The Top 5 People I Would Like to Have A Conversation With

Who Would You Want to Speak to?

There are many interesting, great people in this world, past and present, that I would love to have a conversation with.  So I decided to come up with a list of the top 5 people that I would most like to have a conversation with today if I could. The first person that came to mind was Jesus – that was too obvious. So I excluded him from this process and focused on people who lived (or still living) within the past 50 years. I wondered who would be my top 5! I gave this some thought and started jotting down names. The more thought I gave to this topic, the more names came to mind. I soon had a list of over 25 people! Okay, but how do I narrow this list down since each person on the list had something I wanted to discuss or know. For some it was there overall reputation or experience, or a thing they did, or a feeling they had at some point in their lives – whatever they did to get my attention, I wanted to talk to them about it. There was something unique about each that I could learn from. Being decisive, I made my choice but instead of writing this blog immediately, I wanted to ponder my top 5 choices a little longer to make sure they were indeed my top 5. I started moving people around like a chess game. This wasn’t as easy as I anticipated. I expanded my list to my top 10 and decided to work with that – then I remember what I told my staff, customers, and teams throughout my career – go into a discussion, summary, or presentation with your top 3 to 5 key points. No more. Because there will always be more. Stay focused so that you convey the right message when communicating and connecting with people. Too much is simply that, too much and you can’t connect with people when they are overwhelmed. Okay then. Taking my own advice, I redirected my focus back to my top 5. And over the past week or so, I’ve narrowed it down to the following (in no particular order) top 5 individuals:

  • Robin Williams
  • Michael Jordan
  • Joe Gibbs
  • Billy Graham
  • Richard Branson

Each person above would give me satisfaction, regardless of how the conversation went. Each would give me a different perspective, perhaps filling in some answers about life, maybe giving me more questions to contemplate. Regardless, these are my top 5 and I’m sticking to them for the following reasons:

Robin Williams – He was funny and very intelligent, but he also had a darker sad side.  For those reasons, I would like to have a sit-down conversation with him.  His stand-up comedies were intense, energetic, and sometimes utterly manic.  Although I’m not comedic, I can relate deeply to the intensity, energy and manic parts of his life.   I have felt those too at certain points in my life. Robin was different as was demonstrated in the many roles he played so well (think Good Will Hunting vs Mrs. Doubtfire) – showing us his artistic creative side.  And he had a huge repository of voices he developed over the years that made him a natural voice for animation (e.g. the Genie in Aladdin, Dr. Know is A.I. Artificial Intelligence, etc).  Robin was a wealth of talent and I think he would be an interesting person to speak to however I would also want to more about his darker side.   He was my age when he took his life in 2014 and I’m curious to know what happened – really what happened, not what the media reported. I believe there is more here than we know. It takes a lot of courage to commit suicide and there has to be a compelling reason to do so. Did he see himself as a burden to others? Was life so complicated that dying was easier than living? There is a back story here that I would like to understand, if he is willing to share.

Michael Jordan – I’ve always admired his athleticism, his wit and humor – mainly what is portrayed in the media.  But there is a darker, mean side to MJ as well that has not been explored as much. I suspect his darker side is driven by his competitive nature and desire to win, regardless of who he might hurt along the way.  I’ve read a few stories about MJ – stories that highlights his temper and how he is oftentimes rude to others. He has an uncanny competitive drive to be better than others and I wonder what it is like to live like that, to have that constant pressure and to know how he manages (or doesn’t) the urge to always be the best, even superior at times.  I can’t imagine going through life that way but maybe that’s what is takes to be great, to be the best.  I don’t aspire to be great, but I would like to understand him as a person better.  I might actually like him, but then again, I might not – either way, having a chat with Michael would be something I would look forward to, even if he is rude to me or blows me off.

Joe Gibbs – As a Pro Football Coach and a NASCAR owner, I’ve admired what he has accomplished.  I’ve read his books and followed his career.  I admire his ethics, integrity, and the emphasizes he puts on Christianity above all else.  He believes in team leadership, not necessarily individual leadership and that aligns to my beliefs.  Joe took that approach in football, leading the Washington Redskins to 3 Super Bowls wins from 1981 to 1992.  He selected players that could complement one another on and off the field instead of picking talent and trying to build a team around 1 or 2 top players.  He took that same approach in NASCAR racing, building one of the most prominent team programs in racing.  I am fortunate to have seen him in person once. I attended a men’s retreat on Christianity where he was the main speaker several years ago. He told about his life as a pro football coach and now as a NASCAR owner. He used analogizes to tell stories on how God and Christianity helped him be a better man throughout his career. It was moving and powerful and every man in the audience was touched, silently listening to the stories he shared about faith and the importance it plays in his life. I relate to his believes and would love an opportunity to share more with him in a 1 on 1 sit-down.   I have so many questions to ask about his life, his experiences as a football coach, and as an owner of NASCAR racing teams.

Billy Graham – My grandmother didn’t drive so she was dependent upon others to drive her to church, when she could attend.  So she relied on listening to the radio and watching revivals and sermons on TV.  Billy Graham was her favorite. I spent many hours watching Billy Graham’s sermons and preachings with her as a child.  Back then, we didn’t have the capability to record shows and watch later, much less have access to the internet, so to watch Billy Graham on TV was a planned and scheduled event.  I tried to be with my grandmother as much as possible when Billy Graham was scheduled, live on TV – it was important to her and that made it important to me. I cherished those moments.  I would occasionally read out loud books and teachings by Billy Graham, and she would sit there, listening, hanging on to each word.  That may have been why she wanted me to be a preacher! Times were so much simpler back then.  Looking back on it, I realize it was those times that helped define me as a person.  I miss my grandmother and those times we shared together.  Although Mr. Graham has passed, I hope one day to meet him in heaven to have that conversation and to let him know how much he meant to my grandmother and me.  He pioneered an industry and opened the door for many televised ministries today, finding ways to reach people that could not be reached otherwise to spread the word of God.  He changed Christianity in America.

Richard Branson – Besides having a really cool accent, I think he would be an interesting person to speak with, to learn about his life and adventures and risks he took along the way. He is one of the most famous entrepreneurs we’ve had in this century, having started the Virgin Group brand in the 1970s and building it to over 400 companies he owns now.   He attributes his success to hiring the right people and surrounding himself with creative people, people willing to take some risks. While he is still active in many of the companies he owns, he lets the CEOs (who he picked) run each company. And he challenges his CEOs to find more leverage in their business and encourages them to build brands that create meaningful competitive advantage.  People that work for Branson are loyal, as is evidenced by the low turnover in personnel on his staff. Many say he is a good listener, fair, but also expects the best. We need more leaders like that. Branson is a man that appears to truly live a life full of passion and fun and I believe he would be a cool person to hang out with and to learn from.

