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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Anne Witkavitch

By the start of the New Millennium, Anne Witkavitch had progressed from working her first job behind a cosmetics counter to the world of corporate communication. In 2010, she published "Press Pause Moments: Essays about Life Transitions by Women Writers." The anthology, which won a national Clarion Award, starts with her own story about challenges she faced as a middle-aged student returning to full-time graduate school.
The Mistake: 
Letting my past accomplishments get in the way of reinventing my future.
We tend to think of writing different chapters in our life, but that implies it’s the same book with the same focus and that the narrative arc is going to be the same. Sometimes, you really need to tear out the page and start a new story line. You have to write your professional life like it’s a book series and not a chapter.
The joke is that I came out of the womb with a business card in my hand. I’ve always been a naturally outgoing person who connects with people. I was the youngest of five kids. It was easy for me to connect with older people.
As I grew up my life seemed to fall into place. I got on sports teams. Was I the best? No, but I loved being part of a team. In college I found temporary summer jobs through Kelly Services and learned about business. After graduation I worked at a cosmetics counter, met people, networked, and ended up in marketing for a fragrance company.
From a career standpoint a lot seemed to fall into place. While there were the usual trials and tribulations of growing a career, I always found the stepping stone that made sense. I moved to agency roles and eventually bigger companies, first in global communications at General Electric and then to executive and employee communications at The Hartford.
Then I found myself thinking I hadn’t really taken a big risk for a while—and I went back to school for an MFA in writing. I came out of the program at Western Connecticut State University publishing "Press Pause Moments." Writing about women’s transitions was a natural segue from my work in strategic planning and change management.
My idea was to have my own communication consulting business—and things started off well. But talk about bad timing. The financial crisis hit in 2008; the first time for me (and I think for a lot of people) that, what had worked in the past wasn’t working anymore. I started teaching and continued consultation work, but other challenges I never expected—medical issues, family loss, a car accident—started to come into play. These were the roughest years in my life, but I come from a family of resilient Lithuanian women. You just keep going, right? Still, for the first time I think I understood my vulnerability and it threw me for a loop.
Around this time I put together a Press Pause Now retreat for women, which was all about reinvention and transformation. I thought by getting my MFA I had already reinvented myself. But now, as I advised other women, I found myself thinking, “What should I do next?”
You have to write your professional life like it’s a book series and not a chapter.
The Lesson:
I’ve learned that as I search for new opportunities I have to get out of my own way and let go of some of my accomplishments. I’m rethinking what from my past still has value and how to focus that in a way that meets the needs of the marketplace today. 
All this made me realize how important the fundamentals of communicating our stories are. We call it engagement now. You really need to know how to persuade and motivate, skills I am emphasizing as I look for my next career opportunity and launch Press Pause Now as an online virtual retreat. The interactive program brings together a community of women who are looking for what’s next in their lives, whether it be a career move, starting a business, retiring and volunteering, running for office, or something else.  The platform walks them through what I continue to explore for myself: how to assess where their values are now, what they hope for five years from now, and how to create an operating plan to make it happen.
Photo credit: Tobey Sanford

