Avoid looking at events as insurmountable. You can’t change the fact that that bad stuff stressful events happen, but you can change or control how you respond to these events. Always look at the upside. You can’t change what is behind you. Focus on what you can change: your future.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Sexton.
For more than sixteen years, financial professional and founder of Sexton Advisory Group, Steve Sexton, has built a reputation on identifying issues costing clients thousands of dollars in taxes, eradicating unidentified fees and expenses, solving estate problems, and eliminating any unknown risks. A cancer survivor, Sexton is deeply passionate about helping individuals and families better prepare for the unexpected via advanced life planning services and in-depth client education.
Sexton earned his degree in Management Sciences from Pepperdine University. He spent eight years developing business for investors overseas until 1994. Upon returning to the U.S., he began his career in the insurance and financial industry with the Automobile Club of Southern California.
Sexton has been a financial contributor and expert for CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, THE CW, The American Dream TV show plus more, appearing locally and nationally more than 420 times. USA Today recognized Steve as a Financial Trendsetter for 2012 followed by recognition from The Wall Street Journal as a Financial Best-Selling Author in 2013 for his contributions to the book “How to Get
More out Of Life and Business with Better Results.” In addition, Steve was the former host of the very popular Silver Hair Tsunami TV & Radio Show on Cox Channel 4 and 1170AM KCBQ. Furthermore, Steve has worked with charities such as Pat Boone’s, Ryan’s Reach, and Jacob’s House. Currently, Steve is a board member for the Stars of Courage.
Thank you so much for joining us Steve! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Growing up, I felt like I was always the underdog. I was one of 5 children growing up in the 60’s in Orange County, California. My family is very involved in sports, so naturally, I began playing sports as early as 5 years old. At that age, I was always the smallest kid in every sport — everyone I played with was two or three years older than me, and because of that I got bumped around a lot. Whenever I got injured, the older kids always said, “throw some dirt on it and let’s get going.” These early childhood experiences made me incredibly competitive, so I did just that — I put some dirt on it and kept going. Me doing whatever it takes, my competitiveness and willingness to put skin the game served me well in sports and in my business career. For over many years, I helped grow businesses internationally, until I finally decided to move back to the U.S. and eventually start my own financial advising business, The Sexton Advisory Group, based in Southern California. I married my trophy wife, Lora. Together we have two wonderful children, Connor and Paige.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
About 13 years ago, I started having some stomach problems. After about a week of intense discomfort, I finally went to a local urgent care. After what felt like endless appointments, tests and CT scans, and multiple misdiagnoses, I was sent to the emergency room. The ER doctor brought in the hospital’s director of trauma surgery, who informed me I had an enlarged tumor in my stomach that needed to be surgically removed immediately.
I found out later that what was to be an hour and a half colon resection turned into a 6-hour long surgery. This was due to 13 liters of fluid that had backed up behind the tumor. When I woke up, I had a big bandage from my sternum to the bottom of my belly button, two IV’s working to get my kidneys going and nurses checking on me every few minutes. My wife said I looked like the Michelin Man. Post-surgery, the doctors confirmed what we feared: that I had colon cancer. The diagnosis sparked many emotions, but I was determined to stay focused on what I needed to do to overcome this.
Almost immediately, I began my long and arduous journey to recovery. This included physical therapy and extensive chemotherapy treatments that ravaged my body and zapped my energy throughout the course of 6 months. I received multiple injections for low white blood cell counts and low vitamin D. I was not able to have a cold drink without my throat seizing up or my fingertips feeling frozen. Despite the changes in my physical strength and energy, I just told myself to get through it the best I could. I remember my last day of chemo. The oncologist staff came into the treatment room and we all toasted with a glass of sparking apple cider to signify that I was now finished with chemo. It was surreal to know that I had survived.
It wasn’t until the following week that it actually hit me. I took my wife and kids on a driving trip to San Francisco. We had hot chocolate for the kids every morning from the Buena Vista, went on trolley rides, and even toured San Francisco on an old fire engine. We always have so much fun as a family; at one point during the trip, we were laughing so hard at dinner that other tables in the restaurant started laughing at us. It was in this moment that I wasn’t the only one who survived cancer; my family survived too.
Upon one of my follow up visits with my doctor, I learned a big lesson. He told me, “guys like you are the worst.” I’m thinking, why? What did I do? He said, “When you arrived at the hospital you were septic shock, your stomach was fully distended and you had 13 liters of fluid, backed up behind a tumor. You were about 3 hours away from renal failure. The amount of pain and pressure your body was taking was tremendous. Most people pass out and are rolled in on a stretcher. We were surprised you even walked in. In fact, if it you weren’t so physically fit you probably wouldn’t have made it. Post-surgery you requested the least amount of morphine I have ever seen in my medical career. When I told you to walk the halls, most people walk around the halls a couple times but you turned it into a track meet.”
