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Deborah Collins Stephens on her two “Aha Moments”

I live and work where psychology and business intersect. As a result, I spend my time working in leadership development, employee engagement, and customer loyalty. It’s messy, unpredictable, uncertain, incredibly social and is a mixture of rational/irrational behaviors. As I so often say, “business is nothing more than a human endeavor.” I found my work in 2 Aha Moments that might be helpful to others:

Identify your sphere of influence: Many years ago, while interviewing a very successful venture capitalist, he made one statement that crystallized everything for me: He said, “I always knew when my dad had a great boss because my dad was a better dad.” I knew at that moment that if I could help develop better leaders in the workplace, their influences on the people they manage could bring about positive change in the world. If I helped a person become a better leader, the effects would not only be felt in the world of business, but in communities, in families and so on. We spend an inordinate amount of our lives inside of organizations and how we lead and manage effects employee’s lives.

Learn to live in uncertainty: In the midst of one of my greatest career successes, my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Everything I believed was tested.

Uncertainty and fear, the two things that can cripple a leader, visited me in dual force. Looking back, 12 years later, I now know that a search for meaning and an enthralling amount of curiosity saved me. In order to find answers for myself and my family, I sat out to interview women leaders who had overcome major life-changing events in their lives. Their stories, wisdom and the lessons they learned gave me courage, but more importantly gave me hope that I too could thrive in the worst of circumstances. Years later, with three close friends, we compiled these lessons into a book that ended up selling thousands of copies. From that book, I developed a leadership training program and I have also spoken to organizations all over the world.

When my business partner and I started our consulting firm, we were sort of outliers. We talked about, researched and wrote on the human side of business. Today such language is almost commonplace, but when we started, leaders branded our work as “the soft stuff of business.” Now we know that the soft stuff leads to high levels of employee engagement and does indeed influence profit and shareholder value. We became a collector of stories- stories from leaders who had achieved remarkable success due to the development of the human side. Mostly I remember that we had to create our own opportunities, do good work and let the work speak for itself. Two opportunities that we created had to do with one of our books. We could not get a publishing contract, even with a well-connected agent. We decided we would publish it ourselves (and this was before the technology existed to do so.) In manuscript form, we sold 10,000 copies to a large healthcare organization. After that sale, many publishers wanted our work. I had also met a conference producer that worked for Inc. Magazine on a plane. I pitched to him the idea of doing a conference on leadership. We held it in Aspen, Colorado and the relationship with Inc. Magazine helped in the early days of building our consulting practice. Opportunities always presented themselves as problems to be solved.

For example, we created one of the first online learning programs with an unknown company called Broadcast.com with an impassioned entrepreneur who no one knew at the time: Mark Cuban. We had six weeks to create online leadership content. I hired a camera crew and we began filming for the Internet. Technology wise, none of us knew what we were doing, but we just jumped in to figure it out. We filmed cutting edge interviews with Heidi Roizen, Ann Winblad, Bill Campbell and others. We would send off our Beta Max tapes from the film crew to Broadcast.com and they would digitize them for the web. We always attempted to overcome our challenges in real time, learning quickly what worked and what didn’t and making changes to get our best work out.

Opportunity in my business has come from answering one question: “How may I best serve others?” It sounds simplistic, but it is a powerful and effective lens in which to view your life’s work. I have found that over the years when I am true to that question, opportunities multiply in ways I could have never planned or even envisioned.

My Notes:

Deborah brings to light the power of the human spirit to keep going against all odds.

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