I was thrilled with the questions that Avil Beckford asked me when she interviewed me about my book , “Don’t Bring It to Work”. Avil’s blog, the Invisible Mentor is one of the best on the web. She has a keen ability to ask deep, probing questions that make you think and dive deep for the pearls in your life. As you read, ask yourself the same questions. It can help you gain a wide and fascinating picture of who you are and why you do and think the way you do. I would love feedback on what we discussed.
Sylvia Lafair – Your Invisible Mentor
Grow, learn and be of service, that’s Sylvia Lafair’s raison d’etre. Conducting interviews is an enjoyable, yet humbling experience. For me, I am always reminded of how little I know, and how much I can learn from the interviewees. In hearing Sylvia Lafair’s story, I realize as usual how much we can learn and apply if we stop and digest what she has to say. She operates her business with high integrity and is not afraid to walk away from work that does not align with her values. The people I gravitate toward, and the people I present to you, realize that life isn’t just about them. We are all part of something much bigger.
As you read Sylvia’s story, think about the similarities between you and her. What are five lessons that you can learn from her.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am a searcher and an adventurer, and have a PhD to prove that I search academically inclinical psychology. I became a family therapist who then morphed into an executive coach and conflict management expert in the business world. I’m married and have two grown daughters and a couple of grand kids. Life is good.
What’s a typical day like for you?
It’s interesting, on a typical day, I have to fight my initial reaction when I get up to go right to the computer. It is so addicting to me to sit down, so I take a few minutes to have a cup of tea and do some deep breathing, and then I go to the computer. In the morning I like to do some blogging and checking out what’s going on, on the news, and it’s sort of a meditation for me. I love to write, and since I finished writing my book Don’t Bring it to Work, last year, I have found other ways to write, and blogging is one of them. I usually get up at 6:30 am and by 7:00 I’m at the computer.
Somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00 my staff comes in. During the day, I’m in meetings, on coaching calls, conference calls and doing a lot of planning. That’s when I’m at the Retreat Center, and we also have groups that come up here forteam building and conflict management. We have our leadership program, which is called Total Leadership Connections, which is one of the joys of my life. It’s another form of a child that was birth from my ideas, and is now almost 10 years old, so that’s a typical day for me at the country place.
How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
Years ago I made the decision that I’m here to grow, learn, and be of service, and so every day when I wake up, I spend time centering myself for the day wondering what opportunities and who will show up in my life, and what I can do to make the best difference that I possibly can, in any way I can. I know that may sound a little “pollyannaish,” but that’s what I believe.
If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
When I started out, the business world was not as open to women as it is now. And it was not a world that I was particularly interested in. I had always wanted to understand the working of the human mind, so psychology was always there, but there are so many more opportunities now in terms of leadership psychology and business psychology. I think I would have moved into that arena earlier than clinical psychology andfamily therapy, which is where I spent a lot of years of my life.
What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?
It’s one that comes and circles back all the time, and it has to do with the more I let go, the more I get, and the more I don’t worry about the outcome, the more that magic happens, and if not magic, at least I get some good fertilizer to grow beautiful flowers in, and it will eventually works out in a perfect way if I just do my part and not try to control every thing.
What’s one of the biggest advances in your industry over the past five years?
The change came when I left family therapy and the world of psychology to go into the business world. I think it has happened and is happening as we speak, there is a growing momentum for people in the business world to understand that relationships are at the core. Without relationships, it doesn’t matter what your product is, it will fall off the face of the earth if you do not really manifest and work on both internal relationships in your own organization, your own personal relationships in your own life, and relationships with colleagues and customers. So it’s circling back to more and more people getting to see that a) we are all connected and b) that relationships do make a major difference.
What are the three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?
The economy is challenging for everybody, and it has made people pull in and say we can’t invest in team building, and we can’t invest in conflict transformation, so initially that has been a tremendous threat.
