Portland, Maine — I was fresh out of receiving my MBA from the School of Business at Andrews University. After spending a year or so writing Certificates of Need and new business plans at Kettering Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, their CEO, Bob Willett, called me into his office one day.
"Ted, I've had my eye on you. You're going to be a hospital CEO one day and I'm going to mentor you and help you gain the experiences in areas you need to develop. I'm going to send you as our loaned executive to this year’s United Way campaign. For the next couple months, you will work at United Way full time and help them in their fundraising effort."
"Bob, I appreciate your kind words, but I cannot ask people for money. I would be a duck out of water. I enjoy writing, but leadership is not my thing, and I cannot meet with people I don't know asking for contributions.”
I was becoming terrified. Bob didn't understand how much of an introvert I was (actually, he really did!). The only class I ever got a D in was Speech. I can't do this!
Ted, it's settled; you report to the United Way office next Monday."
What a dreadful weekend I had thinking of the terror that was awaiting me.
On Monday I showed up at United Way. I was introduced to Brenda Scott, who was loaned to the campaign by LM Berry, the largest yellow page sales organization in the U.S. Brenda was a sales trainer at LM Berry and her job at the United Way Campaign was to train and oversee the Telemarketing division of the campaign.
Brenda exuded confidence through her smile. "Ted, I'm so excited that we will be working together,” she said. “We're going to do great things and I know you're going to be so successful.”
I told Brenda it would be impossible for me. “I cannot be successful at asking people for money."
"Ted, nothing is impossible,” she said. “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
The first week of activity was overall training for the campaign. United Way is a wonderful non-profit that uses local community feedback to tailor resources given by local people into fitting with the greatest needs of the community. We were given a three-minute video to use when we had the opportunity to present to groups of employees (something I hoped I would never need).
Brenda helped prepare my speech I would use on the phone to get an appointment for an in-person presentation or get a pledge over the phone.
That first call was so painful. I could hardly get my words out, even though I was reading them. The next few calls were no easier. At the end of the first day, I got neither appointments nor pledges.
Each successive day was the same. "How's it going?" Nothing! "Don't worry Ted, there will always be no's in life. What matters is the next one. You can do anything you set your mind to. Nothing is impossible."
I can't do this.
As the second week of consistent outcomes progressed, the dialog between Brenda and me became a broken record: “I can't do this.”
“Anything is possible that you set your mind to. Just believe in yourself.”
After a couple more days of this, I got one gentleman picking up my call who owned a Dayton area tool and die company with 40 employees. He shocked me when he said, "Yes. Come tomorrow at 12 noon and you can speak to my employees during their lunch break.”
Now I have a whole new set of uncomfortable circumstances to deal with in person.
As I opened their office door at noon, my projector in hand, I looked forward to meeting the gentleman, who was the first to invite me to make my presentation.
The company secretary greeted me before I could open my mouth. "You must be Mr. Lewis.”
As she led me to the work building, I learned that her boss had been called to a meeting and wouldn't be there.
Strike One, as I had been taught in training that the visible support of management significantly impacts an employee’s contribution decision. As she was opening the door to the work area, she slipped in Strike Two: "I have a lunch date so you're on your own."
We approached the employees — 15 or 20 of them—who are either smoking, eating, or playing cards. Then, the secretary delivered Strike Three: "Listen up, everyone, this is Mr. Lewis from United Way, and don’t punch in until he’s done.” She then proceeded toward the exit.
As I fumbled around setting up my little projector, I could feel the disconnection between the workers and this out-of-place diffident young man in a three-piece suit.
I started the three-minute video, the easiest part of the presentation. After that, I had no choice but to speak.
I pulled my 3×5 cards out and began. “My name is Ted Lewis and I believe in United Way because...”
“That’s b***s***!” a guy in the front row interrupted me.
Terrific. Now what should I do? I couldn't think of anything other than to just keep reading. "The Dayton Area United Way..."
The same guy cut me off again: “Why don't you get the f*** out of here!"
OK Ted, it's time to leave. They don't want you here and even if you could make a compelling presentation (which you can't), there is nothing to be had here.
As I continued my spiel from my cue cards, I began to plan how to cap my presentation and head for the exit. But Brenda's words hounded me. “Nothing is impossible. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
One side of my brain was saying: “Cut your losses and get out of here.” The other side was encouraging: “You can do this. You just have to believe.”
Completing this debate with myself, Brenda's voice prevailed. I'm not running.
I finished reading my speech and passed out the pledge cards.
I collected the cards and hurried to get out of there. When I was in the safety of my car, I counted up the pledges. I could hardly believe my eyes. Over $200!
I hurried back to the telemarketing office at United Way and announced the news to Brenda. “Look what happened. There was nothing there, but I finally believed what you've been saying, and look what happened.”
It felt like I'd gotten a million dollars. There was nothing there, yet I got $200 in an impossible situation.
All of a sudden, I began getting pledges over the phone and invites to do in-person presentations. I was invited to help a company that produced radar detectors have their first United Way campaign. I helped them do presentations on all three shifts and their campaign generated thousands of dollars.
At the end of the campaign I had set a record for the highest amount ever raised by a Dayton telemarketing loaned executive. Brenda’s telemarketing division set a record for the most that had been raised by the telemarketing division.
Years later, I've had the opportunity to successfully meet the challenges of the C-Suite in several states and even defeated a high-level attempt in Guam to destroy my reputation. I owe it all to Brenda who taught me: “Impossible is nothing.”
Theodore Lewis is former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.