Going Against The Tide: Why Shannon Cleary Gave Up A Professional Water Polo Career to Jump Right into Healthcare Consulting

 Palo Alto, CA- Stanford Women's Waterloo defeats the Arizona State University Sun Devils 8-5 on Saturday, March 26, 2016.

Most times, the end of an athlete’s career doesn’t come with the option to continue playing. In these cases moving on comes with the challenge of no longer playing your sport and realizing you don’t know how to approach the next chapter. As a member of the Stanford Women’s Water Polo team, Shannon Cleary ’18 had offers to continue playing water polo after she graduated. For someone so transparent about having various interests and not knowing what was next for her, Shannon turned down both offers to play. Many criticized that decision, but she knew it was right for her. Now in Healthcare Consulting, Shannon is able to look back at her transition and chart the steps that allowed her to confidentially pursue the workforce when water polo was still calling her name. We talked to Shannon about her experience at Stanford, why she knew it was the right decision to walk away, and how she found Triage Consulting to be the perfect fit for her.

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What was your experience as a student-athlete like?

Overall, I had a great experience as a student-athlete. As most student athletes can attest, managing time became like breathing, necessary for survival but natural. I was overworked some quarters, may have had some questionable health choices due to stress or lack of sleep, I chose Stanford because I wanted it all, the athletics, the academics, and the goofy culture. 

What was the biggest lesson you learned and the most challenging thing about your time as a student-athlete?

One of the hardest things throughout my entire time though hinged on the fact that everyone wants to appear successful. I try to be modest, but in the Stanford realm, I felt a pressure to show my success. In my core, I believe that every person is talented, no one has it all, and every team member is vital to the success of the group. In the Stanford environment, however, you are surrounded by the best. I had olympians in the pool and people curing cancer in the classroom. While I love rooting for others and am motivated by their achievements, I had to constantly suppress the thought that my personal success and resume meant more than the greater picture or playing for the team. 

Water polo in general is less well known and the only published statistics are goals. Outsiders don’t know how to tell if you contribute anything to your team if you aren't a captain or top scorer. There were so many times that I had to swallow my pride and suppress an anxiety that my personal resume wasn’t going to impress people enough. Partially through my senior year, after three years of battling, everything clicked. The crowds and outsiders don’t matter. My belief that everyone is essential to the team and to the world became my truth, and I was finally able to play and work with mental freedom. 

When it was time for you to transition, did you know you wanted to go into healthcare consulting?

Until graduation, two constants in my life were sports and school so ending them at the same time was a ride. I had the opportunity to continue either by means of getting my master’s degree or playing professionally abroad, but I felt the edge of a new stage life calling. It was both exciting and terrifying at the same time. I have never known what I really wanted to do. I even chose an interdisciplinary major because I like too many subjects. My interests stem from general categories of my personality, like my trait that likes challenges, which means I can become interested in and passionate about a wide variety of things. 

Because you could see yourself passionate about a wide variety of things, where did you start and what were some of things you believed you wanted out of a company?

Knowing I wanted to go into a field that helped people and was necessary for society, I chose my summer internships to be in health and education. One summer I was working as a marketing analyst intern for the Khan Lab School and my boss took it upon herself to teach me as much as possible to help my career development. With personality tests and talking about where I thrived with teams and classrooms, she helped connect the dots for me on what I wanted in a career and how my personality type and experience would best fit with a company. When looking at companies to make me happiest, I needed to make sure that my work would challenge me, I’d be able to have good relationships with my coworkers and superiors, and there’d be a highly collaborative environment. 

Walk us through the process of getting to Triage.

Senior fall, I started to search for a post-graduation job on Handshake and would filter for these two industries. I would look up the company, see if they seemed to fit, and submit my resume. I submitted too many applications such that I once forgot I scheduled an preliminary interview and took it on my bike ride home. Honestly, I used my failed calls and interviews as practice for when a company like Triage came along. Before scheduling anything, I researched the company, and learned that the company was in healthcare, in consulting, and prioritized a fun and quality company culture; I was very intrigued. Per their many reviews on Glassdoor, they had a stellar work environment that surpassed most of the other companies I applied for. I met the recruiters at the Stanford fall career fair, submitted my resume, and went through the full interview process. I made sure that my research was accurate by really paying attention to personalities during the interview process and asking the current employees many questions. I even learned a couple of water polo alumni had worked there and picked their brains. By the time I accepted my offer, I was decently confident that the company would make a good fit. 

