Episode 116 – Debra Benton

Chris: Well, Debra thank you again so much really excited to have you on the show because after looking at everything you’ve done in the past and all your experience in coaching and business and making people better leaders, it’s something that I identify with a lot. I know our listeners to do. Everybody wants to strive to be that better person, that better employee or leader. Before getting into that I was hoping you could give us a little brief background of how you got to where you are and your experience.

Debra: Well like a lot of things in life I think that necessity is the mother of invention. I had gotten into college early, got out early, graduated in 3 years and started my career early and subsequently got fired early. (Laugh) It was like “Thank God. It happened!” But at 22 I ended up going through out placement and deciding I really had entrepreneurial blood in me. If I was going to fail why not do it when I’m young. I had somebody say, “If you’re going to work for a jerk anyway, you might as well work for yourself.”  A lot of these things came to play and I thought, “why not start my own business.” I did in 1976 at the age of 22. So if anybody is doing the math, okay.  It was a great decision. I had wonderful mentors who helped, me guided me, coached me, taught me and I got into the thick of things pretty early and then fortunately it got better from there.

Chris: Real quick, you mentioned mentors and I do actually kind of want to talk more about what you’re doing now, but while we’re on the subject, you’re reading a lot of the business books a lot of people talk bout getting mentors but I think it’s something that is difficult to know where to start. How would you describe- did you seek out mentors and how would you recommend others doing so?

Debra: I like to think I collect mentors. I mean that in a good way. I collect them because I treat them well. One, anyone who’s accomplished … If it’s a decent person, they know they got there because someone helped them and their flattered when someone asks for their help. Now, you don’t ask for help or advice- and by the way it’s really asking for advice not help like “can you help me get a job?” It’s more advice. “How did you get your first job?” You know, that kind of thing. You approach a person and you compliment them. Let them know that you like something that they’re doing. You should know enough about them and it’s easy with Google-ing to find out about them and say, “you really did a stellar job in this acquisition down the road. I’d like to be in the position to do that.

Can I buy you lunch? Can I stop by your office and have 15 minutes of your day just to learn? Let me ask you a few questions if you don’t mind.” Most won’t turn you down. Obviously make it easy for them but when you go in don’t go in with ignorance of not knowing anything, what they’ve done, or who they are; but being able to know something. Go in with, “I have this problem situation. I’m thinking of handling it this way but I’d really like your opinion of what you think.” Then shut up and then let them talk. Whatever they say, “Ahh tell me more.” Shut up. Let them tell me more. “Mmm can you give me an example?” Shut up. Let them tell you more give an example. “That’s good. I really like that I’m going to give it a shot.”

If you ask for 15 minutes and the 15 minutes is up, you stand up and you shake hands and you say, “Hey, thank you I hope I do this again.” When you leave you follow up. Say you took their advice; you follow up with what happened. That simple formula of coming in with some forethought on your own, asking questions, making them feel good about what they’ve done, and then following up lets you collect mentors. Seriously I have maybe 100! 100+ and they become friends over time and everyone who gets somewhere has more than 1 mentor. Seek them out and be to others. For every 1 you ask to have as a mentor, you seek somebody out and make an offer of being a mentor to a younger person.

Chris: I love that. That’s great. I love the way you broke it down because often times we hear, “Oh you need a mentor” and it end there. That kind of strategy and equation makes a lot of sense. I appreciate that. The other thing that struck me was you said you started your own business pretty early. One thing that I always wonder, I think it’s one of my own issues I have to deal with, is feeling that if I’m not accomplished enough, if I’m not older, if I haven’t been the CEO of a company or some director or something, I have no business. Not only starting my own company but trusting that other people should want to pay for my services. How did you get past that? How did you get your first go around?

Debra: Well, many people suffer from that same kind of self-talk that you’re talking about. Even very accomplished people. They’re just as insecure. They’re just better at camouflaging their insecurity. Really probably a gift I had was parents who had me feel confident as a person, some mentors, and then desperation. I had to make some money. I had to make a living. I had to have a career. I knew I wanted to be a career woman. Was not going to rely on a husband or something like that. I had been fired so it really was out of desperation. You find out that you know and have value in something that someone else needs. There’s something. Hopefully it’s something you want to do.

