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Heidi Dulebohn: “Become a mentor”

Become a mentor. For me, the rubber hit the road when I served as a mentor to a brand new recruit in our business. I knew I could trade grain, but I forgot how deep my knowledge and experience went, how far I could go to explain a tricky industry to an enthusiastic new trader. As […]

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Become a mentor. For me, the rubber hit the road when I served as a mentor to a brand new recruit in our business. I knew I could trade grain, but I forgot how deep my knowledge and experience went, how far I could go to explain a tricky industry to an enthusiastic new trader.


As a part of our series about how very accomplished leaders were able to succeed despite experiencing Imposter Syndrome, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Dulebohn.

Heidi Dulebohn began her career by breaking codes; she now teaches them. Heidi was the first female grain trader in Conagra’s history. Before that she had a storied career at Ferruzzi and was the first ever woman to manage a major grain exporting facility in the US. “My early career taught me that understanding social codes creates opportunities.” These jobs intensified Heidi’s love of travel, which, alongside her insatiable curiosity, she has used to continue learning about diverse societies around the world and the codes they live by. Today Heidi dedicates her professional life to teaching American and international etiquette to those who might otherwise not have the kind of opportunities she herself has been able to pursue. Trained as an International Etiquette and Protocol Consultant and Instructor from the International Etiquette and Protocol Academy of London, England, Heidi knows etiquette is not just an act. “It can provide the individual with a voice and the confidence to participate and belong. We are all inherently social, manners really do matter.” At the same time, Heidi works hard to instill greater cultural awareness among business leaders. She understands that social codes enables us to participate or see past, even break, those codes. “The less obvious side of etiquette is cultural curiosity and an awareness of others. Be kind. It’s free.” Heidi lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, with her husband and two Bouvier des Flandres dogs, where she has received many awards and accolades for her community impact, including the Tribute to Women Award in 2019 by the YWCA of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and the 2015 Tom Chase Award for Volunteerism. Heidi is a graduate of Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, and holds an MA Degree with Distinction from the International School of Protocol and Diplomacy in Brussels, Belgium, with a concentration in Cultural Competence. She has an Executive Certificate in Non-Profit Management from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, and is currently enrolled in a similar program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

I grew up in Illinois, the eldest of three girls. From an early age our parents gave us significant exposure to the world and taught us to work hard. Those experiences made me who I am today, a life-long learner with an insatiable curiosity and massive wanderlust who wants to help.

My mother instilled the meaning of equity in us; we are all just people, no matter our differences. We learned that etiquette and manners could vary worldwide, but basic kindness and respect are universal. Meanwhile, my Dad, an avid traveler who took me to the far corners of the world, taught us the importance of work. “Nobody’s allergic to work around here!” He’d say.

My Dad, a very machismo kind of fellow who never met a stranger — he could talk to anyone, held very strong convictions. He instilled in my two younger sisters and me that work is your best friend. If you’re awake, you work. My mother was English, a proud British subject. She was stern, stiff upper lip and all, and our best manners and proper etiquette were paramount. Today, I have dreams that I’m alone on a deserted island, and somehow I find a knife and fork, and I use it correctly on bananas and grubs because “your best behavior is never off.”

As a family heavily vested in agriculture, I began my grain career early, detasseling corn for a local seed corn company; I was 10, but tall — the only requirement. We pulled the tassels from the tall corn stalks, row by row in hot, sticky fields.

Eventually, I began working at one of my Dad’s country grain elevators, especially at harvest, before and after school, making the first pot of coffee in the morning, weighing grain trucks, dumping trucks, and testing grain quality.

The farmers sometimes argued with me, a teenage girl, about the quality, because if the grain doesn’t meet the standards, you receive a lower price. Our state-certified testing procedures were accurate, but nobody likes a docked price. On occasion, we’d find a “plugged truck,” basically a truck with junk grain in the middle, disguised with good grain at the top. A very unscrupulous thing to do, always a sticky wicket.

I navigated some hard conversations at a young age, which gave me an appreciation for empathy and an introduction to the art of diplomacy. Between my Dad’s coaching and my mother’s etiquette training, I learned how to face difficult situations with reason and respect.

