29 December 2020
My story about survival was featured in the Fearless Femme Storytelling Podcast which includes female-identifying individuals sharing their personal stories around a theme. Episode 1 features different takes on the theme “I will survive“ from Ile-Ife Okantah, Suzy D’Enbeau, Janet Meeks, Denise Harrison, and ‘The Young and the Fearless’ Maggie Pazderak. I encourage you to listen to the entire podcast episode and hope the diverse perspectives about survival will speak to you as you face challenges in the days and years to come. My story is shared at 14:50 on the podcast and also follows in print. Listen on Spotify or Podbean.
Oh, dear God! I hear car doors slamming, pounding footsteps and voices of angry men storming across our yard. What is happening?
As a young girl, I was horrified to experience those scary sounds in the dark of night. In that moment I rolled off my bed and hid underneath it until quiet was restored. Deep down in my heart, I knew what was happening.
Those sounds came from men who hated my father. They were white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan. My dad was a country lawyer and a staunch advocate for equal rights. He represented the school board in 1964 when the federal government ordered that school integration must occur. Our school district was one of the first in Mississippi to integrate. As racial tensions were raging, he told the school’s leaders that the government’s order must be followed. On the first day our schools were integrated, my dad helped to escort the first black child, a six-year-old, innocent little girl, safely to her desk at Carthage Elementary School.
When you do the right thing at a time when it’s not popular, harsh ramifications can follow. The Klan burned a cross at my dad’s law office. They burned down the barn on our farm. My dad carried a gun and met with the FBI as those same angry men threatened to kill my family. At the time I wasn’t fully aware of the magnitude of those threats; but as a child, I knew I was afraid. Yet I survived those controversial times because my dad taught me to do what is right, fair and just, even and especially when it’s not popular. I cannot tell you the number of times my father’s wisdom has helped me survive when making unpopular, but necessary decisions throughout my life.
Ten years after integration began, my father took me to the chapel of a hospital where my mother was an inpatient. For months, she had battled ovarian cancer. In fact, she was diagnosed just one week before I left for college. Mother was only 49. I was 18. This heart-piercing meeting was devastating as, with tears in his eyes, my typically unemotional dad said, “Janet, your mother is not going to make it.”
I was very close to my parents. Both were incredible role models in their own special ways. My dad was a brilliant attorney, my basketball buddy and my strongest cheerleader. My mother was a gentle giant. At 6 feet tall, she was a quiet leader who overflowed with compassion. Everyone loved her. My mother was nothing short of my very best friend.
The great times she and I shared provide precious memories for me. At the time, I wondered how I could ever survive without her. But throughout her illness, she expected me to adhere to normalcy. When she died, my heart was broken. Yet I survived by doing what I have learned to do when faced with survival. I poured myself into what’s important to me. I knew my mother would be proud of me for whatever I would make of my life. And through her inspiration, I found joy through trying to make a positive difference in some small way. Yes, I survived my mother’s death because of her love for me, her belief in me, and her expectation that I live my life with resilience.
In 1978 I got married after finishing graduate school and started working for a large banking system. In hindsight, I was too young to marry, and I naively had not taken the time to really know this man who became my husband. The early years were good, and we were happy. And then out of the blue, life threw us a curve when our first baby died due to a fatal birth defect. How could I possibly survive such devastation? During the first year after our son died, I often felt that life was out of control. To survive, I reached out to others who had experienced the same type of excruciating loss. With the help of a hospital chaplain and three physicians at the medical center where I would eventually work, we started a support group. I wanted to help young parents who experienced infant death and who might benefit from listening, love and reinforcement from others who had shared similar pain. In this case, the hope of helping others hurt less helped me to survive the death of my baby. And because of the love I felt from the hospital employees who cared for me when my baby died, I left banking and was recruited to join the executive team of that medical center at the young age of 27! Once again, I poured myself into my priorities while striving to make a positive difference. Most importantly, I survived the loss of my first baby because my two precious daughters were born over the next two years.