In summary, I could have picked others in my top 5 for different reasons but for now, this is it. I suspect that if asked this question again in a few years that my top selections might differ. What I found interesting in preparing for this blog were my thought processes and the decisions made to arrive at my top 5. There are many people I would love to have a chat with, past and present, that it made this exercise challenging.  My number 1 choice was easy.  It was the next 50 that I struggled with. Of those 50 names I wrote down, most were men.  Ironically, it wasn’t men that shaped my life, it was the women in my life who grounded me, instilled passion, taught me love and compassion, and gave me the confidence that I needed to be the best version of me. I found it surprising that I struggled to come up with names of women I would put in my top 50. Perhaps its because I grew up without a father and I’m still searching for that fatherly figure, even in my 60s.   But what I do know is I look to these men as role models or men that have lessons to share that I could learn from, and for now, that’s all I need to fill the gap of growing up without a Dad.

So who would you pick as your top 5 people to have a conversation with?  You might find your picks as challenging as I did.

Next Blog – May is Mental Illness Awareness Month – exploring the stigma associated with Mental Health

Surround Yourself with Positive Influencers

Surround Yourself with People That Inspire and Lift You Up

Surrounding yourself with positive influencers is one of the most powerful things you can do to be successful.  Your friends, family, and acquaintances in your inner circle can have a profound impact on your moods or how you view the world, people, and certainly the expectations you have of yourself.  When you surround yourself with people who have positive attitudes, you are more likely to adopt the same beliefs and positive views as them, increasing your chance of living a healthier and happier life.  And just like you benefit from surrounding yourself with positive influencers, surrounding yourself by people with negative or narrow-minded views can have the opposite impact on your piece of mind.  As Jim Rohn, renowned personal development coach said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. 

But surrounding yourself with successful positive influencers is only the start.  It still takes a lot of work to be successful in reaching a goal in a career, profession, or sport.  What successful people have in common usually comes down to 2 key principles – 1) having integrity and ethics and 2) simply hard work!  Yes, to be the best, you must work hard, focus, and develop good work ethics – success doesn’t come without some sacrifice. 

I am a long-distance running coach, and any runner that has run with me will tell you it takes sweat and a lot of sore muscles at first, but after a while, that goes away and as your endurance improves, you are able to run longer, go the distance, accomplish things you never thought you could do.  Its not easy, and at times it hurts, but we do it to reach a goal or be the best we can be.  That is one reason I love running as a sport.  It is an individual sport that you work at to improve yourself, not to compare how you did to others.   Running is all about being the best you can be.  And practicing a skill with someone with more experience than you pushes you to be better!  You can learn from others – it’s important to your personal and professional growth.   Just like other areas of life, surrounding yourself with positive, successful people, those that have done it before, who are willing to serve as mentors for you, will inspire you to be your best.

After college, I became an avid reader of positive thinking literature, reading books by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, and Claude M Bristol to name a few.  I also attended conferences and seminars by Zig Zigler, Tony Robbins and other motivational speakers because I believed in the power of positive thinking.   If I believed I could, my chances of being the person I wanted to become improved.   But I also yearned to know their secrets — sharing with these brilliant minds encouraged me to step up my own game and to practice the things they practiced.

When people say they can’t do something because they are not as smart or gifted as others, I wonder how some of our top CEOs, who suffered from dyslexia would respond?  CEOs like John Chambers (Cisco), Walt Disney (Disney), Richard Branson (Virgin), Steven Spielberg (Movie Director), Charles Schwab (Schwab Investments) all suffered from dyslexia.  And they had to work harder than most to be succeed.  They didn’t think negatively about their learning disability but instead turned it into a strength.

It’s easy to see things from a negative perspective – it’s all around us.  The media emphasizes negative news because it’s more dramatic than portraying positive things that are happening today.  It might seem strange, but it is easier and requires less effort to be negative and think negative thoughts than to be positive.….and psychologist generally agree.   People are usually not born with a positive mindset.  That’s why it is important to find positive, successful people to surround yourself with in order to boost your confidence and your chances of success.   When your confidence is high, it easier to learn, be open and receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking.  I’ve seen some really smart people fail because of their mindset – they have to be the smartest person in the room, on every topic!  Smart, successful people know they can’t be the best at everything and they rely on others to fill voids in order to create successful harmony.   Sometimes you have to unlearn old habits and negative attitudes, and build new, positive, constructive ones to move forward in a positive way. You may need to change your mindset.

It’s common for us to underestimate the importance of the company we keep. Going back to Jim Rohn’s quote (you are the avg of the 5 people you spend most of your time with), says a lot.   If we want to improve, we need people in our lives, whether they’re teachers, mentors, coaches, family or trusted friends, who are positive influencers, who challenges and pushes us to be better. The right circle of influence raises the bar, helping us to set new, loftier expectations of ourselves. Oftentimes, we don’t realize what we are capable of until we see others reach those goals. When we surround ourselves with positive, successful people they consciously (and subconsciously) challenge us to be the best versions of ourselves.

Make success a habit by associating with those who have been there, done that and strive to be positive, even when the chips are down.

Unsuccessful people, on the other hand, can be complacent, lazy, ignorant, unconfident, and have a pessimistic view of life. They believe that they are not lucky or not gifted enough to be successful – and they usually blame others for their lack of success.  If we surround ourselves with them for long enough, we will begin to think this way, hampering our personal and professional growth.

So bottom line – increase your chances of being successful by associating with successful, positive people.  You can either live with people who inspire you, push you, make you laugh, and encourage you to dream bigger, or with those who complain, remain stuck in problems, and pull you down to their level.

Which do you choose?

Next Blog – My Top 5 people I would like to have a conversation with.

Tips for Nailing that First Interview

Make a Great First Impression

I’ve interviewed many college seniors and recent college graduates for various positions in the companies I worked for.   I’ve also spoken to new recruits covering topics ranging from how to dress for success to dealing with workplace conflicts and behaviors expected, especially when onsite working for customers.   While I’m not a professional recruiter, I have some observations to share with seniors and recent graduates seeking employment this year.   These suggestions helped me in my career and can be applied to anyone interviewing. Whether this is your first or last job interview, these tips will help you increase your odds of getting hired or promoted.

Research the Company – first and foremost, you need to do your homework on the company you are interviewing.  The internet is a great source of information.  Review the company’s financial statements, read the CEOs annual report (at least the executive summary), and review their most recently quarterly analyst reports.  Most of this information can be found in the Investor Relations section on the company’s website.  If they are a private company, review their website for information and read everything you can about them on the internet.  Be prepared and informed!  Many companies provide presentations that help summarize their mission, goals, and vision.  Study these! This may put you at an advantage over other candidates so don’t skip this tip.  It will also help you answer a question like “What do you know about our company?”.  If there are any new developments about the company, you can ask follow up questions to show you are up on the latest information on the company.  If you know someone who works for the company, they can be a great source of information too.   If you know the individual(s) interviewing you, do some research on their backgrounds as well. LinkedIn, Facebook or other social media sources. are great resources . You would be surprised how valuable that information can be in helping you prep for your interview.

