by SUSAN HOWELLS
For most of my life I never put a priority on my personal development. I was just going through the motions. Fortunately, I had a wonderful family, friends, job, and network, but something was missing.
I felt like I was just on a hamster wheel and I could see that this went back as far as I could remember during my career. I was always good about exceeding my goals, being a team player, servicing my clients, making money, and providing for my family … but I never focused on myself.
Then, in the summer of 2013, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt lost and anxious. I am not sure what happened or why it happened, but I am glad it did. First, I went looking for answers. “What is wrong with me? Am I sick? Why do I feel this way?” I went to several doctors; I went to therapy; I even tried hypnosis. Over the next few years, I was still functioning, thriving in my career, and raising my family. I was getting it done but those closest to me knew that I was struggling.
Honestly, I just felt this was normal and how it was supposed to be as a working mom. My self-confidence was shot, I was tired and felt unfulfilled. Again, the never-ending hamster wheel. I always thought “once I get through XYZ,” “once my kids hit this milestone,” “once I get through volunteering for this,” “once I hit the next goal,” etc. then things would calm down and it would be different. I blamed it on my type “A” personality, but it was never any different.
Then, as I reflected, things started to become clearer. I needed to focus on myself.
My internal transformation started at the end of 2017 when I began considering SIM’s RLF program. At first, I thought RLF would be too daunting. Reading thirty books, doing multiple projects and various presentations to the rest of the group…yikes! I might be in a business development role, but truth be told, I was terrified of presenting in front of a large group.
But two key people kept pushing me to join the 2018 program. My first response was, “The timing just isn’t right. I’ll consider it after my oldest daughter starts college.” They both had the same answer, “There will never be a right time. Now is the right time.” One of them completed the program while going through cancer treatment so I knew I had no excuse. I took their advice and am forever thankful that I did.
For me, like for so many others, RLF truly was a life-changing experience. I learned so much about myself and started the process of accepting myself for who I am. I can always strive to improve, but I began learning not to beat myself up. I still do this today, but thanks to RLF I am more aware, and can reel myself back in. I learned that self-improvement is ongoing and something that I can always work on.
While participating in RLF, I also spent a weekend with a childhood friend who happens to be a personal and leadership coach. I never could have imagined the impact that weekend would have on me – as my friend introduced me to meditation and a balance wheel exercise. Now, instead of looking for causes and excuses for how I am feeling, I focus on self-reflection, personal development, and meditating.
Fast forward to several months ago. Although personal development has been something I have continued to focus on since completing RLF, I felt I needed a refresher and took a self-acceptance workshop. I also attended a free webinar that my professional coach friend was holding for women leaders. These really helped me refocus my efforts on my continued personal development journey. The timing could not have been better, especially with the stress of the pandemic throughout 2020. I realized that focusing on my personal development has made me much stronger and resilient during this time.
Sure, there can be a financial cost to RLF and continuous personal development, but I feel it is well worth it because of the outstanding dividends that can result. One of the best outcomes is developing a key circle of people you can talk to, listen to, and learn from. I have found this through my husband, some longtime friends, and now my fellow RLF classmates who have become vital professional colleagues. Meditation is a great tool as well. Living in a busy world and working in a competitive industry, it really helps me to calm my mind. There are many apps, and some are free. I am listing a few resources below.
Thanks to RLF, what I now know is that by focusing on myself, I ultimately am a better mom, wife, daughter, friend, employee and co-worker. And in the spirit of my ongoing commitment to personal development, below I have shared some of the key things I learned along the way. Hopefully, this list may help someone else out there. It helps me to have written it down.
I have learned to:
I could go on and on. The key takeaway is to find time to focus on yourself. It will help you in both your personal and professional life.
Susan Howells is Director of Business Development for Tews Company, a 2018 RLF graduate and Vice President of the SIM Central Florida chapter. She can be reached at SHowells@tewscompany.com.
· Regional Leadership Forum, https://rlf.simnet.org/home
· Dr. Laura Gallaher, http://www.gallaheredge.com>
· Michelle Myers, Summit Leadership Coaching, http://www.summitleadershipcoaching
by MOLLY MAHONEY
I am sharing a personal journey as I navigate through an unexpected, extraordinary life change.
