Silence

I exhaust me.

Especially this time of year. So I need the meditative practice I began five years ago. It’s called Centering Prayer, and it’s been a life saver when my brain wants to begin ten things, right now!, or when I’m constantly re-enacting little life dramas that need to be quieted. Each year I make the pilgrimage to St. Mary’s Retreat House in Sewanee, Tennessee, high atop a mountain with nothing but views of the open sky and a few cows who graze peacefully nearby. I join fifteen or twenty others looking for the same thing as me: Silence. Solitude. Stillness. We sit in a circle in a prayer room in quiet, listening prayer. Centering Prayer is about listening, not blabbering away to God about all your aches and pains. This practice helps you to hear what’s important.

While this is a silent retreat—no talking with one another until departure day, there is always a new insight when I’m there. Here’s the one from last weekend. We start out as a speck, one of God’s bright ideas. We’re our own little Big Bang. We’re born innocent and pure and blissfully happy, feeling only love. Then the world invades. It hits us and bruises us and for some, crushes them. All the other little big bangs take our innocence away.

The irony is that we’re built for community. We’re not meant to live as solitary souls.
In moments of Centering Prayer we’re all united in one cause- restful, divine communion, so you only feel goodness and love. There are no masks. No pain. And with every sit together, the circle gets closer, tighter, more fiercely bound together in some indescribable way. In Centering Prayer, we’re all innocent again.

At our last session together before departing, each of us spoke of what we were going back to this holiday season. So many had stories that pulled at my heart. A young woman spoke of recently losing her sibling to suicide, and how she was going to support her parents this Christmas. A man spoke of losing his wife a few years back. He still wore his wedding ring. Another shared worries of rampant family addiction. So much pain. Yet in the circle, there is healing. We rise above the world’s dark edges. In Centering Prayer, we know we’re not alone.

There are many meditative practices out there. Some do it in yoga, others in a church, some quietly at home. Some, like me, come to a mountain top. It all works.

I hope your holidays are filled of peace and that 2016 shines brightly for you.

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A Treasure Chest of Hope

When Bill’s dad, Stu, passed away two springs ago, we inherited his small lake house in Michigan. As we finally emerged from heavy-hearted grief, we came here to befriend the home; to take its read, and ours, while inside it for a time. What marvelous little treasures we found! Seashells from beach vacations, playbills from his yearly Canada trips to the Shakespeare Festivals, and many 10-pound tomes that only the ambitious intellect would consider reading. Stu was probably the smartest and most cultured person I’d ever met, and he chose to direct that considerable intellect toward teaching kids. Me? I chose to direct one of those 10-lb. books to prop up my makeup mirror.

He’d often use words foreign to me. “I’m tired of all the tropes being thrown around by the politicians!” Stu said one day. “Tropes? Is that, um, the plural of trollips?” I asked. He’d then beam his patient teacher smile. Stu taught me the difference between a thespian and a docent. A lover of the arts, he was both. If life were fiction, he could have easily dropped in to play a colorful role in Amos Towle’s “Rules of Civility”.

One morning Bill approached me with an excited expression on his face, carrying an oversized manila envelope. “Look what dad did!” he said, pulling out blown up, poster-size photos of pictures we’d all taken over the years. There were about a dozen of them, and they told a story of his life in some way. It’s remarkable how one’s life can be summed up so concisely, in just a few photos. Several months back I gave a TED talk and described my life in about 12 minutes, so I knew this was possible.

His choices: most were of Bill, a few of Bill with our son Andrew, one with him and our potpourri of pets, one of Bill captaining Stu’s beloved pontoon boat. There was the 1940 Packard sedan with Stu by its side, proud owner. The curious one: our infant son Andrew in the hospital just after we adopted him from Romania. A week after landing in the US, Andrew suddenly got deathly sick. We rushed him to Detroit’s Beaumont Hospital, and the kind nurses and doctors ministered to him in peds ICU for 2 weeks. The photo was taken while Andrew was on a ventilator, all wired up with the many machines needed to help him breathe and stay alive. I hadn’t looked at that picture in years. I’d never noticed before how those machines dwarfed his tiny, sickly body.

