Running the Distance

It’s autumn, which means it’s time for the New York Marathon again. I always smile when the promotion hits for this race because I ran it a few years back, and it taught me a lot about life and work.

I trained with a book my HGTV colleague Jim Clayton let me borrow, and its philosophy for training was to only run 15 miles, not the full 26.2 miles you run when you’re competing. The logic was that you want to save some of the experience for the real race. If you go the distance before you run in the actual race, you might as well give yourself a medal and be done with it. OK, I could buy into that. I gradually trained over six months, adding miles to my run as the book prescribed, stopping at the 15-mile mark.

My husband Bill joined me in NY for the big weekend, not to run but to the cheerleader I needed. I was really nervous, but it was gorgeous fall weather to be out in, crisp and sunny. Before I knew it all of us were all off and running.

The miles flew by, just like in practice. NY locals flanked the streets yelling out encouragement. “Hey 41 (my number) you’re looking great! Keep it going 41! We’re with you!” They’ll never know how inspiring those words were, especially as I rounded the bend to press on beyond mile marker 15. Would my body hold out for the last 11 miles? It’s really no different than when you face any new skill or challenge you haven’t mastered yet. I felt anxious, but exhilarated too.

Bill and I’d made a plan that he’d been standing on mile marker 19. From the map it looked like a place where I could see him in the crowd, and it also was a point in the race where I’d need the reinforcement of having him there. I turned the corner to mile 19 and there he was, a tall guy with long arms waving madly at me. I started crying. And stopped running.

I was spent. My pace had gotten so slow that I was in a cluster of elderly runners. He saw my face and barged right into the race. (NY is a pretty loosely-regulated marathon). “What are you doing?” he asked me. “I’m done,” I explained. “I’ve run 19 miles, it’s further than I’ve ever run in my life. I’m done.”

Bill was quiet as we slowed to walk and finally he said, “OK, but I know you. I think tomorrow you’ll be sad you didn’t try to finish.” “Please help me finish!” I then cried in anguish. So he did. As he accelerated his stride, he told me stories and jokes to take my mind off the pain, and I began a slow jog. For the last mile he was just by my side, breathing with me, a trusted companion in those challenging final moments, and yep, I finished.

When we built HGTV we kept telling ourselves this was a marathon, not a sprint. The six guys and I were inseparable those first few years, celebrating as we passed the business mile markers we’d set, and sharing the failures too. In one nasty setback, we sat in a room together, quiet, before we dissected the mistake. We had a mourning moment before starting the race again. Like Bill, these trusted companions were at my side both in the most exciting, and most challenging of times. None of us could have done it alone. We ran the distance together to build a lasting business.

By |October 25th, 2017|Career development, Uncategorized|0 Comments

One Single Person

Every morning, at 6am, a waterski boat comes into view. I’ve got coffee, the afghan over me, and I’m watching the morning unfold from my front window on Williams Lake. Moments later, a skier emerges from beneath the water, gliding and dancing across the wake. One single ski enables all that grace. It seems effortless.

I recently commenced writing a second book. I had thought one single book would be it. The first book certainly wasn’t effortless. Why go through it all again? But then I think, it’s because others before me made my life easier, and maybe this new effort is a thank you to them. There’s the one, single congressman I read about last week, who was around in the 1920’s. He became the swing vote for ushering in the 19th Amendment, that key law which gave women our constitutional rights. The story goes that when his mother found out about the hung vote, she told him to vote yes. “Do it for the ladies,” she told him. And being a good son, he cast the deciding vote.

Then there’s a man I’m coming to know, Paul Polman, who is CEO of Unilever. Unilever is the mega-company which makes products like Dove Soap, Hellman’s, Lipton Tea, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Paul has graciously accepted my invitation to appear in this second book. What a remarkable man, I’m learning! He’s one of the few CEO’s who’ve figured out how to balance social action with business results. Paul’s work is devoted to reducing the carbon footprint Unilever products are leaving. He also gets the power of women in business. He recognizes our assets as a real competitive advantage; our empathy, our sense of purpose, our gift of partnership. He goes so far as to predict that future leadership will require women and the gifts we bring.

