Jewish Woman Magazine

Jewish Woman Magazine

Jewish HERores – Incredible Jewish women doing inspiring work in their communities and beyond.

Susanne Veder Berger has parlayed her passion for inspiring others into life- changing mentoring work at Brooklyn’s Freedom Academy, a struggling inner- city high school.

Meet Susanne Veder Berger, a hero to the students of a struggling Brooklyn high school, and no stranger to challenges herself. This author, executive, mother, mentor spent decades literally hiding her face from the world because of a large “port wine stain” birthmark that covered half her face. (The mark was eventually removed through laser surgery). After enduring a bitter divorce, she reinvented herself and supported her children by becoming a successful marketing executive for a number of companies and organizations. Berger did find love again, but lost her husband to heart disease in 2010. She channeled her grief into writing and soon discovered how fulfilling it can be to share words of encouragement and inspiration with others. Berger now writes a popular blog, “Create a New Life with Susanne,” and her memoir, Getting Naked, is scheduled for publication in 2012.

In fall 2011, Berger parlayed her passion for inspiring others into life-changing mentoring work at Brooklyn’s Freedom Academy, an inner-city high school that most would agree has been forgotten by the city. On her own time and using money out of her own pocket, she is encouraging and preparing students to graduate and go to college, and taking them on field trips to meet successful entrepreneurs in New York. Berger spoke with JW about providing

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disadvantaged students with first-ever guidance for taking the SATs, exploring career paths, and learning about business in the real world.

How did you wind up working with kids in this inner-city school?

Last summer, Joyce Freeling, director of the New York City chapter of Communities in Schools (CIS), asked me to speak to teenagers in the CIS program—to offer them inspiration and let them know that they can believe in themselves and create an empowering future. Freedom Academy students attend Advisory Class—a half hour, three times a week—that prepares them for college and SATs and covers home economics and a little bit of dating and socialization. I was asked to be a guest speaker for the 9th grade class on the topic of self-esteem. I walked into this classroom with no windows, in this school that’s in an old warehouse building in front of the off-ramp for the Manhattan Bridge. I was ready to give my Power Point presentation to the 80 kids in the room, but they started shooting questions at me, like, “What is self-esteem?” and “How do you get it?” and I quickly realized I had to change everything. It was a difficult class, but I captured their attention for 15 minutes, which is something most of their teachers couldn’t do.

Most of the 250 students at Freedom Academy are from the projects in Brooklyn and Bedford Stuyvesant. One out of every five of my students does not have a home. If the school closes, these students will disappear; they will be lost in the system. I asked to go back after that first day. I saw that somebody caring for these kids could make a difference. So I stepped up and adopted this school.

Are there any moments with these kids that stick out in your memory?

One day I had a small group of 12 young men, all 9th graders. We were discussing “The Moment,” an article I had written for my blog, about sudden changes in our lives and how we deal with them. We read the essay out loud and the boys and I discussed. After we read one particular sentence—“In that one instant, I could see what was right and what was wrong, and I knew with a certainty I had never known before that I didn’t feel good inside”—one of my students said, “When you have a gun pointed to your head, there is no moment. All you

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can think about is how terrified you are. You are never the same. How many of you have had a gun to your head?”

I don’t know the details of what happened to that boy or why. But I do know that four boys out of the 12 in that class—9th graders, 14 years old—raised their hands. Four of those children had experienced moments where they thought they were going to die. They trusted me and were able to talk openly and freely. It reminded me how much they need to feel safe and able to talk.

When did you realize the depth of your commitment to this school?

Just before last Christmas I started working with the 11th graders. As I was speaking to them, I realized that everyone I knew who had a child in 11th grade, including myself, was having that seasonal conversation about college. But many of these kids had parents who didn’t even graduate from high school, let alone college, and for a lot of them college wasn’t part of the dialogue at home. As I handed out folders to the class, I heard myself say, “Part of your Christmas gift will be me,” and I promised then and there that I would work with them until graduation—helping them find colleges, apply and prepare to go.

How are you engaging these kids in building their

futures?

Over that Christmas vacation I designed “internships”: I set up a blog as a real company, with departments—marketing, IT, human resources… They had to select a job and write a description of what they would do: writing articles, making videos, bringing in guest speakers and preparing to interview. These students are not necessarily used to working as a team. When they do, it brings out certain skills and everyone gets involved. It was hard to get the blog off the ground, but we have several postings now, and my students wrote them all.

As for other activities, I arranged a school trip to Palo Santo Restaurant in Brooklyn to have a lesson with Chef Jacques Gautier. These kids don’t have a gym of any kind so I am

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working on opportunities for them to play tennis. And I started taking dance classes with the 11th grade students, which creates good bonding time.

I wish I could tell you I had financial backing for all this, but it’s just me.

Are you seeing the impact of your work?

