At the age of 15, I had a traumatic experience that rendered me speechless in front of any group (I define group as any more than 4 people). It is perhaps ironic – and a twist of fate? – that I now make my living speaking.
What happened, you may ask? An understandable question.
In my sophomore year of high school, my parents shipped me off to Northfield School for Girls. The reason? The valedictorian of our local high school flunked out of the University of New Hampshire, the only college I wanted to go to – or to which I applied. Being from Durham, New Hampshire, the home of UNH, that was as far as I wanted to venture.
And since there was no possibility that I would be valedictorian of anything, my parents decided to send both my brother and me to a school where we would be able to graduate on to college. (No danger for my brother; he practically was valedictorian). So he preceded me to Mount Hermon School for Boys and paved the way for me to come to Northfield four years later.
However, even with that introduction, I had the rather dubious distinction of being the most homesick girl that Northfield’s Assistant Principal had ever put up with in her twenty plus years of tenure.
I recently read my records from Northfield and they were, to say the least, very humbling. There were scores of comments from administrators, teachers, housemothers and, of course, copies of the myriad letters from my parents.
Everyone was bewildered, including me. I had been a happy child, a leader in my class, many friends, great family – what was wrong? To this day, I do not have a good answer. I was equally homesick at Girl Scout Camp at the age of nine and again, all I did was cry. So much, and so often in fact, that the director told me that if I was going to cry any more, I would have to go behind the barn.
My Father’s business partner came to get me after my heartbroken calls to him, because my parents took a vacation for the two weeks I was at camp. Later I learned that they would have made me stay which probably would have been the best thing because I was, after a week, just beginning to adjust.
Regardless of the origins of my sadness, the fact was that I cried all the time, from Northfield to camp and back again. I was transferred to dorms with my closest friends (with little impact) and even held my sadness and reticence throughout my classes. I can still remember where I was sitting when my favorite teacher asked me a question. Not knowing the answer, I faked it and was wrong. Everyone laughed. I was mortified.
Now, in addition to my ongoing sorrow, I was also positively mute in every subsequent class. For the rest of my school experience, I dreaded ever being called on in class and I almost never – if ever – volunteered anything that could in any way be perceived as right or wrong.
This intense fear persisted in college at UNH. Even being close to home couldn’t help dispel it. I can remember where I was sitting as a freshman in my Humanities class, and again, a question. I have no idea what the correct answer was but I will tell you that it was not “Cyclops.” And again, everyone laughed at me – the main difference was that this time there were 100 people in the class instead of 14.
At that point, I went to all of my professors and said: “I don’t expect you to stop asking me questions in class but I will tell you that when you ask me a question, I freeze so much, I don’t remember the question never mind the answer.”
Much to my surprise, they were all very understanding and fortunately there was enough other evidence that proved I was a good student and, I recall, I was never again asked any question, that could be considered right or wrong. And although I was not valedictorian, I did graduate Phi Beta Kappa – without speaking in class.
It became my standard answer every time I was ever asked to speak for any reason: “I can’t speak in public.” “I can’t speak in public.” “Sorry, I can’t speak in public.”
I convinced myself that I was incapable of speaking to any group larger than four (I’m not kidding!). I remember going to a Bible study group of about 10, most of them friends, and I never opened my mouth and at the end of the session, everyone would say a closing prayer. Except me. “Pass”, I would say.
top of page
So how in the world did things begin to change for me? Well, I began to be offered people and circumstances that I believe were specifically placed there for my own learning. I don’t believe in “co-incidences”. In fact, I often call them “God-incidences”. There are many people who were and are instrumental in my personal and professional life, a life that is now full of passion for what I do, a life that is my way of making a difference.
The first was Dottie Campion. I had admired Dottie from afar but did not know her personally. She was a Lay Counselor for children at the Middle School in Hanover, NH. Through a series of those ‘God-incidences’, we ended up talking in detail about her work and I was convinced that I should get involved – I remember feeling that she was doing what I knew I would like to do.
Dottie encouraged me and I began to help her at the Middle School one afternoon a week. Soon after she left and the principal asked me to take her place, which I was delighted to do. Working two days a week was a perfect fit for me since my three sons were all in school and I could have the same schedule they did.
This situation positively paved the way for what I do now.
On the Path...Overcoming Obstacles
Employed as a Lay Counselor, I was once asked to be on a panel discussion for parents. My response (despite the distinctive feeling that this job was made for me) was - “Sorry, I can’t speak in public.” By now, an all too familiar refrain.
