Category Archives: stress

7 Leadership Books for a World Class Culture


It has been said that leaders are readers, but it is often difficult to find the time to sit down with a self-improvement book in the midst of life’s fullness. For many of us, reading is not only a reprieve from stress, but an inspiration to find new ways to do a job more effectively.

The books I most appreciate are the ones which resonate with my own experiences, especially as a self-described high maintenance customer. My bosses expect excellence from me, and I have been conditioned to demand it from the companies where I spend my money. As a consumer, I can tell instantly if a business cares about building long-term relationships. There are 2 big tests of an organization’s culture of customer service.

1-Are the employees happy? I am sure you have walked in to a business and instantly caught a positive or negative vibe about the place. This vibe is a result of the team culture, which is rooted in how the associates are treated by their team leaders. We cannot expect our employees to offer good customer service if we don’t show them exemplary support and common courtesies. I have 12 different responsibilities in my job, but the one thing that is the most important to me, and I can do nothing else until it is done, is making sure my team has everything they need to be successful.

We all know that sub-standard employee performance and high turnover can be the death of any business. There is no greater responsibility than to recruit the best, train them well, and SUPPORT them. I just had a team member celebrate her 10-year anniversary with my department. During that time, I have made a conscious effort to offer my ongoing encouragement and tell her that I appreciate her often. It is the ideal relationship of mutual respect, and one that allows her to foster that same loyalty in the team she develops.

There is no way that the team members will care about the company, the product or the customer if the boss doesn’t care about them, as workers and as people. It has been said that 90% of an employee’s job satisfaction is how they feel about their boss. The strongest leaders I know in building a culture of customer service embrace servant leadership, where the boss is willing to jump in and work alongside of the team, both to set an example of excellence as well as to show that they are willing to help. They ask about their employees, they know about what is important to them, and they are approachable if the employee has a concern. They say thank you…a lot. They ask for their input. They know their strengths, and are interested in fostering their development. For more on this topic, consider these books:  The Customer Comes Second by Diane McFerrin Peters and Hal F. Rosenbluth and The 12 Elements of Great Managing by James K. Harter and Rodd Wagner.

2- How does the company handle mistakes? The second test of an organization’s customer service protocol is what I call the Art of the Apology. There was a time in my dealership’s history when our customer service national ranking was 210 out of 220 dealerships in the country. During those years, I called myself the professional apologizer. I learned what to do and what not to do during an apology, enough to write a book of my own. But the essence is this: we are people, we are going to mess up, but how we handle it shows our character for the better or worse. Think about how your employees apologize to you when they make a mistake. What do you like to hear? It’s the same thing that your customer wants to hear from you: I take responsibility, I will make amends and work to minimize the chance that it will happen again. What bosses and customers do not want to hear is excuses, reasons, finger pointing. The customer NEVER needs to hear why something messed up. Even if they ask why it happened, I tell them I am focused on the solution and assure them that I will later work behind the scenes to fix whatever broken process caused the problem. The only thing worse than having to apologize, is having to apologize to the same customer more than once for the same thing. If you find yourself if this position, there might be some teamwork issues to repair. Thankfully we have since repaired our team issues and are back into the top 10 in the nation, but let me assure you, it was an arduous climb back to the top. Fixing a culture is difficult, but it’s the only long-term solution. If this is a focus for you, check out The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Many business books like this are presented in fable format, knowing that the busy executive only has the time and attention span for a helpful story-with-a-lesson. It makes for a quick read and a powerful testimony to the essential value of teamwork.

In addition to taking ownership, the other critical components of an apology include acknowledging the other person’s feelings and demonstrating sincerity. I put myself completely in the moment, give the apology my full heart and intention, and offer empathy for any frustration I may have caused them due to my lack of leadership. Let’s face it, if I had better leadership and processes, the incident would likely have not occurred in the first place. I am at the core of the mistake and should own that. People know when you speak from the heart, so mean what you say with your whole being. Acknowledge their feelings by saying “I know that must have been frustrating for you. I would feel the same way.” ONLY then can the relationship start to mend. For this topic, I suggest Legendary Service by Kathy Cuff and Victoria Halsey. I have had the honor of meeting Kathy and she changed my entire understanding of how to make amends with someone who is upset.

Here are a few action items to consider if you are dedicated to a culture of customer service.

