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It Really Is a Wonderful Life …

At this time of year in the Cecconi family, one of our favorite ways to celebrate Christmas and the end of another year is to watch Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Along with A Christmas Carol, Holiday Inn and White Christmas, these movies exemplify the best of the holiday season no matter how many years pass from their original premiers.

My father, Peter, is from Indiana, Pennsylvania, the same town where Jimmy Stewart was born and raised. Jimmy’s father owned a hardware store that also offered art supplies, thus making my father a customer from an early age. When Jimmy won his first Academy Award in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story, he called to tell his dad who said, “Great, send it home and I’ll put it in the window of the store.” And there it stood along with Jimmy’s fighter pilot jacket from WWII for little boys to gaze at and make future plans.

Okay, back to It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie for which Jimmy was nominated but did not receive the award for Best Actor (BTW, no one in Indiana, PA, cared). I’ve heard people say that this movie is really about relinquishing your dreams, something modern Americans don’t find honorable at all. But I would argue that contained in this film is a set of values whose absence in contemporary society is sadly notable.

There are some great points to be made about the value of the character exhibited by George Bailey (and Jimmy Stewart, for that matter) that are worth remembering and striving for in order to one day sit on the couch with a good portion of your children and grandchildren and with tears in your eyes say, “Yes, it is a wonderful life.” Dad got there this Christmas (and it really touched me) as I watched him assess his life as father of 7 and grandfather of 14 (#15 to arrive shortly). He knows that he is more than blessed.

Every one of us is part of something bigger.
George Bailey is part of Bedford Falls. Indeed, as Clarence shows him, George Bailey is Bedford Falls: Pottersville would have been a potter’s field of the living without him. From local businessman to community organizer, from confidante to husband and father, George Bailey is actively part of his community. In a dark moment, feeling like a failure he is given a great gift—to see how many lives he saved and people he touched in doing the right thing. The book The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom expresses that same sentiment in a creative way. We are all part of something bigger, and our next right action could have a profound impact on the life of someone you may never know. Do the right thing anyway.
It’s okay to be a proud American.
George Bailey is proud to be a small-town American. He’s proud his little brother saved a whole troop carrier from a kamikaze attack. While he might not have gone overseas to fight World War II, he “fought the Battle of Bedford Falls,” doing all the thankless but necessary work needed on the home front, be it paper and rubber collection or blackout warden. He epitomizes the American voluntary spirit. I’m blessed to live in Nashville, a community where giving is part of the fiber of most residents. Whether it’s a refugee cause, the homeless, a flood, or supporting our troops, people genuinely seem to understand that we live in an amazing place that is worth protecting. Jimmy was a decorated war hero. Imagine a big-name Hollywood celebrity doing that today?
Sacrifice is not a bad thing.
After years of “focusing on me,” does American society look better for prompting the theme “never relinquish your dreams”? George Bailey relinquished a lot of dreams, but never his character or his core principles. Maybe he didn’t build that skyscraper or lasso the moon. Sure he was tempted to take that job with Mr. Potter. Do you realize what $20,000 a year meant at that time? What George built had a lot more value, even if it didn’t bring him a quick buck. And as an Italian, I thank him on behalf of all the Mr. Martinis. We recently repeated the same words that George and Mary uttered on the doorsteps of the Martinis’ new home to friends after a stressful renovation, “Bread … that this house may never know hunger. And wine … that joy and prosperity may reign forever.” George led his family to give to others and to celebrate the success of others.
Marriage and parenthood matter more than most things.
George Bailey may not have fulfilled his dream to “go places and do things,” but marrying Mary was his destiny. We’ve all been there, when children are whining, bills are piling up, and the stress of the holidays can push us over the edge. At the end of the day, or the 9-hour drive to see family—family matters. As we grow older, it matters even more as parents need our help and children less so. Creating time to call, to visit and to say, “I love you,” matters so much more than material things. These are eternal things, as children follow in the footsteps of their parents’ and grandparents’ example into a future that we may not see.
Life is sacred.
The whole film opens not on earth but in heaven, just as a man is considering “throwing away God’s greatest gift”—his life. Sadly, the holidays are for many a time of utter despair—a time when reflection can quickly turn to self-comparison and hopelessness. Yes, many families are nothing like George Bailey’s. With modern problems such as divorce, addiction, economic downturns, and the threat of terrorism on our doorstep, it’s easy to want to take the easy way out of life’s problems. The easy thing, the thing that helps us to just forget, is rarely the best thing for our families or ourselves. Yes, we have to take time to relax, take care of ourselves, but it’s in serving and loving others that we feel most alive.