But then, it hit me. Having said that phrase dozens of times (it may have been hundreds), I heard it as if for the first time. I stopped and asked myself “What’s controlling who here?!” And accepted.
I doubt if anyone has ever prepared more for a simple, short, panel discussion. And, guess what? No one laughed. No one walked out. And although this may seem like a very small undertaking, it was a huge step for me.
top of page
Being Open to New Learning…
During my work as both school and youth counselor, I heard lots of praise for Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) and the course instructor, Marilyn Jacobs. At that time, my work was going well, my three sons were 11, 14 and 16 and, given our good relations, I didn’t feel that I needed a course on parenting. Still, I had no formal training as a counselor and had been told that the communication skills were so universal they might apply to my work as well as my parenting. I took the course.
To say that it was a humbling experience (there’s that word again) is an understatement. I learned so much as a parent that I didn’t even know I needed to learn.
Take, for instance, listening. I thought I was a good listener for my boys. And I was …. up to a point. They would tell me their problem and then I would respond “Well, why don’t you ……?” To which they would usually answer… “Oh, OK.”
After taking PET, I realize I had stifled their independence, their creativity, their problem solving abilities. In the words of a Chinese proverb, “If I give a man a fish, I’ve fed him for a day. If I teach him how to fish, I’ve fed him for a lifetime.” I was feeding my kids a lot of fish on a daily basis – I surely was not teaching them how to fish.
My parenting skills changed dramatically as a result of that course, including what I refer to as truly the magic wand of win/win problem solving. I remember one time, Jeff, my oldest son asking “Mom, what do you really think of PET?” To which I responded, “More to the point, how do you feel about it? You’ve been the recipient of it all these years.” I really think it’s great”, he said. “Ever since you took the class, it’s as important to you that we like the decisions as well as that you and Dad do.”
But then, again as fate would have it, Marilyn was going to give up teaching PET and wanted me to take over. I didn’t hesitate: “No, Marilyn, I’m sorry. I can’t. I can’t speak in public.” It’s one thing to be on a panel with shared responsibility for success; it’s an entirely different thing to teach a class – and an eight-week class at that! No way.
But Marilyn was persistent. We became friends and had lunch together often. She kept after me for a year; she was convinced that I was the one to whom she wanted to pass the gift of teaching this wonderful class. However, I remained adamant: I could not speak in public.
I decided, however, that I would attend Instructor’s Training if the school would pay for the 5-day course coming up in Boston – plus expenses. It was a foregone conclusion to me that there was no way that they would agree to do that. The school didn’t typically pay for part time staff to taking training, and I was only counseling two days a week.
And it was with that emphasis that I put in my application, still knowing they would not pay the nearly $700 that the course fee and expenses would cost – and in the mid-70’s, that was a lot of money for a part time position.
But I was wrong. They did. And I attended. And the rest is history.
And with New Learning Comes More Change…
I felt so passionate about the PET skills I had developed at Instructor’s Training that I came back home and immediately set up my first class. I knew I had to teach this class, to share the wisdom of its founder, Dr. Thomas Gordon. I feel rather sorry for the first people in my class who had to tolerate my first experiences with a course outline:
Roman Numeral 1
To say that I went by the book is an understatement!
But even with what must have been a very stilted beginning, the participants got a lot out of it and the word spread. Not only were the skills they were learning superior, but I was clearly passionate about the results and my enthusiasm was contagious.
I was hearing comments such as “For the first time in over a year, the knot in my stomach is gone.” And “This course has changed my life.” That one I heard a lot.
Soon I was having larger classes, one right after the other. One person told me just recently, twenty five years later, that the class was transformative in her relationship with her children; and another, also very recently said that she and her husband “were just one of Susie’s groupies”.
My life was taking another turn as my work started to involve a lot of travel and I could no longer commit to 8 weeks being at home. I was both relieved and disappointed when my school counseling job was cut – I could now focus on this new path but I had also been a counselor for 10 years and loved the satisfaction of working with kids, teachers and parents.
Still, I knew it was time for me to move on – both my principal and superintendent felt there was more in store for me away from the school but it took courage (and faith) to take the next step when I had no idea what it would be.
