Cathleen Merkel — She Chased Success But Longed for Significance, and Found It When She Met the “Real Cathy” #23

Warwick Fairfax

June 9, 2020

Growing up in Communist East Germany, Cathleen Merkel was taught her value came from doing what others expected of her, working hard and not upsetting the established order of things. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and she grew from a girl into a woman with dreams and passions of living a free and successful life. There was just one problem: the goals she pursued professionally and personally dead-ended a couple of times and didn’t really fulfill her even when they were going well. So she took a deep look at herself, asked close friends to help her see where she’d veered off course and finally discovered who she really was and what vision she wanted to cast for her life. The result, she tells Crucible Leadership founder and BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE host Warwick Fairfax, is that she has found meaning and significance as a coach and mentor who helps high-achieving female leaders reinvent their lives and careers. She walks alongside them as they realize true joy is rooted not just in job description, but in total life satisfaction.

To learn more about Cathleen Merkle, visit  www.cathleenmerkel.com

Highlights

 

  • How being born in a Communist country colored her childhood (4:33)
  • She chased success but didn’t really know how to define it (6:40)
  • Her first crucible changed her personal and professional lives (8:03)
  • How traveling the world helped her start to bounce back (9:36)
  • The benefits of being raised by strict parents (12:24)
  • Lean into the wisdom you have around you when a crucible hits (17:49)
  • Think through your life — not just your work — when looking to bounce back from a crucible (19:06)
  • The debilitating effects of building a wall to hide your real self (21:21)
  • When you reach for the brass ring, only to realize it’s lead (23:50)
  • The key to being successful and enjoying life (27:00)
  • The powerful breakthrough of understanding who you truly are (29:43)
  • To change your mindset, you have to want to do it for yourself (36:12)
  • The importance of remembering yourself at your best (37:54)
  • The value of setting realistic and healthy personal and professional boundaries (38:25)
  • The most important thing: building a compelling vision (39:12)
  • How to achieve both success and significance (45:19)
  • Key takeaways from the episode (50:58)

Transcript

Gary S:
Welcome everyone to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Gary Schneeberger, the cohost of the show and the communications director for Crucible leadership, and you have happened upon, you’ve clicked play on a podcast that deals in what we call crucible experiences. Those are the things that happen in life. Sometimes they happen to you. Sometimes there are things that for whatever reason have been caused in your life, and they are painful experiences. They are experiences that can change the trajectory of your life, can make you sometimes feel like you just don’t want to get out of bed, can make you feel sometimes like you want to bury your head in the sand. But we talk about those experiences not so we can wallow in them or not so we can even celebrate them per se. We talk about them to offer hope and healing that there’s another side to those experiences, and we interview guests like the guests that we’re going to interview today who have moved beyond those crucibles, hence the title of our show, to offer you insight from their experience of how you can do the same thing.

Gary S:
With me, as always, thankfully, is the architect of Crucible leadership and the host of the podcast, Warwick Fairfax. Warwick, it’s good to be together again.

Warwick F:
Absolutely, Gary. Great to be here.

Gary S:
So the guest I indicated we were going to be speaking with today is Cathleen Merkel. I’m going to tell you a little bit about Cathleen before we start asking her some questions. As a thought leader in the mindset and self-leadership space, Cathleen supports high-achieving but worn-out women create a more content and balanced life without sacrificing their hard-earned success. Cathleen focuses on women who lost their sense of purpose, who feel they’re running in a hamster wheel trying to please everyone but themselves. She helps you to turn your careers, your social connections and personal life around so that you will start feeling fulfilled and excited again about the days to come.

Gary S:
With over 15 years of experience in retail media and broadcasting, engineering, and property investment, geez, that’s an impressive resume, Cathleen has not only experienced the challenges and opportunities of being a female leader herself. She’s also been leading and supporting various leadership development initiatives within large, complex multinational matrix organizations. I feel very non-qualified to be here. Only by deeply experiencing her very personal life challenges, as she says, hitting a wall experiences, has Cathleen been able to redefine her own purpose, deciding to bring ease and content to as many women as possible on the planet. The best part about that whole bio I just read is she ended it with an exclamation point. She’s excited about what she does. She’s excited about how she’s bounced back from her crucible, and I’m looking forward to the conversation we’re going to have Warwick.

Warwick F:
Well thanks, Gary, and Cathleen, welcome. Wonderful to have you. I’d love to just start hearing a bit about your story as that led up to your crucible experience, but tell us a bit about Cathleen Merkel and your background, who you are and how that led to your crucible.

Cathleen M:
Cool. So first of all, thank you for having me and thank you for a very impressive introduction. It sounded a bit bigger than I still feel. So thanks, Gary.

Gary S:
You’re welcome.

Cathleen M:
Well, I am German born. I was born in East Germany actually in the early ’80s. I never really realized how much my childhood and the way I was raised has characterized my whole path. I never realized it until maybe five, six years ago. I had a very loving kind of childhood. I had fantastic parents, but they were very young when they had my sister and me. They were 19 when they had my sister, and then three years later, I was born. They were quite overwhelmed with us, I would say, being so young. But it was quite normal at the same time for Eastern German times.

Cathleen M:
What was also quite normal for the communist part of Germany was to be raised in a sense of be strong, show up at your best. So I still remember that my parents took us to a restaurant, and my mom would literally sit down with us before we go, how we should behave, and I was three years old and not to make any noise and not to do that and not to do X and not to do Y. It was really, really strict, and it was all about, how are we being perceived. It was not about just enjoy your childhood, be a child, you all be noisy from time to time. That was kind of the characteristic of my whole childhood, loving, but very, very strict, very this is what you should do. This is what I want you to do.

