Sometimes a negative comment can provide just the motivation a young man needs. That was certainly the case with the young Michael J Dowling, growing up poor in rural Limerick and dreaming of something better when a wealthy local farmer turned to him one day and said, “Isn’t it too bad that you will never be able to get to college?” Michael told Ryan Tubridy that he doesn’t hold a grudge against the man who said this to his teenage self because it spurred him to go to college – not once, but twice – and ultimately led him to his current position as president and CEO of Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider.
“I never held anything against the family or the father… He motivated me. You know, sometimes a negative statement can be a wonderful motivator, if you look at it the right way.”
It’s hard to imagine that someone heading a large organisation in the third decade of the 21st century grew up in a house with a thatched roof, and no electricity or running water, but that’s exactly how Michael Dowling lived when he was a child. In his teens, he went to the UK to earn enough money to go to college in Cork and onwards to the US, where his life changed dramatically. He was able to earn enough money to put himself through college and help out at home, by working in construction, in bars, on the docks. And, again, he stresses that perspective is very important:
“Every job is an education. So, everything you do teaches you something. You learn. There’s no such thing as a bad job, in my view. All jobs have wonderful potential, if you look at it and have the right perspective.”
After Michael got his Masters degree, he was asked to teach a course and within a couple of years, he was employed full time as the Assistant Dean of Fordham University Graduate School. Then he was asked to head up Fordham’s Weschester campus.
“And the lesson here is, whenever an opportunity opens up or a door opens up, you just take it. You say yes. You never know what’s going to happen when those opportunities arise, if you say yes to them.”
When Mario Cuomo became governor of New York, his administration asked Michael if he’d be interested in a position in government. Within a couple of years, he ended up being the head of Health and Human Services for New York State and the chief advisor to the governor on all health-related matters. Fast forward to 2002, when Michael became CEO of Northwell Health, which – as well as being the largest healthcare provider in New York, is also the largest private employer in the state – and he has a very distinct, employee-focused style as Northwell’s boss:
“Organisations are all about the people. And the people aspect of every business is the most important, in my view. So yes, for the last 21 years, every new employee that is hired, irrespective of circumstance or position or job, I meet with them and I spend two to three hours with them every Monday morning. I think that’s important. I think that’s what leadership should do.”
Not bad for a boy from a thatched cottage in rural Limerick. Michael walks the front lines of the organisation every day – including during the height of the Covid crisis in New York – because he believes that it’s the employees that make any organisation and they have to be taken care of. Healthcare workers are a unique breed, he believes, something which is true worldwide and has never been more evident than during the pandemic:
“During Covid, they have demonstrated their true character: exceptional people, who can do exceptional work and do exceptional work each and every day. So, we should all feel very, very thankful to know healthcare people, especially the frontline people.”
As you might expect from someone who’s worked closely with two generations of Cuomos in New York, Michael has no time at all for former president Donald Trump:
“Well, Donald Trump to me is a stain on American history. I mean, he was an absolute disaster as a president, had very little leadership ability, in my view, and it will take the United States quite a while to get over the disaster, the disunity, the division, the hate that he created.”
Trump will eventually, Michael believes, “be put in the dustbin of history”. Definitely not one to sugar coat his opinion. To hear more from the marvellously-straight talking Michael Dowling, go here to listen to his full conversation with Ryan.
After the Roof Caved In: An Immigrant’s Journey from Ireland to America by Michael J Dowling with Charles Kenney is published by Arcade.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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