At the suggestion of my wonderful principal, Velma Saire, I went to talk with Anne Becker who was then Director of Human Resources at Dartmouth College. While she suggested that I could apply for Director of Admissions and Director of Alumni Affairs, she went on to say, what she really thought I should do is to start my own business; she thought I had all the skills to do so successfully. This thought had never crossed my mind even though my father was a successful entrepreneur with his own business, but Anne’s idea began to swell in my mind and heart. I talked with small business owners and within a very short time, I had started my own business: Creative Communications.
top of page
New Business, New Credentials, New Confidence…
It was at this point that I expanded my learning: I got a Master’s Degree in “Holistic Counseling and Coaching” and I became certified in a variety of consulting, therapy and seminar models: Neurolinguistic Programming; Reality Therapy; Visionary Leadership; Performax (now Inscape); TTI; National Speakers Association to name just a few.
I remember hearing I was doing too much, spreading myself too thin. My response was “Some day I will put it all together.” Everything that I learned in those years, and that I have continued to learn, I have in some way integrated into my teaching, coaching, consulting, and seminars and workshops.
What a change it was – I was completely on my own, literally and figuratively. It was during this time that my husband and I separated and I was living alone in a tiny apartment where I could plug in my vacuum cleaner in the middle and clean the whole place.
And on a personal note, I am one of the recipients of deep gratitude for the P.E.T. skills. I know in my heart that knowing and integrating those skills had a lot to do with the fact that Paul and I were able to have a loving divorce; in fact, we became a model in our community of how it could be done, though that was the last thing in my mind to accomplish. But our divorce rocked our community – the “perfect couple”, the All American family, then the All-Olympian ski jumping family. “If you can’t make it, how can we?” …..”You’ve destroyed my fairy land” were two comments I heard often.
I have always felt that if the energy of love doesn’t work one way, then find the way that it does. Always Paul and I have been wonderful friends and we still are. He has remarried and we all enjoy blended family gatherings. And because all our children live in our area, we share holidays and birthdays and now, grandchildren events. I feel very blessed.
But back to my professional life….
Parent Effectiveness Training led to Teacher Effectiveness Training (TET). I started teaching courses for the national organization of Effectiveness Training. It was a 45-hour course, held on either two consecutive weekends or one full week during the summer and though I initially taught in many locations, over time, most of my classes were held on Long Island.
The same dynamic happened with teachers that happened with parents. Teachers would come in being very skeptical and dubious and would leave being true believers. Their relationships with their students were improving, their classrooms were becoming collaborative, the classes of 60 were always full.
And, immodest as it is to share this, I was stunned when I was told I was the most requested instructor that TET had in the United States.
I started teaching other graduate and in-service courses for teachers, and gave keynote speeches. In time, I taught other teachers how to teach the courses, which a few still do today, 10 years later. It was at that point that I added “Center” to Creative Communications as I added affiliates to my business.
The Starfish Story…
It was also during this same time that I added “You Make a Difference” as a by-line to Creative Communications Center. I still remember when I first heard the inspirational story of Loren Eiseley and the little boy throwing starfish back into the ocean: “Son, what are you doing?!” “I’m throwing starfish back into the ocean because if I don’t, they’re going to die.” “Well, that’s fine and good in the small scheme of things but in the larger picture of these thousands of starfish, it’s not going to make much of a difference.” “It’s going to make a big difference to that one!” as the little boy threw another starfish far beyond the waves.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I listened to the story, driving home one afternoon. It really hit me: I am not going to save the world but every little bit I do does make a difference – and so it is for everyone else. I still close all my workshops with that story and I have several products with the logo of a little boy throwing starfish into the ocean with “You Make A Difference” included. You can read the full story and see the products on this site.
We never know when we are going to be inspired. I had already given tee shirts to some of my classes of teachers. They asked for more – which led to sweatshirts, tapes, pins, magnets, note cards – and a journal with some of my favorite quotes.
The latter came because of a 12-year-old boy Ryan. I had been teaching an "Adventures in Attitudes" class for 6 years before I decided I should take it as a participant. I wanted the best instructor and everyone told me about taught Dean Mc Grane in Ohio. I was disappointed that there were only six of us in the class, most of whom were kids – the youngest was Ryan, Dean’s grandson.
I asked myself (and Dean) – was this the right place, time, and people with whom to be taking this course? What could I learn here? Dean, in her very kind way, suggested I stay longer and then decide.
