Deb, welcome to Sidepreneur Magazine! I want to hear a little about your childhood. I hear you grew up in the Bronx. How did that setting influence your entrepreneurial outlook?
I grew up in New York City as the oldest of seven kids in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx in a big Italian family. It’s no surprise I learned at an early age to self-sustain myself. I think my resiliency was actually born young because of my upbringing.
What do you love most about what you’re doing now?
I work with leaders and their teams on helping them to learn and leverage their strengths. I get to see how what they are learning today can serve them in their business growth. I love that because, as a CEO or C- level executive, you get caught up in the day-to-day, the muck and mire of what you’re doing. I come in as an objective outsider to map the strengths of their team. Then I say, “You know what, I’m looking at your team and baby, you have some amazing strengths. Let me help you to see how you can leverage them, or how you can help your team to collaborate more effectively towards growth.” That can rock their world, and I really love that.
So you measure your success in quantitative ways or qualitatively?
Both actually. I look quantitatively at where the organization was when I began with them and where were they are when I leave them. I also look at the qualitative piece. It’s satisfying when someone has that V8 moment. They smack themselves in the forehead as they realize, “I had that talent all along, and I never nurtured it. Now that you’re telling me how to nurture it, I see unbelievable upside potential.” That is better than the money I get paid.
Before you left corporate America, your coworkers admonished you not to behave like an owner. What does it look like behave as an owner in that context?
I was a Vice President of operations at the company, and I had other VPs telling me to tone it down. They felt I was making them look bad, that my team and I didn’t need to be the rock stars of the company. They didn’t think operations should lead the charge on how the company grew. Years earlier, I had read that when you go a different direction from the masses of people, you stand out and they don’t like you. When that happens you’re in good company. You’re probably doing the right thing.
I felt a pride of ownership because I was trying to exceed expectations. I was teaching and mentoring my team to exceed expectations my whole tenure there. There was such a difference when my team showed up for project versus other people. I tried to mentor or influence other folks outside of my department, and in some cases I was very successful at doing that. Occasionally their own leaders held them back. That was very sad. It meant they were putting their hope and potential in the hands of someone who didn’t have their best interest at heart.
What leads people in corporate America to keep things as they are and not improve them?
I’m a student and a teacher of DISC, which is an assessment on behavior. Interestingly enough, 69% of the overall population in the world is estimated to be what they call “S-wired”. These are people who don’t like change. They thrive on routine. They like things to be very predictable. Automatically you’re bucking the system as soon as you try to do anything that’s slightly outside of the norm. The further away you get from the norm, the more dramatic the reaction gets.
I never thought about it that way. It’s essentially a personality conflict, and the dominant personality of an organization is determined the makeup of society.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right Harvey. Of course, in some industries it’s slightly different. In the engineering industry, people are very “C-wired”. In the dramatic arts, people are mainly “I-wired”. The industry I was in was pretty much an average industry, and it really fell into the average: 69% of people are very change-phobic.
You are action-oriented in your day-to-day habits. You want to accomplish the right things each day. How do you know what the right things are?
Early on I didn’t. I took the shotgun approach. As long as I was busy, it seemed to be productive. As soon as I started to shift into my business, I realized that activity and accomplishment are two different things. I needed to get that straight. So being busy wasn’t the gold medal I really wanted to wear. I wanted to accomplish my vision or mission. Now, three times a day my iPhone reminds me to check in with myself and to look at what I’m doing today, now, this moment. I ask if it is serving my overall vision and mission. If not, why not?
So your secret for selecting the right things to do is to know your overall objectives. You align your activities with your purpose and mission. Do you run every choice through that filter?
Yeah. It kind of all starts with the vision and mission. Once I figured out what I was put on this earth to do, it was easy to see what activities served that purpose and what activities did not serve that purpose. It made decision-making easy. It made prioritizing easier. It even made how I allocated my time and resources easier. So that’s the measurement tool that I use today.
That’s very good advice. Your husband is your biggest cheerleader. Can you tell me a story of some way that he has helped you recently?
Oh yeah. He helps me in everything I do. When I first wanted to start my business, I was a corporate executive here in New York for a $500 million company. I was making multiple six figures. When I told him I wanted to quit my job to start my business at zero, he said, “Babe, you can do it. Absolutely. Whatever you want to do I’m here for you.” Still today he encourages me to do what I need to do. He’ll make contacts for me. He’ll introduce me. As the Executive Director of a school for emotionally disturbed children, he is often at networking events. Whenever he meets someone he thinks will be meaningful for me, he makes the introduction.