This is changing the dynamics of the entire school: Not only are the kids more engaged, the teachers are becoming more creative. I don’t know what their lives are really like; I’m the “skinny white Jewish lady”—not even a teacher—who came from the outside. Writing and teaching corporations how to talk to customers, and being a mom of two successful children is all the training I have. But the fact that the entire school has accepted me, listens to me and has embraced me is amazing.

Other children have opportunities but these children do not. They have never been given the tools to succeed. I want to prove that if we give them some, it will make a difference. I see my students changing. They want to graduate. Most of these kids never have any follow- through, but I made a promise to them, and I would like to be remembered as the person who didn’t give up on them. I know that I have already made a difference.


“Health for a Lifetime” Part III

In the first two parts of this essay, I wrote about a new Harvard essay offering scientific proof for what many of us have known for years – that eating in a nutritious way and getting regular exercise can prolong your life.  After looking at why it’s so easy to resist this common sense approach to life, I explained how keeping a journal in which you record everything you eat and drink and the activity you engage in each day can help you make small changes that will enhance your health, energy and lifespan.

When seeking a motivating reason to improve their health, many people say “I’ll do it for my children.”  I’m not sure that this is such a good idea, however.  You really need to make these changes for you – and not someone else.  It’s great to be a role model for your children, to encourage them to develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime – but be sure to take these actions for yourself, not your children.  Do it because you acknowledge that you are important.  A lot of people – especially women – sometimes feel guilty if they spend even a moment doing something for themselves.  It’s time to get over that.

Also, support groups like Weight Watchers and A.A. can be helpful, of course, but I strongly encourage you to make sure that you’re making the changes in your life because you know that you deserve it and because you feel the results, not because – as part of a group – you’re “supposed” to be doing these things.  If you quit smoking for the benefit of your children, once they’re grown and out of the house, you may easily pick up those cigarettes once again.  If you’ve curbed your eating because you’re a member of a diet club, once your friend drops out of the club, there’s a great risk that you’ll fall right off the wagon yourself.

If you just look around, you can easily find plenty of reasons to motivate yourself to take action.  You can easily see what happens when people don’t limit the amount they eat each day, and you can see what happens when they don’t make exercise a regular habit.  You can also see medical photographs of the diseased lungs of lifelong smokers.  These are all compelling reasons to embrace a healthy lifestyle.  Also, if you’re not taking action for yourself, it can be very easy to join a friend in overindulging when life feels stressful – whether that means digging into a big carton of ice cream, or some other destructive behavior.  Misery loves company.

You need to step into these changes with strength and determination, and in a way that will last.  In the past, you may have told your friends that you were skipping dessert “because I’m on a diet.”  Chances are good that your friends were not surprised to hear this, because they fully expected that within just a few weeks you’d be back off your diet and joining them for dessert once again.  It’s time to stop this “yo-yo” behavior, and make a permanent change in your behavior instead.  Don’t “diet” because you want to fit into that special dress.  Instead, adjust the way that you eat on an ongoing basis, so that you can literally add years to your life.  Don’t experiment with “juicing” as a fad, but instead create meals that include plenty of fruits and vegetables with the intention that you’ll be doing this for years to come.  Embracing these new habits with the right attitude means that you won’t be slipping easily back into your old habits.

This is a “back to basics” plan for health and fitness.  I’m not asking you to run a marathon.  I’m asking you to walk up and down a few flights of stairs.  I’m asking you to be observant, not in denial.  Pay attention to the number of calories that you’re consuming at each meal, and be honest with yourself about how they add up.  I’m also not asking you to deprive yourself of the things that make life joyful.  In fact, I think you’ll find that by making a few simple changes, you’re actually adding more joy to your life.

I use the word “joy” because attitude and emotion are important ingredients if this plan is going to work for you.  Just as you’re making careful notes in your journal, notice if you tend to complain a lot.  Complaining often leads to the behavior we’re trying to address here – overeating, drinking too much, and indulging in other bad habits.  Instead, tell people what you love about your life and what you’re grateful for.  You may find that this takes a little effort at first, but soon it will come easily and naturally.

For those of you worried that I’m asking you to make big changes in your life, I have some good news for you.  I’m actually opposed to making drastic changes that are big.  Those who are passionate about running know that it can be dangerous to overdo it.  Making little changes, however, can put you on a great path.

Like the mice in the Harvard study, it’s time for us all to start adding years to our lives – and adding joy and energy.  As I’m sure you’ve concluded, the most important ingredient to making this plan work is you.  I believe you’re capable of great things, and I look forward to hearing your story, and to celebrating your new life!

