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

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.

A Snowbird’s Crash Landing: Lessons in Life

Bill and I rented a place near the beach for three months to try the “snowbird” lifestyle. In case you’ve never heard of it, the idea is to escape your crummy winter by heading south. We were serious about this test, so we brought our pets and about 100 lbs of luggage.

After five weeks, we’re back home. Recounting everything that wasn’t ‘in the plan’ is not productive. But: if I tell you the last time Florida had this much rain was 1932, you get a little sense of it. And if I mention that to get the front door of the place opened, it required not just a key but a swift kick, you begin to get the full picture. The door walls were so low, and my 6ft 5” husband hit his head so many times that he pretty much walked around in a state of concussed delirium. I ask you, what first- time snowbird knows to specify nine ft. doorwalls in the rental search?

So we’re back, and as is true with all of life, we need to look for the lesson. My friend Anne once said, “Always have an escape plan.” I liked ours– go home. And we could laugh about some of the moments, like the ferry ride we took with the barefoot, smoke-dopin’ captain. The ride was billed as ‘Jupiter homes of the rich and famous’ and we did see some incredible homes from the view off the water. But our guy had a problem with Tiger Woods. I’ve got some problems with Tiger too so I could relate. I guess Tiger moved several trees endemic to South Florida onto his estate so he could build a barrier of privacy. We heard a lot about that.

And there’s a lot more to appreciate when you go through a rough patch, like our home dishwasher that hums when it cleans, not at all like the Florida washer that sounded like an atomic bomb exploding.

Wisdom from friends. Laughter. Appreciation. You’re ahead of the game if you can find a few nuggets of good, when life happens. Because mark my words, it will indeed happen.

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By |March 2nd, 2016|Friendship|0 Comments

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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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

Meetings in the Restroom

So first, you unzip your trousers…hmmm, let me begin again. For anatomical and societal reasons, women don’t have ready access to the men’s restroom. That creates a big hassle with long lines during concert intermissions. It’s also a business problem. A lot goes on in men’s restrooms that we’re not a part of. I’ve been ambushed plenty of times by the phenomenon of the restroom “pre-meeting”. We get in a conference room to discuss the agenda, and the outcomes have already been decided. How did this happen? It happened because the guys took a bathroom break prior to our meeting, discussed the upcoming meeting issues, strolled in and had all the answers before I could even form a sentence.

While men can have their meetings in the restroom, on the golf course, at the sports bar and other male-dominated social settings, women have more limited ways to build the influence that lays a foundation to ask for needed resources such as capital, compensation, plum assignments, and promotions. But the simple truth is this: to advance in our companies we have to figure this out.

One very effective way to do this is to take the time to build trust in our organizations. When we’re asked to be on a task force or a cross-functional team, we don’t have a home playing field advantage. These folks are often new to us, not on our team day in and day out. Take advantage of this new opportunity. Be sure that before the assignment is over, you’ve reached out to at least one person who was new to you. Ask for a breakfast or a lunch. Seek their input on a project they can help with. Stay in contact.

We like to get to the period quickly because we’re so blasted efficient about what we do. It takes time to build relationships. Don’t skimp here. It’ll pay dividends down the road, and who knows, you may just make a cherished new friend.
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The Earth is Crammed With Heaven

I was recently given a book by my friend Angela. It has beautiful sayings and illustrations. I came across one from Elizabeth Barrett Browning that really struck me: “The earth is crammed with heaven.” This saying got me very excited about the retreat that I am co-moderating at St. Mary’s Retreat House with my friend Susan Leonard on the weekend of June 14.

Who is our retreat for and what is it about? It’s for women who are at a reflective point in their lives. We are wondering how we should spend the most precious gift we have—time—at this life stage. I left the corporate world almost three years ago, in my mid 50’s, because something new was calling me. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew I needed a life change. We can be fresh out of school, mid-career, or tending to grandkids, and we ask the same questions: What is my purpose? What is my destiny? Through exercises, group discussion, and quiet reflection, Susan and I hope to get us all a little closer to that truth.

Since I’ve left corporate America I have seen how the earth is indeed, crammed with heaven. I’ve met many new friends, especially female friends, who have enriched my life. I’ve done new work in non-profit and for-profit. I am writing a book, something I’ve wanted to do since I was 16 years old.

When my husband and I were newly married about a million years ago, we travelled to New Zealand. We befriended a guide who flew us into a remote fishing camp, and we sat the day there, catching enormous sea creatures (ok, salmon) cooked them on an open fire, and talked. Our guide said: “Look around. What do you see?” I said: “Beauty everywhere. Infinite beauty.” He nodded and said, “You Americans are always in such a hurry. You never take the time to stop, and to really see.”

Our hope for the weekend is that we can take a moment to stop, and to really see…what paths we have already travelled, and the many we have still ahead. I know one thing we will find is that the earth is, indeed, crammed with heaven, and it awaits us with its open arms.

Click here to register for the retreat at St. Mary Sewanee’s website.
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By |April 27th, 2013|Friendship, Learning, Mentoring, Relationships|0 Comments

Girlfriends

Girlfriends

I was in Los Angeles last week to do some work, and had dinner with my old friend, Bridget. We’ve known each other for over 20 years, and became quick friends while both of us worked at CNBC. Most recently, Bridget was president of NBC cable network distribution, and had responsibility for several billion dollars in revenue each year. Big job. Bridget also has three kids that range from 7 to 16 years old, and a darling husband, Robert.

She shared that even with the raising of the kids, and all of the work stresses, she has kept her Thursday night book club date with her girlfriends. I thought about how I had let many girlfriends drift away during my heavy work years. It seemed I only had enough bandwidth for work and family. There was no third category of anything in my life.

I asked her how she managed to pull it off. “Habit and priorities,” she said. “It was so important. Now that I’m in this next phase of career, my friends have been tremendous support for me. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

As working women, we go through many phases of life and career. I fully admit that when I got to the phase of senior management, I didn’t take the time to prioritize female friendships. It was a big mistake. When I became chief operating officer of HGTV, I experienced how solitary a c-suite job is. Not having the love, support, and mutual understanding that only girlfriends can provide was sorely missed. DON’T MAKE THIS MISTAKE. Stay close to your female friends, whatever it takes, as you make your way with life and career.

The good news is to we can learn from our mistakes, if we pay attention! Upon leaving Scripps Networks Interactive two summers ago, I joined a senior women’s organization called Committee of 200. These women have quickly become dear friends and trusted advisors. I’ve travelled the world with them, and we have worked side by side as we’ve mentored young, aspiring business women. Once a month, about 8 of us get on the phone to talk about life and career. We help each other. We celebrate exciting news, like a big new job or a child getting engaged.

Stay close to your girlfriends as you travel the road of life. It pays huge dividends.

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