Recognize Anxiety is Normal – Turn your anxiety into excitement.  Anxiety and excitement are similar emotions, but it’s how we internalize each that makes a difference.   Even experienced interviewers are anxious before an interview.   So recognize you will be anxious, its normal.  Then tell yourself you are excited to be interviewing with this company.  Say it out loud so you hear it.   This will help transform your anxiety into excitement.   Turning nervous energy into something positive can be a game changer and a technique I used often during my career.   Think how you felt when you first learned to drive a car.  You were anxious but probably more excited!  Use that same technique when interviewing a company.

Dress for Success – don’t show up for an interview wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  Initial impressions go a long way when meeting someone for the first time.  Be conservative.  See how others in the company dress, then dress a little better than they do.  Wear clothes that are appropriate for the role you are interviewing for.  And if you are interviewing via video conferencing, make sure that your background is clean and free of distractions (you don’t want someone walking in on your interview).  If you can, its best to have a wall or something plain in the background and avoid fake backdrops, they usually don’t work well and take up more bandwidth then needed.

Visualize the Interview & Plan for the Unexpected– Most athletes use this technique when competing.  They visualize their performance in the game or event, usually multiple times in their heads.  Studies have shown that visualizing something in advance actually works, so use this same technique and apply it to your interview.  Visualize you entering the room or opening a video call, greeting the interviewer(s), the small talk, taking questions and how you answer them, and note your posture, show them your confidence.   This visual technique will help you be better prepared, but also be prepared for the unexpected.   I have intentionally changed things up in an interview just to see how the candidate will react.  If your interviewer does this, remain calm, take a few seconds before responding, and handle unexpected questions in a rationale manner.  And remember, its okay to say “I don’t know”. Bottom line, visualize your interview from start to finish, more than once too!

Do Engage in Small Talk– After quick introductions, start the interview with some small talk (e.g. its windy outside today, great view from this office, love the décor here, etc.).  Find something general to start the discussion and dialogue with the interviewer.  Sometimes the Interviewer will do this but if they don’t, you should.  Establish a rapport with the interviewer(s) early in the interview – you will find it helps calm the nerves and shows your personal side.

Make Them Remember You – Show Enthusiasm – but don’t be cocky.  Keep your head up high, look the interviewer in the eyes, make sure your shoulders are back – this will help you be enthusiastic…..and you are, right?  You want this job.  Make them wonder why they had never heard of you before. 

Sell Yourself – its okay to brag about your accomplishment during the interview.  Don’t sell yourself short.  Use words like “I was promoted because….” Or “I helped tutor students in my class as a way for me to learn also”.   Give this some thought and ask friends and family for advice.  They know you best and can help you summarize your accomplishments so you can sell your best attributes.   But don’t oversell yourself or over brag about yourself – being cocky during the interview doesn’t work.

Don’t Lie or Make Up Stuff – this is not the time to stretch the truth.  If the interviewer catches you in a lie, it’s game over.  Plus, it’s just not a good practice to start as you begin your career.  If you are asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, its best to say so but follow up with you would be happy to research it and get back with an answer.  Practice how you will handle questions where you don’t have an answer.

Avoid Over-Rehearsed Answers – you should practice your interview but don’t come across as over-rehearsed.  Pause in your answers so that it doesn’t appear that you are rehearsed in your script.

Ask Questions – usually towards the end of the interview, the interviewer will ask you if you have any questions.  Always ask questions. This is your time to shine!  Ask questions about the company, especially answers to questions you could not find during your company research.  Look at their competition too and use this to introduce questions on how the company is competing with the competition?  (e.g. I see that one of your competitors is expanding into XX area, is this something you are considering too?).   Avoid asking any questions about compensation, but know that it may come up in the interview – if so, it should come from the interviewer, not you during this initial interview.  If you are stumped for questions to ask, start with “what would a typical day look like for you?”  Ask about challenges in the job and how others have handled them?  Ask how long they have been with the company, what they like about it, and what they found challenging?  Most employers love talking about their company and why they like working there. Stay away from personal questions but use this time to ask questions for 5 or 10 minutes that show you are interested in the company and your career path moving forward.

Compensation – if the interviewer ask you what you expect in the form of compensation, give them answer like “I would expect to be compensated the same as any other recent college graduate”.  The interviewer should know the pay range for the position you are interviewing for and they may be fishing to see if you are in the bottom or top of the range.  Best to have these discussions in a later interview, not in the initial interview.  Companies don’t make decisions based on an initial interview so compensation should not be discussed unless they bring it up.

Here are some questions you should be prepared to answer during the interview:

  • Tell me a little about yourself.  This may be an opening question so give them a quick summary on your background – something you accomplished to get to where you are today.  Practice a 5 to 8 sentence statement that gives the interviewer a good summary of you and your background.
  • How would you describe yourself? Provide a short summary on how you or others would describe yourself. Ask a friend to get an idea of how others may see you.
  • What’s your biggest weakness? Here is where you can turn a weakness into something positive.  We all have weaknesses, but this is an opportunity to provides some insights into how well you handle those weaknesses.   Something like “I sometimes spend too much time on the details but I’ve been striving to improve in this area by limiting the amount of time I spend and reassessing the bigger picture. This helps me manage my time more effectively.”
  • How do you handle pressure?  This is like the weakness question.  Turn this into something positive like “I learned not to panic but to break things down into small manageable tasks or steps – this helps me stay focused so I can get the job done.”
  • In what type of environment do you thrive? Think of an answer that summarizes what drive you…..something like you thrive in fast paced environments, or you enjoy multi-tasking, etc. 
  • What can you do for this company? Think of the value you bring – loyalty, hard worker, quick study ….. be prepared to give an answer.
  • Why should we hire you (aka — how are you different from everyone else)? Give a 1 – 2 sentence answer.  Be confident and don’t hestitate here – if you think you can be an asset, tell them so.
  • And be prepared to answer other questions too:
    • What personal characteristics make you effective?
    • How would you describe your interpersonal skills?
    • How would you describe your ideal career?

Research general interview questions on the internet and have an answer for each. There are a lot of resources available to candidates today.  Use this to your advantage because I can bet you, other candidates are. This will help ensure you are well prepared for the interview. Never try to wing an interview.  You will only waste your time and the interviewer’s time.  Be prepared.  Practice.  And if possible, practice in front of family or friends.  Have them ask you questions – this will help you learn to react to unexpected questions.   Tell know that you are valuable and worth hiring – go into the interview with the confidence that you are the best candidate. Bring energy and confidence to the interview so you can turn that interview into a job!

Are we Multitasking too much as Leaders?

Multitasking and Critical Thinking Jeopardy

I had a chance to speak with several executives who recently left the workforce over the past several months.  I asked each, “what is it that you need now in your life?”  Surprising their answers were simple, and easy for me to relate to.  What they desired most of all is space, they just wanted some space.  Somewhere along the way they lost themselves in their busy schedules trying to balance work and family.  Given the pressures we face in our jobs and lives today, I worry what this says about our future.  We are constantly on overdrive, multitasking, not just switching gears from one task to another, but sometimes juggling 3 or even 4 things at a time.  Is this our new normal?  I wondered what happened to the balance I had hoped to achieve in my own career.