Of all the hundreds of photos Stu could have chosen to capture his life, why this one? Here’s my take: Stu was an eternal optimist. He’d come stay with us every year for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and during these visits I rarely saw him without a smile on his face and a mission to ‘tame Knoxville’ this trip. We never knew precisely where he went when he set out each day, but he’d always come back with a chocolate malt and a great little story about the town’s goings on.

So I think that photo — one of a sick infant boy who the doctors gave less than a 50/50 chance of survival, a child who lived through all of that for Stu to love with all his heart — reminded him that we can overcome just about anything. There’s always hope, even when things look bleak. This message was an unexpected treasure, about as good as any Stu could leave behind.

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By |August 10th, 2015|Learning, Parenting, Relationships|0 Comments

A Leadership Conference in Italy

I recently travelled to Italy to attend a small conference of senior level women. Our goal was to strategize ways we might join together to topple the barriers impeding organizational progress around diversity. We all agreed to honor the Chatham Rules so I can’t share who precisely attended, but we had heavy hitters from all aspects of industry, women running worldwide, multibillion-dollar portfolios of businesses.

The kind of fight we have all waged to earn senior roles takes extraordinary effort. As I looked around the room, some seemed a little battle weary, but the overall impression was this: these are the elite. Most were in excellent physical shape regardless of age, as elite athletes always are. To be your all- around best you need robust health and top notch conditioning, because navigating career success, while thrilling, is an endurance game. I also noticed clothing choices which were tasteful and elegant. (Note to self: get some shoes that actually go with your outfit). And the brainpower—the brainpower was breathtaking.

I had fun learning some new terms. “Grass ceilings” are all the moments on the proverbial golf course that women aren’t a part of, those that help men to network and get promoted. “Permalance” are free lancers permanently on loan to companies, particularly start-ups. “Overpass” is the preferred metaphor to “off ramps,” those programs and connections organizations offer to employees needing a work break due to caregiving, who want to stay connected then dive back in after this life phase passes.

Elite leaders have opinions—many of them. Building consensus was a challenge for our moderators, as was managing our collective ADD. It’s hard to tackle topics around diverse leadership without getting impatient and irritated, given the stats haven’t improved in any real way for 30 years. Isn’t there some new, eureka strategy that we’ll uncover to change everything? Alas, like most complex issues, there is not one big answer. It’s a collective of many “small” things that, together, will spell change. It’s the blocking and tackling around many initiatives, which, pulled together, form a cohesive plan for change.

I left hopeful. We were a group with enough gravitas to really effect change, and many of us were also connected to other influential individuals, who we could ask for help to support us. I left hopeful, too, because after identifying the factors and creating strategies, there’s now a smaller task force whose charge is to write an action plan. Finally, I am hopeful because we agreed that our newest generation of workers, the millennials, have a lot to offer to help open up the pipelines for the broadest forms of diverse leadership. My millennial son is only a sample of one, but he is drawn to dating partners focused on career, and he works for a woman too. Baby boomer girls fought so hard to become senior leaders, and it may just be a non-issue for millennials. One can hope.

I left reinforced, since many of the things we identified and put on our solutions lists I, too, had identified in my book. But mostly I left happy to have made new friends, like-minded women who have the heart to make a difference.

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James

I met James in DC. I had come to the ballroom early to run through my book presentation, and there he was sitting at one of the tables, looking down at his cellphone. A man, alone. I immediately assigned him a box. He was elderly with graying hair, and African American. I thought he was one of the banquet servers. I was way off. He was to be my AV technical expert.

And expert he was. He smoothly trouble-shot many issues around the file, and supported me to perfection. He was patient, with kind eyes that gave me the confidence to do what I always do: stand up and speak. Every time I begin I’m sure something technical will blow up. Nothing did. James guided us home.

When I talk about the book, I open with the unconscious bias in the workplace today. I describe how women are still not in all the leadership positions we’re qualified for, because the decision-makers still box us into rigid gender roles, as if our work and life choices are black and white, either/or propositions. As if two things can’t be true at the same time. We know we can be leaders, and mothers or other kinds of caregivers. We know we can play support roles, and leadership roles, sometimes in the same hour! So here I was doing the same to James, putting him in a generational and racial box that wasn’t the least bit true.