How did your interview process coincide with your your decision not to pursue Water Polo after graduating? Had you already made up your mind at this point?

Now not having a serious conviction on what I wanted to do initially gave people a lot of room to question my final decision to choose work. I was content until people learned that I had said no to playing professionally in Australia or for scholarship in England. I don’t think anyone gave me the advice to jump into my career. People told me that I would be sitting at my desk in five years only wishing that I had indulged in my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have played abroad. Tough things to hear when you have already made your decision. 

My resolve was that anyone can pose a hypothetical situation. Who’s to know that if I played I wouldn’t be at my desk in those same five years frustrated with a starting salary and feeling behind on what I want to be doing with the rest of my life? I was eager to start building my financial stability and independence. I strongly leaned on the confident feeling God gave me when I accepted my offer at Triage and chose to stick with this decision. Looking back now, I am fully confident I’m where I am supposed to be and part of this is because I chose the right company for me. 

What aspects of your Stanford experience translate into your experience at Triage Consulting?

For transitioning into the workforce, my time as a student-athlete prepared me in a lot of ways. If you can handle a full schedule of school and sports, you can do work. Waking up at 7 to go to work? No problem, I had morning practice. In the office for nine hours? Try camp for nine hours. Beyond learning time management and being able to grind, I also learned to be adaptable, not complain and be able to do the behind the scenes work, as many entry-level jobs are full of. Each of these things have been pretty vital in my transition. 

How has your experience been at Triage Consulting?

Triage itself has been amazing. The company is a healthcare consulting company focused in hospital revenue management. I’m interested by my work and surrounded by a fun and close team environment. An ideal combo. Similarly to my experiences at Stanford, I’m highly performance based and want to do a good job. Starting at a company that I had no prior experience with as an intern or anything, I had a lot of learning to do. The company has a great training program and encourages a teaching culture on teams, but my drive to be successful and learn has definitely made me anxious at times. As my dad says however, work is my new sport and I can use that same energy I used to learn and improve at Stanford. 

Even though you were open to various interests, you seem rather prepared for the transition. Is there anything that was particularly challenging for you?

Ultimately, the hardest part of no longer being a full-time athlete is literally that. I miss water polo. I miss an active lifestyle. I had to go into an environment that yes, theoretically has many of the same attributes of a team or being a student-athlete in terms of having a team and goals and work. But it’s not water polo. Beyond being fun, it grew me, it became a soulful part of me. In the first 9 months of not being a student-athlete, I enjoyed having a simpler lifestyle. With work, I’d check out, go home, and for the first time ever, have complete freedom. Slowly, I started to itch for my old lifestyle. I thrive in structure and I like doing lots of things. Now, I’m finding my stride. I’m the recreational sports leader for the company, organizer for a company event in May, have a church I attend, and as of last week, finally started water polo again with a master’s team. 

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice as a student-athlete, what would it be?

I have personally been blessed with picking up Triage as my first job. It fits what I prioritize and I am happy. Whenever I prioritize others and their expectations, I’m led wrong. I believe that every student-athlete is completely unique and should seek companies that fit them. I know so many people that have chosen their job for a salary or because it was the seemingly right choice, but overall aren’t happy. You need to figure out what means the most to you and go from there. For me it’s challenges and people, therefore Triage fits. Every student-athlete that’s looking to transition into the workforce should seriously consider the company’s fit to them. Ask questions back in interviews. Determine what you want and chase it. If I could go back, I would have made myself start analyzing the environments where I thrived way sooner. I don’t live with regrets but this could've given me the confidence I needed when choosing classes and internships. Fortunately, I learned it my senior year and that has made all the difference.