6 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Beautiful Mother

Today is the 103rd Anniversary of my beautiful mother’s birthday.  At her 2004 memorial service, I spoke about 6 of the most important lessons she taught me by the way she lived her 85 years.  Recently, I have thought a lot about the Leadership Lessons I learned from her words and actions:

  1. Take care of yourself
  2. Sweat the details
  3. Never stop learning
  4. Listen and communicate
  5. Always be optimistic, and
  6. Help others in need.

A few details about these lessons and how my mother modeled them follow:

 1. “Take care of yourself.”

It is critical that leaders take care of themselves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – in order to maximize their ability to lead others.  Self-care enables leaders to both operate at their full potential in terms of their personal productivity and Intellectual, Implementational and Inspirational Leadership Skills and it sets a great role model for those they lead.

We found a file in my mother‘s desk over the weekend labeled, “inspirational quotes.” One of the items in the file was a handwritten page titled Don’t forget to note. In the first quote was “age is not an important unless you are a cheese.”

As amazing as it sounds, my mother spent only 27 of her 30,561 days in the hospital, and 12 of those were to give birth to my sisters and me. At the age of 82, my mother planned a vacation to Canaan Valley State Park. During that trip we also visited Blackwater Falls where she insisted on walking down and back up over 100 stairs to see the beautiful river.

How did she stay so healthy? My mother was wise. Living at a time when the benefits of diet and exercise were not nearly as well known or promoted as they are today, my mother knew. When we were kids, our next-door neighbors often had hamburgers and French fries or heaping plates of pasta for dinner but not us.   Never French fries. Occasionally pasta, but only if accompanied by three vegetables – two green and one starch. And, we had to eat three bites of everything, no matter how “yucky” it was.

I can remember when I was around 10 years old my mother doing leg lifts on her bedroom floor and other exercises to accomplish what we now call “strengthening the core.“ Today, these exercises are performed daily by professional athletes and weekend warriors as well.

My mother had amazing discipline.  She somehow managed to live in the Governor’s Mansion – home of the world’s largest cookie jar always full of the chef’s homemade chocolate chip cookies – and not gain a pound! I am sure I put on more weight during a weekend visit than she did living there for four (actually eight in total) years.

2. “Sweat the details.”

As a lifelong student of business (and leadership) successes and failures, I have come to believe that one of the greatest causes of business failure continues to be leaders who do not understand the details of their enterprise – literally the micro and macroeconomics of their products and services and those of their partners and customers. The collapse of Enron, the subprime mortgage/ credit default swap crisis are prime examples. So too are the tombstones of the “dot bomb” era.

Manners, appearance and knowing the correct way to do “all things” were of great importance to my mother. As children, we were all homeschooled with the details Emily Post’s book of etiquette. I can assure you my sisters and I were as thrilled about this part of our education as most kids would be today. But I can also assure you that a few years later, when attending a formal eight course dinner at Oxford or the Greenbrier or the White House, we were thankful we knew what to do with all that silverware.

When my father became governor at the age of 34 in 1956, my mother was thrust upon the national stage with him. She knew that part of her role as First Lady was to represent the people of West Virginia on that stage and that her appearance and performance were important elements to transforming the brand of our state. A few weeks before she passed on, mother told my sister Sharon that she would make sure to look especially good on the days she wasn’t feeling so well, so that others were less likely to notice.  Great advice I have used frequently over the years.

3. “Never stop learning.”

Related to the point above, leaders have to love being on a vertcal learning curve.  This is critically important in the globally connected, technology and AI driven rapidly evolving economy of the 21st century.  As Jim Fowler – EVP and Chief Technology Officer of Nationwide and former GE CIO says, “Success in the 21st century is dependent on one’s ability to learn, unlearn and re-learn new ways of doing business.”

 My mother believed in lifelong learning, and was a devoted consumer of newspapers, magazines, books and especially her beloved NPR

In 1995, my ex-wife Patty and I gave my mother a computer for Christmas. Before leaving West Virginia, we wrote out detailed instructions on exactly (we thought) how to compose and send an email.  When we returned home to Toronto, we found several “emails” from her that read something like this:

Dear Patty and Craig, thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

Dear Patty and Craig thank you for the wonderful comp

Need help, the words keep disappearing!

We realized that the words were scrolling off the screen – not something that happens on an IBM Selectric typewriter!  So, at the time, we thought maybe a computer wasn’t the best gift idea we ever had. But just three days before she passed, we were thrilled to receive an email from mom, announcing that after almost a decade of “needing to learn to use email,” she had succeeded!

4. “Talk a lot, listen to and communicate with your family.”