 

 

 


“Health for a Lifetime” Part II

In Part I of this essay, I wrote about a new Harvard essay offering scientific proof for what many of us have known for years – that eating in a nutritious way and getting regular exercise can prolong your life.  After looking at why it’s so easy to resist this common sense approach to life, I suggested that starting a journal in which you record everything you eat and drink and the activity you engage in each day can provide a framework for the small changes that will enhance your health, energy and lifespan.

One small change you might make in your daily routine is to take the stairs at work, rather than the elevator.  You may notice a few people looking at you a bit quizzically.  Oddly, some people look down on those who walk rather than drive.  After all, they must be thinking, if you’re wealthy enough to own a car, why not use it?  If there’s a perfectly good elevator in our office building, why the heck are you using the stairs?  Years ago, when I first moved to New York, I used to walk everywhere and many people thought I was crazy.  They thought that perhaps I couldn’t afford a car.  It’s amazing how creative some people can be when coming up with excuses to avoid exercise!

At this point, if you’ve taken the bold step of avoiding the elevator and doing a bit more walking, it’s time to start measuring your distance.  When my son and daughter were young, and it felt like I was constantly running after them, I bought a pedometer.  With this handy and inexpensive device, you can see how far you’ve walked each day.  The next step, of course, is to increase that distance.  Stepping into health is all about making small, incremental changes and then taking it a bit further each week.

Now that we’ve made a small change to the amount of exercise you get each day, it’s time to look at what you’re eating.  Once again, let’s start with making one small change.  If you want to start eating healthier meals, the best thing to do is to make these meals yourself at home.  Many people imagine that cooking in their very own kitchen will be infinitely more complicated than going to a restaurant or – horrors! – stopping for a quick, fast food meal.  Cooking at home doesn’t need to be complicated, however.  There are many wonderful cookbooks and recipes that you can find online that consist of three simple ingredients.  It’s time to disengage from a life of “Super-Sizing” your meal and instead find how enjoyable it can be to prepare your own healthy meals.  This is also the only way that you can accurately keep track of calories, and that’s important.

Once you’ve started to make these simple changes in your daily routine, you’re going to start feeling proud of yourself – and you should.  But it’s not yet time to make bold announcements about the amazing way that you’ve reshaped your life.  Keep making notes in your journal about how you’re spending your day, but be patient about sharing your excitement.  You want to savor the rewards of increased energy and a noticeable change in your weight and fitness level.  I suggest that you wait for friends and family to start noticing the “new you” – and believe me, it won’t take long for this to happen.

If you’re a smoker, you may be hoping that I’d forget to address this important subject.  Sorry, but I’m here to tell you what you surely already know.  It’s time for you to kick the habit – and I know it’s not easy to do that.  I was a smoker too, and there was one day that was the turning point for me.  I didn’t try to taper off, but instead I realized that it was time to stop smoking once and for all.  I made a long list of reasons why it was “a must” for me to quit, and I did.  Just like the notes you’ve been taking in your journal, it’s time to take an honest and accurate look at what it means to be a smoker – from the smell of your clothes and the people who avoid you, to the harsh fact that you’re choosing to take years off your life because of this destructive habit.  It’s time to stop – and the benefits that you’ll experience (increased energy, the joy of rediscovering tastes and smells that seemed lost forever) will make you glad you did.

What’s required in order to make these gradual changes is nothing less than a shift in how you look at life.  There can be no doubt that we live in an age of instant gratification.  Infomercials promise us that we can develop “six-pack abs in only 15 minutes,” and commercials for fast food skillfully avoid the subject of nutrition.  If you’re really going to embrace a healthier way of living, however, you’re going to need to start thinking about the long-term effects of what you put into your body as well as the consequences of successfully avoiding exercise.  Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll start feeling the benefits of your efforts sooner than you might expect – and once you reach that point, it will be much easier to stay on track.

Needless to say – whether it’s eating nutritious meals or taking steps to have a happier relationship with loved ones — you’re the one who needs to take action to create a better life.  No one can do it for you.

It’s tempting to seek the help and support of doctors when we’re thinking about moving our life in a more positive direction – and there’s no doubt that there are times when medical treatment is vital – but I’d like to discourage you from seeking out a “diet pill” in order to lose weight or “a patch” to help you quit smoking.  Personally, unless you’re in a very delicate state, I’m convinced that we can each reclaim and improve our health through the kind of small, incremental steps I’ve been telling you about.  Instead of pills, we need decisions.  You need to decide that you’re going to take the stairs instead of the elevator, and that you’ll have water with your meal instead of that “Big Gulp”soft drink.

In Part III of this essay, I’ll focus on why attitude is so important to successfully adopting new, healthier habits – and how these changes can bring a new, joyous edge to your daily life.

