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Wide Awake: Listen Closely
You learn so much when you hear someone’s story

I once interviewed the CEO of U.S. Lumber, Lita Abele, who had a lot of qualities you would expect in a CEO. She was smart, confident and passionate about her job. But then she told me how she relieved stress: Every night, when she got home from work around 9, she went into her basement and sang karaoke – by herself.

I paused a bit, because I wasn’t sure I heard her right. Then she added that she also danced a little when she sang, and she swayed her body just to give me an idea of what she meant.

I threw my head back and laughed. It was so refreshing to think of this CEO in her basement singing along to a video. I bet if you asked people who worked for her or those who sat on Boards with her to guess what she considered a stress-reliever, no one would have the right answer. And they’d be as surprised as I was the answer involved singing in the basement.

But that’s the biggest discovery I have made this year and, honestly, I don’t know what took me so long. You’d think I would have realized this a long time ago: Everyone has a story. And if you take the time to hear it, you’ll be surprised, and it will somehow change how you think.

With Lita, I learned that everyone – no matter their job – likes to have fun, and it’s essential to make time for fun, even if it’s 9 pm and you’re tired. You should still grab a microphone and sing.

I also had a long conversation with Rowan President Ali Houshmand. I had been introduced to him a few times but hadn’t really spoken to him. He seemed intimidating. I think I judged him simply because of his title.

He described growing up so poor in Iran that he played soccer barefoot because he didn’t have shoes, and he rarely bathed because his family couldn’t afford the public baths. He described attending school in England and being beaten because of the color of his skin. One time his jaw was broken.

I learned from Dr. Houshmand that we have no idea what people have experienced. And when you think you have it bad, someone else has it worse. But he would tell you to push through, because great things can still happen in your life. Just keep going.

And then there is Eagles Coach Doug Pederson, who sat down with me this past May to talk about leadership in front of an audience of 300+ people. We didn’t talk about game plays or strategy. But he did bring up a topic that surprised us all: Love.

Doug was describing the culture he creates with the team and he said, “Honestly, when they feel the love of the team, they can’t help but buy in. And when they do, they’ll literally run through that wall for you.”

In the months since Doug’s talk, I’ve tried to be more aware of the culture at our office. Doug taught me that no matter what your playing field is, whoever you work with is on your team. And a key ingredient to any team’s success is love.

But the greatest interview I have ever done was with Dominic Pontarelli, whose wife Theresa had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 14 years earlier. Both were now in their 70s, and Dominic was her sole caretaker. He fed her, bathed her, did everything for her. He told me his greatest fear was that Theresa would outlive him, so he had an aide come to their house every day so he could go to the gym. It was his way of trying to stay healthy for a long time. He also wanted to build strength because he had to transfer her from the bed to her wheelchair.

I asked him if there was ever a chance Theresa could understand what he was saying, what would he want to tell her. He paused for a long, long time, and then very quietly said, “She already knows.”

Dominic’s story moved me. He was selfless. He was devoted to his wife and also burdened at the thought of their future. His life was unrecognizable now, and yet his only worry was if he would be able to care for his wife in the years to come. Dominic taught me that people sometimes make great sacrifices for others, and they do so willingly and wholeheartedly. He taught me that there are many, many loving, kind and noble people. What a great story.

December 2019
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