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Chris Fanning

Chris Fanning joined Survey Sampling International in 2012, bringing with him more than 20 years of experience in technology companies. Headquartered in Shelton, Conn., with offices around the world, the company specializes in business-to-business survey research.
The Mistake:
Early in my managerial career at the Boston Consulting Group I equated asking for help with weakness, an admission that I really wasn’t good enough or I couldn’t get the work done. Instead, I wanted to exercise a little bit of corporate machismo and not need any help. As you get older and as you assume a broader scope of responsibility, you realize just how foolhardy that is.
I had been asked to manage recruiting, a fairly visible project that went beyond the usual client work. Every year at BCG a promising new manager would be asked to be responsible for the recruiting efforts of the firm, which is a big deal because it brings in the future lifeblood. It was a good sign to be asked. And so I said yes to the request and coupled it with a specific project that I was trying to manage, which was trying to come up with a way to more efficiently and effectively match people who currently worked at BCG with candidates that we viewed as high priority targets.
My idea was to match candidates up with teams of consultants by their interests. So if a recruit from California was a sports person who liked to ski, I would magically want to connect them to BCG people who liked sports or skiing or might be from California, to ensure a strong affiliation with the candidate. As I got into it, I realized how complicated the solution was going to be and that I needed technical help from IT and other areas of the firm.
When I finally started to admit to someone senior to me how I was a little afraid I had bitten off more than I could chew, he just looked at me and said, “You know you can’t get it all done by yourself.  But now you’re going to have to beg people to help you and you are going to put them under stress because of the time deadline.”
The ideal way would have been to get everyone together earlier and say, “Hey, this is important. We have to get it done in the next six weeks.” That would have allowed people a little bit of margin from a calendar perspective to contribute to the project without it being a super urgent, hair-on-fire, got-to-get-it-done tomorrow kind of job where there was no margin of error.
It turned out to be a rocky ride and I don’t think anybody would want to sign up for the ride again. Still, everyone appreciated contributing to the end result—the project did provide value to the firm.
I learned early in life, from my folks, to own my mistakes and talk about how I would avoid them in the future.
The Lesson:
I may have created a bit of a reputation with certain people that suggested.  “Boy, Fanning projects aren’t going to be the smoothest.” It wasn’t the way I wanted to work, not a great way to establish myself as a early stage manager
It didn’t take me a long time to recover because I owned up to it. I learned early in life, from my folks, to own my mistakes and talk about how I would avoid them in the future. I think most people want to see others do well if you earn their trust.
The lesson, as always, is to try to think through the different steps of your project, like when you play chess. In my case these steps were recognized areas that were either unknowns to me personally or areas that I was not going to be able to control as well. Those are probably the areas you want to seek assistance with and get substantive advice as needed. And if you have to do that, then you want to sit people down and really explain the project objective, create a team with a common vision, and get buy-ins from the team. It’s important to have everyone thinking, "We are all on this project together," and that each team member has a part of the project to deliver. And that if they don’t, they are going to let the team down. 
Follow Chris Fanning on Twitter at @chrismfanning.
Photo courtesy of Chris Fanning.


In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Nicole E. Peterkin

When Nicole Peterkin began her own business, Braintree, Mass.-based Peterkin Financial, she was determined to change the focus of financial planning from predominately selling products to advisement that would enable customers to save for the future, but not at the expense of today. Peterkin, who is also the author of "If You Love Your Money, Save Like It," will deliver the keynote address at the Lootscout Capital Summit at the Bond Ballroom in downtown Hartford, Conn. on Oct. 5.
The Mistake: 
Making career and financial decisions that are not in line with your value or beliefs.
My parents married when they were 21, had four kids, and should have lived happily ever. They worked hard and saved every penny so one day they might be able to enjoy life.
In 2008, when I was finishing out my junior year as a pre-med student at Boston University, my dad just passed. He went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up the next morning.
Because of a traditional division of responsibilities, my mom had not handled anything to do with money. She didn’t know how to pay the bills or the details of our financial information aside from passwords. Together we started trying to understand what we had and didn’t have. Luckily, Dad had some life insurance because everything else was a mess. The stock market was down. Because my parents had high salaries and were professionally successful, I thought they had everything together. They didn’t.
I immediately realized I didn’t want to spend the next twelve years in med school, working hard at the expense of a lifestyle. I had always thought being in business for yourself meant more balance and I was taking elective finance courses since all my pre-med requirements were fulfilled. It seemed like a natural transition to switch to business.
Since I decided not to apply to med school, I didn’t feel like my diploma had to say Boston University, so I left BU and finished up at UMass Boston.  I was paying for my own education at that time. I had no student loans and I didn’t want to take any on any debt.
After graduation I got solicited by investment banks and insurance companies who were all saying, “Come work for us and sell our products, commission only.” But I didn’t feel like I could walk around and just sell people life insurance policies or mutual funds after my dad had just died. I didn’t want to sell anything, actually. I wanted to build this practice as a young woman in an industry that didn’t look like me—or think like me—and be able to help people with planning, like how I helped Mom after Dad died. My parents had been sold a ton of products; it’s just nothing was cohesive.
I was advised at the time that the way to build a business around fee-for-advice was to start on the commission route, so I got all my licenses including what I needed to be able to charge clients for my advice even if they never bought a product. It took me almost three years to be able to start charging a fee. I didn’t know how to value myself or my services and I couldn't find anyone who understood the industry and could give me a road map. I just knew that there was a gap there—a need. My business is completely different now and is still evolving, but now all clients pay for advice related to planning. It doesn’t matter if they buy anything from me.
My father’s death made me realize that what I valued was time and the ability to be able to control my schedule.
The Lesson:
My father’s death made me realize that what I valued was time and the ability to be able to control my schedule and be there for my future family if I had one. When I interned in corporate banking, I heard my colleagues complain about not being able to make it to their daughter’s ballet recital—which was similar to the sacrifices I resented my dad having to go through.  
I also noticed a huge gap among successful professionals who really had no idea how to maximize their money. That’s when I became committed to the idea that working with a financial planner should continue after you’ve figured out a financial strategy: when you’re worried about work and your family or you want to go on vacation. Clients need advisors who can look past old assumptions and say, “Hey didn’t you say this was important to you? Let’s do that.” Or ask, “Did you refinance your house yet? Why not?  Why are you still paying PMI?”—someone who holds your feet to the fire when everything else is crazy.
Follow Nicole Peterkin on Twitter at @NicolePeterkin.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Peterkin