Basic marketing is offering something to people that they want. You can’t just offer something because you want it. It has to be something somebody wants. I’m kind of rambling but of desperation and talking myself into it and then having a few successes even if small successes. Many CEOs told me a version of this story. They say, “Debra when I had my first success in my career,” whether they were running a business or whatever, they said, “oh you know I thought wow was I lucky! I was really lucky. The second time I had a success I thought ‘wow, lightening has stuck again.’ The third time I had a success I finally got the feeling – may be this was due to me. At least partially.” Everybody experiences that.

It’s just sustaining yourself to get past one and two so you get to 3 and realizing that you do have something.

Chris: Sure.

Debra: A quick example, even as quite a seasoned speaker and worked all over the world and many Fortune 50 and 500 companies as clients and yet I had an audience of something like 300 feChris CEO-types or senior executives from Silicon Valley. Everyone in the room was like a kazillionaire. All right and I’m not a kazillionaire. I was pretty intimidating frankly and I just thought, “Sheesh they make so much money they’re so much more powerful than me.” I had this feeling of lack of confidence so I called my husband and I told him and he said “listen, you have some knowledge need or the wouldn’t ask. They have interest in it or they wouldn’t have hired you to do this.

They know their stuff but you know your stuff so remember that.” Then of course I talked to my mom and she said, “Well say a prayer.” I talked to my dad and he said, “Well, go give them hell.” (Laugh) All those things make up what causes you to be confident or not and if you didn’t have good people saying ‘give them hell’ or ‘say a prayer,’ you have to say it to yourself.

Chris: Kind of take that negative self-talk and turn it into positive self-talk. I think is something important. I know I think that comes with experience too. You put yourself into a fearful situation, you succeed, and then next time obviously it becomes a little less scary. That’s really cool. What would you say – I know I looked on yours website and you’ve done some amazing stuff. I mean, your blog post, which I want to talk about a couple because they’re really great. How do you describe what you do now? Executive coach, speaker, do you coach non-executives?

Debra: You know. The true answer is anyone who pays. (Laugh) They’re clients. Generally I work with CEOS or CEO-wannabes. But I’ve had CEOS asked me to their executive secretary because that person represents them. I work with department heads, mid-level managers. I’ve been in this business for so long I’ve worked with the children of some of my clients. They’re getting out of college and the parents want the kids to have a good head start a leg-up so to speak. Really I divide my time three ways. One, I do an ongoing continuing studying researching writing. My 10th book will be coming out in the first quarter of next year. It’s called “The CEO Difference: How to Climb, Crawl and Leap your way to the Next Level of your Career.”

I write. 1/3 of my time is writing. 1/3 of is traveling around the country or the world giving speeches and speaking at conferences and things and then 1/3 is being an executive coach where basically I guess you can say, it sounds crass, but I’m a paid mentor. That’s how I spend my time. Then I do stand-up paddle board when I have time.

Chris: That stuff looks like fun. We live in Arlington and right on the Potomac people are always doing that. Every day I drive home from work I think “that looks like a good time. That stand-up paddle board.”


Debra: It is and it gives you buns of steel.

Jon: That’s what Chris needs.

Chris: Oh, come on.

Debra: We all need it.

Chris: You know what’s funny is, I know a lot of the books you’ve written have the word ‘CEO’ in there or ‘Executive’ in it and I think – I don’t want to assume this and often times listeners give me crap for putting words into people’s mouth but I think people can want to aspire to be in a position of leadership or autonomy without wanting to, theoretically, have the title of CEO or Executive. Is there a reason you kind of might focus on that title?

