In 2017 I connected with one of the founders of Propelle, Emily Levenson, and we immediately hit it off. Though she's no longer pursuing Propelle, it was a space for creative, driven, incredibly smart women to connect, both online and off, about business and entrepreneurship.
Based in Pittsburgh, Emily wanted to create something she didn't have as a female entrepreneur. She knew lonely it could be when you're just starting out and so her mission was to highlight the amazing work women entrepreneurs in the region were doing, and provide the tools and resources necessary to help women grow and evolve, both personally and professionally.
Emily is clearly a Possibilitarian®, which is why we connected so well. Before she shut down Propelle, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by her. We talked about what being a Possibilitarian® really means, how I became one, and what led me to where I am today.
The interview was originally published on Propelle's blog, but as it's no longer, I'm featuring it here so you can get to know me and my work a little better. Settle in, it's a long one.
For those that don't know you, tell us about yourself and what you do.
I'm a Possibility coach, I work one-on-one with individuals and executives, anyone really who's on the precipice of something really big. Maybe it's permission, maybe it's courage, we work together, you feel the fear, and you leap anyway!
What you get as a result of working with me is typically a richer version of yourself. You reject time-worn ruts and chart a new course, you develop an allergic reaction to limiting self-talk and start giving yourself permission to persevere, you stop wondering what the heck it is that you're meant to be doing, being, or achieving and explore what's calling you to attention right now! Your whole life gets better (seriously), relationships soften and deepen, you're able to access ease, choice, and discernment. You tap into your authentic voice and when you hear it yourself you know, it's familiar and it speaks your truth, maybe for the first time in a long time. You learn how to "do you differently" with conviction, purpose, congruence, and joy.
I love to laugh, I love making up my own words, "Ellenisms," my super-power is my sensitivity, my Achilles heel is extraversion and networking, my "on purpose" is living my Possibility to it's fullest and inviting others to do the same.
How did you land on the title of Possibilitarian? What does that really mean to you and how does that impact the way you work with others?
Before I could be anyone else's Possibilitarian®, I had to try it on for myself. I'll say that looking back over my life, possibility has always been at the heart of who I am. It's my innate outlook on life in general. The glass is always half full, even if it's leaking. I'm an optimist and an open-minded, abundance thinker who tirelessly shows up in life as a big "Yes."
The term Possibilitarian was actually conceived out of a declaration exercise we were tasked with as new coaches while at Georgetown University. We were challenged to create a brief statement or sentence that captured who we were, what we stood for, and how we wished to impact the world. It was intended to be an invitation to provoke curiosity and galvanize perspective clients in a dialogue.
At the time, I was a newbie executive dropout, and the cutting room floor was littered with corporate jargon. With each revision, however, the word possibility prevailed. It was months before I "nouned" it publicly and declared it to my coaching cohort. The reaction of peers and faculty was surreal, I felt as if I were standing in the middle of a dark deserted stage and shouting into the vastness, when suddenly a spotlight was cast upon me and voices yelled out, "of course you are," in that moment, I knew it to be true, I was a Possibilitarian.
Living it in the months prior, I came to the realization that I truly believed that everything that happens in one's life is either a gift or an opportunity for a new possibility, no exceptions. I rigorously tested this philosophy on myself, funneling past events through the filter of possibility; difficult relationships, divorce, loss, failure, and hardships. Pass, pass, pass, and pass. I even processed grieving the loss of my father to the ravages of Pancreatic cancer through this lens.
Without exception, with each inquiry, I was able to witness an abundance of gifts and opportunities. In essence, I believe it comes down to choice. We can either succumb or triumph, survive or thrive. I choose possibility!
Through my coaching, I've become a conduit of possibility for others, an invitation to see life through alternate lenses to explore what's possible in their own lives.
You've had such an interesting path into entrepreneurship. Can you talk to us about what you were doing before this and what led you to where you are today?
Context: Small town in Bucks County PA / had to "get out" -> HS mentor cultivated business focus / FBLA Public Speaking Champ -> College exit strategy -> Accounting major as lucrative career opportunity -> summer intern turned FTE after freshman year, offer I couldn't refuse (big Yes), worked full time while going to school and graduated in four years with honors.
Sixteen years prior to founding The Possibility Experience were spent in the Pharmaceutical industry. I celebrated an illustrious executive career at the world's #1 ranked Pharma company, it was a career rich in opportunities, steeped in responsibility, laden with stress and unimaginable frustrations.
The industry as a whole withstood tremendous external pressures, was bombarded by adversity, and began to suffer an identity crisis. Were we a pharmaceutical company or a healthcare company? We underwent numerous M&A's, implemented health care reform and electronic health records, braced ourselves for significant brand LOE and constantly navigated the white waters of upsizing, downsizing and rightsizing.
