As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Davis.
Known as the “world’s smartest coach,” Cynthia Davis is an authority on transcendent leadership and cultivating potential in maverick innovators. She is the CEO of Radiant Blue and the founder of the Incremental Monumental Change community, two separate but related endeavors that foster excellence in extreme pioneering.
Before striking out on her own, Cynthia led a publicly held consulting company as its first female CEO, served as a VP of International Business Development, a VP of Global Operations, an Executive VP, and a Management Consultant at some of the world’s most prestigious corporations including Raytheon Corporation, Lockheed Martin, Bausch & Lomb, and General Electric. During her tenure at these legendary Fortune 50 companies, she learned what it takes to achieve massive success on both the individual and corporate level, and felt compelled to share that hard-won wisdom.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I love the questions and the opportunity to share some of my background. It seems that until we are grounded and can look back and reflect, it is easy to take things for granted. We are just making our way through life, then one day we wake up and realize that everything along the way was a piece of the journey to bring us to this exact moment in time. For me, I clearly see how it all influenced my beliefs, my values, my actions, and my relationships.
A few years ago, I felt compelled to write about a few of the amazing women who touched my life and, interestingly enough, while they were all beautiful inside and outside, woven into the essence of their inner beauty were grit and resilience. A Resilient Life is a compilation of stories I wrote and my reflection on the incredible, resilient women who touched my life from a very early age. It is often said we are a product of our environment, and my essays were my way of acknowledging and honoring the influence these women have had on my life, and the lives of many, many others.
I am the middle child of seven children, who were raised in Binghamton, located in upstate New York. And, as luck would have it, I had a few very impactful years with my maternal Grandmother. My Grandmother was one of many incredible women whose resilient life and accomplishments truly touched many lives — mine included, most memorably. So, by way of introduction to me and my life, I’ll start on the corner of Mendelssohn and Beethoven and begin by telling you about my life with my Grandmother.
This was my street, my corner, and my world. As I grew older, my world expanded a bit, but for the most part, my life was within a five-block radius. And, until I was nearly sixteen years old, it was all I really needed to know. In that five-block radius, everyone knew everyone; there were no secrets; most grown-ups spoke Italian, and I soon learned my Grandmother was the matriarch of the neighborhood. She was all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-hearing.
She and my grandfather were immigrants from Italy who were then the parents of five children.
Later there would be nine, of whom my mother was the youngest.
They put down roots in Binghamton. My Grandmother began to build a life for her growing family, and ultimately for generations to come.
On my corner, she opened a local delicatessen store — selling all the staples any neighborhood family would possibly need. Within a few years, she purchased several apartment buildings that provided clean, affordable housing. She opened a laundry and drycleaners that offered the first-ever three-hour service. She started a shoe repair shop. She even funded my beauty shop on the adjacent corner — the corner of Goethe and Beethoven.
But it was in that corner deli store where all lessons in business and life took place for me. With the comings and goings of aunts, uncles, cousins, and the locals, it was the nucleus of my life and the place where I soon learned how life’s problems could be solved. When Alice’s husband, Red, came home drunk and threw him out (a weekly event on payday), she came to see my Grandmother at the store. When Natalie’s youngest daughter, Sophie, got pregnant out of wedlock, she looked for advice and counsel from my Grandmother at the store (we didn’t see Sophie around for a while!). When Bonnie needed milk and had no money, she knew the corner deli was the only place she would get credit. Although my Grandmother always told my Grandfather the money was paid back, more times than not, I saw my grandmother take the money out of her own change purse and add it to the cash register.
And, when my life seemingly unraveled, her lavender powder-scented bosom, and a lemon drop, provided all the comfort I needed to put everything back in its proper order.
I watched my Grandmother build her businesses and her network. She created extraordinary customer loyalty and accumulated a very successful and diverse business portfolio. She was a rock — a woman of vision, resilience, high energy, compassion, and an accomplished practitioner of the art of lagniappe! She always found an opportunity to drop a little something extra in the grocery bag, a pound of salami was always a pound and “then-some” and a dozen was always a baker’s dozen.
The store was the local gathering place. There was no problem that could not be solved there — so, I always knew that life was just the way it was supposed to be!