Cathleen M:
It kind of in reflection restricted me understanding who I really was because imagine you grew up that way, then you go to school, then you have a constant competition with your sister who’s better at school, then you have this constant expectation setting off this is how you need to deliver at school and when you come home from school, this is what I want you to do at home because we are working women. So you have to do housework as well and do it perfectly. There were just expectations all the time. I never felt fully enough. I constantly felt I need to ask for acknowledgement for recognition. It caused a lot of trouble at home. It caused me to become a real rebel. I was just really kind of becoming quite an angry child and frustrated child, but more, I kind of nurtured myself with this anger. I didn’t necessarily let it out, and I couldn’t wait for me to leave home.

Cathleen M:
I remember when I was 15, I was saying to my mom, “When I’m 16, can I go to England and become an au pair?” She literally stood in front of me crying, and she was like, “You can not do this, and you will never leave us, and this is not acceptable.” So it was always about us, us, us, but never about, “This is your path.” I don’t blame them. I understand now that this was the culture. This was how my parents were raised as well. It’s okay for me now. But it made me the person I was years ago, in particular, my early 20s when I started my career, and I noticed about myself that I was someone who was very black and white.

Cathleen M:
Someone who was very right or wrong, this is my way, this is how it should be. Someone who was constantly just running towards success, and success, I didn’t even know how to define it as success was literally you have a great job, you are independent, and you can put some money to the side so that at some point, you can buy a house or whatever it is. So I was literally just living along the lines of this life and this definition of success, not quite understanding what I missed out on. Just to dive into different experiences. In Australia, I mean, I just love that people go for a gap year after school, first of all and experience the world a little bit, and then we come back, and then we decide what we’re going to do.

Cathleen M:
I would have loved to do that, but I didn’t because I was just not the person who she could do it and that I really wanted it. I thought, “No, let’s go the safe path.” That’s what my parents taught me.” That really kind of build my path up until I would say my early 30s if not… Yeah, early 30s, 100% that I was that way. I remember that I became really, really brief, when in my mid-20s, I was in a very good role. I was in my first manager role, so looking after two big retail department stores, partnering some senior managers there, all of these things.

Cathleen M:
But at some point, a few things around me happened. First of all, I had a brilliant circle of friends and a lot of them were traveling or living abroad and just testing it. I had this moment of, “I need to go as well.” I just held it inside for years and years that I had to do it. The second thing was my relationship at this point of time, which was significant for me broke down. The third one was that the company changed leadership, changed the culture not in the better way, and at some point, I was indirectly made redundant.

Cathleen M:
So basically, they chose a path to transfer me to a different location I would never go to in order to present to me the choice of, do you want to stay, or do you want to leave, which really hit me, right? You have always been on a success path you have achieved and suddenly in your ’20s, you sit down, and you’re like, “What’s going on right now? This is massive failure. I can’t deal with this.” That was really tough for me, and it took me a few weeks to cry, to feel sorry for myself, to talk to people, all of these things of grieving you go through in certain situations of loss. It was, for me, a loss of the current life as I had lifted.

Cathleen M:
But then it didn’t take me long to follow my gut and to say, “Well, this is also an opportunity, and I’m a huge believer that if a door closes, another door has got to open. You just don’t know yet what the door is going to be.” I opened the door of traveling. So I took my backpack, and I traveled South Africa, and I traveled Ireland in particular. I’ve always had a love for the UK and Ireland, and I went onto this bus tour, and it still makes me smile so much because I went on my own. But on this bus tour, obviously, I met so many people, and a lot of your people were there, lots of Australians-

Warwick F:
Right, a lot of Australians.

Cathleen M:
… Kiwis, some Americans. I was definitely the only German there. That was just absolutely life-changing because I was surrounded by people who lived their lives, who just embraced every day. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of alcohol involved in those weeks as well. But we had so much fun together, and the most important thing was I suddenly could let loose. I could let my hair down because people were just people with each other. We accepted each other for who we were. There were no expectations of how you should be. Quite a few of the people, and still, I have a lot of friends from that bus tour now who I visit regularly. It’s just brilliant, but a lot of the people said to me, “You’ve got to do what you really want to do, and you are far too young to get stuck into a life that was designed by the people for you. That really stuck with me.

Warwick F:
I mean, that’s an interesting question. Well, I want to cycle back to growing up because that comment, you’ve got to do what you want to do, it’s like, that must have been a very alien concept. What do you mean, I have choice? I don’t understand that word. In a different way, I can relate growing up at a family business. So you mentioned growing up in East Germany. There was it sounded two different influences. Your parents were obviously very strict, had very high expectations. I mean, telling a young child, three years old, you got to be on your best behavior, I mean, they’re three year olds. Come on. Really? I mean, let a kid be a kid, at least at that age.

Warwick F:
But how much of the things that influenced you that helped you form who you were on that high achievement track. How much was the East German communist mindset? How much was your parents? Because it sounds like your parents also… I mean, how much was each influencing you if that makes sense?