One of my favorite lines of his is: “You can’t be a bystander in a system that gives you life in the first place.” Bingo. I know some C-suite people who live to collect a fat paycheck, and that’s it. Paul looks at his work as a mission, with purpose–to serve the business good, and the common good too. I’m glad my book can shine a light on his work.

I’m watching now…and I see the boat slow. Our skier is finished for the morning. She drops, and then extends her hand so the driver can pull her up, into the boat. Maybe that’s my mission, to lend a hand. Maybe that’s everyone’s mission. We can be single people who try to make a difference for a few, or for many.

By |August 11th, 2017|Role-playing|0 Comments

Some Things Never Change

I’ve been thinking a lot about robots lately.

I’ve never been into science, it wasn’t exactly a subject I excelled in at school. But as I begin my next book, I want to understand what organizations will look like in the next few years, and how teams will stay emotionally healthy and thriving, even with automation knocking on the door. So here’s what I’ve learned, that you might like to know too. There are two big factors to look at, economic, and social.

The economic factors-

  • Robots save on labor costs in the manufacturing sector. I’ve been to a lot of Cirque Du Soleil shows, but even there you can’t find triple-jointed people. Robots have amazing dexterity. However, those concerned about losing their jobs to robots, do not fear. Well, sort of, do not fear. The economists say automation will keep making things cheaper, creating more demand for goods, and thus creating more jobs. The issue is whether that person who lost her job can be trained to do the new one that emerges.
  • Jobs in the service sector have grown from 40% in 1950, to 56% in 2005. Because goods are cheaper, there’s more money for us to spend on services, like physical therapy or manicures. These service jobs are how the economy will really keep growing, and it’s hard to mechanize service jobs. See bullet 3 below.

Here’s the social side-

  • In manufacturing, robots can take over the dangerous work. And, they’re being made now to be “collaborative,” meaning they’re safe to work with side-by-side. If you bump Mettalica, she shuts down, instead of taking you out with a left hook.
  • In manufacturing, they help with “democratizing” jobs—everyone now can, with the help of a metal partner, excel at physically demanding work. A woman who’s 60+ years old and a bit frail can work in a heavy labor job, working side-by-side with a robot.
  • In service work, where most of us are, this is the hidden story: robots can’t do our jobs. Anything that benefits from human interaction, like the trust you have in your financial planner, or the empathy a nurse provides–these can’t be mechanized. We want the real thing. A person. We want someone we can build trust with. Interesting too, they’ve also found that things caregivers do, like preparing a meal, can’t be easily replicated in some logarithm. Intricate maneuvers like folding towels or changing diapers are very complicated to program into a robot.

If that’s true, imagine all the data points that would be needed to ‘program’ intuition, or trust-building, or just plain, human connection. And maybe it goes without saying, but how about missing the flesh and bones of another you work with? Things like– the understanding you can see dawn on someone when their eyes light up, or the megawatt smile your best girlfriend at work flashes when she sees you. I just can’t get excited about giving Metallica a bearhug after a brainstorm session, like I’ve done with teammates.

So teams with people in them are here to stay. We can’t mechanize our way to emotional well-being, which is the core of successful, prosperous teams. And for that I’m grateful. I might just cry.

*thanks to NYT Sunday magazine for inspiring this blog

By |March 19th, 2017|Business and Finance|0 Comments

3 Predictions from Women Leaders for 2017

Over last year’s holiday season, I visited Mary Ellen Brewington, a friend of mine, who along with her brother, runs a large beverage distribution company called Cherokee Distributing. As I was leaving, she walked me out, and I noticed some pretty gifts wrapped under the Christmas tree in their lobby. Asking her about it, she said, “Oh, I bought something for each of the women who work here.”

Mary Ellen’s care for the women in her organization got me wondering what other women leaders might do to help others of us in 2017, so I polled 100 of you, and here’s what you told me.