The more leadership experience I gain and the more leaders I learn from, the more I believe that communication – thoughtful, effective two-way communication and listening to your team members, partners, and customers rise to the top of the most important characteristics of successful leaders.

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, my father thought it would be a good idea to return to the family home in Huntington, West Virginia. My mother thought differently, wanting it to be a short drive to see her Charleston grandkids. Guess who won?

Shortly after our first child Jordan was born, I asked my mother for advice on being a parent.  Without pause, she said “Communicate. Talk to your kids as much as you can and make sure you listen to them when they talk. And you and Patty talk and listen to each other too.”

My mother was always there for her family, whether that meant walking upstairs stadium or theater stairs to watch a ball game or see a play, or flying to Toronto and Boston for grandparents’ day. Her home was filled with pictures of her kids and her grandkids.  And even at 85, she was still the cruise director of the family, scheduling vacations, cooking Easter dinner, and planning our annual family photoshoot.

5. “Always be an optimist.”

In addition to knowing the details of their enterprise economics, leaders – especially entrepreneurs striving to create something truly new – must have the ability to find a “path to daylight’ no matter how challenging or difficult the hurdles they are confronted with. This is one of the most critical communication skills of inspirational leaders.  One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, who wrote “It always seems impossible until someone does it.”

My mother was a social worker, a first lady, and a tireless advocate for helping underserved children – challenging roles during a very challenging time. My mother truly did see a world where the glass was always “half full. “ She almost never complained and had the almost unbelievable strength to make it through even the most difficult times.  When it was time to leave the Governor’s Mansion in 2001, my siblings and I thought it would be a good idea for mom and dad to move to Edgewood Summit, a beautiful independent and assisted living facility. They thought otherwise, and again, they won. One of the reasons my mom gave for not wanting to live there was she didn’t want to look like a “little old lady riding the bus.”  At that time she was 83 years old and maybe 4’10 and 1/2” tall  – on a good day –  but I remember thinking, “If you think you don’t look like a little old lady, we can roll with that!”

6. “Help others in need.”

Since my mother’s passing, the brand enhancing, economic and talent acquisition benefits of being good members of the communities businesses operate in and their commitment to helping those born in underserved zip codes succeed have been well documented. Leaders need to walk the walk and lead by example to realize these benefits.

As the West Virginia newspapers’ wonderful stories about my mother’s passing reminded us, her legacy is not only that of a loving wife, mother, and grandmother but also of a devoted public servant in her own quiet way. From her early career as a social worker to making time to support the Cammack Children Center for Orphans – even as a young mother with three small children and a traveling husband – to her incredible service as the first lady of West Virginia, my mother used all of her resources and assets to help those in need, to help those who were not lucky enough to have parents or access to education or basic healthcare. She was a tireless and effective advocate for children and women’s issues and we can all honor her life’s work by following in her footsteps

Although my mother’s body left this earth in 2004, to all who were blessed to know her and especially those of us who got to call her mom or grandmom, her soul and spirit are very much with us today and will remain forever in the lessons she taught by how she lived:

Take care of yourself

Sweat the details

Never stop learning

Listen and communicate with your family

Always be optimistic, and

Help others in need.

My mother kept this quote from Emerson on her desk:

To laugh often and much: to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to appreciate beauty; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.   

 My mother clearly succeeded and I am blessed to have learned and remind myself of these lessons from her.

 

4 T-Shirts in the Entrepreneur’s Closet

Net: A Year Up student recently asked me if I had any favorite any motivational words or slogans.  I told her about the 4 T-shirts we wore at Sports Loyalty International: Carpe Diem; Never, Ever Quit, No Regrets & Breakthrough.  After speaking with her, I realized they applied to my current role at Year Up as well.

My favorite “unsuccessful” company has to be Sports Loyalty International.  We had a great, fun, talented team; phenomenally supportive investors; an all-star advisory board; and what we believed was a uniquely transformative program and business model.  We also had cool T-shirts.

In addition to making the morning wardrobe choice a very easy one, the words on SLI’s 4 T-shirts became motivating slogans to our 8 person team and closest advisors.  Recently, while visiting Year Up’s Atlanta site with GE CTO and Year Up champion Adam Radisch, I met an amazing young woman named Ariel Terrell.

Ariel asked me if I had any favorite words or slogans that I turned to for inspiration and motivation.  She shared that she was planning to cover the walls of her basement family room with inspirational words for her kids. I asked the young lady how many children she had and was surprised when she responded “five.”  Ariel explained that she had adopted her sister’s three children several years ago when her sibling was unable to care for them and then had two of her own.  I asked her “When do you sleep?” and she responded “rarely!” This is one of literally hundreds of stories I could tell you about the grit and determination of our students.  They are the embodiment of the Year Up brand, the primary reason we have grown from serving 22 students in 2001 to 3,700 this year and my greatest source of inspiration and energy.

