Why Stay Strong?
Through my years of working at a global company, there were many influences that helped to shape me as a person, including my experience as the company’s CFO. As I have dealt with the reality of my situation, ironically, it has taken me back to the Global Financial Crisis. In October of 2007, our Chairman and CEO at the time, Jim Owens, called me one Wednesday night and said, “Do you have your helmet on?” When I asked him what he meant, he said he was “putting me in the game” and the Board had approved my move to the Cat Executive Office with responsibility for the finance side of the business. I quickly reminded Jim that, while I had a finance degree, I had never worked in finance. I’ll never forget his response: “Don’t worry; you are a quick learner.”
Little did I know that less than a year later the world financial markets would literally collapse into the Global Financial Crisis. Our balance sheet was stretched, bond markets were shutting down, commercial paper was tight and we had a captive finance company with a $30 billion portfolio. Customers from around the world were cancelling orders and our volume was falling through the floor with no end in sight. Now, while I was new to the world of finance, I was not new to taking on tough challenges, and I simply deployed the formula I had learned along the way – have a clear definition of winning, pull together the right team of people, identify the key work streams that must be executed and drive a focused execution model. We used to say “remain calm; do not stand up in the canoe” – meaning stay focused; don’t panic; fly the plane. And with great support from my colleagues, that is exactly what we did under the banner of Project Stay Strong.
Throughout my career, there were great years of record sales and record profits, but for me, 2009 will be the all-time great Caterpillar performance. While the industries we served dramatically declined, we delivered on our definition of winning – stayed in the black, maintained the dividend and protected our credit rating. We stayed strong. As I have received notes from Caterpillar colleagues around the world on my announced retirement, many of the notes concluded with “Stay Strong.”
Striking the balance
Another influence that has really shaped my career and life has been my ongoing focus on balance – having it all: a great career and a great family. The reality of having ALS has brought me full circle to what I’ve been advocating to employees throughout my career. I’ve stressed the importance of work-life balance with the caveat that, although things can’t always be in perfect balance, over time you have to find the balance that works for you. As I tell young professionals, if you spend your entire career pursuing professional objectives at the expense of everything and everyone else, you may achieve a lot professionally, but in the end it will be a shallow victory.
From the utterance of the words “you have ALS,” it has been this balance that is getting me through it. My chin is up as I have a strong faith, a loving and supportive family and network of friends, and I really do have no regrets. I can only imagine the dark place I would be in if I were out searching for my faith or trying to repair damaged personal and family relationships. Yes, life has thrown me a curve ball, but as I learned playing baseball, hitting a curve ball requires great balance and it is this balance that is getting me through these challenging times. While I have openly coached and trained people on work-life balance within Caterpillar, I have never really taken it to an external audience, and, with my diagnosis and understanding of the importance of balance, I am going to step up these efforts including the publication of a book that captures the key principles.
Of course, the first part of my plan is getting proper care for ALS, and I have broken it down into three work streams:
First, and I do believe most important, I am relying on a very strong faith supported by prayers and affirmations. With the prognosis related to ALS, this is actually the work stream where I have the most “faith.”
On what I would consider “traditional care,” I am getting great support from Johns Hopkins. While at this point I have not entered into any drug trials, I am involved in trials focused on trying to understand or see the disease.
In addition to traditional care, I also continue to adopt a healthful lifestyle of diet and exercise including functional medicine and foundation training. In the simplest of terms, this is focused on taking your body, both with diet and exercise, back to the way it was originally designed. The plan requires a new level of discipline, but it is worth the effort.
Making a difference
Shortly after being diagnosed with ALS, my family and I came to the realization that we didn’t want to just fight this disease – we wanted to try and make a difference. One of my favorite books is “Younger Next Year” and, as you head to the retirement phase of life, it talks about the importance of purpose and relationships. The reality is my position in the company and the relationships I have built around the world have put me in a place where I do think I can make a difference. As I take this on, I do it not only with a sense of personal responsibility but also with a sense of responsibility for others who are fighting the disease including their families and caregivers.