Cathleen M:
So my parents have been influencing me up until a certain point, I would say until I left Germany or just a year before when I have learned this transition to change. Because I don’t think I would have achieved, and I would have been as ambitious as I was and still am without the way my parents raised me, to look forward, to make sure you are safe. They have never said you need to be a millionaire or anything like that. Quite the contrary. But they always wanted me to be safe, basically. That means you have to have a secure job and so on and so forth.

Cathleen M:
So I think that made me really successful. Also, they gave me a lot of values, right? Reliability, honesty, trust, community, which is really important to me, i.e., to really stick together, Particularly on my dad’s side, that’s something that’s very important to support each other, to be there for each other, regardless as to whether we go through good times or bad times. The value I discovered for myself, and that’s my strongest value still is freedom. Given that my parents grew up right in Eastern Germany when the wall was up, it was pretty great. They weren’t allowed to travel. My mom was allowed to travel to our Western family from time to time. But we as a family had to stay behind because the state would never let us go as a whole family. So it was always restricted. We were never allowed to go on nice holidays and so on. So they didn’t know anything else. But this restricted life.

Warwick F:
They probably grew up with fear. I mean, at least in the West, you hear about the East German police, the Stasi-

Cathleen M:
Stasi. Yeah.

Warwick F:
… I think they were called. I mean, it’s like, even though if you’re a regular person, why would they care about you? But probably just the fear of what might happen to friends and whispers and rumors. Did you feel that was somewhat of a fearful mindset that yes, be safe, work hard, but-

Cathleen M:
Yeah.

Warwick F:
Yeah. It sounds like the opposite of freedom. I don’t know how you would describe. How would you describe that kind of mentality that your parents especially grew up with and influenced you?

Cathleen M:
So it’s very different because my mom actually grew up in a very Western way. My grandpa was always in business. He owned his own business, and they had a lot of family in the West. So there was always this Western mentality, and she was the one who was allowed to travel from time to time to the family. My dad, however, he was spied on by the Stasi. We found out by reading files afterwards and listening to the tapes that were recorded about our family. He was spied on by his best friend who later hung himself. So there were some really challenging stories in the whole family.

Warwick F:
Oh my gosh.

Cathleen M:
My dad was really restricted, and he was threatened by the Stasi because he was very successful in sports, and he was even considered for the Olympic team. So therefore, they obviously wanted to make sure that he would never go with my mom to the West and all of these things. It was very, very restricted. So what I’ve never experienced, however, was fear necessarily. I don’t know if they simply hadn’t shown it or if they just didn’t have it. But what I noticed and still notice is a very, very restricted mindset.

Cathleen M:
So the best example is when I decided to leave Germany, and I moved to the UK. I gave up the flat, and my dad helped me renovating the flat to hand it over to the next tenant. He said to me, “I have absolutely no idea how you’re doing this. You just take challenges, and you go with the flow, and you go to the next stage in your life and take opportunities.” He still says to me jokingly from time to time, “I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder which family you’re really from,” because I am just so different, my approaching, I think.

Warwick F:
Right. You would understand this, but many listeners wouldn’t just because the wall came down in 89. That was an incredible time, and it’s a long time ago. I remember at the time I had a internship, if you will, at a newspaper actually in Chicago. I was in some editorial meetings. Every week, it was like, “Well, Poland, looks like something’s happening there and Czechoslovakia and Hungary.” It was just incredible. It’s just like, “How is this possible?”| It seemed like a miracle at the time. Then there was, gosh, German unification, is that going to happen? Because both East and West has to approve that. Some of the West were like, “Do we want our poor Eastern cousins coming? It’s all of the money will be sucked into the East.” People are human. I get that, all of that stuff, but that mentality that a lot of East Germans grew up with, that wouldn’t have just ended in 89.

Cathleen M:
No.

Warwick F:
You can’t change the way you think overnight. I’m sure it took years to say, “Is it okay to think for ourselves?” So that had you on a certain mindset, which you’ve talked about success and achievement, which is great. But it felt like freedom wasn’t a concept that evolved later. So talk about how you’re on this track of success and achievement, but then you’ve had a couple of challenges. You mentioned one. I guess you weren’t fired, but they’re kind of almost gave you an offer that you kind of really did want to refuse. It was like, some backwater, and if you had any self-respect, you wouldn’t take it. But talk about how your life changed from the achievement, be responsible to… Yeah, be achieve and be responsible, but a bit of freedom. Talk about how that shifted with some of those crucible experiences.

Cathleen M:
So crucible experiences always make me think. As Gary said before, and I hit a wall, and I hit a wall plenty of times in my life. Some were bigger, and some are smaller. The big walls make me think hugely, and they make me reflect, and they make me step back. Most importantly, what I realize in those situations is the wisdom I have around me. So the biggest influence for me are the people around me. So in those times that I mentioned before I moved to the UK, there’s one significant relationship I was in. He played a huge role in slowly but surely shifting my mindset towards I can make my own choices, and I started doing more of that.

Cathleen M:
The friends I was referring to who lived abroad, they certainly were an eye-opener for me, and I started traveling more, not necessarily always for weeks or months, but just short travels. I always met fantastic people, and I don’t know how it happens. They are still a part of my life. They contributed to the significant change, and they were eyeopening for me. I had just great conversations about what the world has got to offer, and I became more and more curious. So that is one part of him. The other part that happens to me is when I step back and I think about what was just happening, in particular, think about what was going on for me, and that’s also what I do with my clients to help them reflect on what’s happening in your life right now, not just in your career, for example.