I think this film remains popular because its character reminds us of the best of our character. A reminder we need very much in 2015.


Survival & Forgiveness, Life Lessons from Louis Zamperini

Louis Zamperini having reached his 97th year went to heaven on July 2, 2014, after living what can only be described as a miraculous, amazing, extraordinary life. For those who have not read the book about his life Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand, I highly recommend this well-written story that I’m pleased to say is being made into an epic movie as I type.

Actress and movie director Angelina Jolie has taken on the auspicious task of producing what must be a Herculean effort to encapsulate perhaps the most amazing story of survival I’ve ever heard. My father made sure that all seven of his children were well aware of the success of any Italian American. Louis falls firmly into that class of special people for many reasons, well beyond the 9 lives that he’d seemingly been given.

His life provides many valuable lessons applicable to career and relationships. Here are a few of those life lessons:

Louis was self-made and humble. Like many immigrant families, his family struggled to make a life in America. So anything he accomplished he accomplished without the benefit and support of wealth. But he never gave up! After realizing he had a gift for speed (by outrunning the police), he turned it into a passion for sprinting that took him to the Berlin Olympics.

“Someone who doesn’t make the [Olympic] team might weep and collapse. In my day no one fell on the track and cried like a baby. We lost gracefully. And when someone won, he didn’t act like he’d just become king of the world, either. Athletes in my day were simply humble in our victory.”

Louis was goal oriented. From street kid to Olympic athlete, Louis had the world by the tail until his B-24 bomber crashed into the warm Pacific during WWII. Zamperini floated on a raft in shark-infested waters for more than a month before being picked up by the Japanese and spending the next two years in a series of brutal prison camps.

Beaten and starved, he was saved from execution due to his status as an athlete—the same status that earned him unbearable torture.

“All I want to tell young people is that you’re not going to be anything in life unless you learn to commit to a goal. You have to reach deep within yourself to see if you are willing to make the sacrifices.”

Louis wasn’t perfect. What I loved most about his biography was the truth it shared. Louis struggled with alcohol haunted by the burden of what he’d endured during the war. His addiction and misery nearly ended his marriage and his life until he heard Billy Graham, came to faith, and radically changed his life. His story of redemption and finding a higher purpose is inspiring and relatable.

“I’d made it this far and refused to give up because all my life I had always finished the race.”

Louis believed in forgiveness. As an inspirational speaker, Louis spoke about forgiveness. It became his theme. He made a point of meeting with and forgiving the Japanese soldiers who tortured him, hugging their necks and explaining the Christian Gospel of forgiveness to them. For his 81st birthday in January 1998, Louis ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, not far from the POW camp where he had been held.

“I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive. Hate is self-destructive. If you hate somebody, you’re not hurting the person you hate, you’re hurting yourself. It’s a healing, actually, it’s a real healing … forgiveness.”

Rest in peace, Louis Zamperini. You certainly deserve it.


Prohibition & Entrepreneurialism

Ersilia Conjoli CecconiThis is Ersilia Conjoli Cecconi. In this picture (circa 1900) she was 22. I believe it to be her wedding photo. Ersilia is my great grandmother, and my hero. In fact, I made Ersilia my confirmation name (for all you Catholics you can appreciate the grief I took for not picking a Saints name—the Nuns were not happy). I did it anyway–because I wanted to honor the strength of this woman.  I didn’t realize how prophetic that would be and how much I’d need to find that kind of strength myself in the not too distant future.

