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

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

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

“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

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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Lots of Drama

Throughout my career I negotiated with men, and since my work was in the cable programming industry, I followed its rules of conduct (or lack thereof) to get deals done. It was my ‘normal’, my ecosystem, if you will, in getting wins for the companies I represented.

Just recently, my friend Gina Bianchini, co-founder of Ning and inventor of Mightybell, told me to watch a great video on YouTube from Stanford’s Dr. Maggie Neale on best practices in negotiating. It was fascinating! If I were starting out fresh today, this would be the way to do it—under most conditions. I say ‘most conditions’ because here was the stark truth of my negotiating environment — most times I was David, and the guy across the table was Goliath. And a cranky Goliath at that.

One time I took my boss, CEO Ken Lowe, now chairman and CEO of Scripps Networks Interactive, to Denver to call on the largest cable company at the time. We were to begin our negotiations for the carriage of HGTV on their systems, which were necessary for us to grow to a national footprint. We waited for 2 hours before being asked to come in, which was not an accident. The client was signaling to us that this deal would be done on his time, on his terms. He was looking for a one-sided win. All his.

My experience was pretty much always like this, with the guy across the table trying to bully his way to a one-sided win. The cable guys held most of the cards because new programmers needed to build national distribution. The cable guys knew it, and they used it.

Back to Denver: we were finally called in, and the would-be customer began a monologue about non-starters for him, which were — not surprisingly — things we had to have on our side for the deal to make sense. When he finally came up for air, Ken and I asked a few questions. His answers were even more ridiculous than his monologue. It was time for some drama on my part.

I got up, declared the meeting over and Ken and I walked out. The look on the client’s face was telling: how dare this little company walk out on me! As we made our way to the airport, I told Ken we had to do that, so we could swing some leverage our way. Sure they would still control a lot of the deal, but we wouldn’t be pummeled into submission. The client called a couple of weeks later and we began some meaningful dialog. After two long years (yep, deals could take that long to extract decent terms) we had a good deal.

My point: I learned from Dr. Neale’s video is that there is another, more reasonable route one should employ when doing deals. It wouldn’t have worked for me given my market conditions, but her methods will work for most. Take a good look at her video. There’s a lot of learning there.

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The Art of Imperfection

A couple of girlfriends recommended the book The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown. In her book Brown urges us to embrace self-love. She advocates “wholehearted living” which is facing each day with courage, compassion and worthiness.

These are beautiful concepts, but quite different from what I originally thought I’d find when I heard the book title. If I were to write a book about imperfection, I too would urge every woman to live a wholehearted life, and this includes your work life. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would urge imperfection at work. Let’s look at why:

In my experience, women work themselves to the bone being perfectionists. We take on a project and nothing short of absolute perfection can be delivered. Why? How many men do you know would jump through the hoops we do so we can get our A+ from our boss/colleagues/team? I can’t think of one. Men have figured out that 90% is not only the right approach, it’s actually better than 100%, because if you have something that’s good enough to deliver, you can then move onto the next thing – the next idea, project, or way of making money for your company. You can ask for forgiveness instead of permission on the small stuff, on that last 10%. (Note: certain professions like the medical field don’t have any small stuff, but most do.)

What does being a perfectionist do for us? It keeps us in the muck of a project, overthinking everything. Speed is such an imperative today to stay ahead of the competition, which includes those guys who’ve just run ahead of you while you’re making sure all of your columns are lined up perfectly, and while you’re re-examining every word that spellcheck just told you was fine.

Here’s another reason to be good with 90%: you make yourself, and everyone you work with crazy if you can’t let go of that last 10. You become the school marm. In your quest to be superhuman, you appear less human to those around you.

Lighten up. Lose the perfectionism. That’s my path to wholehearted living.

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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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Jungle Jimmy

My husband Bill agreed to be a stay-at-home dad for practical reasons: I was making more money than his teaching job afforded, and we wanted one parent home. Then the fun began.

We had settled into his being at home with our son Drew when the letter came, which I opened. It was from Drew’s school, Sacred Heart, and it informed us that “Andrew Packard has 14 tardies and this will go on his permanent record.”

“What the heck Bill???” I asked in my kind and understanding way. Drew was in kindergarten, and Bill didn’t know there were different rules for kindergarten vs. preschool. He was just hanging around in the morning with Drew, two guys in their underwear watching cartoons until they felt like heading to kindergarten.

Much of the stay-at-home parenting didn’t come naturally to Bill, but I don’t know that it comes naturally to all women either. It definitely requires a great sense of humor. When Drew got to high school, all sophomores were required to give a chapel talk. Bill and I sat in the audience, anxiously wondering what our child would say. He started out with this: “My mom wears the pants in the family, while my dad wears the dress.” I was horrified for Bill. I slowly turned to look at him, and he leaned over and whispered, “If I did it’d be a little black one.” This kind of self-effacing humor was key to how he handled his role. The rest of the speech regaled Bill, so it all came out in the wash.

Speaking of which, over the years I found Bill in the laundry room a lot. I guess he felt doing laundry was good therapy. One time I offered to take over the chore and I washed Drew’s cell phone. Who knew to look in pockets? He fired me after that. I was not meant to be a stay- at home- mom, for too many reasons to recount in a small blog. Kids pose very tough questions that I wouldn’t have had to wisdom to address, like when Drew asked Bill how conjoined twins rode a bike, or after getting the sex talk at school, Drew asked “if it could get stuck in there.” I’m really glad I didn’t have to be on the receiving end of those questions.

There were times I would come home and Bill was just worn out. It wasn’t easy, like it isn’t easy for women either. He lost his temper plenty of times. And yet, there are moments when I witness the love these two guys share, and it takes my breath away. Drew’s now a college pitcher and he still asks Bill to toss with him, and Bill trudges out there with two pairs of glasses because “it’s coming so fast I don’t want to break my nose.” But he gladly goes. They share something pretty special.

I know many women wrestle with taking an off-ramp from career to home parenting, because I’ve mentored many of them. All of life is choices. Know yourself well enough before you make them. Involve your spouse in this decision. Maybe the role makes more sense for him. It’s happening a lot more frequently today than you may realize.

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By |June 21st, 2013|Learning, Parenting, Relationships|1 Comment