It was only 6 months ago that I recall being on a zoom call, listening and engaging with others on the call, and at the same time multitasking, responding to a text on my phone, and preparing a presentation on the second laptop I had on my desktop (yes, I use to work with 2 laptops on my desk!).   And I was doing all 3 very well….at least I thought.

But neuroscience is changing how we think about multitasking. Expanding science and further research is now providing the data needed to understand how multitasking is affecting our lives….and it’s telling us something unexpected.  Psychological science and neuroscience are showing us that our minds are taxed by multitasking, which is placing increased demands on the neurocognitive system that support control and attention. Studies show that when our brain is constantly switching gears to bounce back and forth between tasks – especially when those tasks are complex and require our active attention – we become less efficient and more likely to make a mistake.  Other studies have shown that multitasking reduces productivity by as much as 40%. And a group of researchers specializing in brain imaging have found that changing tasks too frequently interferes with brain activity – shutting off vital responses to areas of the brain that support critical thinking and rational decisions. This may explain why some leaders are making unsound and irrational decisions.  We are multitasking way too much and this is causing some of us to run on autopilot! Acting on impulse and habit instead of logic.

The neuroscientist now believe the evolution of social media is to blame, and this is creating many challenges for today’s leaders and the people they lead.  It is getting harder for us to give our full attention to one thing – and that is not good for society.  Recent studies found that giving people additional tasks during a driving simulation led to poorer driving performance.  Duh! Most of us are probably guilty of looking at our phones at some point while driving. As a result, most states now prohibit the use of cell phones while driving (and that is a good thing)…..but has that stopped people from doing it?  I would answer no because I still see people driving while using their phones.  In another study, scientist found that people who frequently use “media multitasking” (like listening to music while checking email or scrolling through social media while watching a movie) are more distracted and less able to focus their attention even when they’re performing only one task.  Multitasking is impacting our thinking even when we aren’t multitasking!   These additional loads on the brain are inhibiting us from thinking logically, impacting the critical thinking needed for personal and professional growth.  And its bleeding over to other parts of our lives too. Think about how this impacts the organizations or corporations they serve.  Of all the research I did to prepare for this topic, the one thing that stuck out to me the most was the knowledge that these studies are showing multitasking is profoundly impacting our ability to learn.   Not being able to focus inhibits our receptive learning potential, which will have a direct impact on our careers and future generations.

God knew we would be here someday. A world of multitaskers. A world difficult to manage. And he knows we will face other challenges in the future.  But God has a plan – its laid out in the Bible.  I can’t imagine how the prophets and apostles who wrote scriptures in the Bible would be challenged today in a multitasking world.  The ability to focus on a single thread, drawing on the words and teachings that created the foundation for our culture and civilization. That takes discipline, thought, and wisdom. They didn’t multitask – they were critical thinkers, focused on one thing, serving God.  And they left us with messages that have stood the test of time, playing a pivotal role in the formation of our nation and the principles we follow today.

This is the 21st century.  We learn from our past and it is important that we continue learning so we can evolve and grow as people.  Many leaders today are running on autopilot, unconscious of reality or the harm they cause. They lack integrity, apathy.  For some, it’s their normal.  But I believe the ones that are more likely to hold the key to our future are those that are able to lead with focus, and have the ability to delegate, prioritize, and manage the tasks at hand.  I believe this unique group of leaders will rise above others in organizations and corporations to become our leaders of the future.  Technology will continue to enhance our lives but we need to slow down occasionally and assess at what costs.  We are creating a culture where we are rapidly moving from one task to another without thought or awareness. This is not sustainable.

One could argue that we are no longer human beings, instead we are humans doing – moving rapidly from one task to another without thought or provocation.  Perceiving the need to be involved in everything happening around us is threatening our world. And that needs to change.  Great leaders understand this. And yes, they may multitask, but they don’t over-task. There is a difference. These leaders seek balance and harmony. They are running marathons, not sprints, so they are in it for the long haul. Most importantly, they take the time to reassess their goals and objectives periodically. To be great, you need to be genuine, lead with integrity and show apathy when needed. Multitasking doesn’t lend itself to clear rational thinking and sound decisions; instead it pushes us to run on autopilot. That’s why great leaders are good at being single focus thinkers. Its how our brains are wired so we can see the big picture and the road ahead.

Great Leaders Influence High Performing Teams

Building Great Teams Starts At the Top

I am fortunate in my career to have worked for some good leaders.  Leaders that taught me the value of teamwork and respect.  Leaders that taught me how to build high performing teams.  Leaders that knew the art of leadership and motivation.  But I have also worked for people that struggled being leaders.  Together they helped shape my leadership style, values, and perspectives and in turn, prepared me to mentor other executives and leaders of organizations.

Early in my career, one of my mentors told me that being a leader is a gift. Something that I should treasure and if done right, will be more rewarding than anything else I might accomplish. He was great at creating analogies, some I remembered. A leader who can inspire people, will not only move mountains but will accomplish more in life than others because they will be inspired by those they mentor. That was shared over 25 years ago and I never forgot it.   I learned that great leaders are not born with good personality traits, instead they develop their leadership and interpersonal skills over a lifetime, many times through mistakes.  In fact, they are more likely to have made many mistakes and failed several times before becoming great leaders.  But what makes them different is that they learned from their mistakes and they’ve practice becoming great listeners and communicators.   It takes practice and failure to become great.  Ask anyone that is at the top of their game!  It’s how we turn those failures into opportunities to grow that separates mediocre leaders from great leaders.

To be a great leader, one must set aside egos, pride, or self -promoting ideology.  Otherwise, struggles will ensue and motivations will wane.  I have witness leaders who wrestled with success because their egos got in the way.  Leaders like this can go through their careers not reaching their potential, usually leaving a trail of destruction in their wake which is toxic to the people and the organization they serve.  So how do these people rise to certain leadership roles within some organizations?  I have a theory, but I’ll save that for a future blog.   This blog is about great leaders and how they build high performing teams.

I learned four principles are key to building high performing teams: 1) have a well-defined mission and over communicate your purpose so that everyone understands how they contribute to the team,  2) be honest with yourself as a leader – know your strengths and weaknesses, and listen to feedback,  3) use data and analytics to support critical decisions when available, and 4) build teams with people from wide ranges of backgrounds and diversity. The latter might be the most important since people with varied backgrounds, when put together, outperform other teams and contribute some of the best ideas.  These four key principles served me well throughout my career and they work when put into action!

A great leader will set clear, reasonable expectations but also set expectations that stretches the team – challenging people to deliver at a higher level, and rewarding them when doing so.   It’s important they establish a culture of teamwork and respect, be able to provide feedback quickly and constructively, in a positive, non-threatening way.   These are non-negotiable traits that a leader must possess to be successful in motivating teams that aspire to greatness.  