When I’m out at a training event teaching or as a student, my husband, Greg, encourages me to go. I go away twice a year, and I spend a week with my mentor, John Maxwell. Three times a year I spend time with my other mentor, Dan Miller. When I come back home he encourages me to reflect and decide what I need to take action on now and what we should put on the back burner for later on.
Yes. Taking the time to process learning events makes a huge difference in their value. Can you speak to how do you reflect and make those judgment calls when you get back?
It’s really evolved over the years. Now, when I come back from an event, even if it’s a one-day event or a meeting, I ask myself two questions. First I ask, “What did that event mean?” Next I ask, “What did that event mean to me?” When you personalize what you learned with your vision, your mission, and your calling, it takes on a completely different meaning.
I’ve been at events where I could see what it meant for other people, but it was more relevant for them than for me. I’ve also had the opposite happen, where an event didn’t mean as much to the average person as it meant for me in my business. Those two questions really serve me well. Even when we finish our conversation I’ll ask myself those same two questions.
You say that the most important thing aspiring entrepreneurs can do is find successful entrepreneurs and link up with them. Do you have any practical advice on how to do that?
Today, with the Internet, it is so much easier to find entrepreneurs with the same values I have. If I’m going to spend time with people like Dan Miller and Aaron Walker, I want to make sure their values align with mine. If I’m going to take time away from my family, I want to make sure our time together is not just about doing business. It needs to be about doing business the way I believe it needs to be done.
Often entrepreneurs just look for somebody else who’s a business owner. They don’t necessarily find somebody who’s also like-minded. We can link arms with like-minded people we would love to have around our dinner table and to introduce to our family.
So the test is, “Is this the sort of person I want to spend time with and learn from? Do we have similar values?”
Oh yeah, absolutely. I even find in business partnerships, that’s the same thing that hangs them up. Lots of times I’ll get called into business partnerships as they’re starting to unravel. Often it’s because they went into the partnership and they weren’t equally yoked. They didn’t have similar values and visions for themselves or for the organization.
Please share the story of a crisis in your life where there was a decision big enough that you really felt the uncertainty. I’m interested in how you coped with it.
You know we all hit that. My threshold for uncertainty is probably dramatically higher than the average person. When I do hit those times where I’m thinking, “Oh man, is this really, really the right thing? Is this really, really what I want to do?” That’s where I call in the power of my own inner circle. I have a handful of folks, my husband and a few other business owners that I will go to and say to them, “Here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s the reason why. How does this hit you, for me?”
Years ago, I would ask people questions and I wouldn’t really pay attention to their answers because I already had my mind made up. I’ve come to realize that I’m not is smart as I think I am. One is too small a number to accomplish anything great. I’ve had other people placed in my life with some very complementary strengths. And some of them have a very contrary point of view. All of that serves me well when I listen to it. When I really hit my threshold, which doesn’t happen often, I lean very heavily into my inner circle.
Is there a specific instance you can share?
When I first launched my business, my target was parents with their kids. I wanted to help parents understand how their children are wired so they can help them leverage their strengths early on in life. I didn’t want children to grow up like me—still trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up.
I would give my workshops, which I had the hardest time booking. But I soon learned I wasn’t an ideal person to connect with frazzled parents. Once, newly arrived on a flight from Paris, I jumped in my luxury car to drive over to a workshop. A mom showed up there with Cheerios flying out the back window of her car and the family dog in the back seat. Our stories, our lives didn’t really connect. But I still felt compelled to do something to help parents with their kids.
I had a very candid conversation with Dan Miller who was my coach back in 2008. I said, “Dan, you know I’m confused, and I know this is really powerful stuff.”
He goes, “Yeah Deb, it is.
“But I show up and they don’t understand me. I really can’t connect with them, but yet it’s so good.”
He said, “Well, maybe your job is to create the content but not necessarily deliver the content. So what about licensing that content to someone else?”
I kind-of had my own V8 moment. I was like, “Oh man, he is so right. Why didn’t I see that? It was right there in front of me, hidden in plain sight.” It was a tough decision because I had invested a lot of money in branding, positioning, printed materials, and a community website. I had a ton of stuff out there and a ton of money invested in my workshops.
