On the Job with Diane Fletcher

For eight years, Diane Fletcher has been serving as the head of what is now the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia. The organization’s primary role is to provide outreach to cancer patients in its 32-county region with the help of partner agencies as well as the area’s four major cancer centers.

Having come a long way from her days as a nurse, Fletcher maintains that the best way to keep people motivated is to find ways to assure them they are valued — something she says she finds easy to do with her employees.

In a recent sit-down with Herald writer Jennifer Parks, she talks of her early days working in a community hospital as an oncology nurse, her passion for traveling and spending time with family and her admiration for Mother Teresa.

Q. What was your first job?

A. I did babysitting. That was easy; I’m the oldest girl in a big family. My first real job was painting houses. I worked for a painting company. I was about 15 or 16. They used to dangle me from four stories up to paint underneath.

Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first ever paycheck?

A. I saved up for contact lenses. I saved up for a long time.

Q. What’s the single most effective technique you found over the past two years for keeping employees motivated?

A. I always, always try to make, or let, our employees know they are valued and are a valuable part of the organization. Here at the Cancer Coalition, it is a pleasure to do that, because the team is so committed. They do such a high-quality job. They do such a good job that is makes my job easier. They are highly self-motivated.

Q. What led you to your current position?

A. I am a nurse. When health care was going through changes in the ’80s, I was working as a nurse in a hospital. I was in a position in outpatient oncology; that was in 1984. I just loved it. I was an oncology nurse in a community hospital. At the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, I worked as a nurse, did research and taught. I moved into management and ended up leading the Pennsylvania Cancer Consortium. My husband was looking to move to the Southeast, and I was recruited for this position. It makes use if my skills and experience.

Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?

A. My parents, Florence and Eugene Miles. My mom was a nurse, and my dad was a very hard-working businessman. They were hard workers and highly motivated. In oncology, my first manager in the field was Cheryl Steele. She was an expert in oncology, and even as a manager, always kept the focus on the patient; she taught me how to do that. She was willing to teach others.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?

A. Interestingly, the way the Cancer Coalition was set up was as a partnership model. It was set up with the idea, that instead of separate entities, we are solving the cancer problem together. That is what has sustained us through tough economic times. We have continued to reinforce, when we have economic pressures, to share resources. We work together rather than competing when we are trying to solve the same problem.

Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology — examples e-mail, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. — what would you most like to see go away?

A. They probably all help in some way. I wonder how we got along before. I don’t know that I would (turn back the clock on any of them).

Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?

A. I don’t know if there is anything exclusively for work anymore … My favorite thing is my electronic stapler. When I got that and business cards, I thought I’d arrived.

Q. What is your favorite tradition?

A. Christmas with my husband and family.

Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?

A. Regularly, I read everything related, or to help, my role here — professional literature online, and anything on oncology and governance. I read The Albany Herald online, as well as other local papers and national news. Right now I’m reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. It’s about recognizing the mental challenges in our lives. I’m also reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. It’s about how she came into writing and tying everything.

Q. What is your morning routine?

A. I spent way too many decades getting up before 5 a.m. and having two-hour commutes, and it’s catching up to me. I don’t usually get up before 6:30 a.m. (After that), it depends on the day. On a good day, I do yoga in the morning.

Q. What famous person would you like to meet, and why?

A. Mother Teresa. I think she is the quintessential example of kindness and humility. I’d love to find out from her how she kept hope alive. She made a difference one-by-one. At the Cancer Coalition, we are serving people one by one. We are making a difference.

Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?

A. My husband would say work is my hobby. My husband and I love to travel, to see as much of the world as I can — and I enjoy time with my family. I also enjoy swimming and doing yoga for exercise, and reading.

Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?

A. Honestly, there’s nothing … If I had not made the decisions I made, they would not have led me here. The mistakes are often the best lessons.

Q. Best and worst things about your job?

A. The best thing is the opportunity to make a difference in our local communities. With cancer in Southwest Georgia, there are families here (in which cancer is thought of as) a legacy. We can redirect the course of life, and it’s an amazing privilege to be able to do that. I love that we are residents of the community we serve; we are making a difference in the lives of people close to us. The other best thing is the individuals I work with, the board of directors, colleagues and partners across the region. It is an honor to work with people who are so dedicated.

The worst part is that I wish we could reach and take care of everyone who needs help; that it’s impossible to reach everyone.

Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?

A. In high school I took typing. Back then, the only people taking it were girls who were going to be secretaries. My mother told me to take it so I could write papers in college, and she was right. I can type really fast now.

Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?

A. I love to write. I’d love to be an editor, of sorts, or I would like to be a yoga instructor on an island resort.

Q. Where do you see yourself on the first anniversary of your retirement?

A. It’s not really called retirement; it’s now called an encore career. I don’t see myself retiring in the traditional sense of the word. For my encore, I want to volunteer to help children. I realize more and more that’s how you change things, by reaching the younger generation. And I’d like to travel and see my family more.

Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?

A. Personal and professional integrity. Just this past week, one of our board members said that an organization takes on the character of its leadership. It is a big responsibility, but I always strive to lead with integrity, and everything flows from that.

Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?

A. I don’t have an iPod, but I love everything from rock, jazz, oldies, contemporary Christian and country.

Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?

A. I’m new to Albany still, but I believe, and am hopeful, that young leaders in the area … I think they are the ones that will move Albany forward. Some of those people are those who have been here and chose to stay, or leave and come back … My hope is over the next decade, this returns to being a destination town.

Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken? Why?

A. The best vacation I took was my honeymoon (about) 30 years ago to Ocean City, N.J. It was all we could afford but it was good because I was with my new husband.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?

A. The expectation and need to quantify our outcomes and show return on our investments to our partners and supporters. It is sometimes hard to do when doing mission-driven work. Another big change is that there has been a lot more federal oversight on non-profits, which we welcome because the Cancer Coalition is very transparent. That is something that we welcome. Quite frankly, we are ahead for our size.