The “Life Planning Tool”: I am a Southeast RLF facilitator, and each year my co-facilitators and I utilize a “Life Planning Tool” with our RLF participants. The “Life Planning Tool” is an exercise created by our friend Kevin Ryan, NE RLF Facilitator and former RLF Director, who got the idea from Gordon Mackenzie’s book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, which talks about painting the ‘masterpiece of your life’. This “Life Planning Tool” encourages each of us to think about our whole life – past, present and future – and provides a framework to reflectively consider “are we really thinking and acting on the most important things in our life?”
The “Life Planning Tool” consist of four key questions to consider and answer:
The real challenge is … before answering questions 3 and 4 and focusing on the future, you must write down the age that you believe your life, or project plan, will end – knowing that we each have a finite period of time in this life. And, if you are like me, you believe you still have plenty of time.
So, while I found it easier to answer questions 1 and 2 whenever I periodically updated my own “Life Plan,” I always found myself less precise when answering questions 3 and 4. However, because of a recent medical diagnosis, I am now very keenly aware of my answers and actions related to questions 3 and 4.
An Unexpected Diagnosis: Early in 2019 I started noticing a gradual loss of functionality in my hand. On a visit with my son’s family in New York in October 2019, I mentioned this to my daughter-in-law, a neurologist at NYU. I believed it was carpal tunnel. My daughter-in-law thought differently and asked if I would see another neurologist at NYU. In the span of four weeks, I underwent extensive testing at NYU and then Mt. Sinai Hospital. The week before Thanksgiving 2019, I was diagnosed with a debilitating neurological disease that slowly takes away a person’s ability to control their muscles. I was speechless. This is a terminal illness with an expected lifespan of 2-5 years, and there is no cure.
Taking Action: I informed my immediate family and close friends. We grieved, cried, talked, and began planning how to maximize our time together. I remembered the “Life Planning Tool” and began thinking about the answers to questions 3 and 4, this time in great detail. I needed to plan and prepare for the difficult events and experiences ahead of me; finding and moving to a home more suitable for loss of functionality, considering the potential loss of independence, and writing stories of my life for my children and grandchildren (storyworth.com is an excellent tool).
I turned my focus to “what do I want to experience or accomplish?” We planned family trips, which have been put on-hold until there is a vaccination for COVID-19, as I am considered ‘high risk’. Not to worry, we Zoom or Facetime almost daily. And there are many things to create for my grandsons -- videos, cards, scrapbooks.
Informing friends / coworkers: I sent an email to our most recent Southeast RLF graduates, to RLF facilitators, directors and sales team, and to my work team-- informing them shortly after my diagnosis. Their heartfelt responses and support were overwhelming, and I’ve saved each of their emails so I can revisit them in the future.
Changing my work priorities: I knew I wanted to focus more on my health, exercise, quality time with family, friends and prepare for the future. I’ve always enjoyed working, but this became a lower priority. I resigned from my demanding job and shifted to a less stressful part-time position, and even considered giving up facilitating RLF. However, after discussing with my co-facilitators, we agreed I would continue facilitating RLF as long as it made sense.
How I’m coping: A positive attitude and hope is essential for my longevity. I consider myself a warrior for positivity as I’m moving forward, yet, I do sometimes have despairing thoughts. The uncertainty and timing of progressive degeneration is frightening. So how do I cope? One day at a time. I revisited a book we use in the Southeast RLF, Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage. When I practice Shawn’s advice, I am more at peace. I’ve been keeping a “grateful journal” for a couple of years, and now I journal every night, writing three things for which I am grateful for that day. Another recommendation of Shawn’s is to give back. When out, I smile and say hello to those passing by, pick up garbage while walking, sometimes pick up the dinner tab, let that obnoxious car cut in front of me, say thank you, and help those that ask.
I am currently reading The How of Happinessby Sonja Lyubomirsky, a scholar who has done pioneering research on happiness, based on experimental data. This book provides practical exercises to improve individual happiness.
Exercise and keeping the endorphins flowing, as well as getting a good night’s sleep and waking up refreshed are also vital to keeping my mind and body as healthy as possible. And finally, for me, the best happy boost is spending time with my family and friends, currently limited to virtual meetings or phone calls. I cherish the time with my grown children and grandsons, with my brothers and sisters, and with friends. I look forward to a time again when we can hug in person.
