A speech to lift spirits in the face of budget cuts and layoffs

In 2011, University of Illinois Extension lost $7.6 million in their budget and more than 100 jobs were cut across the state. I was invited to be the keynote speaker during their retreat immediately following these devastating cuts, with a room half the size of their prior year’s retreat and the heaviness of 100 missed colleagues.

2011 — Keynote

I understand that the past year has been challenging for you all as it has been for many or most of us in Illinois. Its been the kind of year that can beat you down, make you tired and defensive, and disgruntled. And the kind of year that can make you fight for what you believe in, rise to the occasion, and look for the speck of sun in the clouds. My father was a self-proclaimed optimist. From the number of times my mom said it, I thought she invented the saying, “he can turn a pile of [you-know-what] into a rose garden.”

My dad died on December 21st, the winter solstice, when I was 17. At his memorial service, I was asked if I wanted to stand up and speak. I remember thinking, what good would that do? I can’t make this hurt any less for anybody. And then my legs stood up on their own and walked me up the tall stairs to the microphone. There I stood at the podium, having no idea what to say to make it better.

Standing there I remembered that I had been told that the winter solstice, the day my dad died, was the darkest day of the year. And standing there I realized that my dad had died at exactly 12 noon…the brightest moment of the darkest day of the year. My father’s optimism landed in me like a ton of bricks as I stood there at 17 and I told myself and everyone who loved my father that was there that day, that if Marc Gold could, in his dying moment, figure out how to find the brightest moment of the darkest day, then we too could always do so.

You all, we all, are at one of those moments. There’s darkness but there are amazing opportunities for brightest moments.

I want to tell you a pretty personal recent story. About two years ago I started feeling tired, washed up, uninterested. I found myself in bed watching TV when I would otherwise have been fast and furiously involved in something. My family, who regularly say to me “sit down somewhere, you do too much” were happy to see me relaxing. But it wasn’t relaxing. It was the beginning of a 12 month depression.

At work I would find myself staring at the wall…all day. I became disinterested in the outcome of meetings and just let them go whatever direction they went. I became uninterested in my colleagues and, where I would normally put myself in every single person’s shoes every single day to make sure I was connected to them and their realities, I just ignored them. My colleagues didn’t seem to notice which made the depression even worse. When I would apologize for not being as engaged as I knew I should be they said I seemed fine. The business was still doing well, resting on its laurels but as time went on something systemic began to change. In staff meetings people would raise a concern and it would escalate to unusual proportions. People stopped smiling and laughing much at the office and started leaving early. Our clients were pleased with our work but they weren’t beside themselves in awe as they always had been. And no one was reaching new heights.

And then one day I woke up on the other side of the depression, like someone had pulled the plug and let the fog out. As I looked around at work I saw mediocrity and lifelessness. I wondered why everyone hadn’t either yelled at the top of their lungs that something had to change or had quit. I met with each staff member to get their take on things and they just thought time was passing as it does and maybe they were just getting bored with their work. They said the disgruntled mood was something that happens everywhere and it must just have been time for it to finally penetrate our company. We had become complacent. In less than a year we had gone from vibrant and exceptional to mediocre. And without anyone really noticing.

The work then began…the work I find to be the greatest work in the world. The work of finding the passion in each individual person, empowering them and challenging them to turn themselves inside out, find the good stuff, the dreams and aspirations, that are hidden away in their inner corners. The work of putting myself in everyone’s shoes everyday to give me the perspective I need to do right.

First we had to realize the situation that we were in. Our company had done so well for so long that we had all come to expect it to do well and take care of us, without us rising up to take care of it. Just like in the early days, if we didn’t innovate and challenge ourselves, the company was going to fail. It might be a slow death now, where in the early days it would have been an instantaneous death, but it was on its way to dying.

Each person in the organization was challenged to consider what gifts they wanted to bestow upon the company…and upon themselves. One of my colleagues (who had been with the company for 11 years, had overcome great personal challenge, and thought he was enjoying the mundane life of predictable living) slept on the challenge for two nights and then sheepishly asked if I thought he was management material. He’s now managing three staff, multiple projects, and calls me late at night with ideas he can’t keep to himself. Another staff member said, “I’ve been dreading working on the project I’m on because we’re giving the client what they asked for but not what they really need.” Within a week we had redefined the project with the client and they have now expanded their business as a result.

In the year since I woke up (it will have been exactly a year as of next week) our company has hired five new incredible, wide-eyed employees, we’re having to consider implementing a noise ordinance because of all of the laughter in the office, and, personally, I’ve been awarded great honors by my colleagues and my community that I now must figure out how to live up to and surpass.

We all need leaders. We need to be inspired by them, encouraged by them, pushed and empowered by them. When our leaders are just status quo or worse, then we’re likely to be status quo or worse. But when our leaders, all of you, are awake at the wheel, when they see in us, and themselves, the abilities that we didn’t know existed, we rise. And its fun, and rewarding, and worthwhile.

