Chapter 4: The Susan Sweeney Personal Transformation Story – Hyper-Learning


The Susan Sweeney Personal Transformation Story

In chapters 1 through 3, we focused on the journey to Best Self—achieving Inner Peace by having a Quiet Ego, a Quiet Mind, a Quiet Body, and a Positive Emotional State, and we discussed the need for cultivating a Hyper-Learner Mindset and excelling at Hyper-Learner Behaviors.

In this and the next chapter, you have the opportunity to learn from two senior executives that I have come to know well and with whom I have been on an amazing journey. Each of their stories is different because they are different people. Each person shares how he or she has pursued a New Way of Being and a New Way of Working.

While you read these personal stories, look for approaches that feel right for you. Notice what each person worked on. Try to understand each person’s why, what, and how.

Please take notes as you read. Focus on mindsets, behaviors, and practices (processes). What do you want to consider doing?

There are so many wonderful things to learn from Susan’s experience in this story. I have read it four times, and I love rereading it because of the granularity of sharing. Please keep a list of your own learnings.

Susan Sweeney is president of an EnPro Industries subsidiary. Her background is in engineering and general management. Before joining EnPro, she was an area executive manager for two different areas for General Motors. She has an MBA and a doctorate of education in organizational leadership and innovation.

Here is Susan’s story in her own words.

My Practices

• Set aside time to reflect

• Daily meditation

• Practice gratitude

• Seek out learning opportunities

• Discuss with others

• Take notes

• Teach

• Replace “but” with “and”

• Question the stories I am telling myself

When I thought about how I have changed over the last five or six years, the fact that I am the president of GGB and have been in this position for six years says it all. My entire work career was a pattern where I changed jobs (and usually geographical locations where I lived) every two or three years. When Steve Macadam first asked me to take this position [as president], I was terrified. I think I discovered a new level of anxiety that I didn’t know existed. On one hand, I felt I had the capacity, yet there was no guidebook on how to lead a global, very complex organization, and I was the first woman in the role leading a very traditional and male group. I had twice moved from being a peer within a team to being “the boss,” and not all the team members were thrilled with this change.

Another significant dynamic was that I was also going to be the first woman on the EnPro Executive Council (EEC). It seemed like a lot. And admittedly, most of the pressure I was imagining and putting on myself was coming from within. At the same time, I was working on attaining my doctorate for organizational leadership, learning, and innovation. I am a lifelong learner and something clicked that brought my leadership drive and passion for learning crashing together in a way that was additive. Combining the learning and practice was a good way for me to enter into this new space of leadership—a space where my previous practices and successes weren’t going to be enough in this new role.

Practicing Vulnerability

Historically, I had built a lot of walls around myself as a protective means and kept work and family very separate. I have had a career of “being first”—the first woman in multiple leadership roles in a large automotive manufacturing organization, the first woman plant manager and VP of global operations, the first female division president. Although difficult as these “firsts” were, they were also a normal part of my work experience. I think it is hard to understand this point if your cultural or life lens isn’t challenged and you are comfortable taking on roles where the previous person looked like you.

For most of my career, I didn’t feel that I could bring my “full self” as an integrated person to work and thus spent a fair amount of my energy protecting myself from those around me. Don’t get me wrong, I did work with some terrific people and have made some great friends at work. The feeling that I had throughout most of my career was that I had to be careful and people were waiting for me to fail. I was also driven by a very deep feeling that I was not enough. Although I logged a lot of “successes” and made a lot of good decisions, I barely acknowledged these as I pressed on for the next challenge and win.

I didn’t share personal aspects of my life or family at work as I didn’t want to be open or vulnerable to those I worked with— mostly because I found myself in a “defensive” position (at least in my mind) most of the time. I realize some of these feelings were warranted from not feeling psychologically safe (and at times physically safe) in the environments in which I worked. In retrospect, the majority of these emotions resulted from the story that I was telling myself. I have learned this through the deep work on myself, my mindsets and behaviors that have been guided through the opportunities presented from EnPro and the opportunity to “practice” at GGB and EnPro. My realization has been that the way I was trying to protect myself with “walls” and dividing personal from professional so strongly wasn’t entirely healthy.