Debra: That’s a- all your questions have been very good and that’s another good one. I have a niche with working with senior levels and it’s good and bad. The good thing is when you work with senior levels you can charge more because they have deeper pockets. The bad thing is, too many people think, “oh that’s not me” and I honestly, sincerely, with the deepest conviction feel you, me, everyone is the CEO of their life. The same practices processes that make a person successful and effective in leading and running say a business or a team works in running your life and your family. If I have the time I’d like to explain that these are very human traits that I’m talking about here.

They help you have a better life personally and professionally, period. It just so happens that they also help you in your career to accelerate so that’s why ‘CEO’ comes in there a lot. The publishers always want that because you kind of get that niche of knowing that. Just a question as a follow up too. You notice, you and I are talking Debra but in the books they’re titled ‘D.A’. Just my initials D.A.

Chris: We noticed that actually.

Debra: Well, the reason is when I started my first book … When I had my first book printed or published by Warner books years ago, they said, “You know, men don’t buy business books by feChris authors.”

Chris: No way!

Debra: We put ‘D.A.’ in. Then it turns out they decided I was attractive enough; they put my picture on the cover.

Chris: (laugh)

Chris: That’s amazing!

Debra: Anyway that’s some of the backstory of the publishing world.

Chris: That’s really great stuff and it goes to show you marketing in general. Now I kind of want to move into, we have you on this show you have this wealth of knowledge. I want to, for my own personal growth, and that of our listeners I want to talk to and try to get down to some of the things that people pay you a lot of money to learn. I guess the first thing is in all of your- it’s just so great because you have so much experience – assuming you see the same things come up over and over again. I’m wondering if you could point those out to us and then perhaps walk us through how you advice people to get around that.

Debra: Well, it’s really what you already said about your own sometimes-occasional insecurities. Everybody has insecurities in some areas. They might have real confidence in other areas but everybody has insecurities. What I’m trying to get people to do is minimize insecurities and remember the reasons why they should feel good about themselves. The way I talk about it is expecting acceptance. You have a God given right to expect acceptance from anyone, under any circumstances, anywhere in the world for who you are all right? It doesn’t mean someone might have a bigger title, more money, more experience, whatever but as 2 human beings you are on par. You are the same. If you go in and act that way, assume acceptance, you just might get it. Most of us go in assuming rejection. Assuming the negative and we certainly get it.

I think of one client and friend of mine and mentor and he said, “Debra in my 32 years of running this show, I have never discriminated against a woman or a man for being a women or a man. I have discriminated against women and men who discriminate against themselves. If they don’t expect acceptance from me, why should I give it to them? I assume they know themselves better than anyone, and if they don’t think they’re worth it to be on par and talking to me then I figure they’re right. I don’t have the time or interest or inclination to figure out what they are. I take them as they present themselves.” The biggest problem universally, people don’t expect acceptance, which does not mean an arrogant that you are owed anything.

That’s not what I mean at all. I mean you have a right to be at that table for whatever reason as a human being alone.  The flip side is, you must give that to people too, meaning you cannot be judgmental towards others. It’s very simple people often say well that’s a lesson taught in the Bible or whatever I don’t know. All I know is if you can get to the point with whomever that you’re asking for a mentoring relationship for a friendship or whatever you expect and assume acceptance. That they will give you acceptance of who you are. You’re more than halfway home.

Chris: I really like that. It sounds a lot like we interviewed Brené Brown a little while ago who I’m sure you’re familiar with and it was very similar in the terms of you have to give yourself the credit you deserve just for the fact that you are an individual and that’s the place you have to start. I’ve always thought about it differently ever since a year or plus back when we talked to her.

Debra: She’s obviously smart. That is right. People come at the same truth from different ways. And so  – good!

Chris: She’s smart because we had her on Smart People Podcast.

Debra: Right, you were smart to do that. See? Where’s the cart before the horse? We don’t know.

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Chris: The other thing I want to talk about a little was leadership. I know that we’ve all- it’s funny, me specifically, I’ve been in these situations where I’m a low-level employee and I look at the boss, “oh my gosh you’re doing so many things wrong. You don’t understand me. You’re a horrible leader.” And then go on a couple years and you get to the point where you have people below you and you go, “oh man, their job is a lot harder than I thought.” I was hoping you could kind of tell us a little bit about what it means to be a good leader in your words and what you tell your clients.