It was on that corner that I learned to play cowboys and Indians, learned to ride a bike, won the hop-scotch tournament year after year, collected coke bottles for the two-cent refund, and sat on the front steps waiting for the dry cleaners to close. (After the machines shut down, we would sneak in the back and paw through the pockets of the clothes owned by the folks from the Avenue, looking for hidden “treasures.”)
After my beloved grandmother passed away, my Uncle took over the store, and, as you might expect, things were never quite the same.
True, I was older then, but it all seemed quite different — my Uncle had a different approach to “business development”. He never saw the value of putting a little something extra in the customer’s grocery bag. As time would show, “the neighborhood,” — — “the network” saw it that way too.
My grandmother was the first of several incredible, resilient women who showed up in my life. I will never know for certain if she meant to teach me, or if I was just lucky to have shared several years with her, observing her, and observing how others responded to her. Now, looking back (as I often do), I realize how much I have relied on her wisdom and lessons.
- Practice of the art of “Lagniappe”. Always give that “little bit extra to our family, friends, and especially our customers”. It will pay dividends through customer loyalty and brand awareness.
- Show up early, never be late … if you were, you would most likely miss dinner.
- To have a friend, be a friend … relationships matter.
Like my Grandmother, there was Miss White, my sixth-grade teacher, who taught me, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
Mrs. Holmes, my high school track coach, taught me to, “Run strong through the finish line, not just to the finish line.”
Miss Rachael, my Hebrew teacher, taught me, “He who angers you, conquers you.”
And, Sergeant Madison, my drill sergeant, taught me, “Don’t wait to be asked a second time.” Her motivation may have been slightly different, but I always took the principle to mean, “If you are passionate about something, get involved!”
Although by now, all of these women have passed, we are all left a little bit better off for being in their presence.
We look back at our 2020 and seek ways to turn challenges into opportunities. I am often reminded that for these remarkable women, it was a way of being! They knew no other way — and they lived no other way!
As I left “my corner,” at age 16, to go to college to study music, study in Israel, live on a kibbutz, join the army, start a family, and launch a career, I was blessed and inspired to live in the light cast by these resilient women — Champions in their own right! My essays were my way of celebrating and sharing their brilliance and it is a privilege to share them now, with you.
Now a little bit about my family.
I have two great kids; my daughter Rachel, whose favorite vacation spot is Disney World (a far cry from my street corner) and her favorite song is “It’s a Small World After All”. Her inner strength and independence often give me a glimpse of my Grandmother. Rachel spent 6 years in the Army (Military Intelligence) and has recently transitioned to the Defense Contractor workforce and now lives in Washington DC with her husband, Mike and has blessed me with two wonderfully independent children (surely a case for heredity), Sam and Avery.
My son, Joshua, has a personality all his own. He started playing soccer at 6 and plays Division 1 soccer in college. He loves traveling and exploring the world with his friends and teammates and became particularly fond of my first-class upgrades. He has an entrepreneurial drive, starting his first business at 18. Today he and his wife Camille, live in Atlanta and they are living their own entrepreneurial journey.
I would like to think that the very same grit and resilience I so admired as I was growing up and throughout my career was passed down to my kids and my grandkids!
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My early inspirations were things I was determined to overcome or avoid. Growing up with seven children in a small apartment, with very little to go around left me daydreaming and imagining what it would be like to buy something new versus hand-me-downs or to go places I heard about from other people’s stories. I never wanted to have to feel like I could not do something because we could not afford it — boy, did I hear that a lot. My inspiration, motivation, and strategies in life turned out to be, “I will do whatever it takes to not have that be my life”. And for a while it worked. I worked hard, I overcame and soon I found I was living with an unsatiated wanting and found myself in the proverbial “rat-race”. And then, there was a wake-up call, I lost it all. And now, I can honestly say, “what a gift”. My inspiration and motivation shifted from being motivated by overcoming, proving something, to being motivated by waking up every day inspired about what I could be, do, have and create what would bring me joy in life and value to others.