So, back to our T-Shirts.  I told Ariel about our slogans: Carpe Diem; Never Ever Quit; No Regrets and Breakthrough, and also shared a few inspirational quotes. On the plane back to Boston, I thought about these slogans and realized they also apply to those of us who lead corporate partner development for Year Up.

Carpe Diem

I probably first heard the phrase Carpe Diem in the movie Dead Poets Society.  I also heard it in my head over and over again when making the decision to accept the offer from Sir Keith Mills in 1991 to start the Loyalty Group in Canada. As entrepreneurs at SLI, we realized that every day was a gift from our investors.  They believed enough in our vision and our team to give us the opportunity to create a new type of loyalty program that had never been successfully developed in the world’s largest market. At the same time we were keenly aware – as are all start-up’s – that we had limited funds and therefore days to close the requisite number of customers to create an economically viable business before running out of capital.  To us, Carpe Diem meant seize the opportunity you have been given to create the future every minute of every day you work.    I have a similar feeling about Year Up.  I remind myself every day that I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to work in service to our amazing students and the opportunities corporate partners like GE give them to cross the Opportunity Divide.

Never Ever Quit

True confessions – we stole this from Winston Churchill’s “never, never, quit.” This was our mantra when three of us started The Loyalty Group in a Toronto hotel room in 1991 and became our business development rallying cry during the 8 years I was fortunate to run the company.  While in Canada, I was often asked to speak to business school students and share our strategy and leadership principals at other companies’ management team meetings and executive retreats.  A common question was “what’s the key to success when starting a business?”  Without hesitation, I always responded “creative perseverance.”

Creative perseverance is something I learned from my father who still holds the record for being both the youngest and the oldest person ever elected governor of a US state.  What most people don’t remember is that he actually lost three elections in between these historic milestones – an experience that would have eliminated the desire to ever run for elective office again in most human beings – but not him.  During his successful 1996 campaign, he didn’t re-use the slogans or policies from earlier attempts, but instead developed a platform around using technology to improve the employment opportunities and quality of life for West Virginians.  He adopted the slogan “A Leader for New Times,” secured the URL governor.com and created one of the first political campaign web sites.

The point of creative perseverance is to “never, ever, quit” but – equally important – it is to remember Einstein’s definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When I was Loyalty’s CEO It took me six years to land what became one of our largest customers and likely doubled the value of the company.  Every quarter I emailed the target CEO, but I never sent him the same message as the previous quarter.  I never wrote, “Hey it’s me again, asking for yet another meeting to talk about our loyalty program.”  Instead, I sent him examples of new innovations we had created to add value to other corporate partners: a recent case study on the ROI from investing in our program from a similar business; a new internet marketing application we had developed; a new database marketing product; the increased percentage of households in his store’s trading area that had joined our program; and our latest research showing the number of customers who would increase their spending at his stores if he joined our coalition. After literally six years of this water torture, he eventually succumbed and became (and remains) one of our most important customers.  At the dinner when we celebrated the signing of our contract, he said “you eventually became too logical to ignore.”

While I hope it never takes 6 years to convince a new corporate partner to hire Year Up interns and graduates, I recently realized that while I have diligently followed the mantra of “never, ever quit,” I have often failed to remember the importance of “creative perseverance.” Far too often, I emailed or called unresponsive targets with a message asking for an initial or follow-up meeting.  That actually worked in several instances as I secured meetings with leading companies after months of weekly requests, but – realizing my lack of creativity – I now wonder how much more efficient my efforts could have been if I included new case studies, articles, success stories, etc. from other Year Up partners in their industries.  One of the great things about Year Up is we have not only great “sizzle” – student and partner video testimonials, the 60 Minutes episode, etc., but also great “steak” – real quantitative studies and evidence of the value we create with our partners.  And with 3,700 students in 17 locations providing talent to over 200 corporate partners this year, we are constantly creating a steady stream of new “sizzle” and “steak” that can be used to accelerate our business development sales cycle.

No Regrets

“No regrets” is pretty simple.  At SLI, we refused to say the words “would have, should have, could have” the morning after losing a sale.  It means doing your very best, seizing every opportunity and “leaving it all on the canvas,” to use a boxing metaphor.  Although I loved the three years we worked together to try and get SLI off the ground, I had no regrets when we finally ran out of runway and investor patience. We gave it our best shot and used the full capabilities of our extraordinary team and partners.