When speaking to executives about leadership, I’ll ask a few questions to gauge their understanding of their company’s mission and how they stack up to the competition.   I want to understand what they believe is their differentiator – why should consumers buy their products or service?  I am often surprised by the answers received.   Some answers are well rehearsed but not all.   Most of my interviews with technology leaders usually arrive with something like “our company’s goal is to introduce technology to our customers so our customers can focus on their core business, instead of technology – we deliver solutions”.  They might add “our products are better than our competitors, research says so, and we can do it in a more economical way too”.  Really?    It’s usually when I ask how their competitors would answer those questions that they pause for thought.  I sometimes repeat their answers to illustrate the point of how their competition would answer those questions.  Most executives understand the goals, missions, and competitive values of their company, but oftentimes, they are shallow or vague. It’s important to have clear, well articulated goals and mission to unify teams of people so they work together for a common purpose to achieve desired business outcomes. Projects, programs, and missions often fail because of unclear direction and guidance. It’s the leader’s responsibly to ensure the mission or purpose is clearly articulated and understood by everyone on the team. Only then can they influence business outcomes and drive cultural changes that move an organization from being complacency to visionary.

Gallup’s recent bestselling book, It’s the Manger, shows less than 27% of employees strongly believe in their company’s values. And the research reveals that less than half of U.S. employees (41%) strongly agree that they know what their organization stands for and what makes it different from its competitors.  That means 59% do not!!! Communications breakdown or executive complacency?

Businesses thrive when diverse teams collaborate on individual ideas to solve problems.  Brainstorming is a good opportunity for the team to exchange ideas and develop creative ways of doing things more efficiently and effective. Leaders must provide guidance and establish a team culture that promotes teamwork. Plus a great leader needs to lead by example.  Guide and lead. Everyday. Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety, Proverbs 11:14

Teams function best when everyone understands their role, job or task and how they support the greater mission – whether working on a team project or working in an organization, it’s important to create a culture throughout the organization of collaboration, trust, and respect.  And when individuals work together, they can double their strength and get more done as a team.  They create harmony.  They can move mountains.  And they create great business outcomes!

Know that being a part of a successful team is not an entitlement.  Those that think so will be left behind.  When leaders establish the right culture, everyone benefits.  Be positive, be supportive, and most of all, be available to help others reach their potential.  That’s great leadership. It will pay off in the long run.

Corporate Social Responsibility – Change in the Right Direction

Being a Good Corporate Citizen

My views on corporate America have evolved since I entered the workforce over 40 years ago.  As a former Executive of several Fortune 500 companies, I have acquired a deeper appreciation for companies that embrace social responsibly.   Early in my career, I was taught to focus on the bottom-line, beat the competition, and over deliver on promises.  While these concepts are still important, they are no longer the sole drivers for companies today.  More and more successful companies are implementing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, which many times simply means doing the right thing. 

Companies are increasingly focusing on gender equality, women’s rights, supporting the LGBTQ’s community, protecting the environment, and helping to make communities better, on local, national, or global levels.  Embracing socially responsible issues like these goes a long way towards attracting and retaining customers and employees, which is essential to a company’s long-term success.  Many individuals will gladly pay a premium for products or services, knowing that part of the profits will be channeled towards social causes they support.  And while these socially responsible companies are projecting a positive image, it’s also impacting their bottom-line, in a good way.

CVS is a great example of a company who transformed their business to be more socially responsible. In late 2014, CVS made the decision to stop selling tobacco products in its stores.  Their mission was to be the leader in health care, yet they sold over $2 Billion in cigarettes each year, which represented almost 10% of their revenues.  Most companies would be hard pressed to drop a line of business that generated this much revenue, but the decision to stop selling tobacco catapulted CVS to the frontline of social responsible companies. And yes, CVS saw a slight dip in revenues the year following this change, but revenues continued to grow in subsequent years. Since 2014, CVS’ revenues have almost doubled! The decision to better align their corporate values to their mission to become the leader in health care challenged other businesses to do the same. This was a huge shift in Corporate America, creating new business models for social causes. 

Companies can make differences in their communities too when they embrace social reform. And they are likely to see increased foot traffic when doing so. For example, banks that dispense loans to low-income households are apt to see an uptick in business, as a direct result. Good for the banks and good for the community.

Although there is no regulatory oversight for CSR programs, its worth applauding those companies that have taken on self-regulating policies to be more socially responsible.  And a few companies have taken additional steps to becoming Certified B Corporations. This certification is a designation that a company has met certain standards to be called a social and environmental responsible company.   Companies like Patagonia, which gives 1% of all sales to environmental organizations globally is a Certified B corporation. Ben and Jerry’s social mission encompassing all aspects of their operations through economic, social, and product reforms have earned them a designation of a Certified B corporation. While this option exists, companies don’t need this certification in order to have an impact on social reform. Take tech giant Google, for example. Several years ago Google adopted social programs focused on efficient use of energy – and now they are one the largest consumers of renewable energy in the world.

While B Corp claims that certification balances the interests of shareholders with the interests of workers, customers, communities and the environment, B Corp standards are not legally enforceable. Neither the board nor the corporation are liable for damages if a company fails to meet B Corp standards. And the certification process is limited to answering a few questions in a phone call or submitting documentation to support answers. So do we need better regulations to ensure companies are being socially responsible? I don’t believe additional oversight is the right answer here. We are making progress through self-regulating policies for now – and this is a step in the right direction. And laws exists to protect us from waste bi-products from being dumped through manufacturing processes into our environments, and this is good. Our politicians and business leaders will decide how, or if there is a need for further regulations, as technological advancements continue.

As we look to the future, one of the biggest concerns we face today is climate change.  Bill Gates, Microsoft’s Co-Founder, supports this claim.  Gates believes that if we don’t act soon, the world is headed for catastrophe by 2050.  In his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Gates points to the need to reduce greenhouse emissions currently being pumped into the atmosphere as the biggest threat to mankind.  And he’s calling for a full-scale technological revolution to make it happen.  (This is scary stuff, especially when you realize that Gates warned us 20 years that we were on the verge of a global pandemic and we needed to be prepared.)  Climate change is on the forefront of our youth today, and rightfully so. In a recent Neilsen poll, 85% of Millennials and 80% of Gen Z rank the environment at the top of their list when deciding which companies they will engage with.

Companies need CSR programs to survive, competitive, and attract the best talent.   As an employee, you should support your company’s social mission. And if they do not have one, perhaps this is an opportunity for you to champion the idea – look for conflicts in their mission statement or find better ways your company can do things that have social impacts. As a consumer, you can influence companies that don’t have CSR programs by not purchasing their products or services – and let them know why. Be the voice of change. Send a clear message!

God created man and earth and I believe he wants us to protect and take care of both by being fair, right and just. We need to find better ways to improve our environment, be kind and supportive of others so that future generations can enjoy the things we take for granted today. Its all about sharing and finding universal balance for all mankind.

