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Life Experience Counts When Searching for a New Career

Longtime executive finds a position that goes right to his heart

By J. Gaston Kent | Encore.org | November 9, 2012

Twenty-four years ago, I lost all hearing in my right ear from an infection. I now wear a bone-anchored hearing aid, or BAHA, that carries sound through bone in my skull to my functioning ear.

Nearing my retirement after 35 years in management at Northrop Grumman Corp., I joined the board of a highly respected center for deaf children in Los Angeles called the John Tracy Clinic. I was happy to help in any way I might be of service.

After all, I knew how it felt to be the only one in the room who missed the punch line.

In May 2011, the board called a meeting to fill a sudden vacancy at the top. When the request came for a volunteer to serve as interim president, I found my hand going up in the air.

I had spent most of my working life making tough decisions. I had negotiated major contracts, balanced massive budgets and supervised people with unequaled talent and expertise. I wasn’t sure how transferable my big business experience would be to a center for deaf children, but I knew my heart was in the right place.

The next week, only a day following my official retirement, I showed up for work knowing precious little about pediatric audiology, deaf education or auditory-verbal therapy, not to mention nonprofit accounting and fundraising.

I soon realized I didn’t need to know much, either, at least not yet.

I had taken the helm of what might well be the finest organization of its kind in the world. I was surrounded by experienced professionals whose overriding concern was the well-being of the children and their parents. The place oozed integrity, compassion and dedication.

One month into my new role, the organization was abuzz with activity. The final draft of a long-range plan, sitting idle for months, had begun to take shape, a new executive position in fund development was days from being filled and two influential business leaders had joined the board.

Then the board chair surprised me with a call. “Would you consider quitting the board?” she asked. I remember a moment of awkward silence, not sure what she meant.

“That is,” she continued, “would you take the job of president and CEO as a full-time employee? You’d have to leave the board, of course.” My next words spoke themselves. “Yes, I’d be delighted.” It was one of the easiest decisions of my life.

Now, in a churning sea of donor tours, budget discussions and conference calls, I am absolutely buoyed by the inspiring stories of the families – the parents from Mongolia who sold their home to move here so they could attend our preschool, and their little boy, born into utter silence, who is now speaking words in two languages. The single mother whose baby lost her hearing from medication used to treat her liver cancer and who is doing so well she will probably leave our services early for a mainstream school.

It seems that organization I had only planned to manage, I am falling in love with.

J. Gaston Kent was vice president of finance at Northrup Grumman Corp. before joining the John Tracy Clinic's board of directors. He is now the clinic's president and chief executive. The John Tracy Clinic was founded in 1942 and named for the son of actor Spencer Tracy.