Friday, September 15, 2017


In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Chris Pavasaris

Ten years after punting for the UConn Huskies, Chris Pavasaris has a new game plan: to meld his gridiron experience, post-grad work with the U.S. Senate, and chaplaincy training at Yale Divinity School to improve workplace culture and emotional intelligence. Through Xapis Strategies, he now offers individual and executive coaching, situational consulting and soft skill development, among other services.
The Mistake:
Taking so long to realize that my longtime knack for talking authentically with people could be a means to improving workplace morale and productivity.
I’ve always had what I now call the “gift of grocery store conversation.”  I’ll meet somebody in aisle 10 and leave five minutes later knowing all about their life. Eventually I began to wonder, why does that happen? Why is that interaction going on?
When I played football at UConn I used to run a study group with some of the guys, and we’d ask fellow students and players over to our apartment. It wasn’t like we were always reading in depth. Still, as I look back now, I think it was an opportunity to come to terms with the stretch from being an athlete and also being a student—and balancing what was going on in their lives. I didn’t know it then, but it was an early venue to share the small group coaching Xapis Strategies promotes.
My role on the football team was unique in the sense that I was a punter. So I wasn’t somebody who played every down. I wasn’t somebody who was charged with having this great physical strength, but I was somebody who had to remain calm, had to remain focused, and kind of balance all of those situations that were ongoing. I think that mentality more so was something I was trying to pass on to some of my peers.
I called a colleague from those days a while ago and told him about my idea. When I asked him what he thought, he said, “You always were so good with me, helping me to stay on track and balanced.”
“I did?” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me that five or six years ago?”
When I talked to co-workers at my current job in finance at Global Atlantic, right after Divinity School, I found myself, once again, listening for this meta-narrative, I’ll call it, in the stories they told. And my role became asking questions, and kind of delving into these personal situations. I’d reflect some of that back to the person and afterwards they’d say, “You really helped me work through some things.”
There are going to be challenges at work and in life, but being able to be joyful ... serves not only the person, but their workplace as well.
The Lesson:  
There’s a need in the workplace for “corporate chaplains,” who have an office, like you would see in a hospital, and are there to serve the workers. There already are coaches who are strictly business strategy; there are psychologists who are coaches. For me, the role would necessitate understanding the person’s present and maybe also understanding a bit of their past, though I’m not going to be one who is going to repair past relationships or experiences in the way a therapist would. It’s more like getting the client to learn to live in the present moment, at work.
A lot of employers will say, ”Oh, we have human resources for employees as long as they come and take advantage of it." But my question is, “How can I get to the people who don’t necessarily come to the door for counseling? That is what led me to this model.
Granted my own faith journey and faith life inform a part of what I do, but I’m not proselytizing. I’m not going in with my faith as a leading strategy. My goal isn’t necessarily providing happiness for my co-worker. Instead of happiness I guess I would call it joyfulness. From the theological perspective, joy is not based in feeling good. Joy has a deeper root meaning of gratitude. Joy in the present. You’re not looking for a hedonistic outcome, which I associate sometimes with happiness. Your life is going to have ups and downs. There are going to be challenges at work and in life, but being able to be joyful by having that steady state of wholeness (as implied in Xapis, the Greek word for grace) serves not only the person, but their workplace as well.
Follow Xapis Strategies on Twitter at @xapisstrategies
Photo by Gerry Dyer