Cathleen M:
So what is happening for me? How am I feeling? What does not make me happy? Because often those situations show me, “Hey, what are you doing here?” And really then to reflect on, “Okay, what is it I really want to do and to trust myself that I can make changes happen.” I am someone who absolutely believes you can be in your 80s and 90s. You can still make changes happen to live your most content life. So I moved obviously to the UK, and again, I was surrounded just by brilliant people and people who gave me a very open feedback. I remember in my second role in the UK, in a second organization, I was a manager at this time, but fairly senior manager working with quite some senior stakeholders as well.

Cathleen M:
I remembered that my manager at the time gave me planned feedback. She was far more German than I was, on a very, very regular basis. This feedback included things like, some people don’t dare to approach you. Right? I was, “Oh, yeah. That’s not what I want from anyone. Well, how can that be?” She said, “Well, you can come across quite strong, quite powerful. You have strong opinions, and it can be highly intimidating.” So I realized I was eating my life. I was a strong independent woman. I had experience in different organizations. So therefore, I was absolutely fine sharing those opinions. But my style was quite tough to do for people who were not German, to be quite frank because I was really so direct all the time and was so black and white and all of these things. That put people off.

Cathleen M:
So plus, the second piece was that throughout my childhood, and I said to you before, and I fed myself with anger and with frustration and a lot of sadness as well, when you’re constantly pray for acknowledgement, for recognition, for parents saying, “I’m just proud of you”, regardless, which I haven’t experienced until I was 23, I think. You start building a wall. I certainly did. I build a massive wall around me, and that wall was I didn’t really show who I really was, the real Cathy. Well, I had a strong divide between professional me and personal me. So at work I’m strong and blah, blah, blah and very professional and so on.

Cathleen M:
That really got in my way in particular in terms of leadership. So that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t successful. It doesn’t mean that people didn’t like work with me. But there were also people who said, no, I really don’t like that, and I’m not enjoying working with you, and sometimes I’m a bit scared.

Gary S:
This is a good time. I think to bring up something you and I talked before we began this recording, Cathleen, just a couple of weeks ago. One of the things that you said to me when we were talking about having you on the show was you expressed a little bit of surprise, especially when I told you about Warwick’s story, right? He did the takeover of the family media dynasty in the family for 150 years founded by his great, great grandfather. The takeover failed, lost $2.25 billion, I always like to say with a B. Your response to that was feeling like, “Wow, why would you want me on the show?”

Gary S:
What you just described, though, that emotion that you felt, the wall that you felt around you, the things that you’ve been talking about, I want listeners to focus on that because that’s why you’re on the show. We wanted you because your experience, it’s not so much about the details of your crucibles, whose crucible. It’s not sort of a game of who has the worst crucible. It’s the emotions attached to them. There are so many people listening right now who’ve had crucibles like yours who have not even failed at a job and been fired, but basically been made redundant, been sort of pushed aside for reasons they don’t quite understand.

Gary S:
There’ve been people who’ve been confronted with things about their performance or things about their personality that may be hard to take. Those kinds of emotions are the very things that our listeners are going through and your response to them are the very kinds of things that will help them get over that. I remember one of the things that you said about pursuing the jobs that you were pursuing and success wasn’t everything that you thought it was. Growing up in the environment that you grew up success was a great goal. You aimed at it because it was not something that was easily achieved in Communist Germany. But when you achieved it, and I think a lot of our listeners are there, and I think a lot of your clients are there, you reached for the brass ring and in some sense found that it was kind of lead. Is that fair?

Cathleen M:
Yeah, 100%. I’m really glad that you highlight the emotions because that is for me the most important piece of those moments as well. The emotions I realized in that moment and what I did with them and every crucible moment before me, every wall brought that out of me and dismantled that wall. But I couldn’t have done it alone, and that is the second piece I’m focusing on with my people now and with my clients, I call them my people. So I just love working with them and really being their support mechanism along their ways. But it is building those communities and realizing when you have some great inspirations around you and to really cherish those.

Cathleen M:
But in this moment, I particular spoke about when my boss at this time gave me feedback, I literally hit the wall. I thought about the expectations that other people had on me, how I should behave again. So something that came back from my childhood, how I should present myself in order for those people to feel more comfortable with me being still on a success path. Yeah? This is what you need to deliver and trying really to constantly keep everything in check and being a great leader. So that was big wall number two that hit me down.

Warwick F:
I mean, what’s interesting to me is there’s a couple challenges here. One is when your boss says, “You’re driven, you’re successful, that’s great, but you kind of put people off with the directness and are hard charging.” This is a woman boss, right? Yeah. So it wasn’t like, “Oh, she doesn’t get it.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, I don’t really have that line I can use because she’s where I am in a sense.” Then it’s like, “Gosh, I’ve failed. Right? I haven’t been what I need to be. I have fallen short of the mark. I need to work harder. I need to be more successful. I need to work harder at seeming… get the job done but in a way that helps people embrace it because if people don’t embrace it, stuff doesn’t get done, numbers fall, I’m not successful.”

Warwick F:
But there’s the broader one in which you came to see life isn’t all about just achievement, monetary success, career, position maybe with some of the influences on trips in Ireland and UK and elsewhere and community, you began to see, “Okay. Life is more than just about the brass ring and success.” You can be successful, and I think you’ve said elsewhere, have good health, friends, travel, family. So how did that shift for you? Because you were on that, I think you used the word hamster wheel of success. How did you kind of, as we say both and, right, be successful and actually enjoy life? Because it’s easy to be successful and really be miserable too.