Romans 14:10  Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;

Proverbs 31:8-9 Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.  Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Numbers 33:35 You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.

Isaish 24:4-6 The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers; the highest people of the earth languish. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.

What are you doing today to be socially responsible?

Friendship

Do you have a friend like this?

According to Aristotle, there are 3 types of friends:  those based on utility, those based on pleasure and delight, and those grounded in virtue.  While he wrote on many topics, none were as impactful as his writings on friendship.  Aristotle saw friendship as one of the true joys of life, a life that, when accompanied with friends, was a life better lived.  He said “In poverty as well as in other misfortunes, people suppose that friends are their only refuge. And friendship is a help to the young, in saving them from error, just as it is also to the old, with a view to the care they require and their diminished capacity for action stemming from their weakness; it is a help also to those in their prime in performing noble actions, for ‘two going together’ are better able to think and to act.”  Aristotle was a philosopher who answered universal questions with deep thoughts of wisdom.  And like most philosophers, it takes multiple readings and deeper thinking to understand the true meaning of what they are trying to convey.

Aristotle defined the utility friendship as friends who benefit in exchange from one another (and no, this is not Friends with Benefits).  A business or work relationship might fall into this category – you enjoy each other’s company because of the amount of time you spend together.  These friendships typically end when the situation changes (i.e. one of you leaves the job).

A friendship based on pleasure is typically seen more common in younger people or in team sports. These tend to be more emotional and are often the most short-lived of the relationships. It works as long as the two parties gain enjoyment through a mutual interest in something external, but ends as soon as either tastes or preferences change.  As we grow, we tend to change our views on enjoyment, so we often recalibrate over time, which is why these are more short-lived relationships.  But they don’t have to be short-lived.  Sometimes passions and continued desires for something we enjoy strengthens as we age or grow.

Aristotle believe that most of our friendships fall into these two categories mentioned above, and while he did not see this as necessarily bad, he did feel their depth limited their quality.  He thought these relationships were important and necessary, but he thought the most valuable and deepest of friendships is one based on virtue.

Friendship of virtue are based on a mutual appreciation of desirable qualities that the other party holds dear.  Instead of being short-lived, these relationships tend to last a long time, usually to the end.  But they require a level of goodness from each person to exist.  People that lack empathy or care for one another typically look for utility or pleasure types of friends and virtue requires a deeper level of caring where mutual grow occurs and is shared.  A narcissistic person would find it difficult to develop friends of virtue – and that is sad.

Some people are able to establish and maintain friendships much easier than others.  This doesn’t make them any better – it just comes more naturally.  And our perspectives on the quality of friendships usually evolves as we age, or our circumstances or situations change.  I believe most of us desire closer friendships and work to establish those, but sometimes promising relationships just fizzle out.  Maybe because we jumped to quickly to judge a friend’s behavior, rather than our own or our expectations for the relationship were not mutual from the start.  It is important to understand our contributions to the dynamics in establishing a friendship could be the cause for the fizzle.  A friend of virtue requires cultivating and building healthy respect for one another and applying forgiveness, often.  Yes, this requires some work, but it should not be to the point that it is exhausting.  If that is the case, then there wasn’t mutual respect from the start and it’s not a friendship of virtue.

I believe the key ingredients needed to maintain strong friendships include some characteristics of trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, loyalty, empathy, non-judgmental, supportiveness, forgiveness, and sometimes just being a good listener.  Having humor and a desire for fun helps too.

While I’m not a psychologist or expert on human behavior, I can relate to the types of friendships Aristotle describes.  His writings on this topic influenced my thinking this week and gave me pause to think about the many friends that have been a part of my life over the years.  I am lucky and blessed by many friends, several of whom are utility and pleasure friends, and that’s okay.  I would not trade them for the anything in this world.   And many were needed at different stages of my life.  I would not be here today without them, and for that, I’m grateful. As one friend said to me once, we have the type of friendship that if we don’t see or speak to each other between years, we always pick up our conversations like we’ve talked every day – not missing a beat.  And that friend is correct, a dear friend indeed and a friendship based on virtue.

There are many writings in the scripture on friendship but this one caught my attention this week.  “One who has unreliable friends soon come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother”, Proverbs 18:24   The message here is that true friends will be with you through life’s most soul-shaking changes.  We should all be this lucky to have those types of friends in our lives.

The Power of Three Magic Words

International Symbol for Love – I Love You

I believe the most powerful phrase you can express to another person is to tell them “I Love You”.   These three magic words, when said with meaning, is the strongest way to emotionally connect.   But how many of us struggle with saying these words?   Especially to someone you love, adore, or hold close to your heart.  Often times we take loved ones for granted assuming they know we love them, and words are not needed.  This may happen in a lot of relationships, but still these words, when phrased together, are powerful and comforting and should be shared more often with those we love – including our friends too.  As we approach Valentine’s Day, these words are used more often to express our love to one another through cards, gifts, or telling someone how we feel. But why do this only once a year?

I’m lucky. I grew up with a Grandmother that had lots of love to share. And being the first grandson, she made me feel special. She frequently said “I love you” to me as a child, without hesitation. And as a man, she continued to do so in our weekly phone calls. She was my rock and the woman who taught me about caring, being kind, and helping others.   I am the man today because of her influence, love and support.  Grandma was my comfort.  She was a religious woman who often reminded me that God loves me too.  She would say “I love you” each night when she tucked me into bed as a child. And I would say it back to her. I have fond memories of those parent/child moments with her.  My Grandmother made me feel loved and important.  It was her nurturing way, her kind way that provided me the strength to deal with the many struggles I’ve encountered in life, and I still look to her guidance today.  It all started with those three powerful, magical words!

So saying the words “I love you” feels natural to me, it’s part of who I am.  But I realize many struggle with this expression.  These words can bring up a lot of fear that comes from a place of feeling too exposed or vulnerable, making them more cautious when it comes to expressing real love.  But is that necessarily a bad thing?   It may mean they use other ways to express love or it may mean they are taking their time and that when they do say “I love you”, you know they really mean it.

My parents divorced when I was about 3 years old so I really never knew my father.  He was absent most of my life. But I did have a grandfather who was less expressive emotionally than my grandmother.   This was the culture then – men were raised to not express their emotions, unlike today.   For my grandfather, saying “I love you” was not a part of his vocabulary, and I didn’t expect it from him either.  It’s just how I was raised.  I believe my grandfather would be different today had he been raised in my generation.  It just wasn’t acceptable back then.  

Children growing up not hearing the words “I love you” or having parents that had difficulties expressing their feelings of love might have a tougher time being comfortable expressing their own emotions later in life. While words come easily to some of us, we need to remember that people express love in different ways.  Knowing which of the five languages of love (i.e. words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time, and physical touch) you need and your partner needs is important.   While we might crave hearing “I love you,” it’s also a good reminder that others express their love differently. And just because they have difficulty expressing emotions, doesn’t mean they don’t feel the love.   For example, studies have shown that people with post traumatic stress disorder, autism, or lower emotional intelligence (and other conditions too), oftentimes struggle with expressions of love. While this doesn’t mean they don’t love, they just need help in expressing it.  You might find it stressful to be in relationships where these 3 words are not spoken.  But knowing we express love in different ways should go a long way in understanding. And yes, those relationships may look a little bit different from other peoples’ relationships, and that may be okay with some. Being able to express true feelings is a gift that not everyone is capable of doing.