Debra: Well it’s wonderful if you have a good leader but do not count on it. And do not [bemoan 0:19:37] the fact you don’t, if you don’t really. You really have to focus on what does the person do well. If he or she is in a position of leadership they did something well. I don’t know what it is, but something. At least find that out, focus on that. If there are things they do poorly, learn from that so that you don’t do that so you can feel what it’s like. Also you have to appreciate when your boss or boss’s boss doesn’t do things like you expect. That’s actually a team building experience because you have to hate somebody. It’s better if you hate the boss than each other.

Chris: You know that’s such a good point.

Jon: That is such a good point.

Debra: Really that’s not dumb to kind of be the bad guy but also the thing is I don’t care what organization; every level up is privy to more information than you are. When they don’t do what you think they should and on and on. There just might be a reason.  I’m not trying to be all ultraistic and all nicey-nice and not expect … I’m all for pushing back. If your boss is doing something that’s the organization, hurting your career, hurting him or herself, you must not be a sycophant and just take it. You must push back pleasantly with consideration and respect but you will be valued more if you don’t be a sycophant and just accept something bad that a boss is doing. I’ve actually said – I’m trying to talk about several answers to that one question but I hope that helps with what you’re asking.

Chris: Oh, no absolutely. I’m more than willing to just sit back and let you do the talking; I love learning about this.

Debra: Well I should marry you!

Chris: (laugh)

Chris: (laugh) Well please tell that to my fiancé because she’s like, “you never listen to me.” I’m going to go a little old school on you. I found this post on your blog that I love and it titled “Bolster your Self Confidence with Self-Assessment.” That’s something that I myself went though years of and John, I know the same. I think a lot of people- they tell us this as well. I didn’t really look at what I was good at when I went into my professional career. I just said, “Oh I think I want to be the CEO and make lot of money.” I never did that self-assessment. Now having gone through I have my own takes on it. I was wondering if you could tell us the best way you advise people to assess themselves honestly.

Debra: First of all there’s something like 2,500 different psychological tests that professional people will gladly charge you to do. That’s one way. That’s not the way I recommend. The way I recommend is taking pen and paper or laptop on park bench and write your story. Write where you were born, the kind of work your parents did, influences you remember from growing up in grade school and high school, things that shaped you, successes, set backs in high school and college. Why you chose that college, why you chose that major. Why you chose that first job, why you left that job, what you learned from a boss. How you met your fiancé, what you do for fun what you’ve earned along the away. Your life story.

It’s something that’s a living document that you can add to throughout your life and if you have children sometime when they’re like 18 or 21, you bound that document up and give it to them. It is a wonderful present. So many people talk to don’t even know what their parents did or do for a living. The whole point is so you can understand why you’re like you are. Because if you don’t like what you are, you know where to change and you can choose what to change. Everybody has a different momma and the reason we don’t get along with people the reason we think someone isn’t right or good or honest is because that person had a different momma teaching them different things

You have to understand everybody has a different momma who taught them what they are, why they are. The reflection of writing the story helps you remember it, tell it, use it and then decide what you want to change of it. As a thinking adult you can become what you want regardless of how you were raised. It’s very valuable to understand how you were raised as a start. That’s the kind of self-assessment I like. Including writing up successes, things that you’re proud of, things that you got recognition for. I believe in writing them up in this outline. What was the situation you faced? What did you do? Perhaps others didn’t in the situation to turn it around.

Then what resulted? Because those stories become the anecdotes that you use to sell yourself in an interview to talk about yourself when you need to present yourself, to use in stories, to use in conversation. This is a living document and you should start it now and add to it throughout your whole life. If you have your parents alive ask them to do it so you know about them.

Chris: I love the fact of looking at it as just as much as a historical family document as a self-assessment tool because I sat down with my grandmother a couple of years ago when I was finally mature enough to realize old people have a lot of good stuff to say and she’s not just crazy and the things I learned in that conversation were so amazing. That if she would have done it over her life span it would be something I would love to dive into.