Meditation: Another important coping technique I’ve incorporated into daily life is practicing meditation. Prior to the diagnosis, I tried meditation several times, unsuccessfully. Post diagnosis, with a strong desire to calm troubling thoughts, coupled with the help of several meditation apps, I can honestly say my day is unfulfilled until I sit quietly, breathe and meditate. My favorite meditation app is “Waking Up” because it teaches me “how to” with simple ten-minute guided practices each day. I am grateful that my disease has given me this important, extremely beneficial gift.
And now: I wake up, knowing what is on my plate and fill each extra hour living everyday life. I look at my new normal as a gift, where I get to experience life in a way that most people don’t. At times I struggle to see the beauty in this new journey and strive to accept it with grace, keenly aware of perhaps a compressed timeline. So many things now are not so important. So what if there is a little dust on my bedroom dresser, or the car needs to be washed, or there is clutter on my kitchen table! I choose instead to go on a walk, or bike around the lake, or practice yoga, or meditate, or call a friend, cook a nice meal, or relax with a book.
Make your choices: We all have a choice each day when we wake up, before we put our feet on the floor. I choose to be happy, grateful and live in the present. I choose to make a difference in someone’s life. I choose to listen to others.
Live in the present: My intent in sharing my story is to offer a different perspective on life. It has been eight months of living my new normal, and I can’t help but wonder, “why did it take a diagnosis for me to take more affirmative action to live in the present?” And so, I ask, what will it take for you to live in the present?
My encouragement to you: We all have a finite timeline … so make each day count, because as each day passes, there are fewer left. We all have choices, decisions, family, friends, community and love to give. So I encourage you to use the “Life Planning Tool” and be sure to deeply focus on questions 3 and 4. Then make solid plans and work your plan. Believe me … if you take action now to be present each day you can truly build your life masterpiece!
Molly Mahoney is an RLF graduate, a longtime RLF facilitator and a vital member of the RLF Team. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by PAULLETTE JAMES-LECOQ
When I completed RLF in 2019, I never imagined a situation where the things I learned throughout the program could have more meaning than where we are today – in the midst of a pandemic.
As a director in the care delivery technology area, currently my team and I are working days, evenings and weekends to respond to clear and present needs … for our employees in the field, for administrators, for the CDC, for members and for the community at large. At the same time, we are all simultaneously grappling with the impact upon our own lives and loved ones.
I also find myself grateful for – and continually tapping – these things that I learned during RLF:
So I truly thank my RLF classmates and facilitators for accompanying me on my leadership development journey which helped me gain the toolkit to address the pandemic crisis head-on; with courage in the face of the uncertain times – a courage I’m able to share with my team as a leader.
Finally, for those of you who are not in healthcare and want to help, I have one request. Please pick up the phone and call someone. Anyone. Reach out to friends, elderly people in your community, acquaintances or people you work with. Just check in with them. Let them tell you how they feel and listen. This small act of kindness can have a huge impact on mental health during isolation and confusion for everyone.
Take care and stay safe.
Paullette James-Lecoq is Director of API management and Data Services in the healthcare industry.
Editor’s Note: Bart Bolton recently retired after more than two decades as an RLF Facilitator. As Bart transitions to his new chapter in life, he agreed to share some parting observations and “lessons learned” during his longtime service to RLF and to countless RLF graduates.
"WHAT HAS BECOME CLEAR TO ME AFTER 26 YEARS IN RLF ...
by Bart Bolton
Like many RLF participants sitting in the classroom on their first day, I, too, wasn’t quite sure just what I had volunteered to do when I first began to facilitate RLF. In many ways, I was one book ahead of the class.
Today, I have the advantage and the benefit of more than 1,000 discussions, hundreds of personal life stories, the counsel of some 360 guest speakers, and countless exercises and topic discussions germane to leadership development.
Here are perhaps the “top ten” of what I have learned over the years, which I now gratefully share with all RLF grads and constituents:
1. The only person you can change in life is YOU. …..You can influence others but you cannot change them. They must change themselves. Yes, you can “command” someone to do something because you have the “power” over them (e.g. military model or parent), but the more effective way is to inspire them to change by introducing new personal values. Covey’s 7 Habits is worth considering.