1. It all starts with you.

Diana Reid, EVP at PNC, says she’ll push to be seen for the value she adds, not as some diversity statistic. And, in turn, she’ll be working hard to treat “every employee of mine as individuals, not stereotypes.” I know firsthand the work Diana does to support and uplift women; it sounds like in 2017, she’ll be doubling down on her efforts. Anisa Telwar, founder of cosmetic accessories company Anisa International, and Elisa Camahort Page, BlogHer co-founder, are both looking to dig deeper for meaning and insights that can come from regular practices, like morning meditation, or doing a self -review of where their innate skills meet their passions. Anisa’s hope is to “blend real strength with genuine softness” so she can better support her teams in meaningful, teachable ways.

2. Use Your Influence

Beth Bronfman, CEO of NYC’s View Agency, says 2017 is the year she will help women stand up for themselves by “taking charge of their personal brand,” focusing on their messages and spreading their thought leadership. Angie Chang, co-founder of Women 2.0 and VP of Hackbright Academy, agrees that this is the year we should expand our influence by writing for publishers like Forbes and Huffington Post.

Julie Fasone Holder, board director of Eastman Chemical, observes that the Women’s March on Washington will empower all of us and that we should join organizations like C200 and Paradigm for Parity, whose missions are to support women every day. She asks each of us to have strong voices and not fall victim to “manterrupting.”(Great word). Media executive Angie Epps agrees, urging women in 2017 to express ideas as openly and proudly as possible. “Be declarative,” she counsels us.

3. Choose Hope, Not Despair

Great leaders embrace hope, so it’s no surprise that your feedback reflected that, even in the face of the election overhang. CEO Tena Clark, DMI Music, will be taking more risk –not less – in 2017 to push us all forward. Sandy Carter, CEO/founder of Silicon Blitz and Chair of Girls In Tech, says women’s solidarity in 2017 will “leapfrog a drive for both intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs, accelerating products for women, funded by women. Diana Reid feels strategic opportunities are sure to surface in this time of uncertainty and disruption. We just need to keep our eyes open for them. Silicon Valley CEO of Metric Stream, Shellye Archambeau, says what we all hope will be true: In 2017, we “will be seeing more women getting a seat at the table.”

All of your feedback tells us to act. To take charge of our personal brand. To march. To join. To write. Go for it ladies! You inspire me every day.

By |January 31st, 2017|Leadership|0 Comments

A Holiday of Hope

A Holiday of Hope

I find myself still staying away from election news, since I can’t understand any of it.  But I was forced to take my head out of the sand.  I run Communications for a non-profit senior women’s organization, and I was asked if we’re going to address this strange election-what it means for women, how to address the fear many of the members’ company employees are expressing, how to communicate what some women are doing to mobilize their communities.

The thing is, our women span the globe, and span political ideologies too. Anytime you volunteer for a membership-based organization, your mission is to serve all members. So what to do?  I penned a letter for the Chair of our organization in trying to keep that in mind. And in doing that, it occurred to me that regardless of what side of the argument you’re on, there are things we can all do, but they may require a little attitude shift.

  1. Choose Hope.  Think about the greats who gave us hope-Lincoln, JFK, Madela, Ghandi.  In the toughest times they chose hope and marshaled countless people toward a common purpose.  Make that common purpose unity, and healing.
  2. Begin with Respect.  This is going to test your mettle, but just try–one person at a time.  The thing is, we don’t know the backstory to most people. There’s a tale Covey tells in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People about a dad with two little kids riding a subway, and he’s letting them run riot in all the cars.  Finally a guy is watching all this and he’s had enough, and he asks the dad to get control over his kids!  The father looks up, lost, and apologizes, explains they’d all just come from the hospital where his wife had passed away. You don’t know the backstory to why most others behave or believe the way      they do.  Begin with respect.
  3. Help others, especially women.  I’d like to believe things are getting better (See #1) but our progress is so very slow.  If you’re in a position to do it, give women who are coming behind you your time, and your guidance.  I love women!  We’re lifelong learners, we’re passionate. We’re unifiers.  Stretch out your hand to a woman today.
  4. Follow in Gwen’s footsteps. Gwen Ifill, legendary broadcaster and hero to so many, died a couple of weeks ago, and this was her credo: “I try to bring light, not heat, to issues.”  We could all use this advice, especially as the holidays are upon us.  Family will come together, and political discussions may get inflamed.  Try to be the one who sheds light on the debate, not heat. Be the teacher, not the preacher.  