Giving and receiving love seems like it should be completely natural, unforced.   For most people, it is.   But as mentioned, there can be justifiable reasons why some feel uncomfortable expressing their feelings. Sometimes people don’t feel worthy of love, and that makes saying the words “I love you” incredibly challenging.  A bad relationship where trust was broken, trauma happened, or abuse occurred, can cause feelings of unworthy and low self-esteem.  In these situations they may not be used to feeling love, nor knowing how to accept it. We need to be forgiving and be more understanding of people and their circumstances.

While waiting around to hear “I love you” can feel difficult, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t have a hard time saying it yourself, it’s good to note that people are different. We recognize that no two relationships are the same and our definition of what’s normal has taking on new meanings.  Some people may never be able to say those three magic words that many of us desire.  And for those, I hope they understand the international sign language for expressing love. Maybe that’s their new normal.   

For Valentine’s Day, I hope you have someone special in your life that shares these magic words with you.  The scripture gives us some insights to God’s love and expectations through John 13:34 I give you a new commandment: love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you. 35 It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples.

So use Valentine’s Day to tell someone you love them, and find other occasions throughout the year to say it more often. If you are one that struggles with expression, start small but always move forward to improve. And if you don’t hear these magic words this weekend, know that I Love You and so does Jesus. Hugs.

Too Many Choices – Mustard and Mayonnaise of all Things

Grocery Aisle

One of my favorite things to do is grocery shop.  I love it.  What can I say.  Except for the occasional trip to the home improvement store, I don’t enjoy shopping.  Period.  For me, shopping is stressful, a chore, something I prefer to do online.   Order online today, and its usually at my door within 48 hours.  There are pros and cons to online shopping.  I won’t get into it in this blog because this is more about the choices we have when we shop.    And it’s now spilling over in the grocery aisles and my shopping cart.  

I went to the grocery recently to pick up some mustard, mayonnaise, and a few other produce items.  A quick trip in and out of the grocery store.  What kind of mustard / mayonnaise or brand does my family prefer?  I should know. I thought about this as I entered the store.  Should I call to ask?  Convinced I could handle this task – it’s only mustard and mayonnaise I surmised.  Besides, no one in my home would object to the brand of mustard I select since I consume the majority of it anyway.  For mustard, the cheaper the better and I’m not loyal to any specific brand.   Mayonnaise, well, that’s different.  There are preferences.  I have returned items to the grocery store before because “that’s not the brand we use”.  I stared at the mayonnaise aisle, overwhelmed, confused, worried. But why?

So, I’m asking why do we have so many choices?   We are one of the few countries that offers so many options when grocery shopping.  In 2015, I spent 6 weeks hiking through France & Spain.  I’ve traveled extensively through Europe, but those trips were generally less than 10 days in duration and most of the time I ate out at restaurants and my food choices were only limited by what was on the menu.   On the hike however, I got the full experience of being a local while I made my way from city to city.  I realized they have less buying choices to make than we do.   I grew to like it.  If you wanted mustard or mayonnaise, there was only one brand  to pick from.  Someone made the decision for me which I found satisfying.  And yes, I bought mustard in Spain – it went well with the meats and sandwiches I ate while hiking.

But what does our choice say about us.  “We believe that whatever we choose is kind of a reflection of who we are,” says Thomas Saltsman, Senior Lab Director of the Social Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University at Buffalo.  “Freedom and choice are so important to us and we think of our choices as really being able to communicate information about ourselves and we very much prioritize that in any kind of Western civilization.”  In the US, we tend to feel defined by our choices.  But having an abundance of too many choices and decisions to make, no matter how insignificant, can be burdensome on us without even realizing it.

There are so many goods we consume daily that having too many choices is not healthy.  I bought toothpaste recently and was overwhelmed at the different brands and types of toothpaste available – cavity-prevention, tartar-control, enamel protection, sensitive teeth, herbal, teeth-whitening types, etc. for instance.  Which to choose?  I did a little digging and discovered there are over 1,000 different types of toothpaste (reported in a 2013 research).  Oh my!  But what I also discovered is that research indicates that when a consumer feels overwhelmed, they tend to go to brands that offer a single option.   My kind of company!  Oops, guilty.

Even Starbucks has too many options.  Maybe that’s why I don’t enjoy going to Starbucks (but I do own stock in the company).  They have over 10 kinds of iced coffee, 30 different types of Frappuccino, and well, you can do the math on the others.  I feel overwhelmed at Starbucks.  But I have friends and family that love the brand and are loyal customers.  Their sales growth supports this – Starbucks is loved worldwide!

For many years now, researchers in consumer behavior have studied how the ever-expanding landscape of goods is creating “choice overload” for many consumers, complicating their decision to buy.  Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, who wrote in the 2004 book “Paradox Of Choice – Why More Is Less” argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce shopper anxiety.   I agree. I read parts of this book and believe Schwartz makes some valid points about our society and how shopping influences our lives.  He classifies shoppers in 2 general categories:  Maximizers (like perfectionist) and Satisficers.  Maximizers need to assure that every purchase they make is the best that could be made, while Satisficers, though they have criteria and standards, are not worried about the possibility that there may be something better.  But new research is providing that Maximizers may have an edge, especially over your health.

We might assume maximizers are having a negative experience in the moment, obsessing over the perfect choice.   In a new study (released Feb 3, 2021), Thomas Saltsman found evidence that compared to maximizers, satisficers exhibited cardiovascular threat responses consistent with evaluating themselves as less capable of managing their choice in the moment.  Meaning, Satisficiers may be experiencing higher anxiety than initially thought when faced with multiple choices that are too overwhelming.  Simply choosing something quickly may leave us wondering if we selected the right option – causing unnecessary stress.

“Choosing the wrong menu item for dinner or what to binge-watch is not going to define you as a person,” says Saltsman. “It may also be helpful to enter high-choice situations with a few clear guidelines of what you want from your desired option. Doing so may not only help scale down the number of possible choices, by eliminating options that do not meet your guidelines, but may also bolster confidence and trust in your ability to find a choice that meets your needs.”

We face a lot of choices each day.  Even selecting a movie or which shows to binge watch can create anxiety.  Did you know that Netflix has almost 14,000 titles to watch?  Amazon Prime has over 18,000 movies?  And when you add in the other streaming services, it’s a ton!