 


“Health for a Lifetime” Part I

Unless you subscribe to the scientific journal “Nature,” chances are that you may have missed the announcement of one of the biggest breakthroughs of our age.  Scientists at Harvard University’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have concluded that it’s actually possible to reverse the aging process.  True, this breakthrough was discovered in a study involving mice — not human beings — but the finding is reason for all of us to be excited nonetheless!  The study echoes common sense, of course — because I think we’ve all known for many years now that if we quit smoking, get plenty of exercise, and eat in a healthy way, we’ll maintain a high level of energy and remain relatively disease free well into our later years.  What I find most remarkable, however, is not this dramatic news from the medical research community that it’s actually possible to “turn the clock back” and reclaim our health, but the fact that so many of us have been ignoring this common sense advice for years, sometimes decades.

Why, then, don’t we live our lives in a way that supports our health and wellbeing?  The simple and frustratingly illogical answer is because “it’s not cool.”  For several generations now, it has been “cool” to embrace a lifestyle that includes smoking, drinking and sometimes even (legal and illegal) drugs.  Most of us went through one or more of these phases too, so we’re not in a position to claim that we were immune from this pressure ourselves during our younger years.  The problem, of course, is that many young men and women who neglect and even assault their health during their younger years never change their ways.  They continue these destructive habits into their college years and beyond.

A lot of these bad habits offer us a much-needed escape from life’s pressures.  Young mothers often are embarrassed about the changes their bodies are (quite naturally) going through during this phase of life, and taking a cigarette break or joining the girls to enjoy a cocktail often seems to make it all easier to take.  Young men, facing the pressures of building new careers and still adjusting to the new demands of family life, succumb to the desire to escape too.  When it comes to over-eating, still an epidemic in this country, many of the so-called solutions turn out to be totally ineffective, with the result that millions of men and women are engaged in a lifelong pattern of frustrating “yo-yo dieting.”  As the mice in the Harvard study would tell you if they could, this kind of lifestyle is not one to aspire to.

Living a healthy lifestyle is easy for some of us, and harder for others.  When I was in my thirties, many of my friends were starting to get sick from neglecting and abusing their bodies and I didn’t want to fall into the same trap.  Around this time, I also began to notice that having a healthy state of mind could make a major difference too.  A number of my friends were good about exercising, but they were highly stressed and didn’t feel good about themselves – and they were getting sick as often as those who didn’t exercise at all.  They all had plenty of excuses, of course, but this didn’t really matter.  Many of these friends were suddenly showing their age, and even in my thirties I was determined to remain as youthful and energetic as possible.  I also believe that it’s easier to get on the right track earlier in life when it comes to taking care of yourself rather than trying to undo years of damage and neglect later in life.

Many of these friends frequently complained that exercising and sticking to a healthy diet is difficult, but I disagree.  The truth is that staying healthy is a simple matter of common sense.  As St. Augustine wisely advised nearly two thousand years ago, “everything in moderation” is the secret to a wonderful life.  My friends who frequently indulged in smoking, drinking too much and overeating – and those who did nothing to reduce the stress in their lives — continued to deteriorate.  Many of them developed arthritis, diabetes and a variety of other health problems – and they’re well on their way, of course, to paying the “ultimate” price for this kind of abuse and neglect.  It’s time for all of us to understand the consequences of too much sugar, too much alcohol, and too many calories – because failure to understand how the various pieces of “the health puzzle” fit together can literally be fatal.  On the other hand, taking action to incorporate this knowledge into your daily life can reverse the damage.  All it takes is simply being conscious.

If I’ve inspired you to ask what you can do to start reclaiming your health, the answer is simple.  Make a list.  For seven days, write down absolutely everything you eat and drink, and also make careful note of your activity – walking, using the stairs, sitting in front of your television for three hours, and so on.  During this week, don’t do anything differently because the idea is to take an accurate look at the way you’re living your life right now – and this assessment will probably shock you.

Now that you have your list, as you start your second week, it’s time to make one small change in your normal routine.  Remove one thing that is bad for you – something you eat or drink, or some way that you avoid exercise – and replace it with something that is good for you.  (Be sure to continue making notes each day just as you did during week number one.)

For example, if you’re in the habit of using the elevator at work, it’s time to start using the stairs.  Even if your office is only on the fourth floor, this simple change is an improvement over a daily routine that is completely sedentary.  You may be surprised to find other people doing the same thing, and you’ll start to notice that you have more energy at work.  With this new burst of energy, you’ll find that you’re more productive – and even your boss will be impressed.  This all comes from making one simple change in your daily routine.

In the next two parts of this essay, I’ll focus on why it’s so important to make these changes for you – not for your children or your friends, and not because you’ve been told that you “should” make these changes to your lifestyle.  I’ll also discuss why attitude is so important to successfully adopting new, healthier habits – and how these changes can bring a new, joyous edge to your daily life.