A few weeks after my older daughter was born, my husband abruptly gave me an edict that I would quit my job and become the stay-at-home mother he wanted. As much as I love and adore my children, and as much as I respect my friends who opted not to work outside the home, it was not in my DNA to be a stay-at-home mom. So, in that moment, I found my voice and told my husband, “No! I will not quit my job.” My parents had taught me that the sky is the limit and that glass ceilings are nonexistent. I knew I could be a good mother and an effective professional. And once again I poured myself into my priorities… my children first and then my career.
I am convinced that saying, “no” to my husband at that time may well have triggered the beginning of the end of what would become a near 26-year marriage. Based upon his indiscretions and escalating erratic behaviors, I divorced him in 2004. I moved to Ohio for a professional promotion and for a fresh start in my personal life. Not only did I survive, but I would thrive as the years ahead would become the happiest time of my life.
I have shared with you some deep valleys from years past. And yet, while those chapters brought profound sadness, my joy-filled days have far overshadowed the darkness. I have found that valleys absolutely suck, and that somehow mountaintops just might exist on the other side of those valleys. From the experiences with the KKK, my dad taught me to lead with courage and to advocate for equity for all people. Through my mother’s death, I learned the true meaning of resilience. And I cry with joy each time I experience life in ways that she did not… like planning my daughters’ weddings, being present for the births of my grandchildren, and celebrating special traditions with family. Through the painful death of my baby boy, I was blessed with two amazing daughters, and I was called into a healthcare career I have cherished for 40 years. When my first husband ordered me to quit my job, I learned to stay true to myself and my convictions. And, as for the many years of an unhappy marriage, four years after our divorce, I married the true love of my life who is my soul mate and best friend…. the person who taught me not only how to trust again, but also and most importantly, how to love again. Yes, I have survived!
In closing, I really hope that I am done with valleys. I mean seriously…I don’t want any more! But that’s simply not realistic because life in general tends to be filled with peaks and valleys. I am so grateful that I have survived my valleys, and I believe that you can survive, too. When you find yourself in a valley… as devastating as it may be at the time, just believe that somehow… in some way… a mountaintop may not be too far away.
And as for whatever life may bring me in the chapters that are ahead, I will continue to survive!
1 July 2020
Have you ever felt uninspired? You know… you just cannot find that “fire in your belly” to get things done that you need to accomplish?
Well, I have a confession to make…. That has been ME for the past few months.
You haven’t heard from me for a while. In fact, I have essentially been radio silent on social media. Why? Because frankly, I have not known what to say amid the unprecedented crises our nation has been facing. For challenges so daunting, what can we possibly do to make a difference?
Covid-19 became real to me in late March when the spouse of a former colleague was diagnosed with the potentially lethal virus. Time and time again, this dear lady fought for her life. Through the grace of God, thousands of prayers and the outstanding care of dedicated, caring medical professionals, she finally came home to her family about a month ago. Her road was incredibly difficult with 75 days in three different hospitals (including 62 days in isolation with 40 days on a vent). Even a month after her homecoming, she perseveres to reclaim her health completely, and I am confident she will! Her battle has been long and hard, but well worth the fight!
This is one person’s very special story. And as I see this individual’s face in my mind, I think of the millions of other human beings around the world who are doing battle with this wicked illness. The battle for each person will be well worth the fight.
Our nation is also afflicted with yet another evil disease … chronic racism… a perpetrator that rages with a vengeance and has lasted far too long. Racial injustice was recently made real to millions around the world through the faces of George Floyd and other African Americans whose lives have been senselessly taken from this earth. For weeks the streets have been filled with protesters who are rightfully calling for an end to chronic racism in our country. This battle requires dramatic action and perseverance. Victory will be well worth the fight.
As individuals, what can we do to make a difference?
With Covid-19, Infectious Disease scientists have been crystal clear: stay at home if you can, practice social distancing and wear a facial covering. The best way to show respect for others and for yourself is to follow these simple rules.
Relative to chronic racism, let’s start with the Golden Rule… Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat people like you want to be treated. Lend your hands, your heart and your resources to help others. Remember that to those much is given, much will be expected. The time to act is now.
