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Barbara Shannon: “Put down your gadget and turn off the news”

Even though so much of what’s going on is really hard and out of our control, we still have control over how we respond. Sure, there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know when we’ll have a vaccine. We don’t know if we’ll have a COVID resurgence or what that might be like. We […]


Even though so much of what’s going on is really hard and out of our control, we still have control over how we respond. Sure, there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know when we’ll have a vaccine. We don’t know if we’ll have a COVID resurgence or what that might be like. We don’t know how far the stock market will fall, or how badly our businesses will be affected. The only thing we can control right now is our response to whatever occurs.


As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Shannon, a business coach to CEOs and entrepreneurs. She is founder of THECEOBOARD, a SF based CEO peer group, ATHENA, a group dedicated to the success of women entrepreneurs, and the host of the ‘B-suite’ podcast.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I graduated college in the middle of a deep recession. There were no jobs. I wasn’t aware at the time of the idea of a career. I just wanted a job. I interviewed for a few but nothing panned out. I was living at home. I had started acting in high school. It was absolutely my passion. I was a theatre major in college so after college I went to New York City, started auditioning and acting in small theater productions and started an interior design business on the side to support myself. In 1987 one of my friends, Chuck Bayer, died of AIDS. it was a huge shock. Chuck was a very spiritual person and deeply influenced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi whom he’d studied with in India. Before he died he founded a group called Northern Lights Alternatives, for people affected by HIV/AIDS. This group of HIV positive mostly actors and artists were exploring the possibility that we are not our circumstances but something much larger, more lasting and more profound. The premise was that even in the face of terrible suffering, injustice and a terminal illness that has no cure, it is possible to find beauty in the moment and joy in the experience of being alive.

Before Chuck died I got involved with his project. I helped with fundraising events and we did empowerment workshops for hundreds of people in New York and in cities across the US and Canada. I was one of the first people trained to lead these incredible three-day events.

After Chuck and his partner, Victor Phillips died, I got our 501(c)3 designation and our first real funding through one of the first grants provided for AIDS organizations. From there we hired staff and the next thing you knew I wasn’t an actress anymore, I was the Executive Director of a non-profit advocacy and services organization.

Eventually, New York state got its act together and established state-funded agencies to provide services state-wide. The HIV grant folks in Albany knew me because they were funding our work in New York City. In 1994 I accepted the Executive Director position for the state-funded HIV/AIDS organization responsible for services across the five counties of lower New York State. My first week on the job, my CFO quit. Before he walked out, he came into my office and told me we didn’t have money for payroll. Over the next two years, with the help of an incredibly gifted new CFO, we executed a complete redesign of that organization, including new fundraising from the community, a change in program focus to provide services to HIV affected women and families and a major culture change. It was a business transformation before BT was a “thing.”

Three years later, we were able to pay our bills, had implemented effective new programs for the community and we were back in the good graces of our state funders.

In the process I discovered that I really enjoyed running an organization and was invigorated by turn-around experience. The organization was stable and I was bored. I was ready for a change and wanted to learn more about business. So I applied to business school. I was 38 at the time and had no idea there was an age limit on getting an MBA. I’m pretty sure I was the oldest person in my class at Wharton. I absolutely loved my time at B-school. I found it incredibly hard academically, but I loved the brilliant people in my class and I’m still friends with some of my professors. I was riveted by the amazing CEOs who shared their experiences with us in weekly forums. It was a long way from the New York stage but I did get back to the boards sort of when I was chosen to be our graduation speaker. That was a huge honor.

After graduation I’d accepted a job offer from Deloitte in New York so I moved back to my home state and went to work for our Fortune 500 clients, traveling a lot and just soaking up everything I could about business best practices in project management, technology implementation, mergers and acquisition, leadership programs and change management. From the beginning, I was fortunate to have great clients. My clients, these big company business executives, were my mentors. It was incredible training.

I was on partner track but I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career in a big five consulting company, so in 2006 I left Deloitte to start my own practice. In the beginning I was still doing consulting projects for big companies. In 2010 I got my first mid-market engagement working directly with the CEO. After that I shifted my practice from consulting to coaching, and from big companies to small and mid-market businesses.

I absolutely love my work. Every company is completely unique and different from every other. And each of my CEO clients are unique and amazing. What they share in common is a deep commitment to their personal and business values. That’s what sets my practice apart from other CEO coaches. It’s also where I guess you’ll find my common thread. I’ve been a very values-focused person since childhood. It’s what drew me to my friend Chuck and working with people with HIV/AIDS. I believe that businesses today have a moral imperative not just to serve their communities but to invent and help manifest a better world for us going forward. My practice is dedicated to CEOs who are doing this.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer — It’s an unbelievable true tale of a brilliant mind on an extraordinary journey from economist to innovator to CEO to guru to author. It really puts the whole idea of control to bed and shows how going with the flow can yield powerful business and personal outcomes. And Micky Singer tells a great story. It’s a page turner.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I know that this notion of a light at the end of a tunnel is a popular metaphor right now but viewing the COVID shut down this way can lead us to miss the light that’s right in front of us.