 

 

 

 


“My M.B.A. in Life” Part III Pride

In the first two installments of this three-part article, I described how the lessons I learned when facing a variety of personal challenges in my life turned out to be extremely useful in the business world.  I discovered that it’s all about people – connecting with them, appreciating them, and really making an effort to understand and help them.  As you’ll see in the final part of this article looking at challenges from this perspective can help managers and company owners handle some of the toughest business challenges we face today.

The quality of pride is essential to a successful business — customers taking pride in the fact that they are important and being listened to, and employees taking pride in the products and services they produce.  When customers know that their satisfaction matters to a company, they’ll tell everyone they know – and this word of mouth is more valuable than any expensive advertising and marketing campaign.  It works that way in small and midsize businesses, too, of course.  When I was helping my late husband Sid with his dental practice here in New York, I saw that each and every person that a patient comes in contact with makes a powerful impression — from the receptionist to the dental hygienist.  Each of these interactions is a “touch point,” and together they form the experience that each patient has of the dental practice.  When a patient feels insignificant and like they don’t count, they’re not likely to remain loyal to that dentist or doctor.  It works this way in any kind of business.  American business overall needs to recapture this level of pride and care.

Every industry and business sector needs to remember that the pride employees take in their work is very important.  The turnaround of America’s auto industry is the latest high-profile example of what’s possible when we encourage employees to take (or reclaim) pride in their work.  When I first moved to the U.S. from Canada, whether you were “buying America” was a frequent topic of conversation.  It’s time to emphasize this once again.  We need to revive the kind of thinking that was dominant when our parents and grandparents were working hard to make America great.  The pride that everyone took in the quality of their work was something to be admired, and it’s a quality that’s far too rare these days.

Many senior level executives and CEOs seem to be excited about the innovation and new ideas they’re implementing in their companies, but let’s not forget to let this enthusiasm “trickle down” to the rest of the team.  Let’s make sure that all employees who contribute to a company’s success are recognized and appreciated.  And remember, enthusiasm and new ideas cost a company nothing — but they can be priceless when it comes to growth, increased revenue and creating more jobs.  Keeping each customer in mind every step of the way, as I mentioned earlier, is another essential ingredient in this recipe for growth.

In coming up with a road map for the future, we must be sure to include our young people, of course.  I’m a big believer in the value of small business, and I encouraged both of my children to pursue their dreams in terms of the work they choose to do.  Now, it’s up to us to create a business climate that’s receptive to their ideas and gives them an opportunity to contribute.  An alarming number of recent college graduates not only have to struggle with astronomical student loans bills that must now be repaid, but are also having trouble finding a place where they can put their knowledge and skills to work.  The idea of owning their own home — the dream that motivated earlier generations — now seems completely out of reach to most young people.

I also see the great talent and potential in the high school students I work with each week at Freedom Academy in Brooklyn.  We must create opportunities for these young people and millions of others just like them to put their talent to work.  Those of us who have been engaged in the work force for the past few decades have the wisdom and perspective that’s needed in order to create opportunities for these talented young people.  This challenge causes us all a lot of stress, of course, and there are no easy answers — but as the NASA ground control team is rumored to have said during the Apollo 13 crisis, “failure is not an option.”

Until we create a more receptive business environment for our young people, who can blame them for believing that loyalty — to customers and to their company — is an antiquated and irrelevant concept.  I’m honored to have an opportunity to offer high school students encouragement and inspiration, but until we can create a business environment that will welcome their contributions, the likelihood that these bright and enthusiastic young people will hit a dead end as they try to put themselves to work remains a serious problem.

Although it may sound like I’m ending this essay on a rather bleak note, the fact is that I really believe there is enormous creativity and ingenuity out there, which can result in some much needed changes in our nation’s business sector.  As you can tell, I’m a firm believer that the human spirit is capable of great things and able to solve any problem.  Just as people helped me overcome a wide range of challenges in my life, I’m confident that together we can create a business environment in which each individual is valued and one that generates enormous prosperity and opportunity for all of us.

 

 


Part II “My M.B.A. in Life” Appreciation

In Part I of this three-part article, I described how the lessons I learned when facing a variety of personal challenges in my life turned out to be extremely useful in the business world.  I discovered that it’s all about people – connecting with them, appreciating them, and really making an effort to understand and help them.  As you’ll see in part two of this article, looking at challenges from this perspective can help managers and company owners handle some of the toughest business challenges we face today.

The respect that business leaders have for each individual member of their team can also make a huge difference internally, especially when challenges arise.  In my work with the U.S. Tennis Association, for example, I not only ran the organization’s membership department but I was also asked to assist in the delicate process of closing one of their Departments.  In mergers and consolidations, employees often feel shortchanged and mistreated, and I was determine to do everything possible to treat the employees in this department humanely and support them in finding fulfilling jobs outside the company.  In a department of 24 people, the organization was only planning to retain three of those employees following the consolidation.  Over an 18-month period, I retrained all two dozen of these employees so that they each had a strong and competitive resume and were better equipped to find a new job once they were let go.