This is such a great question and I encourage everyone to examine it for themselves. Is your inspiration bringing stress and struggle or joy and flow? I have built businesses from both perspectives, and I can tell you the latter is so much more fun and sustainable.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
At the beginning of my career and probably one of the happiest days of my life was when I received my first real job offer. Yes, I had worked many part-time jobs to keep things going as I was working my way through school and taking care of my daughter, however, this was my first big job and the start of my career with General Electric. Surely, “I had arrived”, and all that inspiration and motivation and hard work had paid off, as my starting salary was more than my dad ever made, even at the end of his working life. On the first day of orientation, they took the handful of us new hires into a room to introduce us to the world of General Electric. Imagine my surprise and shock as I watched the video of fighter jets flying through the sky and weapons being dropped from the planes — I thought General Electric made light bulbs! What had I got myself into? It certainly wasn’t anything I thought I had signed up for and I had no idea I was about to start my career writing software for military flight and engine control systems. There was no backing out now and I figured I would make the best of it…which indeed turned out to be the best experience ever.
From then on, I certainly learned to “do my homework”. Never again did I walk into a situation without doing some prework and preparing myself. I learned to make career and business, and now life, decisions with awareness and being conscious of “is this what is in alignment for me”. I heard a quote once, “the best way to predict your future is to create it” and, while everything turned out fine, I would rather be creating my future, than leaving things to chance.
You can predict your future by knowing who you are and what is your purpose in life. Be inspired by that and then do your very best to make it happen.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
While so many people come to mind, and it is true, success is not an individualized journey or accomplishment, I am always particularly grateful for those who saw my potential and “bet on that”. For example, early in my career, I had a manager, his name was Paul, we all called him Stiggy, who was the absolute stereotype “old-school” (and I am dating myself!) manufacturing manager. During that time, it would be going against the norm to assign a woman to be a manager of manufacturing responsible for profit and loss, machine shop operations, and interfacing with customers and upper management. I really wanted the job, I wanted to learn the business. When they had exhausted all other candidates (male candidates) and could not find anyone else for the position, Stiggy threw up his hands and said, “why not, let’s give her a shot at it”. It was the position that got me out from behind the computer and cubical and I was learning how to run a business — with the best mentor ever! Stiggy was there to make sure I did not fail, but more importantly, to ensure I was an amazing success! He had always known I could do it and supported me the entire way.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I would say, for me, the hardest times I faced, was learning to “let go” of the belief that if I wasn’t fighting for success it wouldn’t happen. What do I mean by that? It was easy for me to believe that I could do it all, overcome it all, make things happen, one way or another. The hard times of running my life and my business like that came with a cost. What had to suffer because my idea of being “success-driven” was so far out of balance? My health, time with my family, my relationships…And, more than once, I started out, achieved a number of “wins”, only to lose it all again. Each time, I struggled to get back on top.
It wasn’t until I had the courage to let go of that belief structure, and again, realigning my inspiration and motivation around what I truly wanted to create versus what I was trying desperately to avoid, shifted everything. I learned a better way to build and experience freedom in my life and joy in my business. It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges to face, it simply means we have a better way of addressing them.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Certainly, having an amazing role model in my life like my grandmother, seemed to nurture and instill an attitude of perseverance and never giving up, and the beautiful reminder, “this too shall pass”. Each time I felt a loss, was fired from a job, laid off, or failed to get my business off the ground, I would give myself time to “readjust” and then put it in perspective by saying to myself, “what will this look like a year from now, 3 years from now, 5 years, 10 years…will it even matter in the context of life. What is there here for me to learn? Now, what can I create from here — where I am now?”
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Without that grit and resilience, without the ability to stay the course in spite of my fears, and setbacks, and times of discouragement, I can’t imagine where I would be. I have seen people who have given up hope and it truly breaks my heart. I just want to say “no, what you are looking for is right around the next corner, you just can’t see it now, but it is there!”.
Today, business is truly a joy — we have a great team with wonderful clients and most importantly we are bringing extreme value. We are clear on our mission and our “sweet spot” in the market. It is not that we don’t experience setbacks or challenges, I simply know how to see what’s on the other side of them and maneuver through them. And for certain, through Incremental Monumental Change, we have all learned how to create our future with more predictable outcomes, because we are creating it one step at a time in the right direction of our goals.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are very clear on why us, who we are, and what is important to us — our values. When you know this, you serve from a place of calm and coherence — what we say, is what we do — it is who we are. And, for all of us, that must be non-negotiable. We know what makes us the “Obvious Choice” for our clients, so there is no need to be concerned about competition. We operate knowing that 1 degree of difference, step by step in the right direction makes all the difference in the world. We call this Incremental Monumental Change (IMC). The philosophy of IMC is directly tied to certain strategies and methodologies that enable leaders to gain clarity, act bravely, and spearhead authentic transformations in their business and their life. We partner with our clients so they can discover the incremental shifts, the one degree of difference they can make in their business or their life that leads to monumental impact and results. It leads to them becoming the obvious choice for their customers and clients as well.