Oh, my, how arrogant. It was one of the best courses I ever have taken and I learned so much from these very wise kids – and it was Ryan who encouraged me to put together such a journal. At that time, I couldn’t imagine doing it … but, because of his encouragement, I did and my wonderful artist friend, Cynthia Broschat, illustrated it. My first copy went to him. It is a very simple journal but still the one I use the most after all these years.
top of page
Moving with the Tide…
Like my counseling career at school, I realized it was time to move on and the Universe gave me another nudge. This time because the state of NY was no longer giving credit to teachers for the kind of courses I was teaching: Communications; Attitudes; Values; Leadership. They would only approve subject matter courses – i.e., if a teacher taught Spanish, they could only take courses on Spanish.
It was time for me to leave. I was ready to come home to Vermont (I had had a dual residency for the four years I was teaching on Long Island) and though I was very sad to be leaving so many friends and colleagues, it was good to come home again and settle in.
Settle in? Well, not exactly. Teacher Effectiveness Training led to Leadership Effectiveness Training and many other courses that I eventually taught throughout Corporate America and Canada.
There followed more “God-incidences”. Jeanne Childs was creating my promotional materials and doing a beautiful job of it. At the same time, she was creating materials for Gordon Miller who was a top seminar leader for American Management Association (AMA). She encouraged us to get together, noting that we had similar values. I couldn’t understand this – on the one hand, I was teaching my courses locally while Gordon was giving seminars all over the country. What might we have in common?
But another memory etched in my heart and mind: Gordon and I sitting at my favorite restaurant having hot chocolate on a winter’s afternoon when he said to me ‘I would like to recommend you to AMA; it’s time you stopped doing such small potatoes here.” (He really did say that.)
He did make the referral, I did begin my relationship with AMA and the rest, as I said before, is history. And again, I felt and feel gratitude for Jeanne and Gordon.
I’ve been teaching for AMA since 1990 and it has been a highlight of my professional career. Many of my best clients have come to me as a result. Often I experience the feeling that life is unfolding for me, that all I have to do is to show up if I just listen to where I am guided to be and with whom.
Such was an experience when, in 1996, I taught a course on “The Effective Facilitator” in Dallas. I had never taught in Dallas before, I have never taught in Dallas since and yet in that class were two people who would change the direction of my work.
One is Karl Haas. He really liked the DISC behavior assessment I used in the class and, as VP of Storage USA, he asked me to give a DISC workshop for his annual meeting. I did, it was a success, and his people loved it. He then asked me to do a Team Building workshop for another annual meeting a few months later.
Soon after, Karl hired Karen Langham to manage their training. She asked me to submit a proposal for a Leadership Institute that Karl wanted for their District Managers. My competition was stiff – other candidates were well known and published – but I had the advantage of being well known to their managers and respected, given my previous work with them; I was given the opportunity
Creating the Leadership Institute for Karen has probably been the greatest high point of my professional life. I can’t imagine even attempting such an undertaking without the design and editing that Sandra Mueller provided for me in the first initial phase.
Karen and I immediately hit it off and have remained close friends and colleagues ever throughout the many years of our working together.
The first phase of the Institute was very well received as was the follow up they asked me to do. Again a great success. In addition, because their district managers so enthusiastically received it, others in the company began asking if they could attend so that by the time GE bought them out in 2000, hundreds of SUSA people had gone through the Leadership Institute.
top of page
Thinking Bigger - Formalizing the Leadership Institute
I met Brenda Mahaffey at another “Effective Facilitator” course – this time in Williamsburg, Virginia. That led to doing another series of the Leadership Institute for Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Office Directors in the Office of Administration. When they wanted a third phase after enthusiastically completing the first two, I brought on my colleague and affiliate, Alex Jaccaci, and together we developed a third phase for them to meet another level of their needs.
Then followed the Leadership Institute for a branch of the Army as well as a public one I held locally – I say locally but, though small, participants came as far away as Canada.
I have a passion for the Leadership Institute. I love teaching it; I love seeing the results; I love getting emails years later about the changes people are experiencing both in their personal lives as well as in their departments because of what they learned.
To quote Brenda, Labor Relations, Training and Facilitation officer for FRA, written two years after the first phase of the Leadership Institute:
“Already there is a tremendous difference in the leadership team that is rapidly spreading to their respective staffs, resulting in a more dynamic, energetic, efficient, and happier workforce.