How sobering. How enlightening that morning was. At first I felt like a cheap suit, but I’ve learned that living in that place of shame does me no good anymore. Now it’s about the learning.

James and I had built a good rapport during rehearsal, and I saw him watching me, reading the slides as we rehearsed. After I went live and concluded, I exited the stage and he met me halfway to take my lav mic and mic pack. He shook my hand, smiled, and whispered in my ear: “Thanks for being accountable.” He might have been the first AV person to actually listen to what my talk was about. Tears welled up, and I gave him a quick hug.

I’ve been on the receiving end of more learning these past many months than I could have imagined. And it may be James, the man with the kind eyes, taught me the most.

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By |May 18th, 2015|Friendship, Learning, Relationships|0 Comments

All the Light We Cannot See

I am reading this gorgeous book, All the Light We Cannot See, and the title fits well with my last few weeks of book touring. When I think of light, two things come to mind: laughter and inspiration. I had to laugh when I learned my CNN interview was the lead-in to a Monica Lewinsky story. Somehow I never saw myself paired with her. Then a few days later, I sat in a TV studio, awaiting my big moment on a morning talk show. The first segment was a local man selling beer. Right after that, a little dressed up Chihuahua named Ace pranced in, and Ace and his owner were interviewed. I went on next. As our interview ended, I saw someone carrying in a stuffed dog with an oxygen mask on its snout. That segment followed mine. Who am I to question programming flow? These moments made me smile. Life does happen to you.

In one session during the tour, I spoke to college-age women. For the first time, I spoke of my hotel assault, which I write about in chapter 9, “Grit.” I wasn’t much older than these young women when it occurred, so it was a cautionary tale for vigilance on the road. Later, one of these women pulled me aside and thanked me, with tears in her eyes. She shared that she and her parents had just gone through the courts to convict a man of raping her, and that they’d won. She was comforted to see some light in me, the ability to emerge from such a traumatic event and carry on. A few moments after that encounter, a different young woman pulled me aside and said a year ago she left her job because she was sexually assaulted by the company owner. I fear there is more going on with these assaults than any of us really know.

In one of the cities in which I spoke, a young woman named Erica wheeled up next to me during lunch with her service dog in tow, a beautiful Labradoodle named Max. We got to talking and I learned she had a skiing accident 5 years earlier, which crushed her spine. She’s 29 now, and finishing her degree in accounting. We talked of being strong. She told me of the many ways her accident had changed her view of life, and that she was often an inspiration to others, which gave her joy. Erica was full of light for me, and for others around her.

At the end of the event, I got to signing books, and Erica wheeled up nearby. I excused myself and went to her.

“You know this ‘inspiration’ business?” she asked.

“Yep, I do,” I replied.

“Well, I’m happy that I am and all, but what do I say when people tell me that?”

“You say ‘thank you’,” I answered.

“It’s hard,” she quietly admitted. I wondered if she meant all of it.

“Okay, I’ll try,” and she wheeled away, with Max by her side.

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“Am I too nice?”

“Is it possible to just be too nice at work?” asked a young woman last week during the Q&A part of a speech I had given about my book. I sighed and thought: We’re still there. Yes, it is not only possible to be too nice but it’s harmful to you, and to those you love. By being too accommodating you give away all of your personal power. Yes, you may dodge conflict that could arise from saying no to someone, but the next time around (and there will surely be a next time) it becomes even harder to say no. Eventually, by being so ‘nice’ to everyone around you, there is nothing left of you. You’ve lost your center, the inner compass that guides and protects you from emotional harm. You’ve lost…you. I know all about this because in the beginning of my career I was too nice, and I was taken advantage of repeatedly. I wanted affirmation so badly. I had to learn how to create some boundaries for my own sanity. I role-played saying “Sorry, a bit buried right now” or “Sorry, I have a deadline” before the problem could crop up. I was never rude: I always delivered the lines with a smile and a shrug. It got easier. Most of us have others in our lives we love and are responsible for, whether it’s kids, a partner, or pets. We need to make a living so that we can help to support them. We need to have something left over to give emotionally after work. This is your inner circle. You need them and they need you. Often we people-please because we are trying to affirm our own worth. If you need me, I’m of value, right? I did this in spades my first few years of work at HBO, feeling the need to ‘live up to’ this incredible job I had. Calling on cable operators in Peoria or Eau Claire, Wisconsin was so incredible? So glamorous? I recall the moment this all changed, when I got promoted and had a team working for me. Now I had a legitimate reason to set boundaries! I became much more effective during those hours spent at work. Yes, it’s possible to be too nice, and it’s harmful to you and those you love. As author Melody Beattie writes: “Caring works. Caretaking doesn’t. We can learn to walk the line between the two.” Practice saying no with a smile and shrug. It gets easier, and life gets infinitely richer. Susan signature