I wish you all a beautiful holiday season, and a 2017 filled with hope.

Fondly,

By |December 9th, 2016|Career development|0 Comments

Four Words To Live By

“You can do it!” Those four words have a lot of power. We all need cheerleaders in our life to spur us on, to keep us in the game. But the best cheerleader you can have? You. I learned this from my Aunt Ray, the role model who taught me more about being a woman in business than anyone.

Aunt Ray was the first female vice president for Revlon. She was on the frontier of women not just working, but seeing their work as a career–as a vocation. She lived a glamorous, single life in Manhattan, shopping at Barneys and Bloomies and taking in first -run Broadway plays before anyone else. She’d come back to her second home in Detroit on weekends, and when she’d swing by with her Revlon samples I’d force my way through my sisters to sit next to her. She claimed I was always glued to her side, asking about marketing and sales and customers. I don’t remember any of that, but her mind was like a steel trap, so I have to believe it’s true.

I was the favorite of all her nieces, she told me. It turns out, she told plenty of her nieces that too. It didn’t detract from our love, and it didn’t make her urging me on—“You can do it Su-Su!” (her nickname for me) any less real. She set a bar for me to achieve, and when I reached it, she just reset it. I wanted to make her proud.

She was a walking contradiction in some ways, loving to watch and order from QVC but then calling to cuss out management for their skimpy hostess dresses. She urged me to save every penny but spent weekends at Detroit’s Greektown in the casinos. As she aged, she could be cranky on the phone, so when I called to wish her a happy 90th birthday, I was taken aback by how happy she sounded. “Su-Su!” she gushed, “I found a life insurance policy that says if I make it to 90, I collect $100,000!” Always playing the odds, that was Aunt Ray. And onto the casinos she went.

She showed me all the ways I could be my own cheerleader, especially in the really hard times. When I lost my mom and sister within a month of one another, she was there, whispering in my ear, “Tell yourself right now to never, ever give up!” And so I pressed on. One of the mom’s best friends, she kept the pilot light on for my mother’s memory after she passed, always entertaining me with funny stories. “Did I tell you about the time we were both working together, and a guy named Jim complimented your mom on her burgundy dress? She said ‘Jim, it’s not burgundy. It’s corduroy!” Mom had a little Edith Bunker in her, which we all adored.

Lukewarm relationships were impossible for her; she was fierce expressing love. At 90, Aunt Ray’s heart was failing. Of all the parts that could quit on her, I thought that oversized heart of hers would live on forever. I was many states away by this time, and my cousin Lisa dropped in a lot to help her. Lisa told me that with her failing heart, with every stubborn, painful step from TV room to kitchen, Lisa could hear her whisper “You can do this Ray! You can do it!” Cheering herself on, as always. She made it to 98 years and passed away this summer. Two weeks before she passed, wheelchair-bound, she was at the casinos.

And so, these memories of this incredible woman still urge me on today. The most lasting is a reminder that when times are good, or the chips are down, your best cheerleader in life is the dealer herself. It’s you.

By |September 23rd, 2016|Friendship|0 Comments

Working for a Predator

You may have read about the notorious firing of Roger Ailes last week. Most in media know Roger, but if you don’t, he was the founder of Fox News, and he ran it from a throne of unfettered power for the past twenty years. He wasn’t challenged by his boss Rupert Murdoch because he made gobs of money for Rupert–like billions. In early July, one of the female anchors for Fox News, Gretchen Carlson, came out publicly with a lawsuit against Roger for sexual harassment. His castle began crumbling the day after the suit was filed, as Rupert’s sons, who are now co-leaders of Fox, hired a law firm to investigate the claims. They turned up enough evidence that Roger quickly resigned.