In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

John Roche

John Roche is an award-winning journalist who teaches at Western Connecticut State University. His first novel, "Bronx Bound," was published in 2015.
The Mistake: 
I used to think real talent was all I needed to become a successful writer. Bull! Sheer talent doesn’t do it. It’s a falsehood that talent is enough.
I’m a huge Derek Jeter fan. I had the opportunity to cover Jeter when I was a newspaper reporter, when he spoke to kids at two events in the Bronx. I’ll never forget when somebody asked him, “What is the best advice you ever got?” and he said, “That’s an easy one. My father told me that there will always be somebody more talented than you, but there should never be anybody working harder than you.” I still get goosebumps when I think back to Jeter saying that.
His message might have been lost on the fourth graders but hearing it changed my life. I thought, here’s a guy who at that point had already won three World Series Championships. He had already won Rookie of the Year, World Series MVP and All-Star Game MVP.  Yet, he’s talking about how there is always somebody more talented than him.  He explained how in high school he might have been the best but guess what? He went to the state championship and there was somebody better there. Then he went to college, then to the minor leagues, and then he got to the Yankees. And he wasn’t even the best when he got to the Yankees. But he brought his father’s advice with him.
So I starting thinking to myself, “You know what? I’ve been given this talent,” just like everyone else in this writing program. We are all given that writing talent. But the talent’s not enough. Nobody’s going to come in and say to any of us, “My God, you have this aura of talent about you. What can I do for you?” No. You need to work at it. You really need to respect your own talent. It’s not being boastful. It’s not patting yourself on the back.
There will always be somebody more talented than you, but there should never be anybody working harder than you.
The Lesson: 
Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, talking about all writers, but I know for me, I sometimes get into that artist idea. I think that I have to be in the right frame of mind to write. That the atmosphere has to be perfect; the Muse has to strike. But sometimes you just need to look at yourself like a carpenter. A carpenter never says “You know what, I’ve got to refinish that bedroom today, but I’m not in the mood. I just don’t feel like doing it.” They might feel that way but they go and do it anyway.
I had to learn how to respect my own talent enough to work really hard at it. The key to a successful writing experience is simply writing the best you can. I may look at a classroom of writers and think I know who the single-most talented writer is. But if I had to choose who will work hardest at becoming a better writer, I'd like to able to call it a tie by choosing all of them. Think about what Jeter said—there’s always going to be someone more talented than you, but there should never be anybody who works harder.
Photo courtesy of John Roche.
Follow John Roche on twitter at @johnrochewrite.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Crain's "If I Knew Then: Evangeline Leah Rookey, Owner, Artistic Hair Salon LLC

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Evangeline Leah Rookey

As a 12-year-old, the smell of a salon caught Leah Rookey’s attention. “How cool is this?” she thought, and thus began her journey, first as as stylist and then as the owner of Artistic Hair Salon in Windsor Locks, Conn. Her 37-year career has led her to travel the world to learn the latest trends of hairstyling, manage a business, and more recently, look deep into herself as a work in progress. 
The Mistake:
As much as I loved to style hair, I needed to do less of that and learn how to build the salon by honing my business skills and investing in me.
When I was going through a divorce I had an epiphany. Up to then I didn’t need to work full time. I had a tiny little business. Life was great! When I realized I didn’t want to be married anymore I thought, “How am I going to live?”
I went from working three days a week to full time and now trying to hire an employee. That was a game changer. For over 25 years I had worked alone in the salon. Besides stylist, I had been my guests or clients’ therapist (behind the chair). Business was very busy but when my clients came into the salon, they liked the one on one. Some clients found it challenging when staff was brought in, but I had to keep my eye on the bigger picture.
I looked for answers and that’s when I found the Summit, a salon consulting company.  The Summit gave me direction. It taught me I needed to understand my numbers. I needed to understand my P&L (profit and loss). I didn’t even know what that was because my mother did my books. Bless my mother.
So I began to get the numbers end of it. Next came learning how to brand and market with social media to build the business. That is still a work in progress. Yet I realized something was still unbalanced. It was my spiritual side.
I‘m learning how to find the balance. My mother died last year and my 93-year-old father moved in with me. In the last few years I’ve committed all of “me” to my parents and the salon.  I realized I had to get back to the gym, which I did, and I hired my trainer back, two changes I’m really happy about.
Then I found Passion Squared, an online school for small business owners, because I needed more business coaching. And it’s through my Passion Squared seminars that I began questioning. "Do I really need to learn more about how to cut a straight line? Do I need to understand how to put bleach on a different way?" Yes, I’ve done a lot of that but there’s a part of working on “me” I’ve never done. Passion Squared connected me with a spiritual coach to help with that.
Fixing a problem is way harder than continuing to live with the problem.
The Lesson:
If I am not centered as a person, no business technique or social media is going to build my business successfully. If I’m not whole none of that is going to matter. And that’s with anybody in anything. It took me six years to find two really great stylists that understand this, and I’m still searching for more. Just like learning about how to run a business and how to invest in myself—it isn’t easy. If this was easy, everybody would be doing it. But when it’s not easy people walk away or they say, “Oh you’re just a hairdresser.”
People let themselves stay in bad situations—business and personal. I see it everyday in my chair. People quit trying to fix themselves and stay in their unhappy lives. They quit and stay in their jobs. They quit life but stay in the insanity, and then they get stressed. I said that to a guest the other day. Fixing a problem is way harder than continuing to live with the problem. That’s why people don’t get out of bad relationships. Because when you get out—you’ve got you. If you can’t get along with yourself, how can you get along with anybody else? You know what I mean?
I can actually say I love my career. Moving forward, my passion is to help coach young stylists to help them develop their individual talent behind the chair. I was very lucky to discover my career as a hairstylist at such a young age.
Photo courtesy of Evangeline Leah Rookey