The pressure to perform was insane, burnout imminent. I remained patient and focused on the initiatives that had the potential to change the face of healthcare and the lives of tens of millions.
I'll never forget the day it all imploded. It was an arduous day of boardroom presentations where we were presenting and evaluating financial requests for next round funding and subsequent year corporate strat-planing. Two major first-to-industry initiatives we're cut; not reduced, not postponed, but eliminated. Millions had been spent on white papers, FTEs were hired, expert opinions retained, and finely curated partners poised ready to engage in ground-breaking next steps. It was over, the risks assumed too high, the returns not compelling enough. I had dedicated over a full year of my time and my passion on the strategies and talent dedicated to bringing these initiatives to market and was now facing the implications of having to lay-off staff before the holidays and undergo organizational restructuring.
I left the boardroom over a lunch break and ran down to my office to catch my breath and muster the energy for the afternoon session. It was late fall, a gray, cold, windy day and it was raining sideways. I dashed into the ladies room quickly on my way back upstairs and upon exiting, was struck in the face by a brief piercing sunbeam nestled in the black sky, it was one of those rare Divine moments and I remember the words "what the fuck are you still doing here" echoing in my head. It stopped me dead in my tracks and I retreated back to my office and called my coach. I hurriedly caught her up and awaited her wisdom when she remarked with sheer delight how exciting it was and asked what I might want to do next.
What did I want to do?
I had no idea there was any doing to be done.
It was the catalyst for deep inquiry. I hadn't realized how exhausted I had become and I couldn't recall a time over the past year or so when I hadn't felt that way. I also sensed that I had much to do — lives to impact in a deeply purposefully way — and I knew it wasn't going to occur without a transformation on my part.
Months later my coach asked what I thought I might want to do and I responded that if I thought I could be half as good as she was as a coach, I might like to explore the possibilities. Once again her reaction stunned me when she shared that she'd been waiting for me to say that for some time and that she thought I'd be an incredible coach and so began the process of exploration.
There was no turning back and the synchronization of events kept affirming that I was on the right track. It was both scary as hell and exhilarating, at times the vulnerability was akin to receiving head, heart and gut surgery without anesthesia. I learned how to trust myself, my character and the track record of accomplishments I'd achieved time and again to advance someone else's organization, business initiatives, and success. Intuitively, I knew at my very core, this was the very thing that I was meant to do.
You mentioned that as a child, you always thirsted for a glimmer of hope, even during the dark times. How has this helped to shape your life and business?
We all have a trove of stories that we can learn from and release when they no longer serve. They don't define us or predict our future unless we invite them along to stir it up and keep the past alive.
When I was tiny my grandfather used to call me his little hurricane. Apparently, I would enter the house with a burst of enthusiasm and loudly announce my arrival every day after school. I'm an introvert and a highly sensitive person to boot (HSP, it's a thing!) The lure of this story doesn't even land for me but the metaphor does. For as long as I can remember all hell could be breaking loose around me and I would be calm at the center - observing, feeling, and integrating.
I've been practicing mindfulness or "mind-free-ness" long before it had a title. I've always valued my ability to connect to the present moment and remain grounded, admittedly sometimes more successfully than others. What's critical is appreciating that life is fluid, unpredictable, unscripted and ever-evolving from one moment to the next. All we have is this veryinstance. The past is just that, the past. And the future is yet unknown. There is so much richness in the moment, it's too precious to waste on past emotions or future anxieties.
I've always been very decisive and believe in starting where you are, you can always course correct along the way, just start! Label it as hope, a commitment to okay-ness, the direction of possibility; it's an internal GPS of sorts and it serves every domain of my life. Do I miss a turn every now and then and end up in a bad section of town? Of course, I do. When I've zoned-out, it's usually some convoluted detour through a fear or an insecurity. It's a place of unfinished work and a theme that surfaces with many of my clients who are working on big transitions. We collaborate in the space of what's possible and account for past experiences that inform wisdom and sound judgment, leveraging instruments of predictability and intuition to navigate direction and together, develop a plan so you can get back on course.
How do you navigate fear or blocks in your own work? How do you help your clients do the same?
I definitely think we get better at this as we acquire experience and wisdom. Navigating fears, blind spots, the judgments of others — they each call for a healthy dose of self-compassion, honesty, and acknowledgment.
[Fear] Try telling someone their fears aren't real, good luck! Fears are real, period. Once named, we have greater ability to access choice points and to develop our strategies to cope with or overcome them. I love to explore evidence of proof that shows that we are stronger and more capable of working with fear or blocks than we think we are. It allows us to build an intimate trust with ourselves and makes room for greater credibility and courage. A healthy dose of fear is beneficial, it keeps us sharp, evolving, and relevant.