The best stories are the ones where our clients tell us how grateful they are we helped them see something in their business they had no idea how to cultivate. Or even more meaningful is when we hear how the principles we hold true for ourselves and our business, helped to save someone else’s business.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
While I have led businesses in some of the most prestigious corporations around the world, I am an entrepreneur at heart and always have been. I suppose that is why for decades, I often felt like a “fish out of water”.
When I finally chose to listen to my heart and follow my calling, I was all in. I was starting from scratch. I had no idea how much my life was about to change — everything from having others tell me I was crazy and many days I would start to believe them, to not knowing who I was or, who I thought I was, to be so bold as to start my own business when I was at the pinnacle of my career. Where was all the grit and resilience now? Not to mention all the retirement benefits, pension, stock options, titles, etc I was “walking away from”. I can tell you there were those moments of wondering if I was as crazing as others were saying I was. Those telling me I was giving up all that “security”.
I remember sitting at my desk one afternoon with the realization that if anything was going to be done at this point, it was all on me. Everything, from changing the toilet paper in the bathroom to figuring out what I had to offer a client, to learning how to find “my” clients.
At that moment, I realized I was looking at things from the wrong perspective. It was the perspective of limitation versus one of possibility. I learned to shift perspective.
What do I mean by that? One of the things we all learn to do is to set goals, set a vision, something to work towards and strive to achieve.
Looking out into the future to “see” and envision the goal can leave one trying to figure out how it can be accomplished and all the things that must be done to accomplish the goal. And, even then, you cannot see what is over the horizon. That in itself can cause a great deal of stress.
When we learn to shift perspective, again, a 1 degree of difference in thinking, and rather than a horizontal view, we take a “bird’s eye view” a vertical view — everything changes. It is as if we are observing the entire landscape from a satellite view. It will be as if the entire path begins to “light up” on how best to achieve the vision.
You will find, just by shifting perspectives, solutions and opportunities begin to reveal themselves and you will gain clarity and wisdom in how to navigate the path to achieve your vision — step by step in the right direction.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I would like to think so — I would like to think that by sharing, mentoring, and teaching what I have learned and experienced that somehow the ripple effect perpetuates the message and it can reverberate throughout the Universe with others who share my passion to raise awareness and bring hope and healing and meaningful solutions to humanity without any hidden agenda.
This is why I have such a passion for business leaders, entrepreneurs, and other leaders with audacious goals. Why? Because it requires the hearts and minds of people to achieve monumental impact and these are the leaders who can influence and touch hundreds of thousands of lives and bring meaning, hope and healing, and even prosperity to so many. Entrepreneurs are the ones who, in my opinion, through their bold action and collective vision have the opportunity to truly create a monumental impact for humanity in all areas and for all walks of life. It could be one simple thing that brings value to many or one big thing that brings value to a few, either way, entrepreneurs and business leaders touch lives.
The idea that we still have so much suffering in the world like hunger and lack of clean water is absurd. We have the genius to travel through space! There is not any problem that humanity faces that cannot be solved. However, it will never be solved by big business, government, or through politics.
I believe, once we a reach critical mass of Transcendent Leaders operating with the philosophy of Incremental Monument Change on the planet there will be a shift of monumental proportion for the greater good of all; And only then can the planet and humanity truly live in peace and prosperity. My personal mission is to help those who are looking to take that step, transcend the status quo and experience their dream for themselves and others, beyond where they are today.
Once this door is open, there is no going back, it cannot be unlearned, or unexperienced.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Early in my career I often felt the weight of responsibility and feared making a mistake — so many lives would be impacted — including my own. I would sit at my desk and pray — literally day after day I prayed for the wisdom of Solomon! And then one day, it was as if something broke loose and a voice said, “Why do you keep asking for something you already have?”