Debra: That’s so smart because every generation thinks they are the first generation who has ever had this kind of problem! Well Socrates and Plato had the same kind of office politics all right. If you ask how your father handled this kind of situation or what does your mom wish he had done differently and that kin of thing, you really get a handle on yourself and it makes them feel very good that you even care. Once their dead, you’ll never know this. People go in and they delve into their genealogy.  What do you learn in your genealogy? Someone’s birth date, death date and how they got to this country. Well that’s nothing compared to the depth and breadth of their stories.

Chris: Sure. I was kind of switching gears a little bit. I was wondering as you were talking about the different CEOs and all that stuff- do you come across when you talk to them things that are just in general successful people do or have? Things that you have just noticed through years of experience. The people that do this exceed. The people that don’t do this don’t succeed.

Debra: Absolutely and what I teach I learned from observation and being around a lot of very good successful business people. I don’t come from an academic point of view. That’s valid for some people but it’s not for me. I know practical realistic doable stuff that successful people do and it starts a lot with what’s going on in side their head. It’s corroborated with how they handle themselves physically. Their demeanor, their posture, their pacing, their facial expression and their ability to interact with people and make it about others not themselves.

Chris: That’s been a common theme recently. I feel like the more smart intelligent successful people we get off the phone and we can be like “you know, its just great. They just want to give or talk to us about things.” You can feel that energy and those are the people that tend to make it. It’s a good thing it kind of maybe dispels the fact that nice guys finish last.

Debra: People think that if they’re really good, if they’re brilliant if they’re the star or the best performer et cetera that that’s going to give them recognition and reward and it is not. Yes you have to be stellar in your work but if you cause others to be stellar, you’ve multiplied; you’ve amplified your effectiveness. That’s when you get recognition and reward. You’ve caused others to be successful by how you treat them, how you deal with them. Nice guys don’t finish last. There’s plenty of jerks who make it to the top, believe me. I wonder how some SOBs are CEOs all right. But that happens. That happens and there are some really bad priests and some really bad lawyers and some really bad military officer and some rally bad CEOS. But the majority get there by being this good person so to speak.

Chris: I notice on your website you have worked with politicians I would love to know what that is like. Because no politicians are good right? (Laugh)

Debra: Politicians do not have much issue with confidence. They think they are God’s gift to- and I honestly do not like working politicians. One because of their huge ego. Two they’re the poorest in paying their bills. Three, going in you pretty much have to be behind the scenes, they don’t want anybody to know they’re using an executive coach. If the person wins you don’t ever get any credit. If they lose then you don’t get blamed so that’s the good thing. But in general politicians are going to be the lowest of my choice of who I’m working with today.

Chris: Actually that brings of a good counter question. Who’s your favorite to work with?

Debra: Entrepreneurs. Even over done for hire. What I mean, a professional done for hire is the person that becomes the CEO of some Fortune 50 company. They’re okay. But my favorite are entrepreneurs. Self made people who had a dream, a goal, a desire, or passion and went for it. I like them because they are usually the most fun.  I make it sounds like I’m too money-oriented, but the point is they do have more money so it’s more fun to be around them. They’ve got bigger boats.  See? (Laugh) but anyway, I just like the personality. I like the courage, the drive, the tenacity, the risk-taking-ness, often the good humor because they don’t take themselves too seriously. I love entrepreneurs.

Jon: Are you coaching and mentoring more and more women now as well?

Debra: It’s really interesting. In my career I started out only men because in the 70’s and the 80’s it was only men at that level. Then I went through a period and I’m sure is affirmative action where I had only, not only but a surge of African American men. That was interesting. Then probably in the early 90s I started having women. I honestly didn’t know if I could work with women because I had just worked with men so much. I just wasn’t sure. Now, it’s probably 50-50, men women of all races. It is definitely changed over time.

Chris; That’s great! Well Debra, we are reaching the end of the show and I know we kept you on a little longer than anticipated but we love these conversations and I wanted to ask you our 3 questions that we tend to end with. The first being what is the last great book that you read?