[Blocks] Feedback is a gift, unwrapping it with grace takes practice. They're called blocks or blind spots because we're unable to see ourselves clearly, our internal PR department a.k.a. "the ego" works nonstop on the spin; where we're either right, or we've been wronged. I love the quote, "you can either be right or happy," it's not possible to achieve both. If you're right, someone else has been made wrong, and there's nothing happy about that. We are hard wired for behavioral amnesia! No one willingly wants to admit to or be perceived as exhibiting unfavorable behaviors.
Enter 360 Feedback, it's one of my favorite tools to administer and debrief, I use The Leadership Circle 360 tool, one of the most comprehensive in the industry providing MRI like views into the individual's leader behaviors. Once able to recognize oneself in the feedback, it's harder to unlearn or dismiss. Excavating behaviors, patterns, perceptions and how they're impacting a client's relationships is an intimate reveal of one's vulnerabilities and an opportunity for purposeful shifts to occur.
You've mentioned that you're the kind of person who doesn't say no to anything. How has that helped (or hurt) you when it comes to running a business?
Saying "yes" to big purposeful stuff, good stuff, the unknown has always been my default, I've got a "why not" attitude and will check-in and scan a couple of questions.
- What's my intention? Why am I doing this and what are my expectations?
- How does this serves a greater good for myself, the business, or others?
- Is this aligned with my beliefs, values, goals, and purpose?
- What's the worst thing that could happen? Will I have any regrets later if I don't go for it now?
Being a "yes-star" throughout my corporate career resulted in numerous high-profile opportunities to effect change and create impact. As a result, I was tapped on the shoulder to lead major initiatives, take on new responsibilities, and quickly climbed the ladder.
The insights and experiences acquired were invaluable and pivotal to my trajectory as both a corporate executive and a future entrepreneur. I was versed in the corporate systems of culture, politics, people, hierarchy, and economics and adept at distilling it all down and creating complementary strategies, providing thought leadership, and serving as coach and mentor.
Learning to say "no" as an entrepreneur is a critical requirement, there is only so much time and so much of yourself to give. This was a huge learning curve and not one without a lot of frustration. I wanted to say "yes" to everything until I didn't, it was almost comical to observe "yes" turning into "oh hell no," I felt empowered and liberated. I'm the boss, I get to choose.
Turning up the dial on discernment was key. I got really deliberate about evaluating requests and assessing the return on investment. Now I ask questions such as; do I have the bandwidth, is this aligned with my brand and what I offer, is it the right population or client profile, is it lucrative, is it the right pay-it-forward opportunity, and most importantly, if not me, who can I delegate or outsource it to, or personally recommend.
Learning how to deliver a fully empowered "no" clears the way for incredible kick-ass opportunities for "yes."
Mentorship and support are two things we wholeheartedly believe in at Propelle. How has this played a role in your business and growth over the years?
It's a critical element of my business model. As a graduate of several Jesuit institutions, being in service of others is an important hallmark of the work we do in the world. I've been so fortunate to benefit first hand from the tutelage of numerous informal and formal mentors throughout my life and I believe in paying it forward.
As an ICF accredited coach in active status, approximately 10% of total coaching is dedicated to pro-bono clients who might not otherwise be able to afford coaching. In addition to private pro-bono clients, I've worked annually with the S&R Foundation in support of the Halcyon House Incubator as a cohort coach and serve as coach and mentor to several workstreams within the World Pulse organization.
Most years, I exceed upwards of 20% pro-bono and/or reduced rate coaching as an opportunity to support and shape our future change makers. Why? Because it's important, it enriches my own personal development and coaching expertise, and it just feels good. Too often, we collapse into our fears and assume a scarcity mindset around finances, opportunities, even love. I believe in the give-to-get philosophy without hanging any expectations on the outcome.
When I first founded the company I was worried about attracting and retaining clients, I wondered if I'd be successful, would I break even, be profitable, could I develop a sustainable pipeline? In truth, some years were peanuts, some were shells, each was a learning opportunity for the next. I never abandoned my commitment to mentor or support others through coaching and, years later, these clients make up an incredibly rich network for collaboration and referral.
Famous last words... What advice would you give to women who are looking to cultivate more ease in their lives and work?
I constantly catch myself saying to clients, "Take my advice, I'm not using it," which usually results in spontaneous laughter and admission of shared truth. We all need to get better about taking our own advice. We often know exactly what to do for ourselves and yet we don't.
I wrote this article on choosing ease in the everyday. It's one I constantly refer back to and is one of my favorites.