An Interview with Heather Furby

Julia Miglets

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At the 22nd annual WITI Summit, I had the pleasure of attending a session led by Heather Furby, the Founder of Camp Cause and Success (CAS). At Camp CAS, Furby is the Business Coach, helping women to realize their full potentials as entrepreneurs in the growing tech industry. I reached out to Heather to get an inside look at how her leadership skills have been molded by her life experiences, and I got some interesting stories and perspectives.

JM: Toward the start of your presentation, you say "...to learn leadership, you have to experience it." Do you have any stories or examples about how you experience leadership?

HF: Experiential leadership means "experiencing yourself" in all situations so you understand how you will react under pressure, during times of chaos, or even when there are no deadlines and all you have is time. To experience yourself takes going outside the daily comforts of home, office, and car. I look for experiences that are brand new, skills I have no proof I'll succeed with or situations I know are difficult, just to see what happens. These are not life and death, thrill-seeking adventures; they are things like dance lessons, voice lessons, or zip-lining.

Leadership is something that can only be learned through experience. The world does not need more leaders who simply "know" leadership (meaning they've read about it in books or attended a workshop). Businesses need leaders who are comfortable with change, ambiguity, and uncertainty, especially in our fast-paced lifestyle. This type of leadership is not taught in business schools or master's programs.

As an example, I'm scared of heights. This fear may not seem to relate directly to business, but it will. I don't have a fear of going up; I fear coming down. I become almost paralyzed with fear and cannot will my body to move. This obstacle becomes evident when my husband and I travel to Italy; we visit the towers in San Gimignano. My husband doesn't like heights either and he is wise enough to turn around and go get a glass of wine. I jog up to the top, take some selfies, enjoy the view...then turn to go down the stairs. There are about 15 flights of see-through metal stairs. Little kids are running up and down and you can see clear to the bottom. They don't move or sway. I have just come up the stairs so I know they are safe - but I freeze. I cannot get myself to move and go down one step at a time. I laugh, aware of the silliness - but I still can't do it.

In order to get down, I talk to myself and remind myself of all the times I was successful at not falling. I have ziplined (another time I challenged myself to go outside my comfort zone) and was just fine. I have competed in triathlons and open-water swims. I walk stairs everyday. It seems silly now but I have to relate it back to simple times that did not invoke this level of fear. I finally get down one step, then one more, then 5, and by the 5th or 6th flight I was walking down with a slight hesitation - like I had a bad ankle or something and was being cautious.

How does this apply to experiential leadership? We don't know how we'll react in all situations. Some of us excel in emergencies, some of us are great at processes, some of us have a tendency to nurture and care for our team members at all costs. But most of us don't really know what situations bring out our best. That's why, during the leadership workshops I lead, we toss unexpected "rule changes" or put people in circumstances that seem odd. It's not to "test you" to see if you're perfect; it's an opportunity for people to find their flow and triggers; they can see when they begin to blame others or start to beat themselves up.

The stairs in San Gimignano tested me to see if I can talk myself through a situation while feeling very silly. I mean, walk down the stairs already. That experimental time taught me if I stop caring what other people think about me in a particular moment, I can take care of myself or ask for help to accomplish things that would otherwise stump me.

JM: You put emphasis on the idea that we need to stop apologizing for things and instead come up with solutions. What helped you realize that offering solutions was better than offering apologies?

HF: The apologies...I did not mean to emphasize that it's an either/or choice - that women need to stop apologizing and rather come up with solutions. Let me break it into 2 parts - Apologizing finding solutions. Let's start with apologies. I was a chronic "Sorry"-er. "Oh, sorry for reaching across the table." "Sorry that I interrupted." "Sorry that I inconvenienced you with whatever it is I need." When we start with "I'm sorry" the energy is low - like you do something bad and you feel guilty. It doesn't empower you and works against women in business. Our male counterparts do not apologize for everything they do.

I bring this up for women because we do it unconsciously. I still catch myself saying "Sorry" and then saying "sorry" for having said "sorry." It's a habit. Last week I had said "sorry" to a woman who hit my grocery cart. It didn't make a bit of sense!

It's important for women to notice that we give our power away unconsciously. When we ask for what we want and do not get it we are quick to blame ourselves, or we think we are do not deserve what we want. We all too often change our minds and say "Oh, I didn't really want that anyway." And it all stems from the fact that we are unconscious of how much we apologize simply because we want what we want and we do what we do naturally.

Finding solutions is what's most important in any type of conflict. So many women are natural problem solvers but when we enter business situations or have critical conversations (the conversations that matter the most to us), we end up over-analyzing the problem rather than focusing on a solution.

I'm not sure the two are connected - refraining from apologies and offering solutions - but they probably are.

JM: You quote Abraham Maslow in saying that "If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail." Can you elaborate more on that and how it applies to escaping one's comfort zone?

HF: We each have our own toolbox of skills, problem-solving techniques, and emotions. We learn to use them from someone or some situation early in life and at one time they were successful so we think "Great! I'll put that skill to use some more." And we do. And it works. And it works again. Fast Forward 20 years and now we are adults. We have put that skill into our subconscious mind and use it whenever we want, even when it's not appropriate for our current situation.