I have learned that putting myself out there more and being authentic and vulnerable is hard and where the real opportunity to grow occurs. It isn’t comfortable. I share with people all the time that getting uncomfortable is an important part of the learning and growth process, so I have to make sure that I do this myself and share with others when I am doing it in real time. Pushing myself to my learning edge is my responsibility as a person and a leader.

Being able to be me—all the time—is my current situation. It makes me a whole lot happier and is probably why I am still in the same job after six years. I should add that the work is incredibly engaging. I am able to exert my independence through my working situation. I am able to work with people in a very different way than I have ever experienced, and my input is valued. This has come about by developing a strong trust in those I work with and being accepted as I am—flaws and all. The atmosphere of safety is one that I value and am working hard to expand into all the spaces in which I work. I think I am making a positive impact on those around me and in the world, which is one of my key life objectives.

My style is very direct, and I progressed throughout my career by working extremely hard and figuring out how to get things done. As an effective problem solver, my historical “modus operandi” showed a shocking lack of awareness. Someone would come to me with a problem or issue and I would get on the phone and begin working on the solution before the person in front of me finished explaining the problem. I told myself that I was helping the person. In truth, I was showing a lack of respect and poor listening skills. I told myself that this is what leaders did—solve problems. In truth, it was poor behavior that wasn’t a good leadership trait, and I realized I had to fundamentally change what I thought made me a good leader. Much like the Bible story of fishing versus teaching someone to fish, I needed to start teaching and give space for others to learn to catch their own fish.

I have really transitioned from leading with “command and control” to a more humble, servant leadership approach. Command and control and establishing a healthy fear was an effective way to manage the large manufacturing plants I worked in. Command and control tactics were taught and used similar to traditional military to run the large manufacturing sites I had worked in much of my career. Without consciously realizing it, the behaviors that functioned for me at work spread to other areas of my life.

While I was in the original Transformational Leadership Change workshop with Steve M., my husband texted me a photo of the inside of our dishwasher with the caption “all good here and under control.” While this image might not resonate with everyone, it was the best “tipping point” I could have received to lighten up. You see, I have always thought there was a right way to load the dishwasher and a not so right way. This translated into me usually reloading the dishwasher—and giving a great excuse to my kids and husband not to help with the dishes. The photo was sent at just the right time and I started laughing— and shared the story with the 24 other TLC participants that I had a lot of work to do to stop taking myself so seriously. This translated into a great discussion with my kids and husband when I returned home about how I was going to stop criticizing about the dishwasher. Actually, I swore not to interfere with any loading or unloading of the machine and assigned it to the kids to manage. I have pretty much stuck to my promise. It was a good reminder of how I needed to be less serious and have more fun. I share this story when asked about key learning moments and how I have changed my behaviors. I no longer see the command and control style as being effective in my life.

Sharing Stories

Several years ago, one of my direct reports, the plant manager of one of our sites in France, had the courage to tell me that I needed to slow down, explain my thinking, and help the team understand my thought process. He was kind enough to add that the group trusted me and wanted to follow me—they just couldn’t understand or keep up with my thought processes. He stated that making my thoughts and mental models more explicit would help the group understand the “why” behind my decisions. At the same time, I was receiving feedback that I should share my stories more with my team. I fundamentally didn’t like talking about myself and somehow this seemed like bragging or self -promotion. The way I was raised was that you worked hard and recognition would come—no need to tell everyone about the good work I was doing. It was obvious, wasn’t it? The interesting thing to me is how many people that I have met who have a similar perspective and get really upset that no one recognizes all the great work they are doing (even when they haven’t shared information about their work). I realized that it is important to talk about what I was doing and why I thought it was important or linked to a larger picture.