Another thing I’ve learned in working with people for so many years is that we all need stimulation and variety.  It’s important to have a change in our routine every once in awhile, especially in jobs that are very repetitive.  Without breaking things up a bit and giving hard-working people a chance to catch their breath, there’s a greater chance for mistakes — and employee “burn out” is almost inevitable.  In addition, the most fulfilling jobs are those that allow an employee to be “a constant learner.”  We all need to grow and evolve.  (I certainly never thought that I’d be a writer, yet that’s the role I find myself in today!)  Also, when you give employees a chance to grow and learn new skills, it lets them know that you have faith in them and that they’re appreciated, and we all flourish when someone believes in us.

Just as everyone likes to be appreciated, no one likes to feel inferior — that they’re less important than the executives they report to.  In my work with the call centers at various companies, I made it a point to really get involved in the work that was being done at each center.  I’d handle customer calls myself, and join the employees in the lunchroom and in their training classes.  This sent the signal that we’re all on the same team and lets them know that their work is respected and appreciated.  Also, when the employees see that you can be flexible, they’re more willing to be flexible too — and accommodate changes that allow the company to grow and succeed.

Growth and flexibility are essential if a company is to remain successful, of course — especially when it comes to customer service.  The decline of the once mighty Kodak Corporation is a great example of what can happen to a company when it fails to evolve with the times, and fails to keep in tune with customer needs and desires.

We all need to evolve on an individual level too, not just as a department or as a company.  When I began working with the companies I mentioned earlier, the emphasis was on catalogs that were sent out to the customers on a mailing list.  Now, of course, that information is handled by computer.

The importance of caring about the individuals on that mailing list hasn’t changed, just the way that we handle that information.  The goal is still effective communication and a rapport that results in sales.  It’s still just as important to let each and every customer know that they matter, and that they haven’t been lost in the shuffle.

In Part III – the final part of this article — I’ll explain why it’s so important to remember that each and every person who comes in contact with a customer or client shapes that experience, for better or worse.  I’ll also discuss why it’s essential that we create opportunities for young people where they have a chance to bring their unique talents to the table and have a voice in the work that they do. 

 


“My M.B.A. in Life” – Part 1

Many people have heard the expression “the business of life” and wondered exactly what it meant.  For me, that phrase has a great deal of meaning.  It’s how I forged a successful career in the corporate world based on the lessons I’d learned overcoming a variety of personal challenges.  Those challenges included learning how to hide so that people didn’t notice the enormous “port wine stain” birthmark that covered half my face until laser surgery gave me “a new life” decades later, finding a way to support my two young children as a single mother when my husband left me, and – most recently – creating a new life following the untimely passing of my third husband a little over a year ago.

Having challenges of various kinds thrust upon me over the years gave me a chance to learn a number of key insights regarding people.  I’ve learned a lot about the importance of appreciating people, the way we connect with one another, and the value of each individual’s contribution to a group effort.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these lessons and insights have not only helped me with personal struggles but they can also be directly applied to the workplace, as I discovered during my career in the business world.  Now, I’m enjoying sharing those lessons with others, to spare them some of the pain that I’ve experienced over the years – and also to provide a few “short-cuts” to the success they envision.

One of my first jobs in the business world was that of a list broker assistant.  Even at that early stage of the game, it was all about people – buying names of potential customers, learning how to target the best prospects, and how all this information fits together in a database.  From the very beginning, I learned the value of “streamlining” – a skill that I had been using when educating my children and supporting their school, long before I ever traded my role as a homemaker for that of a businesswoman.

I wanted to make sure that my children and their fellow students had the very best when it came to education, and this meant doing some fundraising and connecting with the administrators who handled enrichment programs. The best way to get anything done on a large scale, of course, is to “aggregate” – bring everything together – and that meant reaching out to other schools in the district who shared our goals and concerns.

A computer database is the best way to handle large amounts of information like this – and the more details you have about your customers, the better.  When you have a detailed understanding of exactly who your customer is, you have the key to success – but you also have to know how to talk to your customer.  Together, this knowledge and this talent for rapport combine to make outstanding customer service possible.

The customer service scripts I’ve written for Qwest, Bell South and Verizon emphasize both of these ingredients — factual information about the customers and products, combined with effective communication strategies.  The members of the customer service team should know all about the company’s products and their benefits, of course — and they should be able to anticipate the questions that may arise in any conversation with a customer.  Being prepared — both in terms of background knowledge and communication skills — is essential for establishing a genuine connection with each customer, which is the only way to attract loyal and long-lasting customers.  Not surprisingly, it’s also essential that every member of a company’s customer service staff genuinely like people, because that smile comes through in their conversation — whether that conversation is face to face or by phone.

