What happens when you reach the top, but it’s someone else’s definition of the top?
That was the question facing Patti Cotton in 2006. She served in the role of executive development officer for the five hospitals of a world-renowned academic health sciences system, where she had started as a part-time secretary 13 years before. When she assumed the role, the hospitals were raising a total of $1 million a year. But after her first four-and-a-half years as EDO, she had turned fundraising around, oversaw a team raising $22 million, and was prepared to launch another major fundraising initiative.
“They hired me and paid me a third less than my male counterpart,” says Cotton. “And even though I sat at the executive table, I also carried a lesser title, being told that it was just political, and that they loved me just as much. But I also felt like a total impostor! The truth is, I was secretly afraid to ask for big money myself, even though I taught my team to do so. I wasn’t getting out there to ask for the larger gifts of which I suspected I was capable.”
To get where Cotton was professionally required being smart and determined. To do what she did next required even more: being brave. “I realized that if I was going to be a serious contender in life, I needed to face my own fear and do something about it,” she says.
And this time it meant being brave for herself, not for someone else. Because, she realized, what was making her feel like an impostor wasn’t just her paycheck. Although there’s no doubting the success she had achieved through her own hard work, it followed a path laid out by someone else. At a basic level, Cotton felt she wasn’t being honest to herself. She wasn’t living up to her potential.
There are plenty of people who seem to know from the start what it is they want out of life, and they dedicate all they can to achieve it. However, there are a lot more people who allow themselves to be pulled forward, many quite successfully, changing course both professionally and personally many times. In that regard, Patti Cotton is a lot like most of us. The route she followed, though, is most certainly not.
She grew up in California, the daughter of a pastor and a gospel recording artist. Her father went from pastoring to teaching theology, and although the family always had food, caring for a family of six meant they needed to be careful about spending. “I remember a favorite soup my mother used to make,” she says. “She called it ‘Pour Dieu,’ or so it sounded. Years later Mom corrected me on the name. ‘No, no, honey. That’s what the poor do.’ It was a soup made with stewed tomatoes and old bread.”
When she was about 12 years old, life got less modest. Cotton’s father went into health care and wound up developing and overseeing “some hospitals and rest homes. Life changed, and I went to college and then ran off to Switzerland and lived there for 10 years.”
Cotton is an ebullient talker and, even when doing her best to briefly describe her life, she mentions all sorts of things that you just know have a great story behind them. Take that sojourn to Switzerland, for example.
It all began with a big, empty water cooler bottle. She had been putting change in it since her early teens, saving for a trip to France. When she was a junior in college, not knowing what to do with her life, she thought “you know what? I’m spending the contents of that jar. I’ve worked since I was 13. I’m going to go to France.”
Then she decided to study French in France. She convinced one of her sisters to come along, even though they didn’t yet know exactly where they were going to study. A friend of a friend suggested they go to a language school in Switzerland where a friend of that person had gone. (“Well, how naïve is it to make a decision like that? You have to remember it was pre-Internet days, so getting good information was like throwing a dart into the wind, closing your eyes, and hoping it hits something.”)
After they finished the three-month course, her sister decided to go home. Cotton decided to stay, so she enrolled in secretarial school. While there, she met, fell in love with, and then married one of her teachers. The two of them joined the Swiss diplomatic corps and worked together for many years. Unfortunately the marriage didn’t work out and, when it didn’t, she came back to the U.S. This put her on the path to becoming the EDO for Loma Linda’s academic health sciences system.
Whew. That by itself is enough adventure for many people.
Back in California, Cotton continued to raise her family. She got the part-time secretarial job at Loma Linda, in part to spend more time with her three sons, but there may also have been an element of selling herself short as well.
“I intentionally underemployed myself,” she says. “Over in Switzerland, I had worked in Fortune 500 companies and then been wife of a diplomat for several years. So I had the background of working alongside my husband, with heads of state, heads of corporations, and all this. But I thought, ‘No, I want to be a mom. So I’ll save my energies and be a part-time secretary.’”
The people at Loma Linda knew they had someone special and capable on their hands and, as Cotton says, they “just kept promoting me.” While Cotton earned and appreciated the promotions, she was also aware that she was following a path someone else had chosen. It had never been her intent to be in development, but she went into it because it was offered to her—not because it was what she wanted.
As we all know, facing down your own fears is not an easy thing. Cotton understood that and did what any sensible person would do. She got expert help.
“I secretly hired an executive coach and, in the space of three months, broke through old fears and went out and asked for a $3 million dollar donation and got it,” she says. It was just the most empowering thing. I mean, that sounds pretty sensationalist. It’s not something you do every day.”
Working with her coach also allowed her to see what she had loved most her entire life: helping people grow into their full potential. “So at a time when they were talking to me about elevating my career track, again—I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was on a track to keep going—I said, ‘You know what, I think I’m living somebody else’s life,’” she says. “What do I want? I get to finally call it.”
Her background and formal education in organizational management and development, combined with a specialty in executive coaching, gave her the impetus to found her own executive consulting firm. That was in 2009, which wasn’t a great time to start a business. “But, it was time. I thought, ‘If I don’t do this now, if I don’t stand up for myself, I can’t help other people do that,’” she says. “It was empowering to jump off and to start at probably the worst time in modern history. The way I saw it was there’s nowhere to go from here but up.”
And, with a client list that includes Boeing, Harvard University, Sysco, Coca-Cola, Girl Scouts of America, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and many other notable U.S. and global organizations, up is exactly where she is going in her latest act.
About the Author
Constantine von Hoffman is a business and financial writer. For the past 25 years, he has worked for CBS News, Inc. Magazine, and The Boston Herald, among other news outlets. His writing has appeared in many publications, including the Harvard Business Review, Sierra Magazine, and The Boston Globe.