2. Self-awareness is key to real leadership. Knowing who you really are, what you believe in, how you set your priorities, and what and why your personal values are builds your self-confidence. People follow leaders who display and act in a confident manner.
3. Leading and Learning go hand in hand. Effective leaders are consummate learners. They are always open to new ideas and are willing to take risks. First, they learn … next, they learn to personally accept change … and then they lead change to the organization usually through some type of vision brought on through their learning.
4. Given the time constraints of today, one must learn to read differently. The demands on everyone’s time continue to grow and we need to provide for personal learning, which includes the reading of some great non-fiction books. I believe you must find a way to get the key messages from a book in one hour – without reading all 400 pages. You’ll find that most books are actually structured so this can be accomplished. That means you can cover 12 books a year. You might even revisit How To Read a Book.
5. When you’ve stopped learning in the job you’re in, move on. This idea is the counterpart of point #3 above. Once you’ve stopped learning in the job you’re in, the result means you are no longer leading and, thus, not contributing to the organization…no value added. In some ways, you are just marking time and at some point, your position will be judged as unnecessary. It’s better that you move on to another position first where you can begin to learn again.
6. Leading is more complex than managing and is more difficult to measure. There are systems to measure management performance found in John Kotter’s “Planning & Budgeting,” “Organizing & Staffing,” and “Controlling and Problem Solving” … the red, yellow and green flags. However, when you try to measure Kotter’s view of “Leadership…Establishing Direction, Aligning People, and Motivating & Inspiring” … it is very difficult to do. One can be trained in or taught management and must discover or develop one’s own leadership style. These are actually very different learning experiences.
7. Real listening is a critical skill for an effective leader. It seems to require all five senses to listen well, be it in both our professional and personal lives. Listening clearly is the basis for all our communications and especially the verbal ones. “Seek first to understand to then be understood” is good advice from Covey. Being in the other guy’s movie is the advice from The Zen of Listening … easy to say and yet tough to do! Step back sometime in a meeting and watch how many people talk over others in the meeting. Do they really hear the other people or are they more interested in speaking instead of listening?
8. Synchronicity has played a significant role in my life. This concept of Synchronicity underscores the need to constantly develop one’s personal network. If I had not known people in SIM, I would never have become involved in RLF. I would not have known the people in SIM if I had not gone to work at Digital where I was connected with someone back in Detroit, etc. etc. None of all that was part of my career plan. Little did I know when we moved to the Boston area in 1976 that I would end up in RLF. One of the advantages of age is the ability to more clearly observe past history, be it professional or personal.
9. Pursuing a dream/vision usually produces a passionate leader, e.g. disruptive leaders. When you look at the Bill Gates,, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos of the world and understand the visions or dreams they have had, you can understand their passion. They are examples of disruptive leaders whom many people thought were kind of “different.” Working for them meant you had to share in those passions as their leadership styles seem to have been difficult to deal with. So, what kind of leader do you want to follow? What kind of leader do you want to be?
10. Trust is THE significant success factor in relationships, be they professional or personal. Trust is part of authenticity, transparency, honesty, and integrity and probably other values. All of these contribute to the level of the relationships. Credibility (brought on by Trust) is 80% relationships and 20% Expertise per Jim Kinney, former CIO of Kraft Foods. Trust definitely operates or exists at different levels, e.g. individuals vs. organizations.
And, finally, I’ll throw in one more extra thought, for good measure …
11. Technology is easy. It’s people that count. Your success depends on them. You have to truly get to know people, be they professional or personal. In our Forums, I’ve been amazed at the impact that the collection of session-ending poems has had over the years … from “The Paradoxical Commandments” to “The Dash” to “Friend Around the Corner” to “The Man in the Glass.” They deal with the human emotions and to be successful, a Leader must be able to do so as well.
I shared each of these “what has become clearer” points with the Northeast-Boston RLF class in our final 2019 session, and they seemed to appreciate them. I hope they resonate with you as well. Best wishes!