Cathleen M:
Oh 100%, and I was. I was. It’s exactly what you said. You spoke for my soul basically, just this way of, “I need to work harder now because I need to meet those expectations as well.” That was exactly it, and I was in the hamster wheel, and I didn’t see any more what was going on in left and right. I was stuck, so to say. After work, I would go out with friends just to kind of get some distraction. But that was it. I didn’t live healthy. I didn’t really look after myself. I was just focused on delivering.

Cathleen M:
It literally hit me I was close to a burnout. So I was really exhausted. I found myself not being able to sleep anymore for months and months, and therefore, I didn’t necessarily deliver in my best way. Other people would still have said to me, you still go far beyond a hundred percent, but it wasn’t enough for me. So constantly beating myself up, having very toxic relationships, all of these things. I really hit that wall.

Cathleen M:
I remember that I asked my boss as to whether I can take some time off. She said to me, “You need to go home and sleep. You need to take distance from whatever is going on here.” She approved it, and I went traveling again. So I’m not saying, by the way, to your listeners, traveling is the solution for everything. It’s a nice to have. It’s a nice to have, and I’m very, very grateful for my experiences. But solo travels helped me reflect differently. They helped me to disconnect. So whatever the way for you is to disconnect from that situation, make most of it.

Cathleen M:
I went to Indonesia. In particular, I spent quite a bit of time in Bali and basically I Googled solo yoga holidays for women because I wanted to be safe, I wanted to become healthy again, feel good about myself and disconnect. I found this place that I visited since four times, I think, to get a top up because it’s just so beautiful. What I have experienced was I learned how to look after myself, but I only learned to do that because other people started looking after myself there. The people there are just devoted to pay attention to you to make sure you have the best time of your life.

Cathleen M:
I started nourishing my body and my soul again. I had life-coaching sessions. I had nutrition sessions, Ayurvedic. That sounded very German, Ayurvedic. Food and massages and all of these things, and I had a lot of meditation sessions and yoga. But the most important thing was I was surrounded by kindness, unconditional kindness, which I haven’t really received a lot, or I didn’t quite know what that was. I started simply being myself. I remember when I left after three and a half weeks there, one of the guests said to me, “My goodness, it’s beautiful to see the real you.” I was literally standing there in tears because I could feel those walls were gone. I was just feeling so amazing about myself.

Warwick F:
So did you feel like in that moment that for the first time, you met Cathleen Merkel?

Cathleen M:
Yes.

Warwick F:
That you didn’t really know who she was? “So this is who I am? Who knew? Maybe I can smile. Maybe I can forgive myself if I make a mistake.” It’s like-

Cathleen M:
Exactly.

Warwick F:
… that must have been a strange experience to meet yourself in a sense, the real you for the first time.

Cathleen M:
It was strange and beautiful. I actually got goosebumps listening to you describing me. It was just absolutely stunning, and I was crying because I was just so full of gratitude and joy about it. Suddenly, it felt like a rock fell off my shoulders, and it felt light and easy, and life started feeling just super easy. I remember coming back, and I went back to my job. There were two things that had completely changed. No, three actually. The first one was I was to me that I rediscovered there, and I attracted people, and I don’t mean no attraction in a romantic way, but people were more drawn to me, approaching me, and some of them said, “Who are you?” Who knew me before and who were good friends of mine. They took the Mickey out of me, and they noticed that there was a difference.

Cathleen M:
The second thing was I was completely focused on what’s right for me, what do I really want from life? That’s when my coaching education started and that’s when I decided to become a qualified coach and started this journey then. The third one was that the pressure was off. I approached the days with kindness, with openness, and with ease. I still did a good job. But because the way I went about it and that is, for me, pure leadership that comes from within, that comes from a position where you are at ease with yourself, where you’re good to other people and where you have empathy and pure listening skills, and you can just be present with others.

Cathleen M:
Suddenly, work turned out to be far more successful because I could have different levels of conversations, I could challenge differently, and I realized it’s not about having a massive to-do list to work on. It’s about how you are with other people and deliver with those people on the bigger goals.

Warwick F:
It’s interesting you’ve said some profound things I want the listeners to hear. I mean, just part of it was this voyage of self-discovery, just the incredible gift to have a community that loves and cares for you unconditionally. You didn’t have to do anything to earn their love or their friendship. Just being who you are is enough. If you make mistakes, we’re all human. Sometimes we’re impatient, say a cross word, and it’s part of being human. It’s okay. They forgive you, and you forgive them, and that is such a freeing thing, a community that just loves you for who you are.

Warwick F:
The second thing I think you said was amazing is you’re so focused on success. But by focusing less on the outcomes, caring for those around you, still having targets and goals you want to achieve, but by caring for those around you, who knew you became even more successful. By letting go, you soared even higher. I mean, it’s truly remarkable. Yeah. I mean, I want to switch gears here and talk about what you’re doing now, but there was a couple of epiphanies if you will, a couple of turning points, right? The community that loves you unconditionally and by letting go sort of open hands, empathizing with people, you became more successful. I mean, do you reflect back and say that was some remarkable learning that you went through, it’s a remarkable growth?