I worked for Roger when he ran CNBC, before his Fox News stint. My boss had been terminated, so I reported directly to Roger. He was at the corporate office in Ft. Lee, NJ, and I ran a territory out of the Midwest office, so I didn’t interface with him too much. But when I came to Ft. Lee I’d drop by his office, and we’d talk. I told him I’d like to be considered for the national job my boss had just vacated. It turns out I lost to a good guy, David Zaslav, who now runs all of Discovery Networks. David and I have remained friends over the years.

In my book I told the story about losing this promotion to David, and how it’s always important to be a good sport in those situations. If you can keep your head up and are on right side of providence, something redeemable will come from such a loss. For me, it meant taking HGTV founder Ken Lowe’s call three months later, to become employee #2 for HGTV. That was pretty darn redeemable.

But maybe there’s another lesson here, one that keeps rolling through my head. What if I’d offered that job, and moved the Packard unit to Ft. Lee? Roger never made advances, but what if he had? The fall-out from his firing has pulled back the curtain to show many other women who were victims too. And the most recent reports revealed a woman who’d had a consensual relationship with him (PS did I say Roger has been married this whole time?) over the years, while she worked for him. When asked about it she said she feared him, and felt dependent upon him for her career. Then there’s a woman who was a Fox News lawyer, and who paid to hush money to victims.

How did we get to this place as women, feeling that to keep our jobs we had to relinquish our self-worth in the bargain? If I’d made that move to Ft. Lee and was subjected to his advances, I hope I would have been a fighter, like Gretchen. But at what cost? Ugly headlines, lawyers, and the whole mockery of Roger’s severance payout –$40+million. Ailes seems to be the only winner here.

I write this with a sad heart for all the other Gretchens out there. I may have dodged a bullet, yet every day women in every job, in every industry, are still battling.

By |August 8th, 2016|Leadership|0 Comments

Memories of an Icon, Pat Summitt

About a dozen years ago, when Pat Summitt was collecting one NCAA Championship after another, her son Tyler and our son Andrew were playing together on a soccer team. Pat would come to Tyler’s games whenever she could, just wanting to watch her child play, but the adults would invariably swarm about and ply her with questions: How are your new recruits? What about ESPN’s coverage? What are you planning to have for dinner? She was our resident celebrity here, in Knoxville, Tennessee. I could tell all she really wanted to do was just watch her child play ball. But Pat knew her celebrity came with responsibility, and she was always kind to adults and the kids she didn’t know, but who knew her. I recall at one soccer game a bunch of kids were hanging around her, and one of them asked her how her next class of girls was looking. “Terrible!” she replied. Classic Pat Summitt. A fierce stateswoman for womens’ athletics, and relentless when it came to her girls.

I ran into her at many non-profit events. Pat knew what it meant to give back to Knoxville, a community which embraced her and celebrated her. This particular event for the local YMCA was held at a private home, and after she and I had spoken a bit on the back porch veranda, we were all called in to begin the evening’s program. Pat walked in front of me up five or six steps, and I noticed every step was painful for her. She said it was just “a little” arthritis. But in classic Pat style, a little joint pain wasn’t going to get her down. Those itsy bitsy steps? No problem.

I didn’t have the opportunity to sit with Pat when I wrote my book about how to express your competitive spirit at work, as she was in the final stages of dementia. I did have the opportunity to interview her longtime boss and dear friend, former University of Tennessee Athletic Director Joan Cronan. Joan’s story is the first one in the book. She struck me as having as much competitive fire as Pat, two competitive warriors who turned women’s college basketball upside down and showed how even this ‘girl’ sport could make money. Joan will take little credit for all those years of the program’s success, but I know if Pat were still with us, she’d say she couldn’t have done it without Joan. Two women, both from small towns in the most gender- challenged part of the country– the South, casting their footprints on women’s athletics forever. These women brought passion and the will to win to young women everywhere. They were both gamers in the finest sense of the word. Joan has also written a great book about the value of playing games, Sport Is Life with the Volume Turned Up, and she too spreads the good word about the benefits of gamesmanship.