I have learned that stories are a fundamental way that people connect and build trust, and sharing a story in an authentic way can help my connection to another human being. Sharing a story can help a person or group learn from me as a leader. It is also a practical way to make sure your leader and peers are aware of the work you are doing. Because I work in a global environment where everyone on the team is located in different locations—and often different time zones—sharing updates and stories to help others learn is really important. There have been many instances where a group in one country solves a problem and we later learn that two or three other teams are working on the same issue. Not only is it a waste of resources and time to have so many people work on a single issue, we likely could have solved the issue more quickly just by connecting interested people from different locations.

I actually did some work with a coach on “my compass” and guiding values. She encouraged me to write down some of my stories so that I would have them readily available to share with others in a way that would make me comfortable and help those on the receiving end benefit. It helped me to think about this sharing as not really being about me. GGB and EnPro encourage coaches and seeking outside expertise to help learn and grow. This was certainly a pivot point for me and helped me to accept that I needed to start sharing my stories. Stories can be a teachable moment and the story helps with understanding. I reframed my point of view from thinking that telling a story was an invasion of my privacy to a belief that sharing was a way to help others learn and grow. I still set the boundaries of what I share, I have just substantially lowered the height of the wall.

Reflection and Thinking Deeply

I have also come to realize that my tendency to plan and fill all my time was restricting me from deeper thinking and contemplation. Creating space to just “be” and think about my work and the world is really important. It took me quite a while not to feel guilty when I just sat outside and looked at the trees. At first, I thought I should be “doing something” and if someone were to come upon me, wouldn’t they think that I wasn’t working?

My definition of work has lightened up over the last few years and is less about the hours logged at a particular location and more about creating space and improving the quality of my thinking and work and thus actually accomplishing more. Although I still work very hard and continue to have a high capacity to “get things done,” I also now know that it is important to deeply think, and read, and talk to people outside of my direct line of responsibility to see what might materialize.

I make a point to regularly lead discussions at work, in the community, and at local universities to test ideas and see where there is interest in the way we are working and how we are creating a different kind of company. I make myself available to those in the organization who want to talk—about themselves, concerns, the business, a broad range of topics. I mentor a lot of people inside and outside the company and believe sharing and challenging is part of my role. I truly enjoy seeing people taking on personal growth challenges and working through the tough stuff.

I started a practice a few years ago where I started reaching out to those folks in the business who didn’t seem to have a “seat at the table” to make sure they received recognition and knew they were valued. It was a simple practice that has really helped me and the organization in a different way. It also is a way for individuals who may not feel heard or even potentially marginalized to have a voice and to understand that they are valued. I followed up last year adding a monthly call that is set up with different groups of people across the company with no agenda—I simply make myself available to answer questions and engage in whatever topic the group wants to discuss. Each month is focused on a different country and group. I am often amazed at the questions and get a great pulse of what is of concern across the company. I also feel it is important that people feel they have access to the leader, and this is a simple way to demonstrate this belief and put it into action.

Centering and Meditation

I have long had a practice of using a “cool down” period of taking a walk and removing myself from high tension and stressful situations after getting upset or angry. At EnPro, I discovered the practice of centering and practicing mindfulness before engaging in work—not simply as a response after being pinched. This has been a game changer for me.

I struggled when I first began practicing centering and meditation. My initial forays into the practice were a mess and I constantly found my thoughts wondering off … wondering if I was “doing this correctly” and wondering what the “outcome” was supposed to be. It was awkward. It helped that we were practicing centering with guided practices at all of our group meetings within the EEC and EnPro meetings. Following was much easier for me in the beginning than leading a centering practice and helped to build the muscle and confidence in the practice. I also did a fair amount of research to understand the neuroscience better and found the scientific explanations helpful when sharing with my team and others in the organization.

GGB is composed of many left-brain engineers and scientists due to the nature of our work. This made it important to meet the team where they were in the explanation and practice of meditation. At one point in the beginning of this practice, I invited the union chairman into an office to share what we were doing since I saw that this practice was going to likely be expanded throughout the organization in one form or another. For me, the practice of meditation has been the ability to stop the “self-talk” or obsessive replaying of conversations or situations that had previously taken up a lot of my mental energy. I now refer to this as the “gerbil wheel” in my head as it reminds me of that structure my gerbil used to run on when I was a kid.