I went on to have a remarkable career as a grain trader, and eventually I built a second career in etiquette, soft skills and cross-cultural competence, all nearly innate to me. Today, I coach and lecture on the importance of etiquette, empathy, and empowerment and being culturally competent. All of which our world could use a bit more of, and I love helping others to achieve their professional and personal best.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’m a storyteller, and I’m fortunate to have a treasure trove of them, but one story stands out because it was so impactful so early in my professional grain career. It was a brutally hot Monday morning in Memphis, Tennessee, during the summer of a historic drought. I had just graduated from a private women’s college on Saturday, and there I was on the first day of my first job out of college.

I was a Merchandiser-in-Training, an MIT. My job was to buy grain to be delivered to our grain elevator in Memphis, on Second Street. We’d load the grain onto barges, which would navigate the mighty Mississippi to the Gulf. Then we’d off-load the barges onto ocean-going ships for export. I was thrilled to get started.

I walked into the office and found another MIT already there, a jovial fellow from Indiana, named Rich, and our boss, Joe, a steely guy from Alabama and a brilliant trader. The boss told Rich to show me the ropes, give me a tour of the facility and a bid sheet — created every day after the market’s close. It held what we would pay for grain; and a call list, a list of our customers, small grain operations in the Mississippi Delta whom we would call and try to buy their grain.

My call list was not the “good list.” Rich had that one. My list consisted of people who didn’t have any grain to sell. Either the drought took most of it, they were people who had no interest in marketing to us, they were part of a vast conglomerate headquartered in New York City, or they were people who had gone out of business. The old saying was, “Here’s a bid sheet and a roll of dimes, start calling.” As I worked my way down the list, my heart grew heavier and heavier, and then I called a man named William McFarland, who had an elevator in Arkansas.

“Country elevator, William speaking.”

“Hello, Mr. McFarland, my name is Heidi, and I’m a new grain merchandiser in Memphis. I’d love to give you our bids for today.” There was dead silence on the other end of the phone. It lingered. I thought I’d lost the connection; old landlines in those days.

I repeated, “Mr. McFarland, are you there?” Finally, breaking the deafening silence, he spoke, “Where are you from?” Puzzled, I replied, “I’m from Illinois, the Chicagoland area.”

More silence, then Mr. McFarland spoke, “I have driven the same road to this elevator every morning for 40 years, I’ve walked into this office and sat at this same desk and chair for 40 years, and I’m not going to sell you my grain today, tomorrow, or in the next 40 years. Don’t call here again.”

Something in me, maybe all those disagreements with farmers over the quality of their grain, or the insatiable curiosity I cultivated roaming the world, prompted me to ask, “But, sir, why not?”

He replied with a gut-punch that I didn’t see coming, “Honey, not only are you a damn Yankee, you’re a girl!”

As I listened, I grew sick. I thought to myself, “I’ll never be able to buy grain here; I’ll lose this job, and my Dad will kill me. So what am I the first female trader they’ve ever had? I’m washed up on day one.”

But there’s no crying in baseball or the grain business, so I dug deep and kept calling Mr. McFarland every day. I was upbeat and offered a few tidbits about the market each day, and in the beginning, he’d hang up, or at least end the call abruptly.

I persisted, and gradually he listened to a bid or two, but I never bought a single bushel. Then he started saying, “Thanks for the bids,” but still no sales. I thought if I could handle a “plugged truck” situation, then I can take this, I’m not giving up.

The drought took its toll, and the company temporarily transferred me to one of its facilities in the Midwest to help with the harvest. I called my customers to say goodbye and let them know I’d be gone for a couple of months, Mr. McFarland included. He said, “Good luck, and call me when you’re back.” Wow, I couldn’t believe it. Was he softening?

When I arrived back in Memphis, you bet my first call was to Mr. McFarland. “Hello Mr. McFarland, it’s Heidi, I’m back in Memphis.” What came next is one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received in my life.

Mr. McFarland said in his beautiful, melodic Southern drawl, “Welcome home, Miss Heidi. I’ve missed you.”