Even though so much of what’s going on is really hard and out of our control, we still have control over how we respond. Sure, there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know when we’ll have a vaccine. We don’t know if we’ll have a COVID resurgence or what that might be like. We don’t know how far the stock market will fall, or how badly our businesses will be affected. The only thing we can control right now is our response to whatever occurs.

When we forget that we are in control of our response to the present moment, it’s easy to start thinking about how much better it was before. But that is rose colored thinking. There was a lot of hardship and uncertainty before COVID-19.

In reality, it’s all just life. This minute. Sometimes the circumstances seem easier and sometimes they seem really hard, but in the present moment, there’s always plenty of brilliance to be found if you look for it. Even today we see incredible acts of generosity, selflessness, solidarity, innovation, community and cooperation. Great gifts in a dark time, right in front of us.

Let’s look at it this way… the train is our mindset and what matters to our happiness is what’s going on inside the train. Looking for a light at the end of a tunnel forces us to look right past where the light actually exists.

I remember another time, three decades ago, when it seemed like the sky was falling.

In 1988, I was living life large in New York City. I was an actress off, off, off, off Broadway and I had a little interior design business that supported my art habit. Then I found out that a friend of mine had this new disease called AIDS. Auto-Immune-Deficiency-Syndrome. It sounded bad. My friend died. Then another friend died. And another…after each memorial service I moved their contact cards to the back of my Rolodex. By 1994 I had co-founded one of the first HIV/AIDS organizations in New York and had over 30 cards in the back of my little plastic file. AIDS back then was a death sentence. Pretty much no one recovered.

By 1994 over 250,000 Americans had contracted HIV/AIDS and over 75% of cases were in people between 25 and 44 years old. That year an estimated 80,000 women were infected with HIV and they would leave over 140,000 orphaned children. Unlike COVID-19, back then, no one cared. We had to march in the streets and even then, it wasn’t until HIV spread to women and children that that pandemic finally got national attention and a dribble of government funding.

So those were the circumstances. We were most definitely afraid and angry but we found an extraordinary power when we came together with purpose. We were acting up to change our circumstances, to get funding for research, for needed services, protocols for doctors and caregivers and to change the ignorance that fueled so much hatred and fear around that epidemic.

The difference today is the entire world is in this COVID-19 moment together, which is the greatest light we’re likely to see in our lifetime, one moment in time when the entire planet is united in a shared experience. What could be brighter than that?

OK. So let’s see if I can come up with five reasons to be hopeful. I think it will be hard to keep it to five.

#1 A Vaccine — We are seeing an unprecedented global collaboration taking place between governments, business and science to fund, research, test and bring to market a vaccine in record-breaking time. The Gates Foundation is spending billions to build seven vaccine factories to fund the seven vaccine models that are most likely to succeed. He is willingly losing billions knowing that they will scrap five of those factories once the successful two vaccines are found. Why? So that we can eliminate the usual supply chain and production delays and shift the time-to-market from 5–7 years down to under 18 months. This means we’ll likely have a COVID-19 vaccine next year. The Gates Foundation already has a very successful working relationship with Johnson & Johnson and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) through their collaboration around an HIV vaccine, so this is a natural extension that will now be directed at research, testing and producing a Novel Coronavirus vaccine. They expect to be in human clinical trials by September 2020.

#2 Treatment — The world’s top infectious disease scientists and clinicians are working together to find effective treatments for COVID-19. We now have four global studies underway involving over 50 countries. These efforts are high-quality, controlled randomized trials of almost 60 drugs and drug combinations and they are on track to bear fruit by June/July. Having effective, life-saving treatments will change the course of the disease. HIV is still without a vaccine (largely because until recently we lacked the kind of integrated effort we’re seeing with COVID-19), and yet it has become a manageable disease thanks to effective drug protocols. We have successfully accelerated the time to stand up a randomized trial from months/years to a matter of weeks/months.That’s remarkable. If we have treatments by summer, hospital overload will be relieved and the personal and dollar cost of COVID-19 for patients and institutions drops precipitously.

#3 Back to Work — Corporations, governments and the CDC are starting to define what it will take to get back to work. Our ability to re-open will be determined by the intersection of limiting and managing a rebound, increasing critical care capacity and providing mortality-reducing treatments. Progress is being made in all three of these arenas. And again, this is being done with unprecedented dialogue and collaboration between states in the US as well as countries globally.

#4 Unity About What Matters — An irrefutable outcome of the pandemic is the ways in which people of the world are united about things that truly matter: family, connection, caring, sharing, creativity, animals and nature are showing up in an outpouring of images, tweets and posts. As we head into our election, I believe this focus on life’s essentials will be a unifying factor. This may be the one thing that can help heal the deep fissures of today’s political polarization. One of my favorite COVID-related innovations is the Facebook group, View From My Window, where people from all over the world are sharing photos of what they see from their shut-in windows. Really beautiful. There was an image shared yesterday of the New York City skyline viewed from an apartment across the Hudson River. The city buildings were gleaming white and ochre against a light sky with receding storm clouds. A rainbow was rising over lower Manhattan. Absolutely gorgeous. The guy who took it would never have seen this or shared it with the world had he been head down in his windowless office as the sun was setting.