Bart Bolton has been a longtime RLF Facilitator and an instrumental force in making RLF a tremendously successful program of SIM. He can be reached at email@example.com.
by Brian Madden
Like every RLF graduate, after completing the program I received a one-year free membership in my local SIM chapter. There, I struggled at first to fit in, but eventually I came to find a new home and a great new network. You can too!
More than 10 years ago, I came to RLF in my third year of managing a seven-person IT department. At work I felt I had an “impostor syndrome” due to my lack of experience managing people and all of human nature’s quirks. Hungry for advice on how to better lead and manage people, I listened to RLF graduates who described the program as “transformative,” “eye opening,” “emotional” and “incredibly useful.” They recommended RLF without hesitation, so I enrolled in the Boston RLF.
The RLF sessions were heavy on active participation from the students which opened the door to even more sharing, trust-building, and bonding. Together, we learned a new language to communicate and connect with others who not long ago were complete strangers.
After we graduated from RLF, we promised to stay in touch and to hold class reunions, but life goes on. Aside from one or two meetups and calls we mostly all went our separate ways. So, I looked to SIM Boston as the potential thread that could keep us connected. But sadly, I came to learn that most RLF grads don’t renew their SIM membership after the free year or if they do renew, they don’t stay engaged in SIM for long.
I believe one explanation for why “RLFers” don’t stick around is that most SIM events do not engage grads in the exact same way as RLF. But I would argue that this is an unreasonable expectation. RLF immerses you in an experiential learning context where you are out of the office for two days, away from work, and where you’re surrounded by people who share the goal of becoming better versions of themselves. Contrast this with a typical SIM event that is held at the beginning / end of a regular working day, leaving little to no buffer between the ‘real world’ and the event itself. In my opinion, we RLF grads may expect too much of an RLF-type experience at SIM and therefore our engagement with our local chapters begins to wane for reasons more of our own making.
So, what did I do differently? After RLF, in order to build my network, I started attending the quarterly Boston CIO roundtable, a really wonderful networking sub-group. Being an introvert, those meetings were hell for me. Everyone seemed to already know each other, sharing warm hearty handshakes and hugs, having collegial conversations amid a whole scene that conveyed a sense of deep familiarity among the participants. And there I was, an introvert still wrestling with imposter syndrome in a room full of accomplished CIOs who all appeared to be good friends. Was this awkward and uncomfortable feeling the price I had to pay to build my network? I was determined to find out.
I challenged myself to continue attending these meetings on and off for a couple of years before I realized that the problem wasn’t the people in those rooms: the problem was me! I was too wrapped up in my own self-defeating story about how I didn’t really belong there, how these wonderful CIOs were all better than me and how I needed to find a way to impress them. The problem with this logic was that it was completely wrong. Nobody – not a single person – ever attended a CIO roundtable with the goal to be impressed by me. Duh! What was I thinking? Were we back in high school? In retrospect it's painfully obvious just how ridiculous my internal story was.
Once I realized this, from then on at every event I’d look around a room and remind myself that a lot of people there were feeling just like me. I didn’t need to impress anyone, I just needed to be myself and to have a real, genuine conversation with someone – anyone. It didn’t even matter what the topic was, as long as the conversation was authentic. Networking happens one person, one conversation at a time.
This epiphany completely changed my approach to, and my expectations for, attending SIM events (and all networking events.) And I encourage every RLF grad to similarly look at their SIM participation from a fresh new vantage point.
Today, I see each SIM event as a great opportunity to possibly meet somebody, to learn something new and to reconnect with those who I’ve come to know over the years. By changing the story I told myself about networking within SIM, I was able to completely change my experience and level of engagement.
And you can too.
So new RLF grads, I hope you learn from what I experienced and you truly make the most of your year of free SIM membership. Or, if it’s been a while since your year of SIM membership, I heartily encourage you to give SIM another try. Because SIM is a phenomenal opportunity to get involved, meet new colleagues in our technology industry and, most of all, continue the process of “stretching” yourself and your capabilities that began in RLF.
See you at an upcoming SIM event!
Brian Madden is a 2008 graduate of the Northeast-Boston RLF program and is COO / EVP of Lexington Solutions, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boston Capital. He also currently co-chairs the CIO Roundtable committee of the SIM Boston chapter.