But to be clear, “no regrets” does not imply that we never made mistakes.  One of our Operating Principals was “We learn from our mistakes, we don’t dwell on them.” I have always believed that I learn more from my mistakes than almost any other activity.  At The Loyalty Group, we hosted an annual “Global Experience Sharing Conference” where the management teams of sister companies from the UK, Netherlands and Spain would get together.  A highlight of these meetings was sharing “The 10 Dumbest Things We Tried Last Year.”  I recently realized I should be sharing the mistakes I have made over the last several months with the team members who work with me across the country.

Breakthrough

By definition, entrepreneurs are trying to create a product or service that has never existed before – otherwise, there would be no entrepreneurial opportunity.  Successfully creating a new product or service requires all of the above, but it also requires “breakthrough moments” when a prospective customer or investor “gets it.”  Although I realize some other experts disagree with me, I am a firm believer in “shooting all of the arrows in your quiver” when making sales presentations.  By that I mean using both steak and sizzle – data, testimonials, videos, etc. – as efficiently as possible when developing and implementing your sales and marketing tools and materials.  The logic for this is simple – you often don’t know which arrow is going to hit the prospect’s “sweet spot.”  Research tells us that using PowerPoint or other visual devices increases a prospect’s retention of your pitch by 30% vs just having a conversation, but it can’t tell you what form or medium will be most effective with an individual target.  There are several styles of learning and – unless you can get reliable inside knowledge about what forms will be most effective with your prospect – it behooves us to efficiently try all at our disposal.

At SLI, we developed what we affectionately called the “Blow Fish Strategy.” Initially there were just four of us competing against my former company The Loyalty Group – by then a billion dollar enterprise with an impressive 20 year track record – so we needed to develop low cost ways of making us look more substantial than we actually were. Our strategies included:

  • Buying low cost (i.e. $200) iPads from my former Bain colleague’s online retailer glyde.com, co-branding with SLI and our partners logos on a customer “skin”, creating a screen saver that looked like the iPad had been custom developed and programmed to only include our overview presentation, focus group videos of their customers saying they would increase sales if they could earn loyalty points and high quality images of their and other leading businesses displaying our point of sale materials.
  • Bringing on Toni Oberholzer and her “one wonder woman” creative firm OVO as a partner. Toni developed incredibly high quality loyalty program cards, membership kits, mobile apps and partner collateral for our business development meetings.  She worked under and delivered against ridiculous turn-around times and charged us a fraction of what one of the “big agencies” would have cost.
  • We figured out how to transform our presentations Toni’s brilliant creative into a hard cover Shutterfly books. We had these books individually produced with the names of the executives we met with and they arrived at their offices within 4 days of our initial meetings. Best of all – they actually cost less than having a presentation printed and bound with a plastic cover at FedEx!
  • Shout out to my Co-Founder Lauren Creedon for leading all of the above.

We found that individual aspects of the blow fish strategy worked well with different individuals.  For some, the creative mock ups “got them;” for others it was our videos of their customers’ voices or our program results from leaders in their industries from the Loyalty Group’s AIR MILES program.  In a few cases, we had “insider information” and knew – for example – to not share our focus group videos with the Vice Chairman of the Red Sox, who was more of a “numbers guy.”  But if not, we would live test each element to see what worked with each target executive and use their feedback to tailor our message.

Recently, several of my Year Up colleagues and I have realized there exists a “7 Step” business development process we need to progress through to reach our goal of becoming a significant strategic source of entry level talent for our corporate partners:

We also realized that progressing from one step to the next often happens after a “breakthrough” moment and that over our 17 year history, we have developed a number of “breakthrough accelerators” that can reduce the sales cycle between each step. Examples include:

  • A Year Up Champion changes roles or companies, e.g. David Kenny became General Manager of IBM Watson; Jeff Robison became COO of WorldPay.
  • An article is published about a Year Up Corporate Partnership, e.g. State Street and American Banker.
  • A new Year Up Corporate Partner video is developed. e.g. Year Up Cyber Security Curriculum developed in partnership with Symantec, eBay and LinkedIn.
  • The establishment of a cross functional internal Corporate Partner Steering Committee focused on maximizing the value proposition of their partnership with Year Up. JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and others have done this.
  • Opportunities for Year Up executives to present at high level cross functional meetings, like GE’s CIO Council.

Those of us who lead our largest relationships our now collaborating with marketing and sales operations support to collect and share these and other best demonstrated practices to help accelerate our mission delivery.

Please let me know your motivating words and slogans – on T-Shirts, board room or basement walls or otherwise – and I’ll share them with Ariel and her five children.

Thanks

CHU