Carolyn Marks was an over-achiever. She lived for success and she received it. She was always pushing and striving to do more, she wanted to know more, and to be more – that’s Carolyn.
Carolyn was the CEO of an international insurance company. She was the first female Chief Executive Officer in the company’s history. Carolyn’s career path was unique. Very few women make it to the top spot of a Fortune 500 company, and at the time of our story, there were even less.
It was early spring in Chicago, a typically blustery day for the end of March. Carolyn had a 10:00 a.m. appointment scheduled with her executive coach. An executive coach is someone hired by a company to help its leadership team become more productive leaders. Carolyn’s coach was Harry Kleiner. Harry was a brilliant man, well-respected, and the best in his field. On that particular morning Carolyn had a particularly vexing set of questions she asked Harry.
It occurred to Carolyn, that she could master the art of optimum living if she knew three things: 1. Timing. When was the right time to start something new? 2. Advisement. Who are the right people to listen to and who are the wrong ones. 3. Selection. How to choose what to do.
Harry took his time to think about the answer. He mulled it over as one question, he took it apart and broke it down as many questions. Harry had a nearly photographic memory and he recalled all the hundreds of experiments and research papers on the topics of efficiency and success. From this vast store of knowledge he concluded that Carolyn needed to make a five-year plan with set times, dates, goals and tasks for starting a project at the exact right time. Her plan should include a carefully vetted list of influential people who Carolyn would go to for step-by-step advice, shunning anyone not on the list. And finally, she should develop a set of three questions to ask herself as a screening process for determining the highest priority, worthy of her efforts.
Carolyn thanked Harry for his input and sought out the opinion of a second trusted advisor, Jack Marovsky.
Jack was Carolyn’s business mentor and served a different role in Carolyn’s professional life. Jack was Carolyn’s first boss out of graduate school. He taught her everything she knew about the insurance business. Jack was retired and they stayed in touch regularly. In addition to being her mentor, Jack was her friend. Carolyn placed a call to Jack (he wasn’t big on emails) and they set up a time the following week to have lunch together and talk.
After Jack and Carolyn caught up on all the things that happened since their last get-together, Carolyn posed her three questions to Jack: 1. Timing. When was the right time to start something new? 2. Advisement. Who are the right people to listen to and who are the wrong ones. 3. Selection. How to choose what to do.
Jack had slowed down considerably since the days he was active in the business world. But he was still as sharp as ever and Carolyn was anxious to get his clear-headed perspective. The questions didn’t stump Jack, and still, he was thoughtful in his answer to Carolyn. “I’m going to start with the third question, that’s the most critical.” Jack said. “At all times you must be alert for opportunity. It’s all about the bottom line. Whatever you think will bring the most value is the most important thing to do.” Jack continued to the second question. “Knowing who to trust can be tricky. Most people you meet will be jealous of you, they want what you have and they will not stop scheming against you, until they get it. Listen only to those who have proven their loyalty to you.” As for the first question on timing, Jack had this to say: “Start something only when you’re certain you have the right team in place and then delegate. Your energy has to be in the bigger picture – don’t start anything that will bring you down in the muck.” Questions answered and lunch completed, Carolyn gave Jack a friendly hug and parted ways.
Carolyn had one final authority she wanted to pose her question to. Carolyn asked her pastor the three questions: 1. Timing. When was the right time to start something new? 2. Advisement. Who are the right people to listen to and who are the wrong ones. 3. Selection. How to choose what to do.
Lisa Liu was the pastor of a large megachurch with tens of thousands members and dozens of satellite locations. Pastor Liu was the rock star of religion, a young woman whose rose quickly through the ranks. Not only was Lisa Liu a woman of God, she oversaw a large clergy team, numerous staff members, and select lay leaders from all walks of life. Lisa Liu was well prepared to answer Carolyn’s questions and did so without hesitation: 1. Pray to God to send you a sign. 2. Listen to your heart which speaks for the soul fed by the wisdom of the Almighty. 3. Lastly, once you have done #1 and #2, the sign appears, and with it Divine guidance will present you with a clear choice of what to do.
Carolyn left church with her pastor’s assurance that praying, contemplation and Divine intervention brings results. Carolyn was not convinced.
As she walked to her car, her mind was occupied with everything she learned from her three favorite experts. There was no “aha moment”. No intellectual breakthrough. No spiritual awakening. More confusion. With these thoughts swirling around in her head, she tripped over a homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk, legs outstretched leaning against the rough brick by the side door of the parking garage.
“Excuse me.” Carolyn said. The woman sat silent. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.” She said a little louder. Still the poor woman did not respond, and continued to repair (with little progress) a worn braided rope which apparently held together all of her possessions stacked vertically in a rusty shopping cart. After watching the woman’s futile efforts, Carolyn said, “Let me give it a try.” The woman looked up and saw Carolyn in her no-nonsense business apparel, shrugged her shoulders, and handed over the frayed rope.
Carolyn got busy. With no more than her nimble fingers, inquisitive mind and problem solving talent, the determined CEO patiently worked strand by strand kntting one loose thread to another. As she was working she told the homeless woman why she was coming from the church, what the pastor said, what her mentor said, and what her coach said when she asked her three questions. Carolyn thought she’d ask her new friend to weigh in. “Let me ask you dear, how can I know the right time to start something? Who are the right people to listen to and who are the wrong ones? How can I choose what to do?”
The homeless woman shrugged and remained silent.
Just as Carolyn tied the last knot of the now complete rope, a young man came running from around the corner, knocked Carolyn down to the ground and landed in a heap on top of her. The man was covered in blood. He cried out in pain and pointed to his stomach. “I’ve been shot” he said before passing out. Carolyn whipped off her jacket to cover the wound and apply pressure. She shouted for a passerby to call an ambulance. As she kneeled beside the man she watched his shallow breathing and prayed to God to save his life.
With sirens blaring the paramedics arrived and began their emergency procedures. The man was lifted on to the waiting yellow stretcher, rolled into the back of the van and soon was on his way to the nearby hospital.
Carolyn collapsed, physically and emotionally. She sat on the sidewalk next to her homeless companion. The two sat quietly. The poor women was fingering the now strong rope Carolyn had so skillfully mended.
Carolyn’s voice was a whisper. She said, “I have the answers I’ve been searching for.”
The homeless woman turned her head and urged her to continue.
“First, the right time to start something is the present time. Second, the right people to listen to are the people I am with at the moment. Third, the choice is clear when the thing is right and I am present enough to recognize it.”
The homeless woman smiled, secured her rope to the cart and shuffled off.
Carolyn thanked God for being in the right place at the right time. She thanked God for people in her life to listen to and for sending an angel to listen to her. She thanked God for opportunities to be needed and the presence of mind to act bravely when the situation required.
Since then, Carolyn never stopped achieving, never stopped questioning, and never stopped believing.
by Susan Diamond
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