After winning the Athena award a few weeks ago, I received a congratulations card from one of the leaders in Champaign County, someone who I’ve been in the company of but who I don’t know well. Her card said that she admires me for saying what she wishes she could say in meetings and she thanked me for not apologizing for being a strong woman. I struggled after receiving her card with the thought that one of our leaders wasn’t saying what she wanted or needed to say in meetings and was possibly apologizing for or backing away from being strong. So I invited her to lunch.

She works in a highly political environment. One in which limited resources are being vied for by numerous organizations. She was describing to me how she’s had to learn to work within the system, quietly and apologetically, to get what her organization needs. I challenged her to consider herself as not just representing her organization but instead representing the greater goals that she, and likely her competitors, are committed to. Over the years I’ve sat on the boards of several organizations who vie for resources or whose mission may overlap or even collide with the missions of other organizations. The battles can get pretty ugly and competitive until you find the common thread, the common goal that you all can agree upon.

My goal is to make Champaign County a place that my children and grandchildren will want to come home to. I want them to build their families here. When I keep that goal in front of me and put it on the table when difficult decisions are being made, it helps drive competing organizations to an agreed decision. Sometimes that means that the organization I’m representing doesn’t get exactly what we thought we wanted, but usually we get something greater.

When pressed, my colleague at lunch verbalized her goal — her father was a struggling entrepreneur and during her childhood she watched the devastation as he started and failed three businesses. She wants to ensure that, if he were starting his businesses here today, he would have the very best resources to ensure his success. The organization she represents is in a strong position to help make that happen but so are other organizations. After our conversation and some self reflection, she said she has a new view on how, collaboratively, her goal can be achieved and she’s willing to put her neck on the line, say what she needs to say in meetings and not apologize for being strong, to make that happen. In tense environments, when individuals and organizations are vying for limited resources, we need to verbalize the unarguable goals, the things that we can instantaneously all agree to and then work toward those goals together.

I have one more story for you.

I met my best friend on the first day of my Junior year in college. I was one of a handful of women in the Mechanical Engineering program at the U of I and I hadn’t connected with any of the other women. I decided that I would ask the first female that walked into my first class that year to be my study partner. As my first class began I was the only woman in the room and realizing that my challenge to myself may be more challenging than I thought. And then three minutes into the class period a woman walks in and sits in the only available seat in the room, right next to me. Half way through the class I pass her a note asking if she’d like to study. [She claims that the note had a check box for yes and a check box for no and she’s made fun of me relentlessly for it.] It took her quite a while to reply but she checked yes (or to my memory wrote yes) and so began the best friendship of my life. I found out years later that the reason it took her so long to answer was because she thought I must be out of my mind. She was the only African American female in our program and she had never been approached by any other students. She figured that I must be really hard up for a study partner or a really bad student if I was resorting to asking her to study with me.

She’s one of the smartest people I know. She was the valedictorian of her high school and deserved every bit of it and more. She grew up in the ghetto of Harvey, Illinois and when she was 10 she attended a girls empowerment event at a local convention center. She remembers being in the line of a flight simulation booth, listening to the attendant give instructions to all the little girls in line before her. As she stepped up for her turn she felt confident from hearing the instructions over and over again and took command of the controls. During her turn, the Simulation attendant said, “Have you flown a plane before? You’re an exceptional pilot!”

I remember when she told me this story years ago, she said, “it was at that moment that I realized that I could probably do anything I set my mind to. That man,” she said, “changed my life.”

Yesterday morning I was in Chicago, where Juell works as a Senior Technology Director in a fortune 500 company and I met her for breakfast. I told her that I would be with you all today and when she asked “what is University of Illinois Extension?” I said, “Remember the flight simulation booth you told me about years ago? Well they probably made that happen.” Juell, my highly professional, executive friend started crying, right there in JW Marriott’s restaurant and she said whether or not you provided her particular flight simulator and her particular simulation instructor hero, she said to thank you all. She said that what you do is invaluable and, even though you have statistics on the number of people served and your activities, that you’re achieving far more than you could ever realize.

The health of University of Illinois Extension is imperative. In order for the organization to reach it’s full potential in this current climate each of you must challenge yourselves to be optimistic and create the brightest moment of each day. You must step into each person’s shoes every day, imagine you’re each of your colleagues, imagine you’re your boss, imagine you’re your participants, and reflect from their point of view how you can best serve the needs at hand. And finally, decide what your unarguable goals are. What’s the big picture of what you all must achieve? Verbalize it, put it on the table every day.

You all have always extended yourselves into the lives of those of us in Illinois. You make an enormous difference. Please continue to open opportunity in our state, to help make this state a place that my children and grandchildren will want to come home to.

Thank you so much for having me today.