I now realize that the mental chatter is actually a way that our brains work to protect us and help us form stories to protect our egos and help us feel safe. This constant mental chatter rarely serves me well, however, so consciously stopping it and using the practice of meditation to quiet the gerbil wheel is something that I have learned to do. I often share this description of how meditation has helped me as it seems to connect with others and resonate. I don’t pretend to be a meditation guru and push myself now to lead this process when in meetings with colleagues. I am now significantly more comfortable in the practice of centering and meditation and have multiple apps on my phone to facilitate this practice on a daily basis. My staff are now very comfortable calling for a “centering break” when a discussion gets super tough. Rarely does anyone object and often participants express gratitude for the extra centering time. This might seem weird to an outsider, but it is a very normal practice in our team and I am convinced that it helps us tackle the tough issues more effectively.

Team Learning

I have integrated many different practices into meetings I lead— particularly staff meetings. I started a few years ago to integrate learning and new experiences into our interactions in order to push the group, both as individuals and as a cohesive team. As I often say, learning means being uncomfortable, so I intentionally push this edge (in a safe way) with my staff team. My intent is to build the business acumen of each individual and the team as a whole so that we work at a higher level and more effectively. I also want to build a group that serves the organization—a staff that is seen as a strong unit and supportive of the organization in a way that is different from most hierarchical organizational structures. It is in alignment with The EnPro Way.

My intent is to have everyone in the team understand the complex business that we lead in a more integrated way and be able to make more informed and quality decisions because each person understands not only their functional area but the financials, the talent, the markets, and the integrated whole. This is a very different approach for the group and I think they are loving it. Before, we operated in a very functionally siloed structure with little understanding of the company’s financials or how each group affected each other. Today’s team is very different, and their financial and business acumen continues to grow.

My direct reports understand that it is their responsibility to express their ideas and thoughts—particularly when they differ from mine. This is important for me and the business as I have strong opinions and have a tendency to become attached to my ideas. Having my team challenge my mental models, assumptions, and perspective is healthy. It is also often uncomfortable. It often leads to a better idea or more thoughtfully engineered plan. Inviting multiple perspectives and points of view on a situation takes more time, can be challenging, and is always worth the effort. It is a change I have made that I continue to foster. It is not consensus leadership. I am not waiting until everyone agrees on a course of action. It is a conscious effort to make sure that I have had multiple viewpoints from different lenses.

My closest thought partners are quality thinkers who don’t push a personal agenda and are willing to challenge my ideas. It has helped recently as I have integrated Ed Hess’s concept of “make my idea better” and separating the idea from the person. I now regularly use the phrase: “Help me make this idea better—I am not attached to the idea.” Setting the stage and using this language helps level the hierarchy in any room and promote idea meritocracy. It also helps us arrive at a better spot.

Feeling Loved and Safe

A few years ago, I realized the staff team was struggling communicating with their teams and I brought in Cris Gladly to facilitate a session on how to communicate with emotional intelligence and awareness. Her basic message was that people need to feel loved and safe in order to process whatever you are telling them. She integrated work from Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages and learned how individuals perceive gifts and recognition differently—think about someone who values verbal recognition receiving a physical gift—if the intent and how it is received don’t match, your message of appreciation is lost. It was also the first time that the group had openly used the word “love” in the discussion of the business and our team. I think it broke the ice and opened an opportunity for the team to look at our work leading the organization in a different way. I can always tell when a learning point has landed when the group continues to use the new language and integrates it into the communal speech used by the team. This is one that has lasted—make sure someone feels loved and safe before sharing tough messages. AND, it is likely that you will have to share information multiple times. Just because you feel that you have communicated well doesn’t mean that someone has heard you.

Since communicating is always a challenge, we tackled this issue again this year in a different way by bringing in a person to teach us improv. The workshop was interactive both physically and verbally and a lot of fun. One exercise was having a person say a single word with the next person adding a single word. The obvious question was “When will we be finished?” The not-so-obvious response from the instructor was “You will know.” As we went around the room constructing sentences, it took twists and turns and always came together with an obvious conclusion. It was a fun way to learn, and we still use this process to close our meetings as a “check-out.”

