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Facing a Life Crisis With the Help of Strengths

Facing a Life Crisis With the Help of Strengths

Webcast Details

  • Gallup Called to Coach Webcast Series
  • Season 6, Episode 19
  • Learn from a cancer survivor how you can use your strengths to navigate a life crisis.

On a recent Called to Coach, we spoke with Certified Strengths Coach and Founder of Follow Your Strengths, Traci McCausland. Traci is a Strengths Trainer, Engagement Consultant, and Career Coach who lives in Iowa.

During the interview, Traci shares how she has been putting her strengths to work amid a life crisis -- in her case, a cancer diagnosis. The following is a summary of the conversation between Jim Collison and Traci.

Jim Collison: Let's talk about your journey to coaching.

Traci McCausland: I'm based in Waterloo, in eastern Iowa, and my background is in HR and I have a master's in counseling/psych from the University of Kansas. I focused on career and vocation in my grad school work. Back then, I wanted people to be happy at work, but now I know that engagement is more than just being happy. In those days of reading and studying what that looks like, all things pointed to Gallup. So I finished my master's degree, did a little recruiting and then spent four years at Accenture in talent and organization performance in Kansas City.

We decided to move to Iowa and that led me to find my way locally and piece together a few things. I've taught for John Deere for about seven years as a contractor and then when I saw Gallup open the doors to becoming certified in Strengths and go deliver this, I thought, "Well, that seems like what I've been on this track to do for 15 years without knowing it." I went through the training in March 2014 and was so blessed to have learned from Curt Liesveld and Heather Wright, and there were people in the room who were doing this full-time and I thought, "I want to do this full-time." So today my focus is on Strengths workshops and training sessions, and using Q12 around engagement. 90% of my work comes from leading team sessions and workshops, and about 10% from coaching, mostly about career and transition, including college students.

JC: What kind of successes are you seeing?

TM: It's been fun to see. Part of why I enjoy it is, 1) I enjoy the one-on-one aspect of it with Individualization and Maximizer and 2) I can empathize with it because that's what led me down this path. I was at a great company but was in the wrong (role). I think I can empathize with them because if you're not playing to your "A" game every day, it can be exhausting and draining. I think it makes it fun to say (to someone I coach), "You're fine, you can redirect, right the ship, and it may take some trial and error." And then having an HR background, I can bring that flavor into (my coaching).

JC: All right, let's not bury the lede. We want to talk about your journey, an interesting journey over the past two years, in being diagnosed with breast cancer, and all that went with it. Can you back us up -- your life was all planned out, and is looking bright, and then this happens. Tell us the story.

TM: Yeah, life was looking bright, and still is today, but hit the skids a year ago. My personal journey is I found a lump in my chest area. Sometimes you feel a little "off" or have an ache or a pain, and then hop on Google and say, "Oh, I'm going to die!" I found the lump on a Friday and ended up getting in on (the following) Thursday, and the PA told me she was kind of concerned after seeing my chart.

It was my first-ever mammogram -- I'm 40 now but was 39 last year (mammograms aren't recommended until 40) and then she did an ultrasound. And as I was laying there, the more she was doing, the more I realized, "This is probably not good." Then she said, "We're going to do some biopsies," and the clinic here was amazing. I was there for two hours and it was pretty clear the results weren't going to be good. We found out the Monday after Mother's Day that I had breast cancer.

JC: During this time, how did you process this?

TM: My husband asked whether he should come with me to the appointment, and I told him, "I guess if they tell me I have cancer, I kind of want you to be there." He canceled some appointments and was there. He is a real "steady Eddie" with his themes of Analytical (#1), Harmony, and Consistency. As the radiologist told us what she was seeing, Kent (my husband) with his Analytical, asked "What percentage are we looking at that she has cancer?" This was a pretty defining moment; she put both of her hands on me and said, "I'm 95% certain that (it's cancer)."

It was interesting from a Strengths coach perspective; Kent's question helped us navigate things during the three-day waiting period for the diagnosis, and he stepped up with his Strengths to ask the perfect question and "get the ball rolling."

JC: Walk me through the way you're thinking about this through your own lens, including Belief, which is going to play an important part in this. This is using Strengths in crisis. We filter good and bad through our themes. How do we handle it when things are bad? You didn't know how bad things were yet, but how were you coping?

TM: I think people are huge for me in terms of support systems, so I knew I had to have them in my corner when I was fighting a serious illness. Some people are private but I knew people would have to be part of it. But I ended up on Monday going and teaching a course, and went later in the day to find out the biopsy results. I just carried on with what I was doing, and got great support.