I went on to buy nearly all of Mr. McFarland’s grain. I’m grateful to him; he gave me a gift. He taught me a thing or two about resilience, tenacity, and respect. He taught me that I can accomplish anything, even as a female Yankee. His life-lessons helped to shape who I am today, and I’m grateful.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company’s tagline is; “Cracking Social Codes for Good,” which means we crack open soft skills such as etiquette, empathy, communication, confidence, executive presence, emotional intelligence, and cross-cultural competence, apply them to the modern world, and help emerging leaders, seasoned professionals and organizations reach their personal and professional goals.

Today, hard or technical skills are abundant. If you have the job, we assume you are adept as a technician, but a good grasp of soft or non-cognitive skills is often lacking. Research shows that soft skills are imperative for success. A 2019 LinkedIn Global Talent Trends study reported that 92% of HR professionals say soft skills are important or more important than hard skills, and I’ve found that to be true throughout my career.

Soft skills matter a lot. We worked with a development officer for a large nonprofit who was unsuccessful in raising funds. He routinely met with potential donors but could never seal the deal. He was pleasant, prompt, and presented reasonably well. But when we cracked open some of his social codes, we found that his communication skills needed work, mostly due to a lack of confidence.

To mask his insecurity, he tended to monopolize conversations with potential donors, instead of listening and learning what they had to say. Sometimes it’s easier to talk than to listen, and he was a nervous talker. He was trying to be interesting, but his vibe actually said, “I’m not interested.”

His confidence increased as we dissected the various elements of communication, and perfected his listening and presentation skills. We even worked on his body language. It took some time and a lot of hard work and grit on his part, but we succeeded in the end. He completely reworked his approach to donors and became one of the top development officers in the organization.

Our clients tend to be high-achievers who want to continuously improve themselves and their well-being. We sincerely want to help people succeed, and we’re willing to go that extra mile upfront to identify obstacles and customize solutions to get people where they want to go in their career, and help them stay there.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I was lucky that I had the parents I did. They were complete opposites, but they shared a common goal to teach my sisters and me that the world is a big, wonderful place full of sights, sounds, smells, and interesting people. They ingrained in us a philosophy that celebrates differences.

We worked all “the hours God sends” with dedication, conviction, respect, and grace, and we always minded our manners. My parents surrounded us with fascinating people from all interests and walks of life. Though we had to be seen and not heard, they were always exposing us and teaching us.

We had a dear family friend, Mrs. Weathers, who was crippled with arthritis and in pain, but never let on. My mother told us that Mrs. Weathers, a very wealthy woman who’d grown up in Iowa, was the classiest person we’d probably ever meet, and she was right. Mrs. Weathers lived in a beautiful high-rise on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

We would often visit her wearing our best dresses, on our very best behavior. Though I was very young, I remember vividly that Mrs. Weather’s tone and demeanor never varied no matter whom she was addressing. She was just as kind and funny to her nurse, or a workman, as she was to us or any other visitor. We adored her.

One day, feeling a bit cheeky, I leaned into Mrs. Weathers and told her that my mother said she was the classiest person we’d ever meet. Mrs. Weathers laughed, a deep, raspy sound, and whispered to me, “the meaning of true class is someone who can speak to anyone, from any station in life, with equal ease, interest, and grace. Remember that, and you’ll do just fine.”

I’ve never forgotten.

Fast forward years later. I’m living in New York, trading grain for an Italian company. Our big boss was a lovely, patrician man from New England, a great trader but he lacked an agricultural background.

Our boss and I had just returned to New York from visiting some farms and grain elevators in the Midwest. Since this was my wheelhouse, I escorted him and introduced him to many farmers and country grain elevator operators to gain a real sense of grain production.

We returned to New York just in time to attend our industry’s most exclusive gala, an annual posh affair for the top, senior-level people from across the globe. The boss was excited about the event that evening, and spontaneously he asked me if I’d like to attend along with him and his wife. I was thrilled; I certainly wasn’t at his level, nor senior-level, so this was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I arrived at the event in my “black-tie appropriate” long dress (always keep one ready) and started to mingle, something I’ve always enjoyed. The boss introduced me to the Chinese and Russian grain buying teams and countless other dignitaries in our field. It was a magical night.