There are a few choices that I’ve never struggled with, God being one.  God does gives us a choice.  It is an essential part of how He works with us; He advised Adam and Eve to stay away from the forbidden tree.  He didn’t forbid them or make it impossible, instead he gave them advice to stay clear of it, a choice.   He teaches us that we have a choice to believe in him.  It’s not forced.  But He did lay the groundwork for us to see the path to righteousness.  Whether you follow these teachings or not is your choice.  I believe.  It was not a choice for me – it came naturally.  But I know that is not the case for many.  I can’t imagine a world where I wouldn’t believe, where I would have to choose over God – even when I was challenged at times in life.  I may have turned my back a few times, but I never stopped believing.  Of all the choices I make every day, this is not one of them.  But for other things, I wish they were sometimes easier and having less choices would help.

In short, I don’t expect Starbucks to stop conjuring up new varieties of hot and cold drinks anytime soon.  And I don’t expect my grocery store to cut back on the number of mustards or mayonnaise they carry.   I’ll try to do my research in advance if it is important to me, sticking to the brands that I feel good about, and go from there.  For toothpaste, that’s easy.  I like the sensitive types….the one that is on sale.

I’m Not Ready To Go Just Yet

Heaven’s Door

Monday, September 8, 2003 is a day that is etched in my soul forever.  It is the day I was supposed to die at the age of 46.  But I believe God had other plans for me that day.

I was working on a long-term assignment for a customer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Like most long-term projects, I chose to rent an apartment instead of a hotel for obvious reasons.  This made it easier to commute back and forth from my home in Richmond, Virginia.   Having the flexibility to leave my clothes and personal items in an apartment, made travel so much easier since I did not have to pack and unpack everything each week.    Plus, I could cook my own meals which was an improvement over eating dinners alone in a restaurant.  I had adapted to this lifestyle over the years, not because I enjoyed it, but it was required in my profession.

On this particular week in early September, I decided to drive to Harrisburg instead of flying.  I found it easier to drive or sometimes take the train then to fly which often times meant delays or other nuisances associated with air travel (i.e. going through airport security, renting a car or taxi, etc.).   I left Richmond around 8:30pm Sunday and arrived at the apartment building around midnight.  I parked in the building garage, nodded to the guard on duty, jumped on the elevator and headed up to the 11th floor to my apartment.  I had not notice anything out of the ordinary as I prepared for bed.  But once in bed, I felt something strange in my chest, a slight pain, it felt different, something heavy that I have not felt before.  It passed and I laid there for a few minutes in flection, wondering what that was – a weird feeling.  Did I imagine it?  About 5 minutes later it happened again.  Then again two minutes later.  It felt like someone was squeezing my heart.  I became worried, even scared.  I could feel my heart beating.  Am I having a heart attack I thought?   Having some knowledge of CPR and first aid, I looked for other signs.   I realized I was sweating, felt clammy, then shortness of breath.  Oh God, don’t let this be.  Was my anxiety getting the better of me?  Then I felt a little pain in the left side of my jaw when I opened my mouth.  I knew the signs but needed conformation.

I quickly got out of bed, opened my laptop, logged into the Mayo Clinic’s website and searched for symptoms of a heart attack, hoping I would read something that would give me an answer.   It did.  I had most of the symptoms of a heart attack.  I need to get to the hospital NOW.

I dressed, calmly, trying not to overreact or exert more energy or stress on my body then I had to.  I quietly, but swiftly walked to the elevator, descended to the garage, and looked for that guard.  I asked where the nearest hospital was.  He could see the fear in my face and asked if he should call 911– I refused and again asked where the closest hospital is and how to get there.   Fortunately it was only a mile or two away, straight ahead.  He volunteered to drive me.  I did not want to inconvenience him, time was critical, so I drove myself – it was a straight drive down Front Street, only 2 traffic lights to the hospital.  I ran both red lights getting there.

I read an article just a few months earlier about what to do if you are experiencing a heart attack.  It said to cough and take an aspirin.  I had not thought of taking an aspirin before leaving the apartment but I did start coughing hoping somehow this would keep my heart beating.   As I drove Front Street in Harrisburg, Pa, I prayed to God not to let me die before seeing my children graduate from school, marry, or having the experience of being a grandfather. I wasn’t done.  God please, I’m not ready to go.  I continued to cough.   It was about 1:15am on a Monday morning as I ran through those stop lights.   I welcomed a Police Officer in pursuit but that did not happen.  I drove as fast and as cautiously as I could without stopping until I reached the emergency entrance.  I quickly parked out front and walked in, continuing to cough.  As I entered the emergency doors, a remember a nurse rushing to me and I tried to explain what was happening.  She knew something was wrong – I could see it in her face.  I don’t remember much after that, but I was led through the registration process to a room in the back, and soon found myself lying on a gurney.  Questions were ramped.   Someone told me they had called in a cardiologist.   Soon IVs were inserted, and many things were being attached to my body, all taking vitals of my condition.  I was given an aspirin and nitroglycerine which ease the chest pain while we waited for the specialist to arrive.  I could feel the nitroglycerine taking effect almost immediately.  My blood felt like it was flowing again.  I relaxed but still worried as the nurses and the doctor on duty attended to me.  There was something calm about all of this.  I felt I was in the right place.  I thanked God for getting me here.

The cardiologist arrived about an hour later.  He mentioned that he did his residency at MCV/VCU (located in Richmond).   A doctor from my hometown was attending.  I found that somewhat comforting.  After looking over my vitals, he explained that he would need to do a coronary angiogram, a procedure that requires a catheter be inserted in my groin, radiation dye, and x-rays to get a better look at my heart.  The doctor gave me a sedative and some morphine for pain.   I drifted in and out of sleep for the next few hours while I waited for the procedure.  It was getting closer to 6:30am when the doctor came in and told me he had reached my wife and had given her an update, assuring her I was in good hands.   I thank him.  By then it was getting closer to 7:00am as I was being prepped for the procedure.

Fast forward – by 1pm the procedure was done.  The doctor found 3 blockages in my heart, one artery about 95% blocked.  Two medicated stents were inserted in my heart and the doctor thought the 3rd blockage could be treated with medications. I was moved to a regular bed in the hospital to recover.  I thanked God that day and wondered why he spared me.  The doctor mentioned that had I gone to sleep the night before, I most likely would have died from heart failure.  I did everything right and I often think about that article I read on coughing – if you feel a heart attack coming on to cough and take an aspirin.  I believe it was God’s helping hand guiding me and I believe he saved me for a purpose.  I’m still working on what that purpose is but I’m glad he was there to hold me when I was at death’s door.

Two days after the procedure, I was discharged from the hospital.  I felt great – I had new energy.  The doctor said I could resume running again in about a week but to start slow.   Although I require daily medications for the rest of my life, I’m still here.  I’m alive, breathing, and my heart is still pumping!   And I continue to look at ways to improve my health – always will.  I no longer feel tired or exhausted like I did prior to the procedure.   And although I can’t run as fast as I use to (the medications slow down my heartbeat), I’m still running.  The doctor also mentioned that I survived because I was in fairly good shape when this happened.  That’s enough for me to continue doing what I’m doing.  Live bold.  Live long. Live to run again!  And I’ve been running ever since.