History in My Own Backyard

I was a sickly child from the start. I vaguely remember Mom telling me about my childhood sickness, but as I sat through the commercial break of the 2012 Summer Olympics, I tried to recollect this interesting period in my life. I was awaiting the 200 meter finals to see the excitement of the charismatic Usain Bolt from Jamaica, who had already won gold in the 100 meter finals. I decided to call my mom before the commercials ended. “Hey Ma’,” I sang. “Hey Babe” Mom answered energetically. “Tell me about when I was sick as a baby.” Right on queue, Mom patiently recounted my story.

And so it goes that, by the time I was about one year old, I still was not walking, unlike other toddlers my age. Mom and Dad knew something was wrong. Also, I was fretful and clingy, wanting to be held most of the time and I had no energy.

There was a female pediatrician in our neighborhood in North Little Rock, Arkansas who was a pediatrician at the university hospital about 15 minutes away in Little Rock. In those days, it was not uncommon to call the doctor at home, and Mom did just that. When Mom described my symptoms to the doctor, the doctor instructed Mom to immediately bring me to the emergency room at the hospital and told Mom that she would meet her there. Mom and Dad immediately rushed me to emergency and, by the time we arrived, my appearance was gray in color. When the doctor attempted to draw my blood, there was nothing there to cover the gauze the nurse was prepared to use catch any dripping blood. The doctor explained that I was severely anemic. “If I had come in just one day later,” she told my parents, I “would not have survived.”

I was hospitalized for several weeks. Mom, Dad and my sister Regina would alternate spending the night with me in the hospital, for I was quite fretful and very selective about whom I wanted to comfort me. Fortunately, under the good doctor’s care and the love and attention of my family, I came through and began to thrive. Fortunately, I have no recollection of this rocky period of my life. In any case, I am certain that God had His hand on me.

The doctor whom God used to save my life was Dr. Minnie Joycelyn Elders. This talented physician and rising star would go on to receive a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award and serve as associate professor in pediatrics at the University of Arkansas Medical Center. She would also become a certified pediatric endocrinologist as well as an expert on childhood sexual development. Moreover, the good doctor would later be appointed by then Governor Bill Clinton as Director of the Arkansas Department of Health. After Bill Clinton became the forty-second President of the United States, Dr. Elders, by President Clinton’s appointment, would become the fifteenth United States Surgeon General and the first African-American to hold this prestigious position!

As for Usain, he won the 200 meter finals and, thus, the gold medal. As he proudly proclaimed, his performance in the 2012 Summer Olympics secured him a legendary status, becoming the first in history to win both the 100 meter and 200 meter race in two Olympics. Young Gabby Douglas, another olympic favorite, would become the first African-American and second American to win a gold for All Around in her field.

As for the good doctor, it just goes to show you, you don’t always have to go to the library to find history. With a little probing from folks who are dear to you, you can often find important history in your own back yard. All the more reason to enjoy the journey.

The Aviation Warning

So, you’ve boarded the plane, buckled up and are ready for your trip. Soon, a voice comes across the intercom with words to this effect: “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen mask will be released… If you are traveling with a small child, secure your mask first before assisting the child.”  You settle back comfortably for the journey, subconsciously accepting that, before you can take care of that someone for whom you feel responsible, you must first take care of yourself. If only we could all have this same acceptance in our personal affairs.

I know all too well the cycle of “give until its gone.”  At an early age, I began what seemed like a typical friendship with a high school friend who had a troubled life. I wanted to help, to be a good friend to someone who was struggling. Friend was constantly unloading her problems on me–”dumping”–and looking for validation from me.  This dumping and validation seeking by Friend was a pattern year after year and our roles never reversed. I never told her about the weight she was putting on me–or that I had allowed her to put on me. I felt I was helping, that Friend needed me. I was weighed down: she was light hearted. I felt guilty for not wanting to do; she used guilt to assess devotion.  School kids did not favor Friend and I defended her because people “didn’t understand her.” Many years later, when I was saddened with grief from a personal loss, Friend began dumping and ranting about not feeling validated. I couldn’t take it anymore. “I can’t take care of you right now!” I exploded. Friend was shocked. I was exhausted…and relieved. And in that instant, I knew that I neither could nor would entertain this relationship any longer. I needed to unapologetically back up, breathe, get my own bearings and move forward.  I suppose that, if I had headed the old aviation warning, I might have been honest with Friend about how she presented herself and how her behavior made me feel.  If I had prescribed boundaries and sent her the message that reciprocity has its place in a true friendship, we might have had a relationship today–perhaps. Though some people come into your life for a lifetime; others, for a season. In either event, the lesson is forever.