Cathleen M:
Yeah. Sometimes I still have situations when old Cathy and new Cathy come together, and I fall into old habits. But what’s really lovely now is I remember that letting go is the key. When I am kind of bound up about something or I try to put too much pressure on something, the moment is really beautiful when I’m able to step back because I now have a trigger. I realize inside of me when the moment has come, and I wait for a few days, and then things fall into place. It’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s got a lot to do with your mindset and obviously your self-belief and also realizing, hey, not everything necessarily goes in the direction that you had planned. Right? But that’s life, and that’s discovery as well. So yeah, 100% loads of epiphany moments that still accompany me every day.

Warwick F:
So talk a bit about what you’re doing now. Because what’s so exciting to me is often in crucibles, we go through something, and we want to help others, fellow travelers if you will, and which is a good metaphor to use since you love traveling. I get it. I kind of like traveling a bit myself. But I love the way that you’re using what you’ve been through to help others, and in particular, women business leaders because you understand that mindset of wanting to achieve and it’s still not easy for women business leaders, even in the 21st century. A lot of barriers and just preconceptions, and yes, be successful but yet be whole human beings with health and family and friends.

Warwick F:
There’s probably a lot of your people as you put it, your clients who you talk about, and it’s like, “Well, how do you do that Cathleen?” I mean, if I back off, it’s much harder for me than the guys I work with. I’m sure that you will hear that. I’m sure that’s true. So I can’t afford to back off. If I back off for a minute, I’m off the track. When I’m off the track, you’re permanently off-track. I’ll never be VP, senior VP, CEO, whatever. So when you work with these folks, how do you get them to change their mindset and be what for you is the real Cathleen? For them, it might be the real Mary, the real whoever it is. How do you get them to change the mindset, that you can be successful but yet be whole?

Cathleen M:
That’s a journey for everyone. So first of all, for me, it’s important that I don’t get them to change their mindset. They want to do that so that they come to me usually when there are at their own breaking point. So they realize something is completely off here right now. One of my clients, I’m not going to use any names obviously, but she came to me, and she said, “My whole life feels completely off. I gained more and more weight. I feel really uncomfortable in my own skin. I have hardly any time for my kids. I’m working 24/7, and actually, I don’t love the job.” But again, this is the habit we moved ourselves into, right? We run, we run, run, and we want to be successful at work because that gives us the quickest acknowledgement and reward. So therefore, we keep doing that.

Cathleen M:
What we started with is really to reflect up on the whole life and to say, “Okay, what are the areas that you feel really passionate about that work really well for you and that rock your boat basically.” But we also look at the areas where people or those women in particular are missing out, and they say, “This is not enough for me. I’m not putting enough effort into it,” or, “I’ve kind of totally forgotten about it.” And then really highlight the whole person here. So that’s something really important. I work with female leaders across industries and to run their own businesses or who work in organizations. All of them usually come to me with, “I need to do something about my career.” As soon as we look at the whole life because they are one person and not someone as I described before and who is different at work and different in their personal lives, then they realize, “Oh there’s more to it than my career. I lost purpose in my life, and I lost connection with myself.” So that is number one.

Cathleen M:
Number two is also that we remember a lot, who are you at your best? When did you enjoy yourself the most? So if you were your best friend, basically, what have you experienced at this time? Then I have massive aha moments in terms of, oh wow, that’s years ago. What was present in this time? What was different about your life? Then slowly but surely build a plan to say, “How can we get there again with the current circumstances?” What we do along the way is we talk a lot about mindset, about creating healthy habits. We talk a lot about boundaries.

Cathleen M:
So something that I have never understood until a few years ago that I’m now helping my clients with is to set healthy boundaries step by step. I’m not saying to a woman who worked 16 hours a day and who really struggles to switch off, now, please work seven and a half hours a day. It’s completely unrealistic. So we need to start somewhere and then slowly but surely kind of help them to step back from I’m only at work. That we can only do by exploring obviously the support network around them and to say, “Okay, who can help?” Or, “Is everything really as necessary and important as it seems to be? Where does this need for delivering in this area come from?” So needs are being explored and so on.

Cathleen M:
We are looking into the future where you build a really compelling vision. That’s the most important thing. Where are we heading towards? Who is the person that I want to be? Along that path, there are loads of tears, and there is a lot excitement at the same time because I’m helping out these women to dismantle the wall and to really break it down. I have cried a lot, and those tears were so healing and helpful, and it happens to those women as well. What is needed, however, is a lot of kindness. So my clients often say to me, “My goodness, you’re really direct and challenging, but you do it in such a kind and empathetic way.” So the kindness I received, I 100% give back.

Cathleen M:
I want them to feel non-judge because they are the biggest judges. So I don’t want to give at anything to, and I want to make them feel at ease. So the personality and the way I approach this is really important. I do that, and that’s the last piece, one-to-one, but I love working groups. So bringing different women from different backgrounds together and work with them as a community and build the community so that they know, A, I’m not alone, and B, I can get support literally by just looking around me and opening up more and talking about it. It’s okay.

Warwick F:
You know what? As you’re talking, there’s so much wisdom that you’re communicating. I almost feel like your role is you’re an advocate for these women leaders. You were there to try and help them be who they want to be. We often live our lives based on shoulds. “I should do this, I should do that.” But it’s like, “Well, but what do you want to do? Where were you most joyful in life?” It’s like, “Well, no, but I’m not allowed to be joyful.” That’s wrong. Okay? It’s about duty. It’s about obligation. It’s about performance. That’s what it’s about, which you obviously grew up in one sense and helping them say it’s okay to be your best self. It’s okay to do what you want to do. Life’s about choices.