  1. Create a personal mission statement-Life is short. Ask yourself what is your legacy. Do you want to be known as a nice person? A good father? A good boss? Your personal mission statement should infuse your actions at home and at work. Mine is to be a blessing to others. This mission simplifies my decisions and reduces my stress, because it guides my actions and demeanor. Consider the book Give and Take by Adam Grant as you craft your own. It may help you grasp why some people give more than others and why a shift towards giving is essential in business. If you are a giver in a world full of takers, it also helps you accept your less helpful coworkers better because you know they are wired that way.
  2. Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement and should be a part of everything you do. The only way to become a better leader and human being is to ask questions, read, take an interest in others and challenge yourself to learn from mistakes. The best title for this is What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith: It’s chock full of readable examples of top leaders and how they had to learn to change their ways to reach the next level of success.
  3. Learn these two phrases and say them often. I am sorry, and I appreciate you. (customers and employees). Mean it.
  4. Focus on your people. Get to know them, absorb stress for them, let them have some fun once in a while.
  5. Read How Starbucks Changed My Life by Michael Gates Gill. It will just take just a couple of days but it will stay with you always. A job with a supportive atmosphere can be life-changing for your employees. What a way to be a blessing to someone, and how rewarding to watch them thrive and develop while in your care.

One extra last Title I recommend:

Everybody, Always by Bob Goff: If spirituality is an important part of your life, this is a compelling message on how to love even the most difficult people in your world.

Minimalist Wannabe

Like most Americans, I tend to shop or eat when I am blue. I realize that I have too many blessings to give in to melancholy-based habits with any regularity, but I confess that I have indulged enough to proclaim the unoriginal and ubiquitous New Year’s resolutions: lose weight and spend less. I would like to add two more resolutions which are extremely compatible with these goals: own less and simplify.

These last two objectives surfaced after watching a Netflix documentary about the Minimalists. Minimalist documentary Seeing this film about Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus at the start of a new year is fortuitous, because they offer such a compelling message about how our addiction to possessions creates more stress than happiness. Thus my newfound and overwhelming need to participate in some major purging. Keep life simple, baby, I say to myself, and appreciate each moment instead of trying to fill your sadness with a swiss cake roll and a new piece of art.


BT supports my decision, as long as I don’t force her to donate any cat toys


I neither want nor expect to reach the level of extreme extrication that Joshua and Ryan accomplished. I read somewhere that Joshua sliced 90% of his material possessions over 8 months. Seeing Joshua’s lone folding chair in an empty living room takes care of most of that temptation. Hearing that he only owns one pair of jeans kills the rest. (Those poor jeans will surely wear out from being washed every night?) Overall, however, the concept resonates with me, because I get a small high from donating superfluous items in my life, and I understand the Feng Shui behind less clutter. So that amazing feeling, augmented with the knowledge gained from the documentary, and I’m a madwoman on a different kind of binge-purge.


One of my newly stripped closets. Don’t be too impressed, however. There are 6 closets in my house.


A couple of things will keep me in check, most of them centered around the fact that I am married to someone who is a keeper in more ways than one. Not only do I want to keep him, he wants to keep his stuff, and he has a lot of it. His reluctance to let go of material possessions is not an issue for our marraige, because we are 2 people in a 2,100 square foot house. The house itself is quite tidy, and as proof, I offer this question posed by Kevin’s home health nurse after his hip-replacement: “So, who’s the neat freak?” As someone who lived single and sloppy for most of her adult life,  this inquiry made me extremely happy.

So Kevin’s stuff is safe from my new proclivity (mostly!) and I have been happily filling bags and boxes to donate. Items which seem too nice to take to Goodwill get shipped to my sister Lisa in Colorado, who has a little Ebay business. I’m on my second box of unwanted goodies for her consideration. She is instructed to keep or sell or donate at her discretion, and she sends me a report of how much she earns from my life’s leftovers, which is fun to read. She keeps the profits (since she does all the work) and I get the joy of knowing that someone in another country is really enjoying my 10 year old silk scarf. Other popular items, many of which ironically are sold to people back here in Augusta, Georgia, include books I know I will not read more than once, and dress up jewelry from last year’s Christmas party.