Get involved in ways that make a difference and in which you can infuse your passions. One of our family members is an excellent seamstress. She and her sister made masks to donate to a nursing home when PPE was scarce. Another family member’s five-year-old daughter is making beaded bracelets and is selling them with all proceeds’ being donated to support Black Lives Matter organizations.
So now as these two diseases continue to rage, I will look to the faces of Covid-19 and chronic racism to find my inspiration. I will be grateful every day for health, happiness, family, and friends. And I will be committed to fight both Covid-19 and chronic racism in ways that are meaningful and that make a difference. As the sun sets each day, I will remember that victories over Covid-19 and chronic racism will require all of us to show basic respect to others in everything that we do.
Regardless of what we are doing right now, suffice it to say that we can do more!
9 January 2020
Even as we have concluded the Holiday Season and entered a new year, many families ponder the memories of little ones whose eyes danced as they anticipated the arrival of Santa Claus. To these children, believing in this Jolly Old Elf led them also to believe their stockings would be full of toys on Christmas morning. Yes, as children, we were taught to believe.
Believe. This word can be powerful in the new year as we strive to cast away doubts and replace our fears with the promise that seemingly impossible aspirations can indeed become possible.
The willingness to believe can provide each of us with inspiration when things are going well.
As a child, I was encouraged to believe I could achieve anything. The confidence instilled within me by my parents and other adult mentors led me to dream big and to reach farther and wider than realistically seemed possible.
My high school basketball coach taught our team we could win if we would commit to hard work and if we believed we could win. That belief coupled with passion and perseverance led us as seniors to a 24-game winning streak.
In 2006 I found myself at the helm of a hospital with tall mountains to climb. With a host of daunting challenges, our leadership team decided to dream big. We embraced the word “believe” and started a journey to make our dreams come true. In fact, the word “believe” became our mantra. My office overflowed with memorabilia touting this wonderful word which we talked about with great zeal during our team meetings. Through the staff’s willingness to believe again, that struggling community hospital was transformed into a regional medical center with outstanding clinical care, compassionate caring, happy employees and collaborative physicians.
The act of believing can also carry us through challenging times in our lives.
The week before I left for college in 1973, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I longed to be with her every day during her fifteen-month battle with this horrific disease. Yet, my precious mother taught me to carry on her convictions and to believe she had prepared me well for the inevitable days ahead without her.
In 1982 my first baby died of a fatal birth defect. To say the least, I was devastated and was petrified that this same problem might happen again. This obsession could easily have taken over my heart and my mind. But then my faith led me to believe that good things can come from bad situations, and they did! I am so thankful for the opportunity to believe again as I was subsequently blessed to welcome to this world my two precious daughters.
I have learned over the course of my life that believing is not necessarily easy. Yet, I am convinced my willingness to believe in a loving and mighty God who welcomes all people in spite of our flaws has carried me through the valleys of my life while also blessing me with the peaks of my most treasured mountaintops.
I am reminded of the late 1960s when racial unrest was prevalent in the midst of public-school desegregation. Some adults in my southern hometown (including my father) believed that black and white families could co-exist amicably while showing mutual respect. While those times were certainly tumultuous, the conviction of parents to role model their belief that all people were created equally set the stage for the pursuit of harmony that ultimately would be achieved by those who were willing to believe.
Here we are 60 years later, and we are entering the year 2020 with a state of angst, unrest and incivility across our country. Bitterness, hatred and disrespect have once again become much too common and sadly have been accepted by some as a new normal.
What if we could find within our hearts, minds and souls the willingness to believe again with childlike faith? What if we could strive to see the good in others as opposed to assuming the worst about them? What if we all would believe again that we are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?
My prayer for the new year is that we might pledge to believe again. May we the people be individually and collectively convicted to live with uncompromising integrity while offering goodness, grace and respect to all. In so doing, may we all believe and receive a brighter tomorrow!
5 November 2019
Have you ever felt that you’ve given all you have to give? A few weeks ago, I was there… I was totally spent.
My husband and I were on a cycling trip in Canada. Promoted as “easy to moderate terrain”, we expected a leisurely ride to take in the beautiful fall foliage.
Little did we know that the subtle definition of “rolling hills” would translate for us into long and steep mini mountains.