But you're dead-on about Belief, because that was there from the get-go. We went back Monday at 4, and got confirmation that, yes, it's Stage 2B, and they got into the intricacies of the diagnosis. On the way home from the hospital, I said to my husband, "Do you want to pull into the golf course? I can sign up for the pink ribbon community." And he joked, and turned to me and said, "You're going to emcee it."

We didn't know what it was going to look like but knew we would end up doing things for others (through this experience). Other people validated this. That Belief tugged on me -- the first 7-10 days were really hard for me. Belief is about mission, purpose, serving others. I did not question God early on -- and think, "Why me?" But I felt an internal struggle, "What would you have me do with this?" "How can I use this?" So I think that Belief showed up right away and then a week or 10 days in, I got greater clarity.

JC: There are definitely certain personalities that, when you get into a crisis moment, you think, "How am I going to use this?" Not "Am I going to make it through?" Chemo is an awful experience, and I don't want to minimize that. It's great to hear that you immediately think, "How can I use this for others?" How long did it take for them to start doing chemo and in those weeks between that time, did you have conscious thoughts about, "How am I going to use these talents that I have to get through this?" Can you talk us through that?

TM: I was diagnosed officially on May 15 and started chemo on May 31, so not a long time. So you're really anxious to get going -- I had three tumors, two in my breast and one in my lymph nodes. I had 16 rounds of chemo, started at the end of May and went through mid-October and then followed that in November with surgery. But I really did have that struggle early on of, "I'm comfortable medically with what's happening but what am I doing with this?"

My bookcase has my Gallup books and I'm sitting across from my books and see all of these strengths-based books but I wondered, where is the book telling me how to survive with my strengths? I didn't see that book. In that moment, I thought, "That's what I can do to help others, and it's not that far of a leap." What if I started thinking about how people with different talents would attack cancer? That gave me some calm, about a week and a half into (my experience). And that's what I'm proceeding to do.

JC: As you think about that, give us a sneak peek. How have you deployed your Top 5 throughout this process?

T: I have Individualization and Harmony, and Empathy is #6, so I was aware early that people wanted to help. It was devastating to me at 39, and I made the choice to let them help. I think those three combined and I made it a priority to meet with people, have lunches, coffees, and go on walks, and rarely did I cancel. It makes me feel good when people are comfortable, kind of that peacemaker of Harmony coming through.

I had a "farewell to hair" party, and we had bagels and mimosas and fruit, and had a great time of it. There's a place in Florida called "Chemo Diva" and can have your hair cut before chemo takes it and my sister donated some of her hair, and then they made a wig of my own hair, and I wore ball caps, etc., over my own hair.

We had purple shirts made (purple is my favorite color) with #Strengths on it.

JC: How important were those around you -- did you find yourself leaning on those talents in those times?

TM: I did, and I know that's super-dorky, but with Individualization #1 for me, I see people as unique. People told me early on, "Make this journey your own," and it was great advice, and I took it. We are all unique, even if we work at the same place or have the same parents.

One of my friends has Woo and Arranger and is great at hosting, so at that haircut party, she brought the mimosas and hosted it. Another girlfriend has talents similar to mine, with Individualization, Maximizer and Arranger. She offered to coordinate my schedule, in terms of who gave me my rides, but I wanted to do that. So she offered to have someone help me write thank-you's, and I said, "Done!" I orchestrated what would be said but it was cool to have that help from my friends.

J: This picture (a picture of medicine in a syringe getting injected into Traci) gets pretty serious -- it's about YOU. It shows the chemo being injected into your body. This was a long journey. As you think about how to deploy talent to yourself, walk me through that.

T: So what you're looking at is "AC chemo," and the women call it "red devil." As if the cancer diagnosis wasn't bad enough, I hear these words. So my husband says, "How about we call it 'fruit punch.'" So I did four rounds of this "red devil," every two weeks, and they are brutal. The fatigue with this was unbelievable. After that, I did rounds 5-16 with weekly "Taxol" chemo. So if "red devil" is a knockout punch, Taxol is kind of like body shot, body shot, and it wears your body down.

JC: Were there ways you were able to deploy your talents during this time?

TM: Belief was there early on, but I keep coming back to Learner. I'm a teacher's kid; both parents were teachers for 35 years. Learner is there for me; I've always been inquisitive about people. I guess you could say I intentionally used it for success. On the way home from the hospital the day of the diagnosis, I texted a friend, asking her to help me contact another person who had experienced two bouts with breast cancer, at 36 and 41. That woman agreed to talk with me and to date, it was probably the worst I've cried. She is my cancer mentor. So I used Learner there.