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Crain's If I Knew Then: Rhona Free, USJ President

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rhona Free

For the 50 years since Radcliffe merged with Harvard, fueling the trend for women’s colleges to become coed, the University of Saint Joseph has remained an all-women’s institution. President Rhona Free talks about how she came to realize it was time for USJ, founded in 1932 by the Sisters of Mercy, to open its hallowed halls to male undergraduates. Connecticut’s last all-women institution of higher learning will begin admitting male students to all full-time undergraduate programs in the fall of 2018.
The Mistake:  
Applying a mission statement too narrowly
When I started here in 2015 I loved the idea of being at a women’s college and I interpreted the mission as a women’s college. After being on the campus for about a year and a half, I kept thinking of things I would like to offer to the women students and realized that the constraints were in many cases not financial. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the funds to create any program or another co-curricular activity, but rather that we did not have enough interested students.
To achieve the dynamic undergraduate experience I envisioned, we needed more students than were interested in coming to an all-women institution. Research indicated only 2 to 4 percent of students who take the SAT say they will consider a single-sex institution. Those statistics surprised me. I didn’t expect that it would be very high, but 2 to 4 percent was much less than I anticipated.
How could we open our door to those other 98 percent of students headed for college? Was I thinking too literally, interpreting that our mission was just for women undergraduates? 
Before approaching the board of trustees with any recommendation, we created a task force with twelve different working groups. Each of those working groups looked at what would be the impact of becoming coeducational and how it would relate to our mission. Would it push us too far from our mission? Would it allow us to support the mission?
The consensus from those groups was that there have been enough incremental changes at the University of Saint Joseph, so that becoming fully coeducational would remain within our mission. Men have attended the graduate school for almost fifty years and live in the graduate residence hall. Men are enrolled in the part-time program for adult learners and also attend classes on campus as part of the eleven-college Hartford Consortium for Higher Education. For example, students from Trinity College who want to get certified as teachers come to USJ to take Education courses.
You can’t interpret mission too narrowly or be too tied to the history and traditions.
The Lesson:
We came to realize our mission really focuses on educating a diverse student population to meet society’s needs, with an emphasis on developing the potential of women.  I think I (and others) had first thought, “Well that means undergraduate women,” but obviously when you read it more carefully, it doesn’t say to the exclusion of men. It just says that you will keep—and we will keep—that focus.
Changing from Saint Joseph College to the University of Saint Joseph a few years ago indicated that the board understood that you can’t interpret mission too narrowly or be too tied to the history and traditions. What if someone had said 50 years ago that this institution would be starting a school of pharmacy offering a doctoral degree? I think many people would have just said, "Oh no, that is not what we’re here for."
By opening this sense of what the mission is and not interpreting it too literally, the University of Saint Joseph remains consistent with the vision of its Founding Sisters of Mercy. We will have more resources and more students that will support activities. Right now our undergraduate enrollment is about 770. We’ll possibly go up to 1,000 but we probably won’t go beyond 1,000.
I’ve learned to keep a sense of what an institution’s mission is and allow for enough flexibility to respond to change in the markets and in external conditions, but at the same time not be so loose with interpreting the mission that you get steered into directions that are not ideal for the institution. The University of Saint Joseph has always had a pretty high level of expectations for student performance and preparation and that’s a part of sticking to the mission and the history that we didn’t want to change. 
Follow the University of Saint Joseph on Twitter at @USJCT.
Photo courtesy of Rhona Free.