On day three of our tour, the guide cautioned us to be prepared for Sugar Hill in Knowlton, Quebec. She said we should give the hill a try, but to expect we might hit a wall at some point in the climb.
We decided to go for it, and we gave it all we had to give to get to the top of that hill. After struggling and peddling like crazy, we finally made it! Goal achieved! Check!
Before we could catch our breath, the bike’s GPS instructed us to turn right, and when we looked both right and up, we couldn’t believe it! What we thought was the top of Sugar Hill was just the beginning with the remainder of the incline being profoundly more challenging.
We were flabbergasted and disillusioned! After pausing for a moment, we decided we had three choices. We could quit (which was not an acceptable option). We could continue to pedal as hard as we could in the lowest gear and go nowhere fast. Or, we could change “how” we were pursuing the climb.
And so, we decided to persevere by changing our approach. We grabbed our handlebars, got off of our bikes, and we pushed our bikes all the way up the rest of that hill!
Were we comfortable in this new experience? No, and our huffing and puffing proved it!! Was our approach pretty? No! Did we quit? No! Did we get there? Yes! Could we have gotten there faster and easier if only we had embraced the advantage offered by the new technology of e-bikes? Of course! But we missed that golden opportunity by insisting that we continue our ride “the old-fashioned way” (You know the proverbial claim… “But we’ve always done it that way!”).
We live and work in challenging times, and as leaders, the pathways before us will certainly be long and steep as we continuously seek to guide our teams to new heights.
On the journey to excellence, we are called to have the courage to persevere. We should remember to celebrate the greatness our teams achieve every day while also understanding that there will be abundant opportunities to improve our performance today, tomorrow and beyond.
For this fact, in the quest for excellence, we will never really arrive; yet we always must strive continuously to give only our best which is what our customers, employees and other key stakeholders need, want and deserve.
Even when you’re spent, and you think you’ve given all that you have to give, how will you persevere in leading your team to peak performance?
- What will you do differently in “how” you are leading? Perhaps the Key Ingredients of Gracious Leadership might come in handy.
- As your job will invariably change, what skills do you need that you don’t currently have? Consider advocating for yourself by asking for stretch assignments. Seek to learn new skills and become all you’ve been created to be.
- Are there steps you must take to ensure the achievement of your ever-increasing stretch goals? What must you do differently to persevere as a peak performance leader?
- How can you make better utility of your resources? Please don’t be stubborn (like we were) by refusing to adopt new technology and missing out on the benefits that can be derived from such contemporary resources.
- And how can you better leverage your most precious asset… your people? Unleash the passion that resides within them. Empower them, match the passion of the person with the purpose of the work. And, be sure to encourage a culture of openness and transparency as those closest to the front line should have the best view of workplace reality.
Yes, perseverance will definitely be required as you continue your journey to peak performance. When the going gets tough, I encourage you to catch your breath, change your approach and garner the courage to persevere as you lead your team to the top of your own Sugar Hill!
28 May 2019
Risk mitigation is a hot topic within C-suites and boardrooms. Corporate risk presents in diverse ways, from compliance issues, regulatory violations and sexual harassment to poor customer service, data breaches and more. Organizations are increasingly susceptible to financial and reputational risk when stories go viral regarding ethics and performance failures.
Risk mitigation has become a significant responsibility for leaders within many industries. As such, it has found a seat at the table within routine meeting agendas for the C-suite and board. Why? Because unmanaged risk can harm organizational results when it derails strategic and financial performance.
Most leaders should have a process to identify and rectify known organizational risks. By using proven process improvement techniques, the root causes of the problems may be identified. Action plans can then be created and monitored to rectify the issues in a systematic and accountable manner that facilitates sustained results.
A case in point
I am aware of an organization that did a good job of identifying its material, known risks related to suboptimal customer service. The organization’s leaders discovered a recurring pattern as they analyzed customer complaints.
They found inconsistencies in how their managers responded to these concerns. Even when complaints were voiced directly by consumers, these complaints were not consistently “heard” by leaders. In fact, some unaddressed complaints ultimately resulted in lost sales and legal action.