The Dress Code

“Susan says it’s a good idea to get some blazers so I’m going shopping.”

So said Leah, my friend Barbara Kalosieh’s 25-year old niece, after reading Chapter 7 of my book. Of all the strategies I laid out in my book, the thoughts around dress code were the last thing I thought would matter. I even balked at writing that chapter, but something urged me on and I figured I’d let my editor, Jeanette, decide if it should stay, which she did. Now it seems in every interview I find myself talking about the basics of dress.

I know there are some real challenges we face as we get ourselves ready in the morning:

That’s too wrinkled.

That has a stain.

That will show off my neck.

These are real challenges. But I’m not talking about any of that; instead I find myself talking about what business casual means, and whether to wear a Catwoman costume to an office party. In Silicon Valley, I led a session with management women. A few wanted to talk about freedom of expression, and dress was a part of that. On a radio interview, a female listener called in and asked about her client – she dressed very provocatively at work, but had great reviews, so on principle she stubbornly refused to tone down the short skirts and low-cut tops. How might she get her client to see the harm in dressing this way?

I’d sum it up like this: If you work with men, dressing provocatively will either make them uncomfortable around you, or appear to be an invitation. The outcomes of either of these are not good for your career. As I say in the book, there is no such thing as provocative dress for men. If you walk into a meeting and a man sitting there has 3 buttons of his shirt unbuttoned, he’s probably one of my Italian relatives. No one cares. If a woman does the same, it can spell disaster.

Blazers or sweaters are always a good addition to work attire. I used to keep a neutral blazer in my office all the time, kind of like security folks keep bulletproof vests within easy reach. You never know when you may need to throw one on. A garment that covers your upper assets keeps your career healthy. I’d say Barbara’s niece is a pretty smart young woman. So is my editor.

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The Stool

It was me or The Stool, and only one of us would win.

I’d gotten the good news that Bloomberg Business News wanted me on the air to talk about my new book. I’d be on Street Smart with Trish Regan, and she would interview me at precisely 4:15. Since I like to get a feel for the surroundings before speaking, Bill and I watched Street Smart many days the week before. That’s when I noticed The Stool. In all of Trish’s one-on-one interviews, the person she was interviewing sat on this backless tall stool, something that I was sure my 5 foot 2” inch frame would find impossible to mount with any kind of dignity. The whole thing was made worse by my friend Dee’s fashion advice: “Susan if you’re going to be on national TV you have to wear 4 or 5 inch spike heels.” So now I had visions of crawling up the face of this stool on stilts.

A dear friend named Angela came with me to NY that week, standing by my side and holding my hand every time I got ready to be interviewed. My friend Brenda sent me there with a friendship bag: a good luck stone, a small candle and 5 cards to open, one each morning. My friends knew I was nervous about the NY week. A lot of people think that because you work in television you’re a pro in front of the camera, but I was always behind-the-scenes. Sure I was taped a few times at HGTV for company videos, but this was different. This was live TV. What if I froze? What if I sputtered some meaningless drivel? What if I scaled The Stool but toppled off mid-answer?

Well, I didn’t rock the interview, but I did all right. As I walked out of the studio toward the green room my crazy brain started sayings things like “It might be nice if I did more of these TV interviews, I kind of like doing these, yep that went real well” – completely missing the whole point of why I was doing it at all. Until a young, fresh-faced girl who couldn’t have been more than 23 years old approached me, and reminded me. “Hi Mrs. Packard, I’m an AP here and I just saw your interview. It’s so nice to know people like you are willing to help me. Thanks for writing the book.”