Warwick F:
They might say, “You know what? When I was most joyful, I was helping with a local nonprofit, maybe a food pantry.” But it’s like, “Well, I can’t do that.” Well, the income might be a lot lower, but if that’s what you passionate about, is it really all about money? If that’s what you want to do, why is that wrong? Or, “Gee, maybe I’d like to teach.” Well, teachers make almost nothing. It’s like, well, that’s okay if that’s what you want to do. If you want to keep doing what you’re doing but think differently, great. But it sounds like you were really an advocate for women leaders be who they want to be and you help eradicate that awful word, should, an obligation. Does that make sense?

Cathleen M:
100%, yes. I really feel you get me and what I’m saying. So it makes 100% sense. One piece I want to add to that is now we have obviously the additional facet of a lot of women trying to get into more senior roles, and there’s obviously the topic around equality between male and female leaders. That’s absolutely important to talk about. But I spoke to a female leader, highly successful this morning, and she said, “Oh my God, it’s so nice to be in a position where I know I can be my most authentic self and actually be successful with it.” I thought I have to be really powerful and strong and almost male. This is something I wanted really be an ambassador for as well. Be you.

Warwick F:
What you’re saying, I think one of the most important things I think we’ve discussed is obviously, my upbringing is radically different growing up in a family media business. But the last thing I thought I could do is be me. I had to fill a role and be some Rupert Murdoch, take no prisoners executive, and I’m more of a reflective advisor, listener kind of person. It’s a terrible fit. But it’s just the more that we are us, the more successful we are. It’s a misnomer, at least from my perspective, that people in general, men and women want you to be a certain way. If you’re who you are, you’ll actually be more successful. You found that in your own life.

Warwick F:
So it’s like, stop trying to live up to male expectations, people expectations. Be who you are. Maybe I’m idealistic and optimistic, but I actually think if anything, you’ll be more successful if you’re authentic. Because when you’re authentic and vulnerable, it makes you approachable. If you’re approachable, you get on with people. If you get on with people, well, you have that successful team. Does that make sense?

Cathleen M:
Totally. Yeah.

Warwick F:
Being who you are doesn’t make you less successful. It’ll probably make you more successful. Take a risk. Be you, right? You probably tell every person you deal with, right? Be you. Take a risk. It might work. They just-

Cathleen M:
Yeah. My slogan is to be the real you. Yes.

Warwick F:
They just might like you. Right?

Cathleen M:
Exactly.

Gary S:
That is a great opportunity now. What was just shared between you guys is a great place for us to begin the process of landing the plane. We’re not going to land it yet. The fasten seatbelt, sign is on. But we’re starting to begin our descent. But one of the things I love about interviews that we do on this show is when… Because very few people have the experience that Warwick has had. But to have a guest on like you Cathleen who basically I was going to jump in and make the point that you made Warwick is that you didn’t feel like you could be you, right? From the moment you were born, literally, you were the heir apparent to the family media dynasty. You could not be you.

Gary S:
Cathleen, you felt that same sort of thing, and you certainly work with people who feel that same sort of thing in different ways. There are listeners out there who are in the same boat, who feel like they, male and female, they can’t be themselves. One of the things that you guys both talk about, and this is my favorite part of the show is when two people who haven’t met before, Warwick and the guest talk about the same things in the same ways without ever having compared notes. What you’re both describing is a life of significance. That’s what we call it in Crucible leadership.

Gary S:
What you are leading your clients to, Cathleen, is significance beyond job description, right? Life beyond job description. That’s where significance is found. Success can be found in job description in a certain sense. But significance and success is found in a life that extends beyond, not instead of job description, but beyond the job description. Is that right?

Cathleen M:
Loving this. I want to write that down. Yes.

Warwick F:
Yeah. I mean, yeah. Obviously, we talk a lot about significance here. Yeah. I mean, for much of my life, it was all about making sure that I fit a certain role and a bit like you. I worked very hard, got good grades in school, did my undergrad at Oxford, worked on Wall Street, then got a grad degree at Harvard business school. I mean, it’s check the box, be… Just do whatever it takes to fit the roles. I was gung ho on that.

Warwick F:
But realizing I grew up in a very wealthy background. As much status, prestige, and wealth, as I guess you could probably want. Maybe there’s never enough. We had a lot of all of the above. We were old money. But one of the things I’ve realized is success doesn’t satisfy. There’s always another rung. Even as a CEO, there’s always somebody that’s better, quicker, faster, got better numbers, got more market share, got more this, more that.

Warwick F:
It’s like an athlete. You’re never going to be the… It’d be one or two that might be the greatest of all time, whether it’s Roger Federer in tennis or whoever. But there aren’t too many that is going to say, “Yeah. I was the greatest of all time.” Really? Really? But what satisfies is significance, which to me is living a life on purpose and helping others. That’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re using your experience and your background to help other women leaders be their true selves, which I’m sure fills you with more joy than you could possibly describe.

Cathleen M:
100%.

Warwick F:
The act of helping people. That is a life of significance. You wake up every day thinking, “Who can I help today? What joy is going to come my way as I help unlock peoples’ inner potential in themselves.” Does that kind of resonate?

Cathleen M:
Yeah. Exactly. That’s exactly it. I fulfill my purpose by helping other people fulfill their purposes. But also, it’s just so hugely rewarding when you see people grow and develop and stepping out of their shoulds. As you know, right, it’s just beautiful, and suddenly, there’s a sense of calm inside of me that says, “This is all okay.” Now, realize that actually this morning, we are in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, right? There’s quite a bit of crisis around us here. We are on proper lockdown. I hear a lot of panic, and I see a lot of panic and people become more and more nervous.