Up until two days ago I’d never seen a picture of my great-grandmother. I’d been to Italy, and stood in the church where she married Onorato Cecconi, in a small town just north of Florence, but, I assumed that any pictures were lost to time and the poverty of immigrants who rarely could afford such luxuries. After watching a documentary about Prohibition, I shared with my husband Ersilia’s story beginning with the loss of her husband in a mining accident in 1926, in a rough little town outside Pittsburgh called Whiskey Run. With six children, no income and unable to speak English, her situation was dire. But like many women in my family, she figured it out, she got it done and she kept her family together. Continue reading


Vision Without Execution is Hallucination

Factors to Close the Execution Gap

Thomas Edison’s quote, uttered more than 100 years ago, rings true across organizations of all sizes in the year 2013. In fact, in a wobbly economy where entrepreneurial activity is on the rise, execution is even more critical for success and survival.

There was a time when strategic planning was a leader’s primary focus and concern. That is no longer the case, strategic planning is important, but as a sole focus of leadership it’s a luxury.  In the start-up realm the analogy would be a founder fixated on creating the perfect business plan but finding themselves crippled when it comes to turning that plan into action. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different skils sets that leadership must possess in order to take an idea from concept to reality.

In the current business climate, a well-implemented mediocre idea is far better than a great idea that can’t get off the ground. A great idea is a starting point—execution is what differentiates a winner from a loser creating barriers to entry and long-term viability.

So, what can start-up or even growth stage companies do to support execution? Here are five thoughts based on what I’ve personally observed in more than 15 start-ups during my career.
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Project YOU

A new client joined the ranks of PNG this month and as I typically do—when I see something really interesting that I know they’ll relate to—I send them a link. A post caught my eye this morning; a presentation on SlideShare by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha called Start-up of You. Any PPT that kicks-off with the requisite cave man analogy morphing into European basketball is certain to catch my eye.

The ol’ “differentiate or die” story is really coming home to roost for many of us in our mid-life. For thousands of the sandwich generation reinvention of ourselves is not just a cool idea we’ll get to one day—it’s an economic necessity. There are lots of us out there, milling about, looking for a way to get kids through college, take care of our parents and still retain some hope of a few days at the beach before we don’t remember anymore. Ok, that’s depressing! The point is that with years of experience (or as they comment in the preso hopefully not 1 year done 25 times) we know a few thing about what we like, what we do not like and what we are relatively good at after a few decades of hammering in the salt mine of adulthood. The suggestion is that we are all innately entrepreneurs (even the drones at Dunder Mifflin recognize the misery of their pathetic work lives and seek more).
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Hope for 2013

As we near the end of 2012, a difficult twelve months for many Americans both personally and professionally, a Forbes article by Kevin Kruse caught my eye this morning Schwarzkopf.  With the passing of General Norman Schwarzkopf (Stormin’ Norman to those of use who remember his leadership during Desert Storm) I can’t help but be amazed that more than 20 years have gone. Desert Storm will always mark an important season for me, a year living on my own and launching my career, the return of my children’s father after a 12 month deployment with the USMC and the birth 9 months later of our first child, a daughter named Marinda.  In her lifetime some things have changed and most not for the good. We are still at war; we face a withering economy, high unemployment and massive debt.  Now a junior in college she, like so many other Millennials are searching for a place to hide (Peace Corp, Grad School etc) to ride out a nearly 50% under/unemployment rate amongst the educated of her generation.

I can’t help but think about a 1991 Newsweek Cover featuring General Shwarzkopf’s face as he hugged a young woman who had been rescued. This was a rare moment, a female soldier taken prisoner—but we found her, we saved her and the troops came home. Schwarzkopf then and now is the embodiment of leadership.  Personally and professionally he maintained his dignity and respect for his troops, the mission and the enemy during his active duty career and afterward.
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A Real “Punching Nun”