And indeed it is a lesson–that aviation warning–of which I frequently remind myself. When tempted to say yes yet again, when a simple “no” will do; when “taking care of it” is where I’m headed, though “it” should be handled another; when guilt would beguile me to act when I haven’t the energy (or desire).

I trust that some journeyman reading this post will recognize her own well-intended behavior and allow herself to exhale, to stop and smell the roses. I hope that some tired giver who wants only to love, to help, to heal will take a minute or two to head the aviation warning. Before you give your last, before there’s nothing left, before you lose your passion, be sure to secure your mask.  And whatever you do, always enjoy the journey!

Honoring the Dreamers

On Monday, January 21st I, along with millions of people around the world, watched the inauguration of the first African-American President–the 44th President of the United States — for the second time. This event was significant to me on many levels — as an African-American, as a woman, as a lawyer and as a dreamer. Seeing President Obama put his hand on the bible of, not only Abraham Lincoln, but also Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to take his oath from Justice John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, was nothing less than awe-inspiring for me. If only my father, or my grandfather or his father before him could have been alive to witness this phenomenal event, any one of them would have reminded me of what I have been taught throughout my life: Dreams do come true.

Dreams. I think everyone should have a dream. Everybody ought to have at least one thing to which she aspires. I’m not talking about having something just to have it. I’m talking about something to which you truly aspire–that thing in which you’re willing to invest the time, energy and emotion to make a reality for you.

I am blessed to be able to live out my dreams everyday, through music and relationship building. And as an African-American woman, I recognize that I’m not the first to have a dream. Many, sung and unsung, have already paved the way. And I think it befitting during this historical time pay tribute to a commemorative few.

To Daisy Bates, who led the fight of the Little Rock 9—those brave and determined children who desegregated Central High School in my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas.

To Mary McLeod Bethune, American educator, civil rights activist and presidential advisor who, among other things, started a school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Florida. That school eventually became Bethune-Cookman University.

To Charlotte E. Ray–In the days when my alma mater, Howard University, would not allow women in its law school, this clever lady enrolled using only her initials, C. E. Ray, to disguise her gender. It worked! She later excelled in corporate law and became one of the first African-Americans and one of the first women admitted to the D.C. Bar.

To Marion Anderson, who dreamed of sharing her gift of song to the world. When Constitution Hall refused to allow her to sing in their establishment she persevered and sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000, and later became the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

To Ernestine Dolphus, wife, mother, educator and matriarch, who dreamed of family and education. When she gave birth to her first baby girl, she gave me a future mother and educator, who gave me a foundation for my future.

And to each and every man or woman on this journey with me this day, who ever had a dream, I challenge you to dream the impossible, do the improbable. There’s nothing quite as exciting as making your own dream come true.

5 Steps to Reaching Your Goals

There comes a time in our lives when we wonder, “What next?” Where is my “life headed?” We look back on those ideas and dreams of yesteryear that now seem irrelevant– or are they? Seems as though everywhere we turn, someone else is on the ball, making things happen while we seem to be stuck in limbo. I submit to you that, it’s ok to wonder where you you’re going. It’s not so strange to question goals and dreams of yesterday. That’s a part of growth, of evolution. And, as surprising as it may seem, we’re in good company! So, journey on, my friends, and know that it’s ok from time to time to evaluate (or reevaluate) your steps. Why not? If you feel that you’re not getting out of life what you honestly feel you are putting in it, then absolutely pause and reassess your steps. As you go through this process, consider the following 5 steps:

1. Lay a Solid Foundation. Get in tune with you. What is your passion? What is that thing that you could not imagine yourself ever not doing? Is that thing something that you do because you love doing it, or because it is a means to an end? Is it the essence of who you are or what others expect of you? If what you’re doing and where you’re going is not built on a foundation of passion and love, then I consider rebuilding your foundation. When you move through life with passion and love, you can go on even in the face of annoying obstacles and temporary inconveniences; because you are doing what you believe in and want comes as natural to you as breathing. If you feel that your passion must, for whatever reason, take a back seat to necessity, then find something about what you HAVE to do that is directly connected to what you are passionate about. You have to be ok before ensuring that other people, things or situations are ok. (We hear this all the time on airplanes before take off.) This kind of healthy foundation is necessary, in my opinion, to jump start your future.

2. Practice Responsible Goal Setting. After you know who your are and what turns you on, figure out in what direction you want to take your life. This may be a trial and error type process. Start with one goal that is connected to your passion, your great love. Don’t just set the goal, but take ownership of the goal. Do your due diligence regarding the goal; research the positives and negatives of the end goal. Find a mentor or subject matter expert is is knowledgeable about your end goal and who would be willing to share relevant lessons learned. Be diligent and patient. A goal worth having is worth working and waiting for.