Dan helped me see that I could keep trying to force it, but it wouldn’t work well. If it’s the right idea and you’re the right person to deliver that idea, you don’t have to force it. It happens very naturally. It was a tough pill to swallow, but boy I’m glad I did. I did swallow what I did because otherwise I wouldn’t be on the phone with you now.
You’ve mentioned Dan Miller, Aaron Walker, and John Maxwell. You are connected to some pretty important guys. How did you connect with them?
In February 2008, I was in my corporate career and I was trying to get a sense of what else I could do. I had a very cushy job which I’d loved, but there were pieces of my job I loved more than others.
I decided take a day off from work, which rarely happened. To prove to God how serious I was, I went on the treadmill to show him I was being sacrificial at that moment. To distract myself from the treadmill, I flipped on the TV and saw a guy named Dan Miller being interviewed on a talk show. He was talking about his books No More Dreaded Mondays and 48 Days to the Work You Love.
I watched the interview. It lasted 15 minutes or so. I didn’t want it to end. As soon as the interview ended, I got off the treadmill and I went to the bookstore where I bought both of his books. I read them within two days and then went on the Internet to find his podcasts and radio programs. I listened to everything. Then I contacted him for coaching. That’s how Dan and I met.
I met John Maxwell back in 1995 when my husband and I were invited to a workshop where John was one of the speakers. What I loved about him was his easy way of teaching complex human leadership concepts so even someone like me could understand them. I began reading his books and listening to his audio products.
I followed John for quite some time. Then, in 2010 when he started blogging about his book, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, I decided to leave some comments on his blog. He was releasing a chapter every week. In those chapters, there was some stuff that was so relevant to me. I shared with John some of the stories I had encountered that underscored some of his teaching points. Then his publisher, Thomas Nelson Publishing contacted me and said, “Hey, John would like to use one of your stories in his book.” We agreed to that, and then in January 2011 his book was launched. In March 2011, he was looking for founding partners to be on his team of coaches, speakers, and trainers. So I became one of his founding partners in that business, and today we have 6,000 people worldwide.
I see John twice a year. I’m on calls with him and his teaching team several times during the year. I’ve been honored to be in the man’s face and to learn through him on a more personal level.
And how did you connect with Aaron Walker?
I met Aaron back in August 2013. I approached Dan Miller. I said, “Hey Dan, I really have it on my heart that you and I should start a mastermind group for entrepreneurs.
He goes, “It is so funny you say that. My wife, Joanne, and I were just talking this morning over breakfast about how you and I need to collaborate on something, and I think this is it.”
We did begin that mastermind group. Aaron Walker had been in a mastermind group with Dan Miller and Dave Ramsey and some other very influential folks for 20 years. Dan invited Aaron into our mastermind group and he is a member today.
You mentioned that new business owners often fail to focus on tasks that use their strengths. How do we find our strengths and learn to focus on them?
I’ll tell you. Every entrepreneur is the same when they’re really having a challenge in their business. There’s a gap between what they know and what they do. Oftentimes it’s that lack of focus. Many of us have a gut feeling that tells us what our strengths are, but because we’re so used to being self-deprecating, we almost don’t believe it. We don’t believe our own press.
So if somebody says to you, “Harvey, great job on that interview.”
You’re like, “Yeah, yeah, it was nothing.”
We downplay it because it comes so stinking easy to us. That’s actually a clue that it’s one of our strengths. When something comes so easy to us that others are mesmerized by it and we downplay it, that is a good indicator it is a task where we are rock stars. To make it easier, I use a strengths report when I work with people. It shows them their real strengths in black and white.
Many early stage entrepreneurs are bootstrapping it so much they forget the value of their time. If I charge $1,000 an hour for one-to-one coaching, but instead I’m tweaking my website, I’m wasting that $1,000. I could pay somebody else $50 an hour and coach a client during that time and I’m ahead $950 for that hour.
That’s where I think a lot of very early stage entrepreneurs get stuck. They move away from abundance thinking and stop looking to see how they can make more. Instead, they try to spend less. I’ve never seen anybody get wealthy by spending less. I’ve only seen people get wealthy when they are focused on making more and serving more.
Right. Thank you, Deb, for taking all this time talking to me. It’s been wonderful.