I got to head back to college this weekend for the 25th reunion of the class of 1987 at St. Vincent College, a Benedictine Monastery and liberal arts college nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain range in Western Pennsylvania. The school became co-ed in what would have been my freshman year after 150 years of just men, monks and seminarians. I transferred to SVC from William & Mary. I did that all on my own and my parents were none too happy with me until last Friday evening when I was given an alumni of distinction award and they forgave me for good. I think we are all in agreement that things worked out fairly well. I was asked to detail some memories from those couple of years spent in a place that my children say looks like Hogwarts. There were only eight Econ majors in my class and I was the only woman (ok–girl). Continue reading


A New Spin on Marketing: The Art of Communicating from the Inside Out

A sharp friend introduced me to this May 4, 2010 TEDx Presentation by Simon Sinek, a sharp/tragically hip leadership guru who has a unique spin on the art of marketing. On his web site he starts his own bio with “Simon Sinek is an optimist.” I like that, and I believe it (The Nun is certainly an optimist). So, I’m following his blog. I think that’s what he means when he talks about the fact that we are drawn to things we care about or things we relate to emotionally. Per a recent tweet:

When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.

His thesis is fairly simple—It’s not what you do but why you do it—that’s what people connect to, that’s what makes good ideas into great products. So it’s about passion, leading with heart & soul and drawing a crowd who really get’s the message. And maybe instead of colors and personality tests—what about hiring people who believe what you believe? Let’s be honest, if we’re going to spend more than 10 hours a day doing something, we ought to be motivated by more than a financial payoff. In a tough market companies need adequate capital, good people and favorable market conditions. But in a really tough economy, companies need passion and leadership that believes in something. As Sinek said, “Martin Luther King had a dream not plan”… True dat!

The same is true of any relationship, we seek to be known and understood. When we feel understood, we are attracted—yea, works on eHarmony and for Apple Corporation. So it’s only taken 47 short years for that to click, but better late than never…


89 Business Clichés that will Get an MBA Promoted And Make Them Totally Useless or “Bid-ness’isms”

Eric Johnson’s hilarious summary of the top 89 Business Cliches made me laugh out loud—more than a few times.  What really stood out (as I created the mental check list of the ones I’m embarrassed to say I’ve used in the past, ok, just a few days ago) are the number of sports, finance, military and Home Depot-type references.  What does this tell you? Women did not create this stuff, but at times we help to perpetuate it.

During my seven years with Ford Motor Company I continually watched young, male MBAs (I was one of the few females in finance) catch wind of the latest business book reference or cliché referenced by their manager and in less than 30 minutes, somewhere near the water cooler, you’d hear it repeated by a an upwardly mobile finance program trainee.  Oh how I’d cringe! I was a serious tomboy in my youth so the sports stuff came naturally–so I did know what they were talking about most of the time. Now that I’m aging, a whole new collection of clichés are rearing their ugly heads meant to ensure that us old folks sound relevant… Let’s stop the madness!

I’d like to nominate the following for extermination (ok, let’s just get rid of the entire 89), starting with these: Continue reading


Your Story Is Your Brand

I wish I’d written that but Liz Ryan, Career Commentator (Huffington Post) beat me to it. In an economy where so many are looking for new positions or reinventing themselves, it’s always a good time to really think about how you want to present yourself in the new economy. When you sell a product the goal is differentiation. When you sell your personal brand the objective is the same. As Liz points out, using lame, beat business jargon is not the way to go. There are far too many people out there who are saying the same thing.

A friend who is in the “Mulligan” season of her life has been looking for a way to present who she is and what she wants to do for the remainder of her career. She and I have done more than few start-ups and together have been “fire-women” trying to salvage businesses that were on the verge of self-implosion. She brought up the term “Smoking Hole”, what we would say to describe those “verge of failure” investments. So, “Smoking Hole Prevention Services” started as a joke and has morphed into a story…

When I created my brand and built the web site, it was all about my story–not my credentials or business skills. I know I’m quirky but no one ever forgets the name Punching Nun Group. I don’t want to hide that under a bunch of BS that doesn’t have meaning to me or the power of differentiation. I’m not an intellectual. I’m a fireman (ok fire-women) with a sense of humor–no apologies.

Be you, be kind, be interesting and have fun. Life is far too short…