Local author believes mom's wisdom works in the office, too
By Aaron Greenberg
The Sun Staff
STONINGTON - It's been said that being a mom is the toughest job in the world. So it should make sense that the secrets to success as a mom would translate into the workplace, right?
The common answer is 'no.' There isn't much in common between baking for a family and dealing with the people in the business world, is there?
Actually, there is, according to Michelle Yozzo Drake, Stonington resident, mother of two and author of the upcoming book From the Kitchen to the Corner Office: Mom's Wisdom on Leadership. Drake, a communications strategist and CEO of The Cove Group, learned how to be a business mentor from the way her Aunt Jennie taught her how to bake bread.
Instead of being the exception to the rule, it was typical of the ways this CEO picked up her business acumen. That's why she is sharing the pearls of wisdom picked up from her mother, aunts and other "mom" figures as examples of the important lessons taught by mothers and picked up by being mothers.
"In the course of my work I get asked a lot about developing women into leaders," Drake said. "We're poised right now to take the next step on where we are in the workplace. What tools do we already have that we're not tapping into?"
The answer appeared clear - the tools of the mom.
"Most women have left that at the door. I think the key is saying, 'this is how I tap into that mom.'"
Her book "pays tribute to the CEOs of the longest standing corporation of all time, the family."
As part of the work in putting together the book, she asked hundreds of professional women from across the country about lessons learned from mom figures. In many cases they found the opposite way of looking at it true, too - what made them successful in the workplace was the same as what was used at home.
"The largest revelation that I had was that it didn't occur to them 'that worked with my kids!' It was nice to see the premise of the book was a light bulb moment for those incredibly remarkable women," she said.
Her book, due out May 6, tries to get these lessons out in a way that is both interesting and useful. There are other books dealing with lessons from home applied to the workplace, but Drake feels they tend to be missing something.
"They get very philosophical and give you great concepts, but don't always help you apply it to the real world," she said. "In the more traditional business books they'll have one or the other, dry case studies or just philosophy."
No amount of warm and fuzzy stories of being with mom will get the job done if they can't be turned into reality.
"The stories are the means to the end, to help people to remember them and relate to them, but the bottom line is to impact how we work," Drake said.
Each chapter features a story where Drake learns a lesson and one where she applies that lesson, plus pointers for using the lesson at work, all interspersed with "Lipstick Leadership" tales from those she has interviewed.
The tales are important because they underline how each person's background and lessons learned will be different. Some of Drake's tales come from very unique experiences but carry universal themes. It's one of the reasons she included the "Lipstick Leadership" tales, allowing readers to learn from more than one person's perspective.
The tales include those reminiscent of Drake's, like Elaine Starling's description of her mom's following an intuitive genius for dishes without recipes, to those from a different background, like Swati Argade's way of telling tales through her fashion creations just as her mom did with each of her saris.
Drake's own stories of mom figures reveal several sides of her personality, and not simply through sentimental versions of warm memories from long ago, although many of the tales do have a nostalgic feeling. They reach back to her childhood, through formative years and into motherhood. Husband Rich and the mom figures from his family are also prominently featured.
The tale of Aunt Jennie's way of sharing how to bake bread is one of the more notable.
"You had to earn the recipe," Drake said. "She wouldn't even let me write things down. She really believed that I had everything in me. Each time I asked her a question, she responded with a question."
Drake had to learn step by step, and with each frustrating mistake would ask another question, and learn something new. Finally, after several attempts, she put together all the steps.
"That style of mentoring is what I use," she said. "As a coach or parent, it's easy to just give them the answer. They need someone to hold the mirror up. For me, the book is a way to hold the mirror up."
It was, she said, a way of learning to be fearless when facing the possibility of mistakes. In the accompanying tale, she uses this method with a woman who wants to become a filmmaker.
Handling fear is a common thread throughout the book. Two of the most important tales directly address fear.
In one, she thinks of the confidence placed in her by mom figures, and puts aside fear of heights to jump off a building to complete ROTC training.
In another, struggles with the mental and physical anguish of a violent attack on the subway, and overcomes it.
"That was a difficult chapter to write in that it took something very private and took how I coped with it and what I tapped into," Drake said.
When reading the result, "my reaction was visceral. To see it in black and white was a powerful thing."
She felt she couldn't leave the story out because of its importance in her life, and because lessons don't just come from the happy tales: "The big part of getting through fear is expect to be afraid. Sometimes it happens in life. To know about yourself that you know how to do fear is a big thing."
Styles of leadership and organization are also addressed, both at home and in the office. Bringing together teams at a business retreat isn't all that different from doing the same with family members on a scavenger hunt; learning how to lead and how to follow is just as useful in the kitchen as in the boardroom. Drake's advice and suggestions from each chapter are laid out clearly, often enumerated.
From the Kitchen to the Corner Office runs a little over 200 pages, but is written in a very conversational style and broken up into easy-to-digest portions. Most of the sections were originally composed by spoken word into a recorder, and keep that tone after editing.
Drake, whose clients have included Pfizer and Siemens, will reach a national audience with the book, published by Morgan James of New York and being distributed by Ingram. She even wound up with her top choice for a foreword, Mark Victor Hansen of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
When the book comes out she intends to hold a number of events with local businesses and book stores, and to work on future volumes, such as stories of husband and wife business teams. only a small portion of the stories written and collected was actually used in the book, and Drake pointed out that each generation of moms, including the most recent, will have new lessons to add to those she is sharing.
Drake can be reached at P.O. Box 380, Mystic, CT 06355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“It isn’t until you come to a spiritual understanding of who you are – not necessarily a religious feeling, but deep down, the spirit within – that you can begin to take control.” – Oprah Winfrey