I was also inquisitive with my oncologist, talking about diet and physical well-being. She referred me to a holistic doctor, and that was awesome. It was an hour appointment but I took a page of notes and that was good for me. Also I met with a clinical psychologist who specializes in oncology, after I had gotten through the first few chemos. I found out that breast cancer comes back a lot in women, and that fear came to me that I might go through all I was going to go through, and then I'd get it back? That can be a lot to take in. I met with the psychologist twice, and a good opportunity to run my fears by a trained professional. I attribute (the inquisitiveness and opportunities to learn) to Learner.

JC: By July (of 2017), you're joining us here at the Strengths Summit, after being diagnosed with cancer around Memorial Day. Tell us about the Summit experience. Why did you come?

TM: That was around the fourth of the "red devil" treatments, so it was pretty tough. You know they say, "FOMO" (fear of missing out)? I thought, I can't NOT be there, but can I be there? Is it weird or dorky that I still want to go? Some colleagues told me to stay home and rest, but a mentor-type told me, "I think you should go." And so I said, "Yes! I'm going!" But I got a ride from another strengths certified coach (Ashley Lang), so I had a chauffeur and I slept coming and going. I felt pretty terrible, and was sitting in the audience bald because of chemo, but Tom Rath's keynote alone -- to hear someone who was diagnosed with cancer at 17, I think he said -- I know so many people were inspired by his keynote that day, and I've told people, just that keynote alone was a cool boost for me in terms of well-being and "keeping on keeping on."

JC: Did having a community of people around you that's hyperfocused on Strengths have any effect on you (at the Strengths Summit)?

T: Yes, it was amazing. I especially appreciated Dean Jones and how nice he was -- a "We'll make it work" attitude. I also loved seeing Heather Wright. And I went to Rosie Liesveld's breakout session on using your strengths through adversity. There were about 20 of us in the room, and we went around and shared about adversity in people's lives and how their talents showed up. There were some tough things shared, and I was one of three people who had breast cancer -- the other two had gone through it and beat it. The odds today are that one in eight women will have breast cancer. I got some hugs and got to hear people's stories. Rosie wrote a blog recently that told about how her strengths did not leave her when her husband passed away.

JC: Talk a little bit about someone who is listening and says, "But Traci, I'm not you. I'm not going to respond in this way." What kind of advice and coaching are you giving people who are wired differently from you as to how to approach these crises as they are in them or going into them?

TM: Jim, you just nailed it. I wouldn't expect everyone to do things the same way. We don't expect this at work, when people sell, when they parent, so why would we expect people to navigate cancer in the same way? There is some good generic advice out there, such as bringing "another set of ears" to your appointment. But I'd say, you're not working on a full tank. So I think a good strategy is to use what comes naturally, what comes easily to you. And being aware of how those things will help you and help you have better days. I'd like to open myself up to the community, however you want to contact me; I'm still in the qualitative stage of writing the book.

JC: How would folks contact you?


JC: What are you looking forward to, what are the things you like to do, given the themes that you have? What would be the best way for us to use your talents?

TM: The majority of my work is in organizations, some great companies, profit and not-for-profit, and a few churches, and have done some career coaching, which I love. I think in terms of today and my cancer journey, I think there's a message to be shared. I would like to open myself up to speaking engagements, whether in cancer organizations, working with healthcare professionals, I have some good stories that I'm building, and to share that people's talents can be seen and felt every day. I'm not marketing myself as a "cancer coach"; my first step is with larger audiences, workshops, keynotes, conference breakouts.

JC: This has happened to you pretty young. That gives you time to influence, to help people get better. It's super unfortunate that this happened to you so young, but it's super fortunate that you get all of this time to lead, influence and work with people who are going to go through something similar. What a great need, what a great story. Thanks for coming on, Traci.

TM: I know what you're saying with "so much time," but on the other side, I feel like I don't. That's tough, knowing just how fragile life is. It's not that I didn't appreciate life before -- my Dad and I danced to "What a Wonderful World" (first dance) -- but I would say I'm living with a bit more urgency. And I hope to be able to do some good work about this, and hear others' stories of how they've leveraged their strengths in their battle with cancer and (I hope) to put out a great (book) to share with others.

Traci McCausland's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Individualization, Harmony, Maximizer, Learner and Belief.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

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