“This program is by far the best I’ve ever seen in providing excellent leadership skills training. The difference in this program and others we’ve done over the years is that in addition to developing skills, this program develops relationships. As a result, it is highly effective at producing positive results that we’re seeing daily – even 2 years later!!”
The Leadership Institute remains my cornerstone seminar and I am now branching out with a Leadership Institute Tele-Seminar - as well as making my Leadership Institute Manual available to purchase online, complete with a sample Agenda and Facilitator’s Guide.
Getting Personal - One-on-One Coaching
The second person I met in the Dallas Effective Facilitator course in 1996 that has affected my current work was another participant in the class, Jackie. She responded to a mailing I sent out over the holidays, saying she would like to hire me as a coach but she didn’t want the traditional way of coaching – she wanted to spend more time with me and in person.
I told her how I had spent a day with my own master coach, Terri Levine, and that she was now coaching me each month for the rest of the year with unlimited emails. Jackie jumped on that idea, came and spent a day with me in Vermont and, according to her, experienced the impressive results. Since then, the coaching aspect of my business has grown tremendously. The success of this new format has proven to be far more impactful than the more traditional coaching I had been doing.
And for me personally, having people come to me rather than my constantly traveling on planes is a vision that has become my reality. The combination of great results with more ease and an opportunity to get to know my clients in person has been gratifying beyond all words. Another God-incidence?
top of page
My Current Vision
So where am I now? What is my vision for this time in my life?
I want to simplify my life. I mean, really simplify. I want to travel less, be home more, continue to grow my one day/one year coaching program, do more local work instead of just national, write my book. I want to continue to work with companies who have a vision and are committed to that vision, who care about relationships as well as results. My byline in my business actually is…”working with people and organizations that want excellent results and relationships – to make a difference!”.
I’ve taken and I have accomplished these goals, significant steps in this direction - teaching for Dartmouth College, thanks to my colleague and friend, Debbie Eibner; having new coaching clients come to Norwich for the one day jump start, followed by monthly phone coaching and unlimited emails; continuing some travel for quality clients; writing my book – and maybe, in the future, getting a puppy!
One last “God-incidence” to share has to do with my writing. I would be a wealthy woman if I had a nickel for the number of times I’ve been asked to write a book. And always my answer has been the same (I tend to get stuck in same refrains as I did in the speaking): “I don’t have anything to say that someone else hasn’t said better.”
This was the answer I gave to Ken Seep, who was a participant at an AMA Leadership Conference in November 2003
I was having lunch when Ken whom I didn’t know, sat down opposite me and engaged me in conversation. It turns out that he was the ghostwriter for Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as well as for Blanchard and others. When he asked me the infamous question about writing a book and I gave my infamous response, his reply was, “That’s not a good reason.”
The next day, he attended my workshop and when I asked him what he was doing there (there were well known presenters giving workshops at the same time), he simply said “I’m checking up on you.”
I subsequently sent him an email saying that, thanks to him, I was seriously thinking of writing a book. Immediately I got the response, “Why don’t you get your start writing an article for my magazine Personal Excellence? I was amazed. I asked what he’d like me to write about: “Write about anything – “I want Hastings pudding in a 1200 word bowl.”
That was my start; I have since written other articles for him and am now writing my book. Much gratitude goes to Ken for being still another positive nudge in my life…
Finally, I would not be where I am now without Terri; without my coach of several years, Mark Le Blanc; without Jan Carroll who does such a fabulous job with my web site; without Liz Sunde who is my “idea person” for doing more local work and can be amazing in editing my writing/marketing. These people have become my friends as well as my colleagues and coaches and I can’t imagine my life without them.
So, that is where I am now. I am blessed with all the people who have come into my life at the right time to support me in my quest. Most important is the support of my family who have influenced me a in so many ways. It has not always been easy having a mother –a mother who marches to her own drummer, who walks on hot coals and breaks boards, who believes in, and knows, the power of thought and healing, who changed the whole family dynamic - instead of a more traditional one. A Mother’s Day card that my oldest son sent me one year.
“Although this isn’t your typical Mother’s Day card, you aren’t a typical Mother. I am not a typical child. That explained, may I add that you have my “unconditional support” in all your atypical behavior…it’s exciting to try and keep track of your steps. Keep moving forward!! All my love, all the best, Your loving atypical eldest, Jeff.”
Need I say more?
My life has always been about wanting to make a difference.
You make a difference!
We all make a difference if we would only believe it!
top of page