I often get carried away with whatever my current hobby might be, so there is no telling how far I will travel down the Minimalist road. My last wild hair was a Pinterest-inspired obsession with gift-wrapping, a creative outlet I enjoyed over the holiday. Since I have an entire room filled with gift-wrap supplies, this new hobby is a bit at odds with the minimalist lifestyle. Not sure how that will work out, but I’m not worried about it.


example of super cute gift wrap supplies I feel compelled to keep


If I stay on my current minimizing trajectory the same way I embraced the gift wrap project, Kevin will be sitting in his lonely Lazyboy chair in a spartan room with nothing on the walls. Fear not, my friends, for I assure you that I do possess the ability to ascertain which items have appropriate sentimental value and which ones were just bad purchase decisions. The other saving grace, of course, is my short attention span. I suspect that I will see a new documentary about the joy of baking on Netflix sometime in March, and will be traipsing off to William Sonoma in search of the best pie pans. (I hope not!) In the meantime, I am very happy with my new path of simpler living and am feeling like I can embrace it as a lifestyle change. Wish me luck!

A Happy Choice


My stress-filled life had been burgeoning into a borderline melancholy when I agreed to attend the documentary “Happy”at the Imperial Theater with my friend Bethlehem. I was unsure of the details of the story but knew that the film was centered around the artist known for his smiling paintings, Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman.



Like most Augustans, I had seen the Happy Robot signs plastered all around town, and had worn the stickers myself when they were thrust upon me by the ever-delightful and enthusiastic Tricia Hughes. Also like most Augustans, I was fuzzy about the motivation behind Zimmerman’s colorful and upbeat imagery, but curious to hear more about it, and possibly pick up some pointers.


As I am fascinated by stories of personal journeys, I was immediately drawn to the film, which recounts the life of the artist from childhood, through losing his great love, to finding redemption through his craft. I enjoyed watching him at work, fixated on painting while wearing headphones, head bouncing to the music. He would zone in close to the canvas, carefully outlining an image of a smiling bear, then suddenly burst into laughter. I wondered how his mind moved from the music to the paint to the thought which entertained him so much, a little envious of someone so completely in the moment and filled with the capacity for pure joy.

The documentary, created by Michael Patrick McKinley, shows the joyful painter’s lifelong passion for his art, which seems simple in content but is actual replete with symbolism and precise technical skill. As Metro Spirit contributor Molly Swift explains, McKinley has been able to convey that “in the midst of all the noise, the HAPPY campaign stands out both due to its origin and its simplicity. The point is to help people choose happiness. That is all.”

Which brings me back to me, and my current obsession with joy in the midst of stress, simplicity in the midst of chaos. Life has become so complex and overwhelming, that I find myself turning to stories like Zimmerman’s, which demonstrate that elation is a flower on the side of the road, obscured by the weeds and concrete artifacts, waiting for us to just notice it and pluck it for our own. At some point in his arduous journey of loss, Zimmerman realizes that he can either dwell on his pain or discover an outlet for expressing his emotions in a constructive way.

I realize that is naive to think that happiness is as easy as picking the flower out of the weeds; it’s one thing to choose happiness and another altogether to feel true joy in the face of life’s pressures. Viscerally, though, I believe we all make it harder than it has to be. Seeing how other people have overcome these pressures to discover their bliss brings us one step closer. McKinley’s movie inspired me to contemplate the healing powers of the creative process and the helpful power of a bright, simple smile.

Managing the Stress of First-World Problems

When I first heard the term “first world problems”, I immediately related to the message behind it: proper perspective. As a professional apologizer, I often hear the complaints of people who respond to first-world problems in a wide range of ways. When I started working at the Lexus dealership 12 years ago, I was shocked at the fluctuations in different people’s perspectives. I would listen to an upset customer while thinking, “how blessed you must be in your life, that this small scratch on your car is the only reason you can find to get ruffled.” I was astounded at the level of passion over truly mundane issues, and hypothesized that the customer was filling the void left from a lack of more serious problems. Over the past decade, I have been the recipient of rants ranging from incorrect leasing paperwork to wrinkled leather seats to sub-par free car washes. I have listened patiently to scoldings because someone didn’t get invited to a Lexus party, or they had to stop at a gas station to put fuel in their free Lexus loaner.

While I certainly understand that a courtesy vehicle with a low fuel light is a great inconvenience, my confusion stems from the intensity of emotion which accompanies these grievances. The question which bubbles around in my brain as I listen to a harsh protest regarding a minor infraction is invariably, “Is this reaction appropriate for the significance of the problem?”

