Only Connect – with Sue Noyes

“Only Connect”, our recent Chaplaincy Plus lunchtime event, appropriately involved both City Women and City Men. Browne Jacobson generously hosted this event, which gathered together about 50 people from the ChaplaincyPlus network and beyond.

Our speaker Sue Noyes is a chartered accountant by background, now working as a Board director, and as a Coach, who does both head and heart, figures and feelings: she focused on facing challenges at work and beyond and building resilience.

Sue recognises that conversations can be life-changing. She acknowledged that young people are spending 9 hours on their phones each day. With texts, we see the words but we don’t get the tone – that only comes when we hear someone’s voice or we’re face-to-face. E.M.Forster uses the phrase “only connect” to connect the prose and the passion, the words and the feelings. And Sue encouraged us to notice the prose and the passion in three life-changing phone calls she received over the last five years.

Five years ago, Sue was a Finance Director and Deputy Chief Exec in the NHS. She had been working in this role for over five and a half years and a new Chief Exec was due to be appointed: at this career crossroads, was it time to move? Sue was attracted by a portfolio career which could give her an opportunity to make a contribution to organisations and teams she felt passionate about. But then came the first call , from the chair of East Midland Ambulance Service, asking if he could have a conversation with Sue. They met the next day and he explained that EMAS needed a new Chief Exec for 9 months. There were challenges in the organisation, but the way the question was posed to Sue, she thought, “I can bring something to this”. Both the timing of the question and the way it was asked meant that Sue said “yes” to a role that was exhausting, exasperating and exhilarating. Sue’s learning to share? If you get an unexpected opportunity, notice your initial reaction – listen to you heart. And also set some boundaries!

The second call? Sue was staying in a Nottingham hotel in autumn 2015, two years into her EMAS job. She was loving the challenging work. At the time, her parents lived in the next-door road to her and her mother was going through chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Sue’s father rang her at 9pm in the Nottingham hotel room and told her that the paramedics had come out to her mum, who had collapsed in the shower at 9am that morning. “We didn’t want to bother you, because you have this big job.” Those words from Sue’s father stuck with her: her parents were going through a tough time and she was an hour and a half away up the M1. That night, Sue knew that, if she was going to be there for her parents, she couldn’t carry on with the job indefinitely. She had a minor op scheduled for the following spring and she made the hard decision that that would be the time for her to leave the work she loved, moving on to find work which allowed her to contribute but also allowed her to support her parents. Perhaps this was the time for that portfolio career?

The third call came in spring 2016, as Sue sat at her dressing table. She was adjusting to life after EMAS and had just been to a Warwick University alumni meeting, so she was full of ideas about what she might do next. The call was from Warwick Hospital, asking her to come in that afternoon. Sue had no connection with the person at the end of the phone, but she knew what was coming – and that call changed her life. The afternoon appointment gave her a cancer diagnosis – and two rounds of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiotherapy later she had shed the image of Mrs. Invincible: it was a tough path though. The deep learning for Sue, through this, has been the connections and the people who helped her through – the marvellous oncologist, the other people who were also undergoing treatment for cancer who supported one another, the friends who stuck with her, like the one who gave her chocolate and colouring books. Sue felt part of a relay team, receiving support, and then, later, passing it on to others who were undergoing cancer treatment. Mrs. Invisible, Mrs. Chief Exec learned to let go, to be open to what life brought her.

Sue is also a Coach – so not surprisingly she needed a goal to aim for, to give her a focus that carried her through her cancer treatment. This goal was a holiday in New Zealand. On 16 December 2016, Sue sat having breakfast at Wanaka in New Zealand, looking out on the appropriately named “Mount Aspiring”: she had a huge sense of achievement in getting to such an amazing place, after the trauma of the last year, coming through such tough times. And it made her ask what she could do to support other people moving forwards.

So Sue has now embraced the portfolio career she’d been thinking about five years ago. She’s a Non-Exec director of the Birmingham Women and Children’s Hospital and chair of Coventry College and she also works as a Coach.

Where’s God in all this? In the last two years, faith has woven back in to Sue’s life, picking up connections with God that she knew when she was younger and taught as a Sunday school teacher, but which had become obscured. Sue and her mother shared communion in the last two weeks of her mum’s life last Spring, and communion at Coventry Cathedral is now a regular part of the pattern of life for Sue. And last year’s Retreat in Daily Working Life was a profound time of connecting with God, embracing all the changes of recent years.

Sue’s honesty and clarity spoke to everyone present. Her generously shared experiences, lived with such transparent integrity, encouraged us all to make connections, to take space to notice the broader perspectives – to connect with ourselves, with one another and with God. Let’s notice the things that make connections meaningful. And let’s be open to life-changing and life-saving conversations!

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