ASAE Annual Meeting

Turning Obstacles into Advantages

By Association Adviser staff • August 18, 2021

Life is a journey with ups and down, so we all need to be able to adapt. Sometimes we may feel overwhelmed and knocked down, but it is possible to get back up and dust ourselves off if we give ourselves the tools to adapt, said ASAE 2021 Annual Meeting Closing Keynote Michele L. Sullivan.

Sullivan is a Fortune 100 business executive with Caterpillar, strategic business advisor, motivational speaker, and author of the book Looking Up: How a Different Perspective Turns Obstacles into Advantages. She was born with a rare type of dwarfism and, despite being looked down upon by others, grew up learning to look up. That unique perspective has taught her to lead with an elevated view of others, a philosophy that landed her at the helm of one of the world’s most prominent philanthropy organizations. 

Whether it’s tragedy, trauma, a global pandemic or even getting a new boss, change is inevitable. It’s even more challenging when we don’t expect it. However, in all situations there is one thing we can control: our reaction.

When in a vulnerable place or position, it’s important to allow for time – time to step back, adjust and add perspective.

Sullivan shared these four tools to become more resilient and turn our obstacles into opportunities:

    1. Live an interdependent life, not an independent one. Many of us were raised to be independent and strong, but ask yourself: Have you really ever accomplished anything completely on your own? Most likely not. We always have support – personally and professionally – and we all need each other. We can’t do it by ourselves.
    2. Invite people to your kitchen table. Who do you turn to when something happens – bad or good? Who do you call? Who calls you? Those people are at your kitchen table. As a leader, it may be professionals who you collaborate with or ask advice in the midst of a challenging project. At home, it may be family and friends who you lean on during an illness. We all rely on people, and they rely on us, so it’s also important to practice active listening at your kitchen table. Finally, remember that sometimes you have more than one kitchen table, or the people sitting at your kitchen table at certain stages of life change – and that’s OK.
    3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even the best laid plans can go awry, but that’s when we need people the most. However, it can be difficult to ask for help and admit that we can’t do it alone. Unless someone knows us really well and sees us struggling, it’s often on us to make the initial ask. Reflect on where you’ve been and where you want to go. Who can you turn to who can help you meet that goal?
    4. Perspective is key. Always look up – metaphorically and, as Sullivan remarked, sometimes physically. Recognize that everyone has value. Perspective is just a new line of sight. Your success or failure is all about perspective. When you face a situation, do you consider it an opportunity or a challenge? COVID was and continues to be difficult for many people. At the height of the pandemic, some people weren’t able to leave their homes or be with loved ones, but it also brought families back together into the same home for an extended period of time. Find the good or the lesson to be learned in any situation by changing your perspective.

Sullivan closed her keynote session with an African proverb, “However long the night, the dawn will break.” Nothing can dim the light in us if we don’t allow it, she said.