Cathleen M:
I realize in myself that I’m super calm and just like it’s going to be okay, and I’m focusing on all the good things, and that is, we can give back. We can support others. We can really help people reflect upon their lives because of the situation. If they haven’t done it before, this is now a massive opportunity to have your own breakthrough moments. That is just more valuable than any money in the bank account. That’s what makes my life now far more purposeful.

Warwick F:
Absolutely. A life on purpose focused on others. It brings such joy. As you say, when we’re all stuck at home and sheltering in place, this is a time of forced reflection. Like it or not, of, what is my life about? Yeah. Life on purpose focused on others, it’s really the secret to joy, and everybody wants joy and significance in life, right?

Cathleen M:
Yeah. I hope so.

Warwick F:
So yeah. Well, they may be don’t realize that. Maybe you didn’t realize it growing up. But there was an inner voice saying, “I want to be me. I want that joy of just freedom and helping others.” You have a wonderful journey, right? The wall loosely has broken down, but literally and figuratively, right?

Gary S:
I’m a smart enough communicator to know when kind of the last word has been spoken. That was a great last word talking, from where we started, about the communist Germany, a situation in the Berlin wall and now the other walls that have come down in your life and in the lives of your clients. I would be remiss as the runway comes into clearer focus if I did not let you, Cathleen, let our listeners know how they can get in touch with you so that they can engage you if they’re so inclined. So how can people find you?

Cathleen M:
Yeah, sure. So first of all, there’s the website, that’s cathleenmerkel.com. You find me on Instagram and Facebook under Cathleen Merkel and LinkedIn obviously as well. Join my Facebook group that’s called Legendary Leaders. That’s the community for females in leadership. It doesn’t have to be an organizational leadership role, but if you want to be a part of a great community, that’s the place. Last but not least, I’m a fellow podcaster too. So tune in. I hope my podcasts episodes really inspire you to live your best life and to liberate yourself from all the shoulds, and the name of it is Legendary Leaders.

Gary S:
I mean, I knew already that you were a podcaster. But if people are watching this on YouTube, you can tell that all of us are podcasters because we have these really big microphones. So it’s clearly we’re not… If we’re doing Zoom meetings in the midst of this pandemic, we all have big microphones that we’re just talking to our friends with because we have them. So I am going to land the plane at that point. One of the things I want to do for you, listeners is give you some takeaways of what Cathleen and Warwick have talked about today. I think they’re three really strong main points from Cathleen’s story that I think can benefit you in your own crucible experience.

Gary S:
The first is take time to heal after you’ve had a crucible. You can wait. You truly can wait to hop on the horse again. The main reason to wait is to heal and to make sure that’s the horse you want to ride. That’s Cathleen’s story. She waited, she didn’t go right back into the same thing she was going after, and take time to heal after your crucible. That’s the first point. The second point that was made throughout this conversation by both Warwick and Cathleen is to lean into the people around you after your crucible experience. They will give you hope. They will give you resilience. They will give you insight. The kinds of insight they will give you is not only insight into the things that you do well, but insight into those things that you might be able to work on so that you can do them well down the road even better than you’ve been doing them. That can make a huge impact in how you move as we call the show beyond your crucible experience.

Gary S:
The final point I want to make sure we hit and summarize for people because we talked about it in detail here is it’s okay. It’s okay, listener to reach for the brass ring. Absolutely, it’s okay. Warwick said many times he’s not anti-success. Cathleen, clearly not anti-success. She’s working with very successful clients. But when you reach for that brass ring, make sure it’s truly brass. Make sure it’s not lead. Make sure it’s not only focused on the monetary aspects of things or the professional aspects of things or the job description aspects of things. Make room, make opportunity to help other people and to find what Warwick calls a life of significance and what I can tell Cathleen agrees is a life of true significance.

Gary S:
That will wrap us up on this episode of Beyond the Crucible. Warwick and I would like to ask you listener to do a favor for us, and that is, on the podcast app that you’re listening to this right now, if you click subscribe, that will ensure a couple of things. One, it will ensure that you’ll never miss an episode of our podcast. You’ll never miss an episode of Beyond the Crucible. The second thing it will do, it will allow us to reach more people with truly inspiring stories like what Cathleen has shared here today.

Gary S:
I have to say to you, Cathleen, before we sign off that I’ve done this with Warwick now about 20 times we’ve done interviews with people. I have never seen him more relaxed or perhaps more inspired in the context of a conversation than he was here in talking with you, and that is a testament to both your experience and your story with the way you articulated and the hope you offer. You guys are singing from the exact same page of the song book when it comes to that. So thank you for that.

Gary S:
Listeners, thank you for spending this last hour with us. Remember, yes, crucible experiences come up in your life. Yes, they’re difficult. But they are not the end of your story, far from it. They can be as Cathleen described, as Warwick has described, and then they’re both living proof of this. Crucible experiences can be, if you learn the lessons of them, if you apply the lessons of them and you point yourself in a direction that allows you to move beyond them, they can be the start of an entirely new chapter in your life, an entirely… You can discover the true you as Cathleen did, the true Cathy, as she said. You can describe the true you or find the true you by pointing yourself toward a life of significance.

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