Article written by Kerri Lewis
As the second oldest in a family of six children, collaboration started at an early age for me. Given the fact that my family was so big, there was always cleaning to do. Saturday mornings were often spent discussing tasks needing completion and collaborating with my siblings on best ways to minimize cleaning time and maximize the time we had to play. Man, we were smart kids. Looking back, never could I have imagined back then that what often felt like annoying, time consuming conversations would help set the stage for my future success.
After all, had I not learned to ask for help as a child, would it have come so easily in adulthood? Considering that oftentimes the narrative is, asking for help is a sign of weakness, I think not. Funny how things work out!
Due to life and the way things sometimes shake out, at the ripe old age of 14 I found myself navigating life with little direction or guidance. Due to the lack of parental oversight, I often found myself in precarious situations forcing me to reach out to friends for help. While more often than not, the suggestions offered were misguided, I always knew I had a couple of friends that I could bounce ideas off of and who would give me honest feedback about the choices I was making.
I mean hey, when you are young, dumb and have little parental oversight, collaborating with friends on how to make money, get something to eat or find shelter means the difference between a night spent afraid or a night spent in safety. As I reminisce on these years, I can’t help but thank god for good friends.
Now, despite alluding to making some pretty poor life choices as a teen, and I did, I also had work ethic! Something my parents instilled in me for as far back as I can remember. So despite causing trouble and doing things I cringe thinking about today, I can proudly say that I never went without steady employment. Because of my time running on the streets and because I fell second in my family’s pecking order, leading came naturally to me and so at the age of 17, I landed a job as assistant manager for a gas station. Talk about stepping into a crash course on getting people’s byon and soliciting ideas from others. Man, when you are in charge of people three times your age, you learn real quick the importance of collaboration. From having a tough conversation, to scheduling, delegation and communication, if I wanted to succeed, I had to ask for help.
Yup, I said it, the word help. Something many fear asking for because they have been conditioned to believe that to ask for help makes them appear incompetent or worse yet weak. Fortunately for me in order to survive, I didn’t have the luxury of worrying how people viewed me. I just needed to make things happen. And that is exactly what I did.
As I gained confidence in my leadership skills and ability to run successful businesses, I started to work my way up the corporate ladder, first for Starbucks. and then for Nordstrom. Both careers required me to collaborate with diverse groups of people to ensure the community in which we were doing business was represented. And by represented, I mean a strong understanding of who our customer was and how to best communicate with and serve them. Additionally, it was through the art of collaboration that I was able to learn and grow as a leader. Rather than assuming I had it all figured out, I stayed curious, asked leaders and mentors for advice and feedback about my performance so that I could continuously develop both personally and professionally. And grow, I did!
Despite only having a tenth grade education, my willingness to remain open to new ideas, to try new things and to remain receptive to both positive and critical feedback set the stage for me to be hired as part of a team of 36 to help open a start-up cannabis company. Whoop whoop! Not too shabby for a girl from Worcester MA who never even made it to college.
Now despite having an extensive experience in collaborating with others to ensure the success of the businesses I was hired to run, stepping into building a startup in a new industry created an even greater need for collaborative efforts. Because the cannabis industry was so new in MA, things were constantly changing, technology was being built on the fly and one never knew when the commission was going to add some additional regulation that inevitably would change the way the company needed to operate.
Through the unwavering focus on making sure things were done right, the willingness of many to remain open to new possibilities and new ways of doing things and the relentless pursuit of excellence I can proudly say, I was part of building a successful company that not only scored in the top of it’s class for service but also had a strong focus on it’s people.
While I had every intention of staying with the company I helped build long term, Covid hit the world and I watched in horror as my employees and customers’ mental health took a sharp nose dive. Working in the cannabis space gave me a birds eye view of just how many people did not have the tools necessary to handle the inevitable ups and downs of life. I saw employees and customers alike increase their cannabis consumption as a means to manage the overwhelming emotions that inevitably came with a life changing event such as a pandemic.
What I realized as I continued to observe emotional upheaval all around me was that my 28 year love affair with studying all things related Psychology, Theology and Stoicism had helped me develop a deep reservoir of tools and skills that kept my own mental health from spiraling despite what was happening in the world. Because of my deep love of all people, I knew I needed to share the wisdom I had acquired with others so that they too could gain control over their mental health. With hope and a prayer, I stepped out of the corporate arena and into the world of personal and business coaching, also known as self employed with no guarantee of an income. Wow, was this scary.
Now you might be asking, how does going into business for yourself lend to the topic of collaborating with others. While on the surface this appears like a valid question, the reality is stepping into new, no matter what that new is requires a great deal of collaboration.
From learning how to market my business, to getting help dialing in my ideal client, to figuring out this whole social media thing (still a work in progress) there has not been a day that has gone by since starting this endeavor that I have not had to reach out to many people and ask for help, for creative ideas and on occasion, even the bartering of services all to ensure the success of my business. Dang, as I type these words, I’m grinning ear to ear! Realizing that it has been and still is the collective efforts of many that have made my business the success that it is today.
As I continue to hone my skills as a coach, build my knowledge as an entrepreneur and continue to do my own inner work so that I can continue to become the best expression of me possible, I acknowledge that it is through the efforts of many that I will continue to rise. Whether it’s a tough conversation about how I manage my schedule or a book suggestion that will help me with some area of my business, I know I’m only as successful as the kindness and feedback I’m willing to remain open to receiving. It’s not lost upon me just how lucky I am. Or am I?
While I see the narrative changing around asking for help, being in the business I’m in, it’s clear we have a long way to go before people can easily pick up the phone and say “hey, I’m stuck, can you give me a hand” without feeling mass amounts of guilt or shame. My hope for you all in reading a bit about me is that I inspire you to be brave. Inspire you to set aside the worry in your head that someone will judge you and reach out and ask for help. The reality is, not only can we not emotionally and physically afford to do it alone, we were never meant to. It is through connection, community and the collaborative efforts of many that create the greatest impact.
And so in conclusion I’ll leave with a quote from Alexander Graham Bell “Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds” and ask you this, if collaboration saved my life all those years ago, just imagine what it can do for you, your business or the world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!