Having learned how wonderful it feels when a fellow human being genuinely cares, it’s easy for me to see how important qualities like compassion, curiosity and respect play in a business situation.  With this in mind, I quickly became very successful at coaching customer service teams, and this lead to my work with ABI and Database America, which in turn, brought me into contact with an even larger number of companies. Often my challenge was to figure out a way for two very different companies to work together most effectively, a challenge that – once again – is all about people. My work teaching sales teams how to talk about various products was really a kind of problem solving. As I mentioned, by that time in my life, I had a lot of experience in solving problems — especially in terms of getting people to work together for a common goal.

I loved my work with customer service teams because it was very easy to measure success, and I discovered that I’m a bit of a numbers junkie.  For some unknown reason, many of these companies – some of the largest in the world – often were not able to recognize overlapping markets of customers and other people-related problems that were quite obvious to me.  For example, I told the marketing team at Microsoft that by buying customer information from eight different companies, there was a huge amount of overlapping information, which they somehow failed to recognize.  I pointed out that if they ever wanted to succeed they’d have to expand their market and eliminate this problem of overlapping databases.  I helped them map out steps to overcome this problem, and then I moved on to other assignments.

In Part II of this essay, I’ll share my thoughts on why it’s important to recognize and appreciation employees at all levels of a company, and why loyalty is such an essential quality. In Part III, I’ll stress the urgency of creating new opportunities for young men and women eager to put their talent and creativity to work.

 


“Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence”

For the past few months, I’ve enjoyed contributing to a wonderful website called HereWomenTalk.com.  When I learned recently of the horrific murder of a member of that online community – a beautiful, sensitive woman and loving mother whose life was brutally cut short by her ex-husband – my immediate reaction was anger.  More specifically, I find it disturbing and outrageous that over the past several decades we haven’t made more progress in taking a “Zero Tolerance” stand against domestic violence or abuse of any kind.

images-2During her 25-year run, Oprah brought a fair amount of attention to this issue, and way back in 1984 the courageous Farrah Fawcett starred in disturbing made-for-TV movie about domestic violence, “The Burning Bed.”  Now, it’s more than 25 years later, and not enough has changed.

The statistics regarding this kind of abuse are truly disturbing.  The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.  The National Institute of Justice and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report that an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner every year.  Further, a recent study by the CDC reveals that here in the US, 24 people per minute are the victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.  That’s 12 million individuals – mostly women – every year, and this is simply unacceptable.

If we ourselves are fortunate enough to be free from this kind of terrible abuse, the odds are good are we have a friend, relative or co-worker who is caught in this terrible situation right now.  We need to open our eyes and look for the warning signs, and when we see them, we must get involved.  More than perhaps any other situation in which lives are in jeopardy, we seem to be blind to the warning signs – black eyes, bruises, burns, frequent visits to the emergency room.

The fact that one human being would cruelly inflict physical harm on another, when they have entered into what was thought to be a loving and supportive relationship is disturbing enough – but perhaps the worst aspect of a situation like this is when children witness this kind of abuse.

In their tender years, children learn so much from what they observe in the household – eating habits, how to manage money, the importance of being respectful of others.  In households where domestic violence takes place, they are very likely to perpetuate it.  (The heartbreaking experience of watching one parent physically abuse the other is bad enough, and the damage resulting from this kind of instability at home can literally last a lifetime.)

The perpetrators of this kind of violence are not always who you might expect.  We read about rap artists and musicians accused of this kind of thing, but a Harvard educated stockbroker can just as easily be guilty of this kind of horrific behavior.  One of Europe’s most esteemed financial leaders became the subject of front-page news last year when he was accused of sexual assault by a maid working in a New York City hotel.  Did the fact that apparently his wife was accepting of his philandering ways make this situation any less disturbing?  We mourn the death of a beloved singer, but when it was clear – years ago – that she was enmeshed in an abusive and controlling relationship, did any of us step up and intervene?  Now, of course, it’s too late.

Stories like these are still far too common.  Whether it’s the death of a talented musician or the abuse suffered by a friend or neighbor, we can no longer turn a blind eye to this kind of cruelty.  After all these years, isn’t it time to finally take a firm stand against domestic violence and abuse?


“Why I’ll Be Celebrating Every Day!”

As I celebrate my birthday today, it’s a time to look back, enjoy all that today has to offer, and appreciate the fact that I’m truly excited about the future.  On this day of joy and reflection, it’s most of all a day to be grateful for the wonderful people in my life — my family, my friends and also those who touch my life and continue to inspire me to dive into each day in search of fun, excitement and the pleasure of connecting with others.  As Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  I couldn’t agree more!

Happy Birthday Monty

Happy Birthday to you!