The national media have covered Pat’s passing this week, and maybe it’ll trickle over into the next. But the town of Knoxville, where she made her home and where she touched all of us in some unforgettable way, will be grieving her and celebrating her for months and years to come.

By |July 4th, 2016|Relationships|0 Comments

One Skill That Helps Both Work and Life

My husband loves stand-up comedy and we were watching Ron White recently. I noticed something he did that I’d never thought about before. Right before delivering the punch line, he paused. Like, drumroll, please. Then bang! That got me noticing others in media, like newscasters, politicians and musicians who perform, and how the good ones used pausing in an impactful way. Classic pianist Arthur Schnabel said this:

“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”

At the height of my career with manic days of jam-packed schedules, I sometimes forgot to breathe, let alone pause. I even forgot to pause for restroom breaks and just ignored Mother Nature. (Is it possible to break your kidneys? Time will tell.) I just pushed ahead to get through another crazy day. Many of us do this, but I’m here to tell you there’s a better way. Press the pause button. When you do, you can think better, listen better, and problem-solve better. Good problem-solving is a creative art, much like playing piano. When you pause, you can absorb the whole picture, instead of jumping in with a knee-jerk half-baked answer.

In the building days of HGTV, we had something we called ‘going to Abilene.’ This was when we were trying to wrestle an issue to closure, and suddenly one or all of us went to Abilene, meaning we went far astray of the issue.Going to Abilene was pretty frequent behavior for us since building a business from scratch finds you in rush mode so often. We used ‘going to Abilene’ as code for slow down, regroup. I was probably one of the worst offenders. As HGTV’s chief operating officer, I sure got my fair share of “Susan, I think you’ve gone to Abiliene on that one.” But if we slowed down enough to pause, the best solutions always bubbled up.

There are lots of ways to learn how to pause. Take walks. Say a prayer. Breathe, in and out. Meditate. If you have an office, close the door for a few minutes each day to settle, before jumping into the next thing. At home, pause to listen, really listen to your loved one. Show them that respect.

Arthur Schnabel was right; it’s the pauses between the notes that are the real art of life.

One Key (and Often Overlooked) Leadership Skill

Ben Zander, the famed conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and author of a sweet little book, The Art of Possibility, wrote of teaching kids music. He chipped away at his students’ anxiety over performing by doing something really radical—he gave everyone an “A” grade when the class started. His only requirement was that in the first week of class, each student had to write a letter to him envisioning what their growth would be at the end of the semester– what they thought they’d learn– that warrants the A. He reported that it worked amazingly well! Without worrying about competing with others for grades, and by setting goals, the students relaxed and improved their performance skills. All of us in leadership roles are teachers. But how effective are we in guiding and grooming our folks to realize their potential? It’s one thing to deliver a performance review once a year. It’s another entirely, to offer feedback regularly—and to do it by giving that person an A. This would sound something like this: “Here’s what you’re doing really well, and here’s where I’d like us to focus on in the next few weeks (or months).” You are in it together, and she starts with a reminder of why she’s valued by the organization. To grow your folks so that one day someone can step into your shoes, is an enormous part of your charge as a leader. Teaching and modelling is what good leaders do just about every day. Today, when I write, speak and mentor, I try to keep in mind this notion of giving an A. I’ve never heard a bad question in the Q&A parts of my speaking. I’ve not met anyone who isn’t inherently gifted, who might just need a little chipping away to realize her full-blown potential. As a leader, you can improve your team’s performance in many ways, so here’s another one. Make the extra effort to give out A’s whenever you possibly can.

By |April 26th, 2016|Leadership|0 Comments