To make it practical, let's say I am a carpenter and early in life I learn to pound in nails with a hammer. It worked. Then I use that tool to remove nails. And it works! So now I know how to use a hammer in two ways. But I go to build a house and all I have is a hammer. I become frustrated because I can't cut the wood to the right size. Maybe I'm not sure how to build a concrete foundation and I am lost when people talk about electricity or plumbing. So I only take carpentry jobs that require my hammer to be used on nails. I may become an expert and highly sought-after for this one trade, but put me in any other situation and I'm lost as to what to do.

Therefore, in order to expand my world I walk around with a hammer and search for places I can use it - which makes me really prone to finding more nails.

In order to move outside my "comfort zone," I have to learn to use more tools. I don't have to master all of them, but the more comfortable I become when I understand certain tools are the more needed for different situations, I can take on bigger jobs. The keys are experimentation and continuous learning. I may still be a master with the hammer, but now I know that there are other tools.

Make this bigger - human life. We have ways we learn to react, emotions that are used to get what we wanted or skills we have that get us what we need. As a kid I cried a lot and it usually got me what I wanted - attention and cuddling. However, as an adult, when I cry, it is not a great way to get what I want; but it was my natural reaction when I was in a relationship. I had to learn new tools, new skills, and new ways to ask for what I wanted other than starting to cry. This maturational growth seems obvious, but most of us don't learn the new skills because we don't like feeling uncomfortable as we learn something new - so we just stop using the tool we know (in this case crying) and make up some other story to make life OK - like "I'll never get what I want anyway so why bother?" or "I just attract losers who don't care" or "I'm not smart enough for that promotion so I'll just be happy with what I have now."

JM: One of the pieces of advice that you mention is that we should just make our decisions without over-thinking them. How do we do this if we're unsure of whether or not they will work out?

HF: Well, the truth is, we are never sure if anything will work out. We have a choice - live life and make mistakes or live in fear and watch others move ahead.

It's the number one reason we, as humans, convince ourselves to stay where we are - "Don't go after the promotion," "Don't quit your job (at least until you have a new one!)," "Don't fall in love," "Don't leave a relationship that does not fulfill you." We are scared that it may not work out. And it may not - but you will never know unless you try. It really angers people to hear this, but it's true. We just don't know if a decision will work out - ever. Not even if it worked for you before. So stop trying to analyze the unknown and answer impossible questions. Make a decision and go for it without apology or hesitation.

Yes, it's scary. And worth it.

JM: Another one of your strategies to help people get out of their comfort zones was to avoid one's negative thoughts so that they do not become them. Can you give an example of how this might happen?

HF: Let me be clear: We cannot avoid our thoughts. Ever. They just happen. Watch what goes through your mind day in and day out, moment to moment - you have a lot of chaotic, bizarre, and incomplete thoughts: "Hey, look at that tree," "Is that a woman on a motorcycle?" "I wonder why that guy's beard is purple?" "That lady looks sad," "Is the coffee shop open?" "I have to remember to pay who?" "Yikes! There's another tree."

The point I am making is that you need to learn to observe your thoughts. I do not need to believe them. You can't avoid them, but with a practice like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, exercise...you will find that your thoughts start to quiet down and serve you better - which means they are more focused and your mind will help you move toward what you want to be, to do or to have.

If you try to avoid them, you will end up frustrated and crazy. But if you learn to observe them, it can be calming - "Oh, hey! Who is that thinking I can't find a job?" "Oh, look! There is that thought that I don't deserve to be loved again. Ha! There's that crazy thought that I'm going to fail. I wonder where that came from?"

If you don't have an awareness practice, simply start with one minute a day - just sitting or walking slowly and noticing what thoughts are happening and what you think about how you feel. Then go for two minutes, five minutes, and work your way to a time that feels good to you where you can simply be quiet and notice, not judge, what you experience. You'll find this practice becomes critical when you lead yourself or others through doubt or uncertain times because you'll be better aware of "Oh, there's that thing again," rather than choosing to believe that your thought is true and your only reality.

JM: From your own experience, how did your career/life improve once you stepped out of your own comfort zone?

HF: My life got 1000 times better. Yes, I make big, bold mistakes. I get sad and want to stay in bed. I question if I'm on the "right track." But everyday I try to do something new and different. Often it's really simple, like driving a different route downtown, taking a beekeeping class, ordering my coffee at a different place - just something to challenge the complacency.

Here's the funny thing - sometimes I get so comfortable outside my comfort zone that it actually becomes my new comfort zone - change, chaos, or uncertainty. This change in perspective is when I have to become aware that I'm actually scared of routine so I create false urgency. It makes me feel important - like I have problems to solve! I'm not usually aware that I am creating the problems until someone points it out to me - that's why I have coaches, mentors, and a great work culture that allows me to point out my crazy ways.

In short: When I let go of many of my rules and trusted that the universe was a safe and friendly place that would always take care of me, everything fell into place: I met my wonderful husband, opened my heart to my bonus-daughter (my step-daughter), closed a business that wasn't doing great anymore, started a new company, and now get to help women in tech learn to lead and thrive in times of change. It's a pretty fun life!

Julia is the Assistant Editor and Social Media Strategist at WITI. She is a student at Youngstown State University, where she studies Professional and Technical Writing. Julia wishes to pursue a career in editing. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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