My professional voyage began more than 20 years ago, a fresh MBA graduate from Cornell University handling financial analysis for Digital Equipment Corporation. Quickly, I found I loved bringing people together to improve customer and employee engagement. By the time I left my position as Director of Customer Loyalty & Quality worldwide, we had improved loyalty more than 20% in two years and executives from across divisions and geographies were enjoying the enthusiastic energy and positive results they were seeing.
In 1999, after 16 years helping Digital executives and senior management improve performance, I took these skills to the Center for Quality of Management (CQM), a nonprofit organization that focused exclusively on guiding leaders in an ever-changing quest for effective approaches to management. As director of CQM’s Northeast division, I seized the opportunity to learn as much as I could about how outstanding leaders align themselves and their people with their vision. In addition to creating roundtables composed of key leaders from across companies, who meet to address current issues, I also studied leadership and counseled executives to help them achieve a greater impact.
These experiences opened my eyes to the rich variety of attributes people hold and the processes that can propel successful change. Often, positive attributes and skills go unnoticed, or are even squelched. While I had always been interested in positive emotion and psychology, I now began to read more avidly about what conditions prompt positive change among individuals and, conversely, what holds them back. I learned that a cycle of anxiety, fear, and a lack of resilience squanders natural talents and productivity, and I began to learn—and test—the tools and attitudes needed to break this cycle and move toward positive transformation.
At the same time that I became increasingly interested in how psychology applies to business leaders, I began spending more time with young adults. Coaching girls’ basketball and directing leadership programs through the Girls Scouts became my “extracurricular” passion. Through this, I discovered that the same principles that yield performance success in the business world apply to teenagers. Working as a cohesive team, identifying and building natural strengths, and igniting enthusiasm as a torch to shine a way into positive outcomes helped kids navigate an otherwise stressful and confusing world (and led our basketball teams to numerous championships!).
Why is it, I wondered, that signature strengths in individuals often go untapped? This question, and other findings from my studies, work and play, inspired me to explore a relatively new branch of psychology founded by the world-renowned Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Positive psychology focuses on healthy institutions, positive emotions, and strengths-based character. Here, at last, I had found a credible, tested field of study to draw on in helping people joyfully transform their worlds! I dove in and earned a Master of Applied Positive Psychology, becoming one of the first cohorts to study with Dr. Seligman as well as Dr. George Vaillant.
Initially, my research focused on inspiration and motivation in business leaders, but in the midst of my investigation, a heartbreaking event changed my life– and work.
In 2007, a young friend of my family died by suicide. This promising teen was well liked and active in the community, yet he struggled in school. I knew other teenagers just like him—kids who have tremendous promise, but who don’t excel in school. Too many wonderful, talented and motivated kids are labeled as having “problems” based on one specific criterion: they are not making all As on their report cards and, as a result, seem destined to live a mediocre life. This assumption, I believe, is a travesty. Every child has strengths and gifts.
As I reflected on the boy’s tragedy—and the millions of teenagers who struggle everyday to break through, to fit, to succeed in school and life—I asked myself: What if I try to identify capabilities in kids who are not good students? This quest became the drive of my new research as I set out to study students who are not among the top 20% of their class.
You may read more about my study elsewhere on this site. Its publication led me to my current work as a public speaker, coach, and workshop facilitator. Since completing Appreciating Beauty in the Bottom 80™, I have been invited to speak to a growing number of groups across the US, UK, Japan, and Australia. Business groups, parent groups, nonprofit groups, and, most recently, towns and municipalities are benefiting from my efforts, based in scientific study, to enable individuals and groups to thrive. It is my passion to inspire people across the globe with my messages that uncover the best in every student by understanding the gifts that conflict with school (yet fit the future economy), building resilience, and having the greatest positive effect on the lives of the next generation.
Did you know that your community can benefit from positive change? Read about my latest work with Thrive Wellesley, a program which engages a range of people and groups across this Massachusetts town, builds on existing community strengths, and inspires action rather than resistance.