Meeting Environment

The locations of staff meetings (we meet anywhere from four to six times each year in person and at least monthly on a video call) are also given a lot of consideration. We decided a few years ago to nix the traditional non-windowed conference room as it provided absolutely no inspiration and seemed to quickly drain our collective energy. We now meet in locations where we can take advantage of being outside, insist on rooms with windows, and usually insist that there are no tables so that we can put our chairs in a circle and not hide behind typical office furniture. There are a lot of little known, beautiful, and inexpensive locations where a team can meet and have inspired meetings. We move our locations around geographically to be mindful of teammates who are coming from different parts of the world.

Everyone gets an equal chance to be jet-lagged. We often integrate physical activity or training in the morning before we start. Often there are options—yoga, running, walking, etc.— and a different person in the team leads each day. I share the responsibility and accountability of the meeting with the staff team and no longer set up the details or agenda. I used to be quite controlling on this and have learned that as the group has built their business acumen and worked hard on themselves, they need more opportunities to lead, and setting up key staff meetings and other global meetings for the organization is another opportunity to lead. I now simply review the intent of the meeting and let it flow. It is a huge change and works so much better for everyone.

Meeting Practices

We follow the centering/meditation practice to start every meeting, followed by a check-in, review of agenda, identifying note taker, timekeeper, etc. We expect participants to use “I” statements, make mental models explicit, speak up and contribute, and put thoughts into the room with the general session (not sidebar conversations). In the beginning, I often felt like the single person checking for behaviors and participation. That is no longer the case, and I have gone from talking all the time to active listening (almost) all the time. It is a good change for me and for the group.

Practicing Gratitude

As a good problem solver, I was very comfortable identifying problems and pointing out what was wrong on a daily basis. This was a habit that must have served me well at one point but was not serving me well as I took on new responsibilities. I started to use the meditation practice I had in place to practice gratitude. Staying grounded in gratitude helped me view the world differently. I made a point of expressing appreciation for people and the work they were doing. I made a point of expressing gratitude daily and often. It sounds like a small thing.

However, I started to realize that as I shifted from pointing out the problems to acknowledging the great work people were doing, it started to change my attitude and the response I received from others. I continue to practice daily gratitude. Changing my perspective and lens on how I view the world is powerful. It reinforces the need for me to continue to look in the mirror when I feel compelled to blame others. What did I do to cause an issue or reaction? What approach could I have taken that might have resulted in a different outcome? Have I recognized a particular person or situation where someone is really going above and beyond? It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it does take a purposeful commitment to practice gratitude daily. Simple, yet powerful practice.

Using the Word LOVE at Work

At some point a few years ago, we started using the word “love” at work. It started awkwardly. I still remember one colleague stating that they were entirely uncomfortable using the word at work. I think we even joked through a few “I love you, man” type interactions at a few of our executive sessions. What I have noticed, and what we talk about directly now, is how appropriate the word “love” (platonic love) is in the work setting and how it needs to be nurtured to come out more.

I now regularly say to my direct reports, “You know that I love you and here is the message I need to give you.” This seemed to be more accepted after our workshop on communication and making sure that people were feeling safe and loved before giving feedback. I think it works because my team knows that I want the best for them and do care deeply for each of them.

Inquiry versus Advocacy and Listening

When my boys were in middle school and junior high, I signed up to coach “Odyssey of the Mind.” This meant that I would work with a group of five to seven kids who may or may not know each other (or like each other) and help them over the course of six months to form a functional team capable of competing in a problem-solving competition that involved both spontaneous problem solving and solving a more complex, long-term creative problem following guidelines established by the hosting organization. The most critical function of the coach was to help this group effectively form into a team without using any form of advocacy or giving of answers. Effectively, as the coach, I could ask questions but not provide answers.