The environment is another threat to all of us and so we are very conscious. Recently we had a meeting, and someone was handing out a booklet they had produced internally, and the first comment was “I wonder how many trees felt their end point from that.” So I think the threats are bigger than they used to be. What’s happening in the south withBritish Petroleum and the oil spill is becoming a bigger threat, as well as eating properly and health. Those are the big threats and they affect me because I am in the people part of the business world.
What’s unique about the service that you provide?
One of the things we’ve discovered is that we’ve been living with the illusion that we can separate who we are at home from who we are at work, and it has created some real destruction. The Bernard Madoffs of the world, at home were living a different life than they were at work. What we do is help people become whole and see we aren’t meant to be different, we are meant to be aligned and show integrity, and who we are is who we are. We offer that in our programs, we offer that in the book I’ve written, Don’t Bring it to Work, which really drills down into that concept that we really need to become aligned with our selves and that’s who we take to work.
Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it.
The major challenge with work is to bring some fairly new concepts into the workplace without scaring people, and one of the situations, which comes to mind as we’re talking is a man who was in an HR nightmare at work. I was called in to work with his team. He kept on talking about one of the women who was one of the first who went to HR, and he was going on and on and on. And one of the things I know is that if you are that upset over something, if your buttons are that pushed, you better look further back in your life to see what else is going on, so I said to him, “Can you tell me about your relationship as you were growing up at home?” He looked at me and said, “That’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard and I really should throw you out of my office.”
I sat at the edge of the chair wondering if I was going to stay or leave. I made the decision that I was either going to go where I knew the deeper work I was doing had to go, or I’d rather leave, so I said, “You don’t have to tell me your whole life story, just tell me one or two things.” I picked his father since it seemed like the most logical place and he looked at me and said, “I mean it Sylvia, I want to throw you out of the office.” And I said, “That’s your choice. I told you when I first came in that this work was going in a different arena and it’s okay if you don’t want to go there, but you’ll have to find someone else to help you out of this mess with HR.”
We looked at each other, eyeball to eyeball, for what seemed like a month but was maybe a minute, and then he finally said, “Okay, I haven’t seen my father in 25 years and I thought he was an absolute bastard.” I asked him why and he said, “He was self-serving, only thought about himself and caused lots of problems.” That was all, I didn’t say another word. Way later in the conversation, things settled down and we went back to business talk if you will. I asked him to tell me about this Roberta girl that drove him so crazy. And surprise, surprise, he said, “She’s self-serving, only thinks about herself and causes lots of problems.” I didn’t say anything to him then, but I think he was fighting a dual battle with the gal at work and with his father.
Out of that conversation, he was able to make peace with this woman, and the team became amazingly successful. He called me one day and said, “I think I would like to meet my father again. As I said, I haven’t seen him in 25 years, and I don’t know where he is.” I said, “If the intention is there, maybe you’ll have a chance to meet him.” Two days later he called and said that he was pretty shook up because his aunt called him to say his dad had called and said he was in a nursing home in Las Vegas dying, and wanted to see his son before he died.
What lessons did you learn in the process?
- I didn’t want to get thrown out of this man’s office, but I was willing to. I learned deeply not to sell myself out.
- I’d rather eat beans from a can than the best dinner at the fanciest restaurant if it would mean selling out my beliefs and integrity.
- I either teach what I believe, or believe what I teach, or I may as well go be a gas station attendant and not talk to anyone about anything.
Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
My biggest failure, and I grapple with it all the time is having gotten divorced – even though I am married to a really great man – from a man who is the father of my children. I look back and what I now know is that I didn’t own my part in what was going on in the relationship. We had married young, I was 23 when I got married, and 25 when I had my first daughter, and 28 when I had my second daughter, so by 30 I was already through with that area of my life. I blamed my ex-husband for things that weren’t going the way I wanted them to go in our relationship.
I’m remarried, he’ remarried, he sees our children and grandchildren and so do I. It’s pleasant but there has always been a sadness for me that we couldn’t make it work.
What has been your biggest disappointment in your life – and what are you doing to prevent its reoccurrence?