What? I looked around and no one was there. I am certain the voice was all in my head, however, I took it at face value and decided that if that was true, I needed to know more — I need to know how to access it — my inner wisdom, my intuition, my gut — whatever you want to call it, I decided I needed to learn how to recognize it and, more importantly, trust it!
I began to read about amazing people, interview amazing people, on a quest to find out how they achieved such monumental achievements in their life and made such a monumental impact on humanity.
And in my own simple way, I documented what I heard over and over and learned to be true. While each had their own way of articulating it or expressing it, there was a pattern. There were at least 6 things they all spoke about and or incorporated in their life either consciously or unconsciously. And so I wrote my first book In Search of Wisdom. It was the six things I wish someone had told me before I started running companies! Learning these principles and integrating them into my life made me a better person, and certainly a better leader.
Very simply, the six principles are:
- Accountability — Take ownership, no blame, even if I don’t understand it. Unless I own it, I can’t change it!
- Attitude — The attitude of gratitude and forgiveness is the key to massive action, peace of mind, and freedom.
- Aptitude — Honoring the individualism in myself and others, honoring and expressing my unique gifts to their fullest.
- Action — The will and courage to take guided action for the highest good; Taking action with no other agenda other than what is the highest and best for all concerned.
- Advisors — listen to wise counsel and act with wisdom. “walk with the wise and become wise”.
- Allowing and letting go. Do your part, do your work and then rest on the sabbath! Know when to move and know when to be still — harmony.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
When I changed — everything changed! As I continue to change, everything around me changes…I became very clear about who I wanted to work with and how I knew I could support them. As a result, we have the freedom to choose who we work with and we work with terrific people on creative and challenging projects. We enjoy the work and the play. We celebrate the wins — and because we win a lot, we celebrate a lot more.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I couldn’t agree more. It is the experiences, the awareness, and the integration of the new awareness and learning that creates the shift. “It is not what you know, it is what you do with what you know!” and, I will add to that: who are you being when you do it. It is only when we have integrated the new learning that we are actually changed by the experience and are able to transcend from the knowledge of something to the wisdom of how and when to use it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
INCREMENTAL MONUMENTAL CHANGE — or IMC — is the core philosophy of Transcendent Leadership. It states that when elite leaders commit to making small-but-cumulative changes, they awaken prodigious and deeply meaningful growth. This growth can be personal at first but inevitably inspires these brilliant individuals to lead others in their lives, communities, and professional circles toward equally dynamic changes.
The philosophy of IMC is directly tied to certain strategies and methodologies that enable leaders to gain clarity, act bravely, and spearhead authentic transformations. These leaders have already reached the apex of wealth, power, and influence … yet yearn for something even more rewarding. Once they adopt the IMC paradigm, they can shift from an outer journey to an inner journey where evolution beyond accomplishments takes hold as a driving force. Suddenly able to use their lifelong accumulation of knowledge, money, fame, influence, and wisdom to make an impact on our planet, they finally feel fulfilled.
To catalyze global change, we need more leaders to commit to this transformation. We need more leaders to learn to make INCREMENTAL changes NOW which will ultimately lead to MONUMENTAL shifts in their own lives and the lives of others.
Transcendent Leadership is for the select few who are determined to live their lives ardently, on-mission, and without regret. These elite thinkers are in constant, mindful motion. They are wisdom in action. They are moving from dreaming their lives could be different, to realizing that they themselves are the difference.
IMC is a commitment to honing your genius and expanding your capabilities and that of your business. It is a philosophy that goes beyond knowing and doing to being. It is a philosophy that supports transcending the status quo to learn, act and thrive in your personal and professional life. For those leaders who are looking for innovation, expansion, and quantum results in the business and life with balance in life, risk, and business, then IMC is the journey. IMC is both an inner and outer journey of innovation, imagination, creativity, and audacious success in a realm of extreme pioneering and possibilities.
IMC is a philosophy that spans business strategy, leadership that shapes an innovative culture, and connection with brave and brilliant leaders willing to transcend the status quo and mediocrity forever.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Perfect, you can find me at Cynthia Davis on LinkedIn. The Incremental Monumental Change website will be coming soon too. Thank you for the opportunity to share!