Professional Development

Photo by Emily J. Davis

Renewed Values After Diagnosis

Amy Ronneberg is a calmer leader these days

By Sue Hawkes
Thu, 2017-02-09 13:23

I don’t know how Amy Ronneberg does it all. When we met years ago I was impressed then with all she juggled. She’s a force of positivity and realism — at home, at work and in the community. Amy serves as CFO of Be the Match/National Marrow Donor Program, which saves lives every day by matching bone marrow donors with patients in need. She’s got a big job, has a history of running marathons, is a dedicated mother of two young daughters (ages five and seven) and currently serves on two boards (which she qualifies as “only two boards — I’m taking a break”).  

Amy has been driven to be the best her entire life, so much so she jokes she is still upset about the one B she received in high school. “Back then I wanted to be in everything,” says Amy. “I wanted to make sure I got a 4.0, was the best runner on the track team, all of those things.” She was motivated by an internal force, and “looking back, I think it was out of fear,” reflects Amy. “It was nothing in particular, I was scared of failing and I think that drove me for a long time.” This continued into her professional career and Amy admits, “When you are driven by fear instead of joy, your happiness gets compromised.” 

And then everything changed

In May 2013 Amy was diagnosed with cancer and her “whole psyche changed.” She was given a 60% survival rate at five years. “There is the absolutely terrifying fear that you aren’t going to be here to live another day and your daughters will grow up without a mom. Suddenly, any type of fear that was driving you before goes away. None of it matters anymore,” Amy says. She began to ask herself in earnest, “How can I be happy? How do I live the life I want to live?” and became motivated by that. 

As a result, Amy and her husband Kevin attended a World Series baseball game at Wrigley Field (she’s been an avid Cubs fan since 1982) and have traveled extensively, including a trip to Paris with their daughters. Although she admits this new mindset has made her “less of a planner,” Amy is happy with the results. “Who cares if we don’t save as much as we thought we were going to save this year? More importantly, what if we don’t have this opportunity again?” 

Leadership impact

Amy reflects, “I believe I’m a better leader and driven to live a fuller life ... cancer taught me a lot. Probably more good things than bad have come out of cancer from an emotional and mental perspective.” 

“Going through cancer has made me a much stronger leader, probably the type of leader I never could have been,” says Amy. Before her priorities shifted, Amy’s life and identity revolved around her career. She took it personally if someone disagreed with her or a project didn’t work out, and she inadvertently would pass that stress and frustration on to others. Things have changed since her diagnosis and Amy feels there is not much at work that could impact her personally any more. “Most things that happen in all of my different teams — marketing, finance and facilities — are not life or death. We just have to figure it out,” she says. 

When Amy struggles with letting go, she’s incorporated new practices like heading home to take a walk and clear her head to keep her healthy. Focusing on “living for today” allows Amy to maintain a strong, calm leadership presence that better serves both her employees and the organization.  

Accepting help

Cancer offered another big lesson.  She had to learn to accept help. Amy says before she was not good at accepting help at all. She admits that it was “humbling to let go,” to enable family and friends to step in, and she’s now learned how to work with others. 

Many of us struggle with how to best help those diagnosed with cancer, so I asked Amy about it. She said offering to help or telling the person to “call me if you need anything” is not terribly useful. Instead, Amy suggests you simply “step in and do something.” Amy also mentioned that individuals combating cancer still need support once their chemotherapy treatments are over. “I don’t think people recognize just how hard it is emotionally after you get done with the physical part,” she says. “And that’s when it really sets in and gets really scary.”  Amy appreciates it when others ask how she is feeling, because it lets her know people are still thinking of her and are aware life isn’t back to normal even though her hair has grown back.   

One day at a time

Although Amy has completed her treatments and is now cancer-free, she continues to live each day to the fullest because she is always worried the cancer will return. “Every time I get a pain or feel dizzy I start to wonder,” Amy says. “I get a sore throat and immediately think, is this more than a sore throat?” She copes with this fear by talking with other cancer survivors and compartmentalizing. It takes conscious effort to practice these coping skills and Amy finds inspiration in Robin Roberts’ question: “How can I make my mess my message?” 

When I asked Amy what’s next on the horizon, she said, “As long as I’m learning and enjoying my work, and with a great group of people who make going to work awesome, I have no need to think about what’s next. If something changes, then it changes and I’ll figure it out at that point. I’m not going to worry about it.”


Q & A with Amy Ronneberg
What is your best habit or practice?
“Running has always been my saving grace; it has been the go-to my whole life.”
What have you read that people should read?
“The Founding Fathers” by Joseph Ellis, because I had these people on a pedestal; they weren’t necessarily the greatest people in the world, but they were so willing to take a risk and stand up for what they believed in.”
What is a service you couldn’t live without?
“Our housecleaner and the nannies we have that help get the girls to their events at four in the afternoon.”
Is there such a thing as work-life balance?
"I don’t believe in work-life balance because I don’t think work is separate from life. You need to put your efforts and energy into what makes you happy and that is different for everybody.”
Advice for your 20-year-old self?
“Stop worrying about all the stupid stuff. Be kind and true to yourself and enjoy life more. Put the negative stuff in the rearview mirror and don’t keep looking back.”
Sue Hawkes, CEO of YESS!, is a Certified EOS Implementer, Certified Business Coach, WPO Chapter Chair, bestselling author and award-winning entrepreneur. She has been helping entrepreneurs and leadership teams succeed for the past 20+ years.