When I made my journey from welfare to CEO four succinct guideposts became crucial to my transformation. Malcom Gladwell said that to master anything you must do it 10,000 hours. The only problem with that is that if you are doing something that doesn’t work – you’ve just become proficient at being stuck.
Guidepost #1: Seek Your Childhood Innocence
If we go through our lives expecting one challenge after another, that’s what shows up – life becomes a problem to solve instead of being fun like when you were a child and could play outside all night long, catching fireflies and naming stars. We start to adopt messages from experience as truth when they are nothing but interpretations. Soon life is merely solving one challenging interpretation after another. I know this well because I mastered it with what seemed like 10,000 hours.
I was a stay-at-home mother with four children under seven-years-old living what looked on the outside to be the country club life when on the inside I was in an unpalatable situation. So, I filed for divorce as a leap of faith and was not at all prepared for the avalanche that befell us.
Within six months the children and I had lost our home to sheriff’s sale, they had to change schools midyear and were on free lunch, we were on welfare, food stamps and medical assistance, and without an automobile. We were homeless and destitute.
I kept waiting for the “fair police” to show up. They never came. I watched my children wear each other’s shoes and began to doubt my faith. I started to wonder if I had done something to deserve despair but was absolutely certain my children had not. And from them I began to observe the adaptability of innocence and revisited the value of my own. They never complained that their clothes came from Goodwill. They understood if I couldn’t be at every basketball game though I missed few.
My son was the only boy in the Girl Scout Troop and never thought anything of it because I was the leader and he had 23 girls fawning all over him. They adapted. It was hard. But in all of this, they never lost the sweetness of innocent curiosity. Don’t lose yours either. Childlike curiosity will steward you down the path to discovery.
To this day, in their 20s and 30s, my children and I still sprinkle reindeer food in the yard on Christmas Eve and play Bingo with Grammie as if there is a skill to winning.
No one said life is fair. That’s like expecting the lion not to eat you because you didn’t eat him. We had each other. It wasn’t everything. But it was enough to keep our hearts open and to not turn cold with judgment.
I remember as children my brother and I used to jump off small cliffs in a local park, imagining we could fly. Yes, we skinned a few knees in those days but for one split second, we flew. That’s the freedom of innocence.
Guidepost #2: Don’t Replay the Past or Fast Forward to the Future
The magic is in the moment.
Truth is present in every second of your day. It is fear that falsely hijacks your courage and pilots you to follow the past and anticipate the future.
In this space doubt clouds truth when it is merely a mask for sad. And when we live in the fog of disappointment we start telling ourselves stories to avoid the discomfort of sad, stories that we interpret with negative outcomes that make us angry. Sad is healthier than angry because it is a truth we can move on from and not an interpretation we need to armor up against.
I used to fast forward my life to where my children would never go to college and I’d never find love. The truth was I was running from the fear of being alone, struggling so hard to be both mom and dad when all I really needed to be was me.
Guidepost #3: Risks for Purpose. Nothing is Personal
I had to become a success quickly because I had four mouths hanging open in front of me like baby birds. I didn’t have time to go back to school or work my way to the top. I assessed my values and strengths, then volunteered in areas where I needed experience. When I applied for my first full time role since the children were born it was as a hospital foundation CEO. I didn’t have a clue as to the logistics of that job. But I thought, “Well, they’re not asking me to do surgery so I can figure it out.” And I went right from the interview to the bookstore and bought “Fundraising for Dummies.”
Within 18 months I was offered a bigger position at a larger hospital where I raised $10.4 million on the heels of the largest hospital bankruptcy in US history. And from there recruiters started calling me. I’d have never had the moxie to apply for that position or the one I have now where I run a $24 million organization if I’d hadn’t had my eyes on what mattered. And, of course, your family matters but if you are going to work at a career 40+ hours a week it better have purpose or you won’t take the risks that matter.
I remember one day I was frustrated with a work issue one afternoon and was eying an adorable Shih-Tzu Beenie Baby in the hospital gift shop. On my way out the door an older gentleman handed the stuffed doggie to me in a bag and said, “I’m having surgery tomorrow and don’t know how it will go. You should have this. I can see how much you liked it.”
My connection with that gentleman in that moment put it all in perspective for me. My purpose is to help people who are facing some of the biggest challenges of their lives. I can make a far greater difference leading my team to fill in the gaps with hope for people who are ill and suffering at the hospital or helping my clients be high performers and get better jobs to support their families, than fast forwarding to my own interpretation of a non-lived possible failure.
I learned early on that hearing ‘No’ isn’t the worst thing that can happen to me. It isn’t personal. It often just means ‘not now.’ Being rejected doesn’t mean we are abandoned. It’s not personal. It just means that this specific person or situation isn’t a good fit.
Guidepost #4: Done is better than perfect
When I was in elementary school I remember the girls being praised for having more self-control – being labeled ‘good’ and ‘smart.’ While the boys I remember being praised for just ‘sitting still’ and ‘paying attention.’ The interpretation here? Girls ‘be perfect and smart.’ Boys ‘stay on point and try harder.’ What is the better life skill?
Today in my executive coaching practice I watch my male clients courageously apply for jobs they don’t have the credentials for yet are sure they can do. While often women won’t even apply.
As women, we need to be aware of our grooming for perfection, put down the guard and allow for truth. The truth is I’ve never been qualified on paper for any of the CEO positions I’ve held. Early in my career I used to think I needed to lead more like men to be taken seriously. The truth is we are women. Play to our strengths and we will be high performers. Play to someone else strengths and we will be imposters and mediocre at best.
Every woman has spent more than 10,000 hours juggling many issues at once. We explore multiple resolutions not zero in on only one. We value the journey as much or more than the outcome. We are willing to re-interpret the goal in lieu of the consequences. Our teams are diverse and our solutions are sustainable. We’re not perfect. We’re women. And we’re awesome.
In closing, I will tell you that courage is not the absence of fear – it is the ability to move beyond it – an acquired ability and it takes practice. Make lots of mistakes in your life – just not the same one twice. Be able to sit quietly with sadness before anger overtakes it and strangles your innocence. Observe your thoughts without interpretation so that you may be grateful for the magic of the moment.
And love like nobody’s watching because the payoff is the appreciation of freedom. Find a career that gives you that fire in the belly of when you were a child. Get out all the things you hold dear and start using them now not tomorrow. Wear the great outfit. Use your good dishes. Buy yourself flowers. Take the vacation. Laugh until it hurts.
And don’t ever, ever, ever forget, you have everything you need inside of you right now to be everything you dreamed. Go out and leap like you can fly. The world needs you.
If you want more executive presence tips here’s a link to my new FREE eBook – 31 Executive Presence Practices for Leaders in the High Stakes Corporate World .
Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE is an executive coach and corporate CEO who helps busy leaders get off the treadmill to nowhere to be more effective, earn more, be calmer and enjoy connected relationships with the people who matter while it still matters. Watch her FREE Master Class training on Three Things to Transform Your Life and Career Right Now at www.MaryLeeGannon.com.