By far, this was one of my more difficult parenting challenges, and I chose to coach a total of seven teams over five years. That is a lot of quality time with my teenage kids. I share this because I used what I learned at work. I realized that I was advocating too often in my work environment and not providing enough space for failure (and learning) for my direct reports and teams. My past view of this would have been justified as helping my team. The reality was that I was providing the answers promoting my single point of view of how to resolve any given issue. I have learned that the best way to lead and build good leadership acumen is to ask real, genuine probing questions that likely require some reflection (i.e., there is no immediate “right” answer).

In a world that is becoming increasingly complex, gaining multiple inputs, insights, or lenses on any given situation is helpful. There is never one single “right” answer, and I try to ask questions and encourage equal participation from whoever is attending a particular meeting. I encountered frustration from my direct reports when I first started this practice as they wanted me to “get to the point and define the direction” we were going to go on a particular issue. While I have never had any problem putting forth my opinion, I now wait and ask others what they think. It forces people to put forth their opinions and builds the muscle for each person to articulate their point of view— regardless of my point of view. It also builds individual accountability for the idea put forth. Having a different idea is encouraged. I have often said that I don’t need a bunch of “yes” people as I know my own opinions and thoughts. I need colleagues that have thoughtful and/or insightful views that are different than mine and that force me to review my mental model and point of view. Frankly, the challenge isn’t always fun or convenient, but it almost always forces me (and the team) to come up with the best possible response to any situation.

While I rely on using inquiry as a standard go-to practice, I do rely on thought partnering when wrestling with tough issues or problems. If asked, I will share my best thoughts on a situation all the while openly admitting that I don’t necessarily have the answer. I do have a fierce independent streak and tend to challenge peers and others even when not asked.

I believe I progressed through the majority of my career because I am persuasive with a bias toward action. This served me well until I realized that I was limiting the organization with my knowledge and that I had to really work on recognizing my mental models, suspending judgment, and questioning the stories that I was telling myself that made me confident that I was right.

Questioning the Stories I Am Telling Myself

I often share the story of my early experience working in Baltimore with a team of engineers who were working to improve the customer warranty issues on a mature vehicle platform. I sat next to an engineer who never seemed to answer my questions or respond when I spoke to him. I started telling myself all kinds of stories as to why he didn’t answer me. Most of those stories weren’t pretty. One day, I decided to ask him to lunch so I could confront him as to why he always ignored me. My intention was to share how disrespected I felt by his lack of response. He accepted my invitation and we set a date. On the agreed-upon day, as we were being seated, he leaned over and said to me, “You may want to sit on my left side. I am deaf in this ear and won’t be able to hear you if you sit on that side.” I was a bit taken aback. I certainly felt stupid. So much for those stories! I had no knowledge of his physical condition and had spent considerable time making up reasons why he didn’t “hear” me. It turned out that he and I became quite good friends and have still stayed in touch twenty years later. I like to think of this situation when I start to tell myself a story and identify the real facts of the situation.

Replacing “But” with “And”

My most recent practice (learned from Ed!) is replacing the word “but” with “and.” It is amazing how many times I have found myself starting to use the word “but” and catching myself. Not only does this practice reinforce my mindful and deep listening practice, it forces me to be purposeful in my chosen words. Acknowledging what someone has said, giving value to it and saying “yes, AND” has proven to be quite powerful. It is additive. It helps build a bond and connection versus a competition or a situation where one idea is viewed as better than the other.

Reflection Time

What do you think? A good story?

1. Please make a list of Susan’s discussion topics (from her topic headings).

2. For each topic, please reflect on what you learned with the following questions:

(a) Do you have the same issues Susan had?

(b) Why did she want to change?

(c) How did Susan change?

(d) Is this something you want to change?

(e) How will you do that?

3. What Quiet Ego practices does Susan use?

4. What Quiet Mind practices does Susan use?

5. What Quiet Body practices does Susan use?

6. What Positive Emotional State practices does Susan use?

7. What are your top three takeaways?

8. What did you think about her discussion about love (platonic) in the workplace?

This book discusses love in the workplace, and when I use the term love in this book, I mean platonic love—a deep, mutual, and warm form of caring about the well-being of others and a deep acceptance and appreciation of others as unique human beings.

With love and gratitude, thank you, Susan.