It was three in the morning, ten years ago this March when I was awakened next to my newly wedded husband from a deep sleep. You know that feeling…you wake up, your heart starts racing because it is the middle of the night and a split second later your brain registers it is a phone call at 3AM. It is either a wrong number or something terrible has happened, which further accelerates your heart. I look at the screen and it is an international number, and I answer it. A woman speaks in broken English with a heavy accent asking if I am the daughter of Ellen Warner. She then explains that my mother's body had been found in Busan, South Korea and she is calling on behalf of the local police station.
To start from the beginning, our whole world changed with our parents' divorce when I was twelve and my sister eight. On the night my dad left, I remember him finding me huddled in the laundry room and I asked him if they were getting a divorce. He did not directly respond, but I could see the answer in his face. For years, I took responsibility for asking the question since it was followed by their separation. As an adult, I realize my words, existence, etc. did not cause the divorce. However, following that night, my mom hardly left the couch for six months. I felt responsible and by default took on a portion of our parents' roles helping to manage our household and care for my younger sister.
The problem was that although my mom had a college degree, she had been out of work for twelve years raising my sister and me and the workplace had changed dramatically. She struggled the rest of her life to earn enough to support our family. I witnessed this fact through middle school and into college and quickly realized that I was mostly on my own financially, and would have to get good grades and a high school job in order to pay for college. I became more reserved with the added responsibilities at home and a serious student.
When you want something enough, you stick it out and push yourself beyond what you thought possible. For instance, my high school job was a commissioned sales position at a pet store and in addition to approaching and engaging shoppers, I was required to hold every animal, even the reptiles. I will never forget the one and only time I held a tarantula. My palms were sweaty and my arm was shaky. Miraculously it did not bite me or run up my arm as I had feared. Or all of the critical moments I "showed up" even though I was scared to do so. Our family challenges and limited financial resources drove me through school and into my career.
What led to me receiving that 3AM call? My mom was an impossible dreamer and had always wanted to travel to Asia. She became a substitute teacher in the US and heard about the opportunity to teach children English in South Korea. It was not until she left that I truly believed she was going. And unfortunately after only a few days, her dream was over. I believe she had a mental breakdown while traveling and I deeply regret not having gone with her to get settled. She had had a previous incident, but I had thought she had recovered her well-being. My mom loved my sister and me and did the best that she could. We spoke almost daily and she was my number one fan, and like most moms and daughters our relationship was complicated.
I share this story because I was deeply moved by the recent Women of the Channel Leadership Summit East in New York last month. Highly accomplished women shared their stories including Nina Vaca, Chairman & CEO of Pinnacle Group who shared all of the challenges that she "survived," Linda Rendleman, SVP Tech Data who shared how her personal life influenced her career progression, and Dorothy Copeland, VP IBM and the women from her channel team who shared their unique struggles while maintaining their careers. They each shared stories from their personal lives that demonstrated overcoming struggle and how that has made them stronger both personally and professionally.
Whether it is waking up to a 3AM call or experiencing those "tarantula moments" at work, it is how you respond to those moments that defines you. Understanding who you are and the challenges you have overcome is fundamental to knowing your unique value. Some of the buzz words around this include, your personal brand, or your super power. Eleanor Beaton, Founder of Fierce Feminine Leadership spoke to us about the importance of knowing your power. She explained that we achieve power through influence and our personal brand is reflected in how we influence. In other words, to know your power is to understand your personal brand.
According to Cortana, there are 21,549,600 minutes in 41 years (my age). There are countless minutes unaccounted for but it is the life defining moments that we remember. These are the times when we are pushed emotionally or physically outside of what we expect for ourselves and it is these times that define who we are and who we will become. I believe that my upbringing and life experiences have developed my super powers and key strengths: I seek responsibility and step into the grey space, I move people forward, and I am calm under fire.
As you look ahead into 2019 and think about what you will accomplish, I encourage and challenge you to reflect and look back. I realize this level of personal storytelling is uncomfortable because it contrasts with the buttoned up professional image we are conditioned to project. However, if you want to lead authentically and tap into your unique ability, I hope that you think about your story and share it. Share how it has shaped your super powers as an employee, a leader, a parent, or a friend.
What is your story and how has it shaped you?