Our plan is to leverage life’s experiences in the fight against ALS. I will leverage lessons learned from my time at Caterpillar and Project Stay Strong and how we as a company successfully navigated through the Global Financial Crisis. Some of the key elements of Stay Strong that we will leverage are a clear definition of winning, identifying those few things that will make the biggest difference, driving collaboration and bringing a cadence to the execution plan.
We have set up a Charitable Fund called Stay Strong vs. ALS where we will direct our personal funds, but we have also reached out to others who want to support the effort. Caterpillar and Caterpillar Dealers and Suppliers have graciously decided to join the fight as well. After navigating through the fragmented world of ALS, we have locked down on focusing our efforts in two areas:
- Searching for the long-term cure through Answer ALS. Tools exists today that have not been available in the past (exponential technologies) that are allowing analysis of genetic data that would not have been possible or affordable just a few years ago. Project Answer ALS is clearly focused in this area.
- In addition to the long term, we are also focused on the near term and bringing improved assistive technologies to people currently suffering from the disease, and we are working with doctors and engineers in an effort to bring better assistive devices to market.
- Lastly, we remain committed to our hometowns of Peoria and Raleigh supporting their local ALS Associations.
In all efforts associated with ALS, we focus on institutions that believe in open collaboration. The ALS challenge will not be overcome by people working in silos. It will be overcome by people openly working together. I sit on the Advisory Boards of ALS Finding a Cure and Answer ALS and am actively engaged with the Packard Center. These organizations set a high standard for open collaboration.
I will also continue to get the word out on the importance of work-life balance. As I gave the presentation at Caterpillar over the past 15 years, I usually closed the session with a statement that if I just positively impacted one person in the audience, then I would consider it time well spent. The notes I received from colleagues following the announcement of my diagnosis and plans to retire indicated that maybe I did make a difference. Life eventually throws everyone a curve ball, and good balance is the only way I know to hit a curve.
Any funds received associated with any external speaking engagements will go to the Stay Strong vs. ALS Charitable Fund or Answer ALS.
Why I am lucky
With a diagnosis like ALS, one could become overwhelmed, but as outlined above, with balance you can hit a curve ball. While there are definite downsides to an ALS diagnosis, I really do believe the glass is half full. I still believe I am lucky, and here is why:
- I’ve had great balance in my life, and it is this balance that is giving me the strength to fight the good fight. I have an amazing family that continues to provide a tremendous source of strength as we take on the challenges at hand.
- I have a great extended family and network of dear friends.
- I was diagnosed with the disease in my late 50s. It sadly strikes many at an earlier age. Our kids are through college, have good jobs and are positive, contributing members of society.
- I have worked for a great company and, while retirement is coming earlier than planned, I am in a position to comfortably retire.
- Through the years, my career at Caterpillar has taught me how to solve tough problems. Now I can use this skill to try and help solve another problem.
- My position allows me to engage with people working in this space that many can’t access – I have a responsibility to leverage this gift.
- It wasn’t a sudden passing – I can tell the people who mean the most to me how much I care about them. Conversely, others have done the same to me. I have been overwhelmed.
- Because I was taking care of myself physically and could detect that something wasn’t right, I was diagnosed in the early stages of ALS. This gives me more time with family and friends.
After prayers at night, when I lay my head down on the pillow, I ask myself three questions.
1. Did I approach the day with the right mental attitude including my prayers and affirmations? As I fight this battle, I want to do it with a positive attitude.
2. Did I clearly demonstrate to Ann and the kids that I am all in on fighting ALS? I think that as long as they know I will never give up, it will help them deal with the challenge at hand.
3. And lastly, did I, in some small way, make a difference in the broader fight against ALS? At the end of the day, if I can positively affirm to these three questions, regardless of where this journey leads me, I am going to be all right.