Conversely, I have witnessed customers with much more catastrophic concerns (engine failure, flat tire, wrecked car) who are impressively calm and reasonable given the extreme difficulty associated with the situation. These are the people who understand that there are more important things in life. They have faith that the matter will ultimately be resolved. “It’s just a car,” they muse, or “I’m sure you will fix things, no worries.”  The variance between the reactions of these two camps of clients is astounding. It makes me want to ask each group about their preferred method of stress management. Someone is clearly meditating or doing yoga. Others are possibly drinking too much espresso.

As a former student of psychology, I know that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains that we humans cannot be upset about our inner peace (or lack thereof) if our stomachs are empty or if we are homeless. Safety, hunger, water and companionship all trump the need for self-actualization, so our “first world problems” -like the incompatibility of our smartphone’s bluetooth to pair with our luxury car, for example- would never be an issue for someone struggling to feed their family of six.

Clearly, in my luxury environment, all of the problems I resolve are first-world issues. Ultimately nobody is going hungry or suffering in the cold. That being said, I can testify that not all of the clients I encounter have achieved equal levels of  the highest of Maslow’s hierarchy need, self-transcendence.  At this level, the individual reaches a state of being that allows them to cope appropriately with daily vexations. I always think of what the movie character Ace Ventura (played by Jim Carrey) called “spiritual creaminess”: the person realizes that the true inner peace comes from loving others, showing kindness, and finding a higher goal outside of one’s own personal concerns. Those who realize that they are not the epicenter of the universe are more gentle when they complain to a manager, because they have empathy for the person receiving the protest, and they understand that in an imperfect, complex world, things will go wrong.

My co-workers sometimes wonder how I am able to withstand the daily barrage of remonstrations. Sometimes it does stress me to the point of tears, as it did today. A stream of back-to-back gripe sessions can take a toll, but in truth, it wasn’t the complaints that ultimately caused that drop of salty water to trickle down my cheek. It was the the thought process that proceeded it.

At my highest level of stress, I made the grave mistake of thinking about Kevin. I entertained thoughts of self-pity, and then chastised myself after I compared them to the intense burdens that Kevin faces in his job. In that moment, I almost couldn’t bear the mental picture. I have 4 employees, he has 40. I’m in charge of one tiny department, he manages an extremely large one. I hear 5 complaints a day, he hears 25.  My heart began to swell, and I wanted to run to him and just give him a big ole hug. I desperately wished I could blink my eyes and magically make all of his pressures disappear. It was overwhelming. That’s when the moist eyes let a drop fall, a single drop, as I did everything I could to hold it together.

I always ask Kevin how he finds his spiritual creaminess, how he is able to give so much to his family when his professional burdens are so heavy. He never comes home and whines about a shitty day. I never hear him snippy or cranky after an especially grueling 15-hour ordeal. On the contrary, he seems to know when my world is taxing, and does all he can to ease my burden. Tonight he took me out for sushi date night and let me talk out all my difficult encounters. The last time I got this stressed out, he slipped an encouraging greeting card into my planner. The time before that, I got flowers at work. It should be the other way around, since his job is harder; it should be me helping with his stress. But it’s not, and it baffles me.

The only explanation I can offer, is that perhaps Kevin’s stress management actually comes from doing for others. He watches over Forrest’s progress, he checks in on my well-being, he calls his folks for an update. Conceivably, Kevin has intuitively figured out that if he focuses on other people, than it is not possible to get overly worked up about his own frustrations. Just maybe, his altruistic nature is what allows him to work 70+ -hour weeks without self-combusting. He does not allow self-pity to enter into his consciousness, knowing that if he acknowledged the out-of-whack proportions of what he does for himself compared to what he does for others, that he might possibly turn into one of those people who complain about a wrinkle in their plush leather driver’s seat.

I’m so grateful that he is not the type of person who thinks he is the epicenter of the universe, as I am grateful for all of the customers who are kind and gracious when they share their concerns. The ones who yell inappropriately are truly in the minority, and I try to feel empathy for their way of life. As the new year unfolds, I hope that I can find inspiration from all of them, carving out a path for managing my first-world problems in a way that shows some dignity and grace. The good news is, that on those days that I cannot, at least I have a Kevin in my life to take me out for sushi.