Bloom Where You Are

Thriving in toxic work environments.

Walking away from a job, even one that doesn’t fulfill you, is never easy. Not even when it’s a toxic work environment. I’m not talking about a micromanaging boss, or gossipy coworkers—I’m talking gut-wrenching toxicity. An environment that perpetually calls on you to sacrifice your joy, sleep, inner peace, even your health, and goes against your very values, for people who don’t deserve it.

It was in such a toxic environment where I began to bloom.

For three painstaking years, I was director of communications for the Illinois governor. I was the first African American woman to inhabit that role. And almost daily, I was exposed to every social pathology associated with being a double minority: sexism, blatant misogyny and unmasked racial bias. I was surrounded by people, mostly men, who made it a point to make me feel inferior at every opportunity. It was Machiavellian. Later, when the extent of the vileness and impropriety was exposed, I felt validated. But even now when I pass by the State of Illinois building, I get nauseous.

Staying at the office until 10, 11 o’clock at night was the norm. When I worked from Springfield, those long days meant popcorn for dinner. Nothing’s open passed 9 and the budget hotel across from the Capitol building didn’t have room service. But it had a bar!

The days ran together, until one morning, at 4 a.m., I woke up in excruciating pain; I was doubled over. It hurt to breathe. I called the front desk and said if I didn’t call back in 10 minutes to send someone to my room to check on me, because I’ve passed out. I didn’t want to call an ambulance and be wheeled out on a stretcher. Media frequented the same hotel, and I didn’t want to end up on the news.

So I called a cab. I straightened up just long enough to slide passed a reporter in the lobby, and I laid down in the back of that filthy cab like it was home for the trip to the ER. Diagnosis: A ruptured ovarian cyst had triggered a potentially life-threatening attack on my appendix. I told the doctors I’d make an appointment with my physician when I returned to Chicago. They looked at me like I was crazy, and within 20 minutes, I was being prepped for surgery.

From my hospital bed, I continued to do my job, even though it was constantly being threatened by my boss in his daily chides. I returned to work, committed to the fight, ready to double down on everything. But all I did was buy myself a second surgery. After that, grace stepped in. I began to see things as they were. I’d been in the fight so long, I hadn’t stopped to think about the approach, or whether it was my fight to begin with. I decided to invest in something else: myself.

I began to look at aspects of my job that reflected things I personally cared about and how to use my powers for good. An example is the Public Health Department’s annual report on the AIDS epidemic. The impact on the black community was staggering, particularly the infection and death rates among black women. I was so moved that I submitted a proposal to the health department to create a program to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment targeting African Americans, and aggregate resources. It was called Brothers and Sisters United Against HIV/AIDS. It was empowering! The initiative even won an award, and it wound up being a feather in the governor’s cap, too, with his African American voter base.

But I didn’t stop there. I continued to engage with community leaders and organizations, and actively sought initiatives outside of my role as Communication Director that were aligned with my values. I was still working for the governor. The environment didn’t change, my perspective did. I found fertile soil in me, planted seeds, nurtured them through self-investment, and I blossomed. I was profiled in Today’s Chicago Woman magazine, and my community engagement around economic development and activism helped me land my next job as the first black woman to lead the Chicago Urban League.

I’ve shared this very personal story with you to drive home the point that when you invest in yourself, it not only empowers you, it makes you a better employee, advocate, or business owner. You can still give 100%, just hold 10% back for yourself. Your investment has the power to move you onto greener pastures.

My latest mission: helping women access the benefits of career coaching at every stage of their career by making it affordable. If you need help gaining confidence and a game plan for satisfying your career objectives, even in a toxic work environment, then I hope to see you March 22 at Grit + Grace Day. Registrants will have access to coaches onsite and post-event through a special coaching website that will launch the day of the conference. It’s springtime! Plant the seeds in yourself and bloom where you are. Register today!

Who's in Your Power Pack?


Relationships past their expiration date are never pretty.

I found this out in my late 20s when I ended a relationship with a woman I met in college. We came of age together and bonded over our love of music, fashion and Italy. I remember us twirling around campus one night dressed up like Madonna with lace gloves on and giant crosses around our necks. Yes, it was the ’80s! We made some great memories and remained close after graduation. But then we lost touch during a time when I needed our friendship most.

In grad school, I was on path to become a professor of graphic design. I had a crisis of the soul and was struggling to find my purpose. My decision to abandon this path required introspection. As a result, I had a tremendous growth spurt. I mean, I matured A LOT. But having your foundation shift beneath your feet can do that.

With greater clarity and a new direction, I made the first move and invited my friend to spend a weekend with me in Memphis. I laid it out for her! She’d come to expect that of me, and I fed into it. I had all her favorites and even arranged a photo shoot for the two of us and hired a glam squad and everything! She was the same old friend I’d known. But something felt off, because I was different. By the end of our weekend, I decided to break up with her. Not because she was toxic or high-level dysfunctional, but because she was low-key draining me. Once my eyes were opened to just how one-sided our relationship had always been, my more evolved self could no longer tolerate it.

It’s not just our spouse or intimate partners that we can grow apart from, it can also be friends we allow to occupy space in our power pack but contribute nothing. One-way relationships are like apps – even when you’re not using them, they’re running in the background draining your battery.

Letting go of a friend, acquaintance or business partner doesn’t mean either of you are a bad person. It just means that you’re evolving in different ways and the relationship no longer serves either of you well. So I told my friend that I loved her and would treasure our time together, but that our friendship didn’t work for me anymore, and I wished her well.

