yeah.

Charles:

There's a couple of different areas that I'm curious to go down. Do you find that, I was going to say, regardless of the outcome, which sounds too simplistic, but do you find that people maintain long term relationships with the house?

Ruth Browne:

So, many families come back, if they're coming back for a scan at the hospital or whatever, they're coming back for a visit to New York City, will stop by, and we're actually just trying to create an alumni Facebook page. Again, building community. A lot of times, we don't know what happens to people after their time with us. And so, continuing to be a resource is an opportunity for expansion for us. But also just giving them that community of, not the one off. I know this person, I'm staying in touch, but again, learning from the experiences of people on that, the continuum.

Charles:

So expanding the influence and expanding the impact is important.

Ruth Browne:

Yes.

Charles:

Yeah. How do you lead?

Ruth Browne:

Well, I pride myself on inclusion, being an inclusive leader. So I think one of the things that I have really tried to do here, I've been here in September, three years, is make sure that I'm thinking about who's at the table, and making sure that the right people are at the right table at the right time. And so, in our case, being at the table means not just functioning from an executive team point of view but making sure that we're including at the table our managers so that when we're talking about buy in to decisions that are made there, not hearing about it for the first time. And so, expanded the executive team to include managers, but also promoted managers regardless of age for their experience and their accomplishments.

So, inclusion is really important to me. I do also believe that clarity is critical. And of all the things I could have been accused of in life, the one thing I have never been accused of is not being clear. So, I pride myself on clarity. And so, I try to leave very little room for confusion about where we're going, and try to stay out of the weeds. And that's something they probably laugh here about because I'm always like, are you trying to drag me in the weeds with you? I have always surrounded myself with people who want to be the own executive directors of their portfolio of work. I don't want to. If you need micromanagement, you should run from me. That's exactly how I lead. Like, I believe that you are here because you know what you're doing and you know how to do it. I just need you to know where we're going. So that's kind of how I lead.

Charles:

That kind of leadership requires a lot of self-confidence, right? Because it requires that you trust the people that you brought in or that you've inherited to be able to be really good at what they do, and to take responsibility for it. But it also means giving them room to do it, and a lot of leaders struggle with the notion that oh, look, if I do that too much, then what role am I playing.

Ruth Browne:

No. I don't at all.

Charles:

You've never had that issue?

Ruth Browne:

No, because if I need to micromanage and do that, why do I need you? Right? And so really, it's the opposite. It's like prove to me that you can't do it as opposed to, you know what I mean? That's not my style. And I have no interest in going there. I think that's pretty clear.

Charles:

How quickly do you make changes when you find people aren't doing it?

Ruth Browne:

As good Scorpio, I'm so loyal.

Charles:

I think it's the area that leaders have the hardest time with.

Ruth Browne:

Yeah. Someone said to me once, sometimes it's either you or them. And that's true. And so, I have had experiences where I have allowed people who really couldn't do what they needed to do to linger too long. It's not productive, and in the end, it's worse for them and the organization. What I am really proud of is that I do try to find ways to help people improve when they need improvement. And again, I can never be accused of a lack of clarity so I do try to communicate to people, this is what the problem is, I can't tell you what to do about it, but this is how long you have to change it. And so, that's very clear that requires immediate action. I'm happy to talk to you about how you change it but you got to take responsibility for that.

Charles:

What are you afraid of?

Ruth Browne:

We already talked about faith and fear. What am I afraid of? I mean, everyone is afraid of failing and I have kind of a no tolerance for myself policy around failure. And that relates directly to faith. I am afraid that I won't be stimulated enough. And so, I'm constantly trying to think about the ways, what's next. Okay, this is great, great achievement, what's next. And that's probably a big fear. Like, don't bore me, I don't want to be bored. There's so much to do out here, or that my contribution won't be enough. I'm driven by contribution. And so, making an impact and being impactful is really important to me.

Charles:

So I wrap every episode with three themes that I've heard that I think contribute to your success. One is you are clearly purpose-driven, right? I'm not sure I've ever met a leader who is more purpose-driven. And so, I think as a result of that, that makes you intentioned because you're clear about what you're trying to do. Two, and you said this, you're inclusive, you want to bring people on that journey because you realize not only can you not do it alone, you're not interested in doing it alone. And so, that I think allows you to build really powerful leadership teams and create community as well.

And then three, I think you do it with enormous humanity. I mean, everything that you do and everything you've talked about is just fueled by this sense of being connected to humankind, which is, and I think, I know you're not solely responsible for the atmosphere that I was mentioning before when I walked in the place, but I was so struck by walking in here, having been reading the web and the cat on the way up and everything that's going on in the world, and particularly in this country at the moment and the hate and all of the tension that is everywhere, and the mistrust and the energy that is pouring out of this country in the most negative ways possible. To walk into this environment and feel the raw humanity that exists here is incredibly reassuring actually.

Ruth Browne:

It's almost a relief, Charles.

Charles:

It is a relief, it was a relief to me to walk into it. And my advice to you is sell tickets, because I think people will queue up outside to get five minutes of that and be reminded it is not all, there is still hope, that there is still a possibility that people can come together and create something pretty extraordinary.

Ruth Browne:

I think you're absolutely right. I've always been a grateful person. I'm really grateful for every opportunity, everything that I have, like really grateful. And I truly meant it when I said I try not to take myself that seriously because, but this is so grounding. I don't have cancer and I don't have a child with cancer. And it doesn't get more real. And so, everybody needs a dose of this.

Charles:

Sadly they do. Thank you so much for joining me. This has been so uplifting for me.

Ruth Browne:

Oh, I'm so glad. It's absolutely been fun to talk to you and thank you for asking me to.

Charles:

My pleasure.


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