As the company analyzed the problems their customers encountered, its leaders realized they needed to teach their team the importance of rapid response to complaints. As part of this process, they coached their leaders and managers to receive complaints by respectfully expressing regret and empathy in a safe and constructive manner. They accomplished this task through teaching leaders to master “the power of apology.”
Making things right
In situations where suboptimal products or customer experiences were involved, the leaders were taught to apologize and to “make things right” for the customers. In situations where a misunderstanding existed, but without performance failures, leaders were taught to say, “I’m sorry you experienced disappointment. Please share more about your concerns and help us learn from your experience. We really want to do better for you and for our next customer.”
The results were phenomenal as once-disgruntled customers believed they had been heard and, as such, felt valued. Over a reasonably short span of time, few complaints escalated to the C-suite because leaders had mastered the power of apology in the moment. Their actions closest to the customers had a material, positive impact in mitigating risk for this company. And, most important, they retained customers and avoided costly expenses.
As you contemplate the different ways to mitigate known risks for your company, I encourage you to review the processes you currently utilize to address these vulnerabilities. Perhaps the power of apology might have application for you and your team as you build your risk mitigation strategies relative to customer service.
14 October 2018
Since Gracious Leadership was released in late January, I have been extraordinarily humbled at the overwhelming response this book’s message is receiving. Within my blog posts and public presentations, I talk openly about the need for leaders of all types of organizations to be fully respectful as they seek to guide their teams to peak performance.
Respectful leadership “should” be for one and for all. What a novel concept that ought to be readily embraced!
However, in reality, this concept is not novel; it’s just not consistently applied and as such, has become grossly underrepresented as the obnoxious noise of toxic leadership strives to dilute the harmony of respect so desperately needed across our nation.
We must do better than this!
Certainly, there is no better time than now for advocates of fully respectful leadership to stand up and be counted.
Respect for one and for all does not pertain solely to showing respect to others. It also means that we must take a stand to respect ourselves. That means that we need to become our own best advocates.
Within Gracious Leadership, I included a chapter entitled “Gracious Leaders are Courageous” with a section of the chapter challenging readers to find the courage to advocate for themselves.
Women especially tend to be excellent in advocating on behalf of other people. However, when opportunities present for females to ask for stretch assignments or advancement, we often will opt to become more reserved… and we shrink into the comfort zones of our current roles. It’s no wonder that as a society, we still have not made adequate progress in having a representative number of women leaders in the C-Suites and in our Board Rooms.
Why are we so bashful about advocating for ourselves?
When I was a young executive, I decided to ask my CEO for a title change so the nomenclature of my role and the magnitude of the work would be better correlated. After giving my request some thought, the CEO said, “Yes.”
Was this title change important to a 28-year-old young executive? You better believe it was. And it became even more important 20 years later when I again garnered the courage to advocate for myself. I asked for the opportunity to lead a hospital without having had one single day of hospital operational experience. Thankfully, the answer I received was “Yes.” And this particular “Yes” allowed me the joy of experiencing the nine most gratifying years of my professional life to date.
As I make presentations and challenge my audiences to find the courage to advocate for themselves, I always share that if they are already trusted, proven performers, the probability of getting a “Yes” when asking for opportunities should be increased. However, I also caution participants to understand that just because they are already trusted, proven performers does not necessarily mean they will automatically be offered those coveted advancements. Sometimes you just have to ask!!
Since releasing Gracious Leadership, I have been delighted to hear from several individuals who, after reading the book or hearing this advice, have taken the risk to raise their hands and ask for advancements. For those who have shared with me their progress in finding the courage to advocate for themselves, they’re batting a thousand!
To maximize the respect you show to others, it’s critically important that you first show respect for yourself. So whether you are aspiring to secure a promotion or if you find yourself in the horrific position of being subjected to inappropriate sexual overtures, I encourage you to respect yourself without hesitation by garnering the courage to find your voice and let it be heard in your own way. In so doing, you can become your own best advocate.
Fully respectful leadership starts with YOU. Respect yourself first so you then can lead others like you’ve never led before.
I can’t wait to hear your stories about how you are finding the courage to advocate for yourself and elevating your voice to make your self-advocacy real! I encourage you to begin this journey today!