I’m truly blessed to be surrounded by so many loving friends and family members, and it’s always a treat to get together with them on this special day.  When I look back and reflect on how far we’ve all come over the years, I think my greatest joy comes from the fact that my children are doing so well.  Being a mom has not always been easy, and I know that life hasn’t always been easy for my children either, but I’m so proud of them and I think they’ll permit me to take some vicarious pride in their accomplishments too.  I’m also thrilled that my father is doing so well right now, having bounced back from a scary bout with cancer.  He’s busily engaged in life and extremely happy, and that makes me happy too.

The great poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “I celebrate myself and sing myself.”  And if there’s ever a day when we can each do this without appearing too self-indulgent, it’s on our birthday.  (Actually, I think we should appreciate ourselves each and every day.)  I had been dreaming for years of becoming a writer, and over the past year I’m thrilled that I really made it happen!  I believe that having goals and dreams — and taking action on them — gives me an enormous amount of energy.  I’ve never felt healthier, and I’m eagerly awaiting the day that the tennis courts in Central Park open once again for the season.

Love cupcakes!!

Just as I’m so grateful to be sharing my birthday with my family and friends, I’m also happy about another new set of friends who have come into my life recently — the wonderful young students at Freedom Academy, where I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few months.  When one of the students recently asked me how old I am, he simply couldn’t believe that I’m a few years past fifty.  He was shocked, and said “You look fantastic!”  That made me feel good.

A birthday is also a time for looking ahead, and I’m very excited about the future.  I feel that this is a special time of my life, and I know that this is just the beginning of what will be a wonderful and exciting journey.  In fact, I’ve resolved to celebrate not just today but each and every day.  I hope that you’ll come celebrate with me!


“Resolutions: Avoiding the Pit Falls & Making Them Work”

As the new year gets underway, the sense of excitement and anticipation we all felt a few weeks ago remains.  When the clock struck midnight on December 31, we all had a blank canvas of 365 fresh new days ahead of us, and we were ready to make 2012 a special year to remember. Now that the holidays are behind us, however, those ambitious dreams seem a bit more out of reach and the challenge of achieving them seems a bit more daunting.

I remain excited about the adventures that will unfold for all of us this year, and I want to share some strategies that have worked for me whenever I get that feeling that perhaps I’ve “bitten off” more than I can chew.”  There are a number of pitfalls and challenges we’re all likely to encounter as we turn our resolutions into reality, and I want to share a few ideas with you that may make the process a bit easier.

Over the years, as I’ve faced a number of challenges and set some major goals, I’ve learned that two things are essential when it comes to achieving goals and dreams – taking action and being honest with ourselves.

By definition, the things we focus on in our resolutions are ambitious and not easy to achieve – so it’s natural to feel that perhaps we’re not really capable of achieving these goals, and this uncertainty and self-doubt can indeed undermine our progress. Often times, the reason that something we claim to want doesn’t work out is that, within our own private thoughts, we really didn’t want it to work out.

Putting ourselves “on the record” in a very public way with our friends and family is a great way to move us away from these doubts and uncertainties, and making a few resolutions on New Year’s Eve is a great first step, but these declarations must be followed up by taking action. Whether we dream of finally losing an unwanted 15 pounds or starting a wonderful new hobby, visualizing those things really happening is exciting, but all too often those wonderful ideas come crashing down to earth before they really have a chance to take flight and become reality.

The excitement and desire we feel regarding these wonderful new goals provides the fuel for our journey, but as the first few weeks of the year unfold we quickly realize that making them happen is like any journey — a step-by-step process, and not something that falls into place easily or overnight.

IMG_0012_2It’s important to remind ourselves, right from the very beginning of this journey, that every road has bumps and “pot holes,” and we must remain determined not to give up when we encounter them. Every road – especially the long and winding ones – also has side streets and detours, and we will almost certainly be drawn to them from time to time.

When unexpected distractions and obstacles appear, and the rapid progress that was so exciting at the start of the year becomes more of a slow crawl, don’t be discouraged – and don’t beat yourself up when you find yourself experiencing doubt and uncertainty.  Everyone who has achieved a great goal, triumphed in sports or business, or come up with an idea that has changed the world has had the moments of doubt too.  It’s all part of the journey.

Also remember that many of the most successful and extraordinary journeys are solitary ones.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy the companionship of friends and loved ones, but at the end of the day, this is your journey – not a shared adventure.  It’s natural for those around you to want you to stay the same, even if they don’t say so.  We all have a tendency to embrace the status quo, and worry that we may lose the connection we currently have with those we’re close to.

Knowing that it’s likely to be a long and challenging road ahead on the way to achieving that goal means that it’s important to strengthen your determination, and take bold action rather than timid little steps.  Rather than simply having “a preference” for making a change in your life, make an ambitious declaration about what you will achieve, and take the uncertainty out of the picture.