My response was, “Hey, you have to suck it up and get going.” He said “That’s the problem. You have been taught all your life to take responsibility, fix it and move on. Does the phrase “Put a little dirt on it” mean anything to you? He said, “Look, stomach aches shouldn’t last a couple of months. I’ll bet you were probably having some sort of discomfort off and on long before you met me. Steve, you must learn to listen to your body and be a wimp sometimes, it will save your life. When a physical issue persists get in and see your doctor now, not when you have time.”
He said, “Steve, when people face mortality in the very near future they ask me to help them get more time; a week, a month, 6 months a year or more so they can be with, talk with and experience more life with the ones they love.” Being a wimp and going in to see a doctor and getting a test, might cost you a few dollars but it could give you 5, 10 or 20 more years to be with, talk with, experience life with the ones you love. So, it’s O.K. to ask for help was My first lesson.
Lesson number 2: Medicine is a business. Like all businesses, there are good ones and not so good ones. The first urgent care doctor I went to see sent me in for ulcer tests. It turns out the first CT scan I took only showed a blockage. The emergency room doctor only took 15 to 20 seconds to order an enema then made me drink the same concoction given to people whom are preparing for a colonoscopy and sending me home with another to drink. I come to find out later the first hospital I went to was one of the lowest ranked hospitals in the California for quality of care.
Lesson Number 3: Have a continuity plan…. waking up in the hospital, meeting people going through chemotherapy, sharing their stories, finding out the person next to you is doing chemo because he or she just wants to a have a few more months with the ones they love, hoping they have enough time to put things in place before they walk out on life was a game changer for me. I realized even though I provide financial advice, I had no continuity plan for the day I could not take care of my family. If I had passed away, besides not being in the picture, my wife would have had to deal with a financial mess. So, I set out to find experts that will help ask questions for clients and friends that they wouldn’t think of or even know to ask. The moral of this lesson is to make sure you have not only an estate plan, but a financial plan in place that you and your spouse both understand how to implement. Don’t leave the ones you love with a mess!
2) When you’re in chemo, there is not much to do accept to watch daytime TV or talk to your neighbor. Since daytime TV is horrible, I talked to the people around me. I sat next to a couple, where the husband was being treated for late stage cancer. During my my third chemo treatment, the wife explained to me that she was anxious and afraid because her husband had always handled the finances throughout their marriage; in his current state, she was having to navigate through multiple documents she did not understand. So she asked for my help. I asked her to bring in her trust, taxes, financial documents and any letter or document she didn’t understand. We set out a plan to educate her on all her documents, develop income, expenses and asset statements. While going through chemo, I helped about 10 people obtain trust, reduce their taxes, reduce investment expenses, answer questions, and help them plan for retirement. None of them became clients; it was just a good way to utilize my time while being treated, and I suppose “pay it forward” in my own way.
Once I finished chemo, I knew right away that I wanted to create a firm that helped people who are struggling with life’s many unexpected events. Having cancer gave me the clarity and ability to step in other people’s shoes and imagine what they would want from a financial advisory firm.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First of all, I wanted it to be comprehensive. Meaning that I wanted to cover all things that were related to a client’s financial life. Some financial advisers focus on investment
management or estate planning. And still others focus on retirement planning or risk
management. But I realized that this meant a client might need to have multiple advisers to get a high‐level of service if they needed help in more than one financial area. That also meant that a client would have to coordinate these different services on their own since it is not very likely that their advisers communicate with each other directly. So we knew we wanted to create “one‐stop‐shop” for all of our clients’ financial needs. In order to this and still provide a high level of experience we decided to utilize a team approach where clients could access the best of the best in each of these areas all through one firm. The next thing I knew would be necessary is customization. Obviously, every person and every situation is different and so should the financial strategies they employ. And while we have standardized processes and procedures, these processes and procedures were designed in a way to yield different results depending on the client’s needs and goals. Last but not least, we wanted our clients to feel heard — really listened to.
These experiences fueled our mission. As a cancer survivor, I am deeply passionate about helping families and individuals better prepare for the unexpected. My own experience served as a great awakening and calling to share my knowledge and services in a way that would better secure my clients financial futures, no matter what unforeseen circumstances may be thrown their direction. I believe a large part of that preparation is not only having a smart and holistic financial plan in place, but also client education. By working in partnership with, and not just for, our clients, we empower individuals with valuable knowledge and understanding of their financial options, so they may always take control of their finances by asking the right questions.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
One of my first bosses, Jeff Zoints at Scarborough Industries, believed in me enough to put me in a role that allowed me to grow/scale a company internationally. When I made mistakes, he made me learn from them. At times I resented him, but the end I was very grateful for all that he forced me to learn about myself. Jeff taught be how to be a businessman, and developed the confidence in me that I can accomplish my wildest dreams.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is defined by the capacity for one to recover quickly from difficulties, some people refer to as toughness. Life is going to punch you in the mouth (I.e. cancer or other health issues, lost job, lost revenue, bankruptcy, a bad economy, divorce, children with health issues, etc.). The resilient will dust themselves off and say “what do I need to do now?”