3. Implement Periodic “Mind Checks.” The mind is like a pitcher: What you put into it is what you’ll get out of it. If you have laid a solid foundation and you have been responsible in your goal-setting per number 2 above, but you are still not achieving your goals, check out what you’re putting in your mind and, if necessary, change it. Beware of naysayers who are constantly renting space in your head (or worse, living there for free). Sometimes, clearing your head means clearing your environment and the company you keep, particularly if they are standing between you and your dreams. If this is the case, change your mind, your attitude and your company, as appropriate. The power is yours. Take it. Decide that you are going to take charge of your life and your passions, then be about the business of making your dreams come true.

4. Remove Unfounded Limitations. Refrain from setting unfounded limits on what you can do with your life. I remember when I first decided that I wanted to record my own CD. It took me years to move forward with the CD because I was constantly reminding myself of all the things I did not have — a producer, reliable musicians, time, etc.– to get the CD done. I remember my husband saying to me one year, “You’ve defeated yourself before even starting the CD.” He was so right! When I changed my thinking about the project and starting moving like I really wanted to do the project, I was amazed at how quickly the “can’ts” turned into “cans!” So, take this as a “lessons learned” with respect to the pursuit of your goals: Eliminate the “I can’ts” and double up on the “I cans.” Life is what you make it!

5. Perform Regular Maintenance. Life is continuous journey and a work in progress. As you evolve, so will some of your goals. I knew at a young age that I wanted to become a lawyer and music was simply engrained in me from the start. But I also considered being an historian and a psychologist. The important thing as that we continue to set goals that are consistent with where we are in any particular point in time on our journeys and that we act responsibly in the setting and pursuit of these goals. Every goal, every success, every disappointment has its purpose. Let’s press on passionately, diligently and responsibly. In the end, we’ll get where we’re suppose to be, but let it be said that we enjoyed the journey.

Leadership: From Good to Great

A friend of mine at Wells recently asked me if I would speak to her audience of leaders at a diversity conference. The theme for the conference was: “Leading Through Change with Courage and Compassion.” As I thought about the leaders from across business lines at our company and the various team members they represent, I asked myself, “What can I say to my fellow team members about this awesome topic?” Upon further reflection, I thought that the best way to address this topic was through my personal journey. And I’ll share the same with my fellow leaders who read this blog post.

As I’ve said on many occasions, my journey has been a continuous lesson in merging two seemingly different career paths (music and law) and leveraging them both in multiple aspects of my life. While initially, this process was a source of constant struggle for me (what with constantly vacillating between the two careers), when I bridged the gap between the two, my perspective on living and leadership was completely changed. Whether leading my background vocalists and band members through the musical and theatrical nuances of my one-woman show (“Timeless: My Journey, My Song”) on stage or managing a highly-skilled and talented group of contracts lawyers in the office, I recognized that could not give my very best as a leader until I learned to embrace (and leverage) my whole self, bringing all of me to all I do.

Aha! There was that moment when I realized that the competencies that I use in my passion for music –connecting with people, building relationships, inspiring people, collaborating– are the same competencies about which I am passionate in my legal work. And guess what else? I realized that passion and work do not have to compete; they can co-exist. They must co-exist! And in that “aha” moment my perspective on leadership began to broaden.

In my twenty-three years of practicing law–15 in corporate America; 8 in management–I’ve learned some wonderful lessons in leadership. I’ll share 6 of them with you.

1. Be Authentic– Don’t just talk the talk; walk the talk. Team members hear and believe what we do more than what we say.

2. Listen with Your Heart– Team members need to feel that they are more than a resource to build good products; to meet deadlines and the needs of our company and customers. They want us to see THEM; to truly recognize and celebrate the unique contributions they bring to the team; and to recognize and celebrate their contributions in ways that speak to their individuality.

3. Be Consistent — Don’t just check off the box, but invest in and commit to the team. Continue to be authentic. Continue to listen with your heart. That’s how we build trust. When team members trust that we see them, acknowledge them and are invested in them, they appreciate our efforts and are motivated to consistently deliver extraordinary results, even in a changing work environment.

4. Share a Vision — Start with the company or group vision statement. (If there is not one, create it together.) Sit down together with the team and talk about how that vision aligns with your vision and the overall vision of the company or group and how that vision is uniquely tied to the team’s mission or project. Each member of the team ought to see a little bit of him or herself in that vision. When the team has collective ownership in the vision, everyone shares the responsibility and pride in seeing that vision realized!

5. Model the Way — Repeat steps 1-3. (Did I just channel R. Kelly? So be it.) Walk the talk, listen with your heart and be consistent. Have the courage to roll up your sleeves and get into the weeds with the team. Be the change you want to see!