The book is for all those sweet young women; it’s not for me. But sometimes I need to be reminded. Oh and the stool? I wore my boots, not the spikes, and I climbed up just fine.

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By |February 13th, 2015|Advocacy for women, Grit, Learning, Women in business|0 Comments

Wisdom, Joy and Love

It’s hard to believe that in two weeks my book will be on bookshelves. It took three years, a lot more discipline than I wanted to have, and has provided great joy.

In one of my morning readings, it suggests that what we can give to the world are the gifts of wisdom, joy and love. I’ll hit the road the first week in February talking about the book, work culture, and leadership to groups around the U.S. I’ll talk to women’s groups about what gets in the way of our advancement. With all of this, I believe I can bring some wisdom to these topics. We’re all the product of our experiences. Mine has been varied enough, and – dare I say it! – I’ve been on this planet long enough to have accumulated some nuggets worth sharing.

As for joy, when I speak, I always talk about the importance of humor, laughter, and welcoming smiles. These things humanize us; they make us accessible to those around us. And there is plenty of benefit to you, as well. Medical research abounds on how laughter dissipates anxiety and stress. The physical act itself lessens your stress load. When we were building HGTV, I’d be in a meeting with my all-male colleagues and when a really tough issue would surface, invariably one of them would “leave the reservation” and tell a story they thought was just hilarious. The others would chime in, and before I knew it, the whole room was laughing. I found this very annoying at first. “Get back on topic!” my all-business brain would scream. But I began to see that this was how these guys released stress. I began to do it too, and what do you know, laughing really did help me to gain fresh perspective, connect with the team, and feel less anxious. Joy is found in laughter.

As for love, I see that in the practice of compassion, which is a connector when I speak. As the Buddhist nun Pema Choldron says: “Compassion practice is daring.” Real compassion is a relationship between equals, both having been wounded in some fashion along life’s path. For me, that means sharing my failures and mistakes in career, as well as my successes. I once read that one should never talk about failures when the audience is eating, for God’s sake! I don’t buy that. When we can share our roads wrongly taken in life and work, it’s learning for all. And there’s some healing that comes from sharing —airing — these experiences. The key is to always learn from them.

So here I go. Thanks for all the wisdom, joy and love you’ve sent to me along this road, rightly taken.

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Lighten Up

In the book The Levity Effect, there was a line that has stayed with me:

“Great leaders bring lightness to the workplace.”

I thought back to the building days of HGTV, when the guys and I would be trying to figure out a complex point of strategy, and out of nowhere one of them could break out in laughter over some seemingly unrelated moment – a meeting with an advertiser, or some marketing campaign detail gone wrong. My very linear mind would get bothered by the distraction, until I sat back and realized what was really happening. We’d laugh, loosen up and restart the brainstorm with fresh thinking. I’m thankful for those moments, because they changed how I led teams. I donned a softer touch. A lighter one. I saw humor and laughter as great motivational tools instead of distractions.

The rewards of humor and laughter have been written up in Harvard case studies and medical journals. They’re stress reducers, for one. Just think about having a good laugh. Afterward you feel refreshed, looser. Some of the stress rolls off. Humor and laughter also help us to better relate to one another, especially self-effacing humor, if you are leading a team. Acknowledging your own mistakes and laughing at yourself makes you accessible as a leader. It shows your humility and humanity to others. I write about that in my book, with examples from leadership and likeability studies. The root words in humor, humanity, and humility are all the same. We cannot have one without having the others. They all bring us home to our human-ness. They all lead back to connection.

It’s trickier for women to rise into leadership roles because there is bias in the workplace around where we really belong – tending to babies or running companies? Using humor can help with that as it makes us more accessible to our colleagues. Smiling a lot helps too. Just think of how you react to a smile vs. a scowl. One says “come on in” and the other says “stay away.”

Lighten up at work. Look around to see the irony or silliness of a situation, and instead of tightening up and wanting to fix it, have a belly laugh over it. I promise you’ll feel a whole lot better.

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