According to the American Phycological Association studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience. I believe there are characteristics associated with resilience, including:
1) The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
2) A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
3) Skills in communication and problem solving.
4) The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
People can build the all the characteristic to become a resilient person by charging their environment, the people they associate with and a little education.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I went to a conference a few months back, where Travis Mills, a veteran and motivational speaker, was the keynote speaker. Travis was one of five quadruple amputees from the was in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive his injuries. He spent 19 months at Walter Reid National Military Medical center along side other veterans and their families. Here is a guy whom lost the ability to take care of his family, his arms and legs all from one IED. Yet with the support of his wife and daughters, he overcame the challenges or his new normal in life after injury. Not only did he survive he thrived by doing with laughter and love for his fellow veterans by creating the Travis Mills Foundation that supports recalibrated veterans and their families through long-term programs that help men and women overcome physical obstacles. I love to see people do things that other don’t think are possible and then help others change other similar circumstance prevail. www.travismillsfoundation.org
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When I was in South Africa working for Scarborough Industries, I was informed by my boss that our Australian country manager had resigned in the middle of the night after it was determined he mismanaged the finances. At that time millions of dollars in merchandise was arriving in port. The bank wanted to seize the merchandise in order to pay the loan. Our goal was to close the offices and help the bank sell the arriving merchandise for the highest amount to reduce the debt. Upon my arrival to Australia, I was picked up by a bank employee and brought to the bank for a meeting. They wanted to know how I was going to rectify the situation. The bank agreed to give me 2 weeks to create a plan.
Upon evaluating the operation, I figured I could sell all the merchandise and pay back the loan with some profit in 3 months. Within two weeks, I was able to make some drastic changes internally. When I went back to present the plan to the bank, we had already increased our sales by 40% over previous month so the bank allowed be continue. By month 2, we had expanded back to the 3 offices and the bank loan had been paid with interest. The operation now profitable, the bank agreed to finance the next three merchandise shipments. Both the bank officers and my boss expected to take a loss and thought I had completed the impossible task. Before I left Australia, the banks offered me a position to help them turn around poor performing assets.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
My greatest set back was experiencing cancer. At the age of 42, I was in excellent physical condition, my pulse was 36, blood pressure 90 over 60. I thought I was invincible. My business was going well, earning recognition amongst my pears. My outwork everyone was on display. I tried to meet as many new potential clients as possible often returning home for birthday parties or sporting events. I was always getting somewhere just in time or just a few minutes late. I was present for family activities, but not always mentally present. When cancer hits you, some clients and referral partners leave you because they fear you won’t be around as long as they will. Being told “I’m sorry, but I want to someone who will be here for the long term” is tough.
After overcoming cancer, I have learned to reprioritize my life and my business. I made it a point to make time for family, but also be mentally and emotionally present in everything that I do. As for my business, I recreated my business to utilize a team approach to being a one-stop shop for my clients financial needs, my business took off.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
As a kid, I was always told I was too small, not fast enough or not smart enough. Proving these naysayers wrong has always been a primary motivator for me, pushing me to always keep my eye on the ball and get creative when things get tough.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
I believe resilience is a muscle that can be developed and should be continually developed. Life is going to throw curve balls at you — you can’t avoid it. In my opinion the best way to develop your muscle is:
1) Maintain a positive outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life.
2) Avoid looking at events as insurmountable. You can’t change the fact that that bad stuff stressful events happen, but you can change or control how you respond to these events. Always look at the upside. You can’t change what is behind you. Focus on what you can change: your future.
3) Take steps toward achieving your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. I have a journal that I write the day and the phrase: create gains every day. Creating small gains everyday turn in to significant and impactful changes overtime.
4) Take actions. When bad things happen, “act” as much as you can. Its better to act to resolve a bad situation as much as you can.
5) Take care of yourself. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations. For me this is exercising and eating right. Exercising enables me to clear my mind and tackle the problem with a clear head.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My focus for a movement would be to give people the tools to become resilient. For example: In California, we are seeing more and more people become homeless, many because they just to have the skills or the self-confidence to become self-resilient. I used to work with a charity called Stars of Courage (www.starsofcourage.com). The charity works with people whom lived below the poverty line and connected a life coach to work the person to the point of them being 3 times above the poverty line. The program is about helping some develop the skills to be self-sufficient.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
As you know, I’m a fan of the underdog. I would love to have a breakfast with Elon Musk. He has taken the impossible and made it possible through his drive, genius and resilience.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!