6. Encourage the Heart — Find out what the team members are passionate about both, from an company/group needs perspective as well as from a team member work-life balance perspective. And even if the team member’s passion is not a company/group need, celebrate that passion, because it shows team diversity which, in my humble opinion, makes the world go round. We simply cannot forget to encourage the heart. By so doing, we send the message to our teams that we see them not just as a vehicle through which company or group needs are met, but as someone who is balanced, happy and complete. It is that complete individual who feels comfortable and happy at work and who is a leader in his or her own right.

I had an opportunity to attend the Zenger-Folkman Extraordinary Leader workshop recently. The theme of this workshop was “play to your strengths”–Not just skill set, but the competencies about which you are passionate! Well, I don’t have to tell you how that resonated with me. In this workshop, I learned that when skill set, passion and company or group need meet, we are our most effective selves as leaders. That’s when we’re adding the most value to our company or group.

Also, I believe that when skill set and passion meet, we are our happiest selves. So my challenge to leaders is to, first, start with YOU. If you believe in the vision and values of your company or group, then find those aspects of your company or group about which you are passionate and make that a part of your work. Then, when you are endeavoring to bring your whole self — your true self — to your work, immediately turn your focus to your team. Become a servant leader. That’s how good leaders become great leaders and great leaders become extraordinary leaders. That’s how we lead through change. That’s how we motivate our teams to get results when we consistently have to do more with less. That’s why individuals who are called upon to do more with less choose to go the extra mile and consistently produce extraordinary results. That’s how we leave the right legacy for the new generation of leaders to follow.
Now let’s be clear. I’m not at all suggesting that leadership is a piece of cake and that all will instantly be well if you hit every item on my list. Great leadership is cultivated over time and is an on-going process. And there may be instances where, no matter how valiant the effort or how well-intended the leader, there are one or two members of the group who seemingly will not be satisfied. I suggest NOT focusing on those “actively disengaged” members, simply because doing so takes energy from the “actively engaged” and, frankly, sends the wrong message to both the engaged and disengaged team members. But that’s another topic that warrants a discussion of its own. I will say, though, that if you are consistent and stay focused on the engaged and the vision, you are more likely to see the disengaged either become engaged or leave the group than you are if you become inconsistent in your actions in an effort to “win over” the disengaged.

Now that I have shared my perspective on leadership, let me return for a moment to how we began: Leading Through Change with Courage and Compassion. Our lives are constantly evolving and I welcome the change. However, I want to embrace the change without compromising who I am. So, I have decided to make every effort to bring all of me to all I do. Not just an African-American woman, not just an African-American lawyer, but an African-American woman lawyer with a passion. That’s how I choose to show up at work and in my personal life. And I encourage my fellow journeymen and journey women to do the same.

The great thing about this journey is that we are not alone. Not only are we traveling together, but we are standing on the shoulders of the many leaders in our lives and before our time who modeled the way by embracing their passions– the mothers, fathers, mentors, colleagues and friends. In the words of the old African proverb, “It takes a village.”

So journey on, my fellow leaders. We may not have all the answers, but know that everything has its season. When it’s time for growth, the rain will fall. But when it’s time for light, the sun will shine and end the end, we’ll get the job done. And I trust that, along the way, we will have enjoyed the journey:-).

New Year; Renewed Life

So many of us find ourselves stuck in the same old rut year after year–same job, same relationship, same struggles and so on. We make time to take care of everyone and everything, but leave little, if any, time for ourselves.

2012 has zoomed by, as time tends to do year after year. So, 2013 is just as good a time as any to change the one thing we have control over — our attitudes. The mind is indeed like a pitcher; what you put in it is what you’ll get out of it. If we tell ourselves that the same old rut is what we’ll experience this year, then the same old rut is more than likely what we’ll get out of life this year.

For years, I told myself that I could not pursue music — my passion — while following my dream of practicing law. Consequently, for years I vacillated between music and law and, though moderately successful in both careers, I was not fulfilled. It wasn’t until I changed my attitude and thinking about my situation that I began to see new levels of satisfaction and success in both my careers. Today, I am a senior level manager in the Law Department of a Fortune 500 company. I also create, produce and perform music under my own entertainment services company. Life is grand!

I tell my story not to be compared to others or to show how great I am (it’s not that), but as an example of perseverance and the power of a made up mind. And I have decided that this is just the beginning of my renewed life! From this day forward, I will go as far as I can see, and beyond.

I know that you are among a universe of folks on their own personal journeys. To you I say: dream the impossible, do the improbable, run your own race and, whatever you do…Enjoy the Journey!