5# Planet Earth’s Moment of Rest — The shutdown’s effect on our planet is profound. Photos of clear skies over Beijing, Los Angeles and New York and the blue canals in Venice are visceral reminders of the impact we humans have on our planet both positive and negative. Let’s hope these images add momentum to our actions for climate change.

#6 (Hope Bonus!) Preparation for Future Pandemics — We are learning so much right now on every level. Post-COVID-19 we will be wiser, healthier and better defended against future pandemics, and readier than we’ve ever been to build on what matters to create peace in our world.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

I’ve worked with many very smart, high-level leaders and CEOs who suffer from anxiety. I’d say we all deal with it to varying degrees and more so in times of upheaval and change. The one thing that is a game changer for anxiety, is connection. Connecting to the present moment, to self, to others and to your personal values and purpose.

#1 Connection with Others — Connection with others is so important right now. People living alone are at greatest risk of experiencing depression and anxiety. The first step to support someone with anxiety is to reach out and connect personally. Anxiety doesn’t respond as well to email or text. A phone call or video chat can make a big difference. So call or Zoom your friends, co-workers and family regularly, especially anyone who is living alone. I have a friend who is calling three people a day to help him deal with his own isolation and he says it’s making a huge difference for him. I’m trying to do the same and have had wonderful conversations with people I haven’t spoken with in years. The power of another human voice is hugely healing. Stop texting! Make phone calls.

#2 Be Present — This goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Depression and anxiety happens when we ruminate on our past or fixate on a negative future. The cure for anxiety is to be fully present and in order to support an anxious person we need to be there fully in the moment ourselves. Be sure to allow enough time so they can share how they’re feeling without worrying that they’re keeping you from something you’d rather be doing, or an upcoming meeting. I’ve talked people down off the panic ledge by phone many times. Step one is to be present, listen and fully and acknowledge their feelings.

#3 Help Them Be Present — There are several techniques for this. It’s good to have a short mantra to say out loud such as “These are thoughts, only thoughts.” Another technique called 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 is designed to activate the senses. Identify and describe 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste. This is a powerful distraction to focus the mind in the present. Focusing and breathing in a slow rhythm is also very calming and a good practice that helps bring anyone under stress into the present moment.

#4 Connection to Self: This is where deep breathing, meditation, affirmations and visualization can be used to connect you with your unique strengths and personal sense of wellbeing. There are many guided meditations available through online apps that are empowering for this purpose. Another great way to connect with your personal strengths is to write down your beliefs. I use an exercise called “I Am From” in my Values Workshops. It’s a simple format poem where you start each sentence with “I am from…” and fill in a phrase or description from your life. The process of writing this down is very grounding. Very empowering.

#5 Focus on Values — Both at home and at work, right now, the biggest stress my clients are dealing with is the feeling of managing the unknown and not being able to control outcomes. For CEOs and business owners this is particularly hard because they are creators. They’re used to visualizing a result, making a plan and making it happen. The shutdown is giving us the opportunity to recognize that we actually control very little, and that what matters is how we play the game. Sometimes we get the outcome we seek and sometimes we don’t, but if we know who we are and what we stand for, we can find peace in the process as we tack toward success. A focus on personal values and living them step-by-step each day has never been more important. This we can control. Right now, this should be our focus.

One more thing…put down your gadget and turn off the news! Close all those open tabs on your computer that don’t represent your highest purpose for the day and focus on what matters and what serves you. Focus on that which you can control.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

The telephone — as I said, call someone you love and trust and tell them how you’re feeling.

Medical help — If your anxiety becomes a panic attack or is unrelenting and you’re losing sleep, call your doctor. Medication for anxiety and depression these days is really good. It’s not addicting, has few to no side effects and it works when taken according to a doctor’s orders. Anxiety is not just a mental state, it’s also a physiological condition where the brain is unable to use the calming hormones the body produces. Today’s drugs, called serotonin reuptake inhibitors, enable your body to calm itself. That’s a good thing.

Technology — If you’re looking for meditation, I use Calm or Meditopia for guided visualizations and music. I also like The Insight Timer for meditation.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“If you want to be in the flow, you cannot be attached to anything. Love everything. Be attached to nothing.”

I don’t know where I first heard this or who said it but I had it on my desk all those years during the 80s and 90s when everyone was dying. Most of my staff at that time was HIV positive. Every few months someone would be in the hospital and then we’d lose them. This was my mantra then as it is now. If you’ve ever done river rafting you probably know that the rule when you fall out of the boat is to float on your back, keep your legs in front of you, relax and go with the flow. Life is a river. Very beautiful if we stay in the current. Very painful when we try to fight 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. 🙂

I would start the Childlike Curiosity for Grown-Ups Movement. I think curiosity is what keeps us creative, interesting and motivated. It’s the difference between being alive and going dormant.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Sign up for my weekly read, The C-SuiteSkimm. Read my work on LinkedIn and Medium. Join my conversations in my LinkedIn Group and on Twitter. If you’re a business owner or CEO and want support or guidance from someone who gets what you’re going through, email me: [email protected]

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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