It was one of the most adult things I have ever done, and I never looked back. I released the energy I had put into a friendship that I had Band-aided for nearly 10 years and invested it in myself and in cultivating healthier, mutually gratifying friendships. I’m not suggesting that friends keep score. Just that the people in your power pack be growth enhancers, not growth inhibitors. That they give positive, reflective energy; expand your outlook as well as your thinking; and help you be yourself, and the best version of yourself, in every aspect of your life. That’s who you want in your pack!

Join me and a few of my power pack friends for the “Dish with the Divas” luncheon and a candid conversation about friends, work, love and life at the Grit + Grace Day women’s conference on March 22. Click here to register and use promo code POWERPACK at checkout to receive 25% off.

Be the Boss of You


The biggest Boss Move I ever made in my career nearly cost me my dream job.

I was 32 years old and it was the dot-com era. All around me, I saw white men in their 20s being promoted to VP level or higher. I made up my mind that I was going to be a VP, too. So, without having any conversations with my superiors, I sent out an internal memo, giving myself a new title while working for a national radio network in Washington, D.C. I know, right?!

I got an earful for it, and rightly so, but I officially was in the hunt. I gave myself permission to be ambitious and took control of my career. Accessing my grit, I pitched a plan to remake the network’s brand image, which made some people uncomfortable. I took a lot of hits, but in the end, I got that promotion and haven’t held a position below the VP level since then.

Like a lot of women, though, I felt I needed to prove I was worthy of that promotion. So I ran on jet fuel. I doubled down on everything. I leaned in. That’s what we’re told to do. When I look back, I now realize what the lean-in culture fails to consider fully is, “At what cost?”

For most of my career, I have pushed myself beyond my limits. I didn’t set boundaries professionally because I was motivated and inspired to win. But I’d come to regret not setting personal boundaries. I would work until I got sick—literally sick. Illness became my permission to take a day off.

Dealing with cancer and divorce at the same time forced me to rethink that approach. My career was flourishing, but I was struggling emotionally and physically. Through my journey, I learned how to activate my superpower, grace, what I define as “love in action toward self.” I don’t wear exhaustion like a badge of honor anymore. I’m the boss and I get to decide how I live out my success.

My health scare was a wake-up call. In another Boss Move—this time with self-care in mind—I once took off an entire month, not because I was in crisis, but because I’d been traveling a lot internationally during that trying time. I knew I needed to focus on my mind, body, and spirit. I hired a personal trainer, went to physical therapy, and slept.

Here’s the thing: It’s not enough to boss up on your ambition. You have to also be the boss of taking care of yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to see greatness in you before you decide to do great things. And certainly don’t wait for permission—or worse yet, a crisis—to take care of your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. Make 2019 the Year of Being the Boss of You. Stand up with confidence. Advocate for your ambitions, or for rest, or for whatever you need. Be the boss and define what success looks like for you!

To learn from the best Boss Ladies in the business on how to boss up, click here to register now for Grit + Grace Day.

The Gift of Grace

Hi there and happy holidays! 

It’s the season of giving, and I have the perfect gift for you to give yourself. It’s grace – self-love in action. Good one, right? I asked my dear friend Kalli Kerr, psychotherapist and women’s leadership expert, to share some ways you can do just that. I’ve created this Take a Moment column as a safe space to provide encouragement for you to practice self-care, self-compassion and self-acceptance, and make yourself a priority. And I can’t think of a better time to kick it off than the holidays with some expert advice on how to practice grace with yourself. 

Now, sit back, relax and let’s Take a Moment with Kalli.

Gracefully Yours,


Gift Yourself Grace
By Kalli Kerr

Ahhh, the holidays. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Or is it? Sure, the season is full of fun parties, great food, champagne toasts, gifting and family gatherings. That sounds like fun, in theory. But in practice, studies show this is also the time of year when some feel the saddest and prone to depression.

Send grace to the rescue! During the holidays, don’t forget to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Here are a few tips to help you get through some of the season’s most triggering, uncomfortable situations:

Family. Holiday reunions are often a time to reconnect with loved ones. But, hey, no family is perfect. While this can be a special time it can also be stressful. We tell ourselves that everyone is supposed to get along perfectly. But under holiday stress, unhealed family conflicts can be exacerbated, so be mindful of your trigger points. An overly critical parent, a sibling rivalry, or a less than ideal relationship with a child can heighten anxiety and ‘tis the season to be jolly won’t change that. 

Politics. Especially in the current climate, politics can be a source of contention. In these situations, it’s important to set appropriate expectations about political debates to avoid full-blown arguments. Remember, any friction you may feel during the holidays is no one person’s fault. Grace allows for you to respect differences of opinion and know when to walk away from a stressful situation.

Significant others. We want to love and be loved by our partners no matter what. However, stress can affect our romantic partnerships. Knowing your own pressure points (working too much, not getting enough sleep, or have you even had lunch today?) can ward off feelings of provocation. And, knowing the stress points in your relationship dynamics can help you proactively mitigate the pitfalls. Do the two of you tend not to feel as connected in a particular situation? Do certain events create conflict? When handled with mutual respect and a desire to understand one another, conflict can lead to heightened intimacy, but timing is everything. Try not to enter a discussion with feelings of aggression, especially if you’re tired or stressed.

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Listen to yourself. Listen to your inner voice. Don’t “it doesn’t really matter” it away. Listen, listen, listen. Respect where you are and be willing to walk away from a negative situation. The holidays ask much of us, but we’re only human. There may come a time when you feel stronger. Resist the temptation to measure yourself against the ideal you rather than who you are. The more you respect your inner world, the better you will be able to react to your outer world and make the most of the holidays (or any days) for you. Keywords -- for you!

Happy holidays!


You can learn more about Kalli Kerr and follow her on LinkedIn at

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