Debra: Well I can give an honest answer or I can give an answer that sounds good and makes me look like I’m smart.

Chris: No, we love the honest answer. We had a guest the other day just talk about some fiction book I’ve never heard of and I said, “that is great.’ So, anything you got.

Debra: The honest answer because I finished it yesterday was a re-reading of my new book, coming out in January called “The CEO Difference: How to Crawl, Climb and Leap your Way,” I guess it is, “ To your Next Career.” The reason I say it’s the best is – one you asked most recent and that was yesterday I’m doing the editing on it. But also I put what I’ve learned in a 30+ year career, the best of what it is of what I know that helps people and it’s all about how you differentiate yourself, how you exceed among exceeders. That’s the answer to the question. I can say “War and Peace” but I’m going to say, “No, this is different.”

Chris: No, I appreciate it! Honesty is the best policy.  What application tool or process are you using right now that is making your life better?

Debra: Probably … I had the blue screen of death a couple of weeks ago so I went –for a lot of reason –from a PC to a Mac and I’m loving my new Mac tool and my iPad Air and I hate to be advertising them but it’s the truth.

Chris: It is the truth.

Chris: I love to hear it. Jon had been trying to get me to convert for years and I did it and I’ll never go back.

Debra: Isn’t it fun?

Jon: They’re just so much better. There’s nothing you can say they just are.

Debra: John is very smart. [Crosstalk 0:33:59].

Chris: He’s the tech man. The last one, really you’ve given us a ton of advice and I’m sure there’s plenty more and we’ll look for it in the book, actually but what advice do you have for the intellectually curious?

Debra: That is wonderful to be. If you want to differentiate yourself, you do not have to have an especially high IQ. You only need to be reasonably intelligent but be insatiably curious. Intellectually curious about everything, every one. No matter who you are your background your current circumstance. One thing is for sure: you can always learn and explore and experiment in new areas. The last thing, you cannot know too much. You cannot have too much information and inside that comes from intellectual curiosity. I am a very big fan of that mindset.

Chris: We couldn’t agree more. 100+ episodes of intellectual curiosity in and there’s plenty more out there to learn. I appreciate that.  Debra, where can our listeners go to learn more about … Tell them about your blog, please. But wherever else they can kind of keep with you?

Debra: Well DebraBenton.com is my website. And people can reach me at Debra@DebraBenton.com I always respond to emails assuming I get them, sometimes technology fails us. I always respond I love to hear from people and I like to know what they’re interested in because that helps me think of what I need to be writing about. I need to work on getting my blog- which I am doing, working on updating, I haven’t written recently because I just finished this book but I’m really going to make a concerted effort to provide information and content for people like who listen to your show. My friend Chis Seegers introduced me to you all. He loves your show and he’s one of … Interesting things.

He’s like a mentor, but he was a student at the University. All mentors don’t have to be older. As long as they’re just more experienced in some area. Whenever I’m doing something I’ll often ask a young person, Chris is an example, get his opinion because he’s a mentor but just the other direction. A young one.

Chris: Sure, actually that makes a lot of sense to be honest. And I think –

Debra: Particularly as you get older because the young ones know technology and the newest things. Old ones know seasoning and stories but the young ones … You’ve got to have a mix of mentors. But anyway Debra@DebraBenton.com or just go to my website. I love to hear from people and I think you’re questions have been very good and I hope we can do this again the first quarter when my book comes out!

Chris: We absolutely will. Believe me we’ll have you on.

Debra: It’s a deal.

Chris: It is a deal. And I’ll probably shoot you an e-mail here and there because these are the types of thing I just eat it all up I love this thing. Debra think you so much for your time we really appreciate it. Best of luck with this new book and we’ll have you back on.

Debra: Good. Both of you thank you for your effort in making this happen!

Chris: Absolutely.

Chris: Thank you so much!

Chris: Have a great night.

Debra: Good night.

Chris: All right Bye.




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