That’s a hard one because I think what I just said was the biggest disappointment, but not to have it re-occur again, is one of the things I have learned is to be pretty honest in my present relationship, and we’ve been together for 25 years. I learned that telling the truth is not spilling your guts, that it’s a very disciplined art form, and in every relationship it’s the foundation of what we have to do, and how we have to live. I’ve learned how to practice truth telling sentences. And, this is what we teach in our leadership program. It is about telling the truth as the foundation of the core of all relationships.
What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
One of the decisions that I had to make was to totally release the Personal Growth Center that we had in suburban Philadelphia and take that step to work only in the workplace. The Personal Growth Center was very fulfilling, and we had a lot of people we had trained working with us, and we would bring in lots of well known people in the fields of health and healing to teach in our center. My husband and I who was my partner, made the decision that we would be more effective and touch more lives if we closed. It was literally a beautiful Center. We simply closed it. We gave away a lot of the things that were there. We had a beautiful bookstore, we gave most of the books away. We began to build up the retreat center in the mountains to use mainly for leadership programs and corporate groups. It was a big leap of faith, and it was a good move. I was following what was next, from my heart.
What are three events that helped to shape your life?
The first is interesting. I was not supposed to be born. My mother had one of her kidneys removed when my brother was born and she was told not to have anymore children. So as the story went, she didn’t want to have only one child so she sort of went obstetrician shopping and several obstetricians told her she shouldn’t have another kid, and then one said this is between you, me and God. She came home and told my father that the doctor had said it was fine and that’s how I was born. And it’s interesting because very early on I had this itch that I couldn’t scratch, that I would always want to challenge what was going on, and I was always looking for something that was different. That’s why we have people do what is called a Sankofa map, it’s a map of your history and generational history. You know it wasn’t such an easy thing in those days to have a child with one kidney, I still think it isn’t that easy, but if she was willing to take a risk then I wasn’t meant to sit around eating the bon bons so to speak. That had a tremendous impact on me.
My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 14. He came home from work one day and said, “I’m done,” and we didn’t know how done he was until in the night he had a heart attack and died. He was in a family business with his two brothers and it was fiscally sound but emotionally bankrupt. My passion for working in the workplace is so other kids wouldn’t have to go through what I went through because there is so much tension at work.
The third event was the power of what happened when I got the divorce which is something I didn’t want, but it was another form of death. But I learned that if we can tell the truth, we can transform our lives in much more powerful ways. I had a teacher once who said to me, there is birth and death and they impact us in such core ways, and much of the rest is like sandwich filling.
What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
At the moment I think it is my book Don’t Bring it to Work. It was sitting in me for twenty-something years. People often said that I should write a book, and I would say yes, I oughta write a book and I didn’t. I was in the doing stage of things. We can make tons of excuses, and I tend to be fairly extroverted in my personality so I love being with people, and writing a book means closing the door, and it’s you and the computer and your good thoughts so it took me about a year to pull the ideas together, and it took me two and a half months to sit and write it. The pulling together of the ideas was a bit difficult, but the writing of the book was pure joy. Other than birthing my two daughters, I found writing the book was just a delight.
How did mentors influence your life?
Very critically. When I was in training in the family therapy field, I was very fortunate that in Philadelphia there were all the key people who were helping to create this new field of family therapy. Though it wasn’t so new, they were helping to make it a more important field. Most of them were my teachers and some of them became mentors. I was a good student and loved learning so they took me on and taught me the subtleties. You can get a lot of the easier stuff sitting and being lectured to, but the subtle stuff, it’s really great if you have someone who can be there saying, “What would happen if you said this instead of that, and next time say this instead of that?” That’s been really delightful for me, and I’ve also found mentors in people who were no longer alive who had written books which impacted me deeply. They were mentors for me also.
What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
To stay true to myself.
As an Invisible Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?
I would pay it forward and say to stay true to yourself. If we sell out to the luxuries of life, we will lose a deeper part of who we are.
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