Near the end of the event, I found my boss to thank him and bid adieu. He smiled at me and thanked me for attending, then leaned in and whispered, “I’m quite impressed that you can engage and connect with dignitaries tonight just as easily, effortlessly, and with the same grace, as you did with farmers yesterday. You represent us well.”

I left, and in the taxi on the way home, I said a little prayer and thanked Mrs. Weathers.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the experience of Impostor Syndrome. How would you define Impostor Syndrome? What do people with Imposter Syndrome feel?

Imposter Syndrome is a form of intellectual self-doubt, a term coined by Suzanne Imes, PhD., and Pauline Clance, Ph.D., in 1978. People with Imposter Syndrome feel like a total fraud. They feel as though they are “acting” the executive part that they do not deserve to be successful because they doubt themselves.

Initially, Imposter Syndrome was considered a women’s issue. Of course, while it is still common in women, that outdated thinking has evolved. Imposter Syndrome can affect anyone, but it seems most common among high-achievers who have a hard time believing they deserve their success.

It’s not a unique experience either. At any time, 1 in 3 employees working in the US feel like a fraud. They make up excuses for their success, such as right timing, coincidence, or plain old good luck. Up to 70% of achievers say they have felt like imposters at some point in their careers.

It’s a lonely feeling. Imagine the likes of Albert Einstein and Meryl Streep having Imposter Syndrome; they did. Einstein didn’t know what all the fuss was about his work, and Streep didn’t think anyone would watch her act, since she didn’t know how.

People with Imposter Syndrome are frequently anxious and ill at ease. They’re continually waiting for the curtain to be pulled back and be revealed as a phony, when this simply isn’t reality.

What are the downsides of Impostor Syndrome? How can it limit people?

Imposter Syndrome can be debilitating; you are always on-guard, worried someone will find out that you’re an imposter. It’s exhausting. It’s also tough to concentrate when you’re consumed with self-doubt, and your job performance can suffer because of it.

Ironically, Imposter Syndrome can cause you to jeopardize an otherwise stellar career. By feeling that you do not have the right chops for the job — even if in reality you do — you may create a self-fulfilling prophecy, making mistakes you might not have made if your focus and attention were on your job and not on these phantom shortcomings.

This kind of worry can stifle your creativity, inhibit your problem-solving ability and long-term planning, and generally limit your ability to present yourself in the best light. For instance, your communication and other valuable soft skills might be impaired because you’re too guarded, overly apologetic or even too quiet, and scared to put your ideas out there.

All of this impacts your image, your promotability, and your chances of being chosen for stretch assignments or learning and development opportunities. Perception can mean everything in the workplace, and how we perceive ourselves bears a significant impact on how we present ourselves to others.

How can the experience of Impostor Syndrome impact how one treats others?

If you always feel like the shoe could drop at any moment, and everyone will know you are a fraud, it’s bound to affect how you treat others, and likely not in a positive way.

Imposter Syndrome can leave you feeling a bit paranoid, worried and overly cautious, constantly on the lookout for anyone prying too much. You could mistreat or misjudge others when they may just be trying to ask questions and learn from you. You also run the risk of being too secretive and not acting as a team player. Collaboration is hugely important in the modern workplace, and you could negatively impact your team because you don’t think you deserve your success.

We would love to hear your story about your experience with Impostor Syndrome. Would you be able to share that with us?

Years of hard work in the grain business culminated in a big, new job for me, General Manager of a three-shift, three union shop, prominent grain exporting elevator on the Eastern Seaboard.

I was the first female general manager for a significant grain export elevator in the US, a relatively small, but incredibly busy facility. We ran eight-100 car trains on Conrail, bringing grain from the Midwest to be blended and loaded onto ocean-going vessels for export. I sourced the grain from the Midwest, ran the rail logistics, and ran the facility. I had a lot of help, a great elevator superintendent, a terrific office manager, and good shop stewards to work with, but we had an enormous job to do to make it all happen.

There were historic floods that year in the Midwest, which caused us to move our entire Gulf program to the East Coast. It was a scramble to buy the grain; and competition was fierce. I relied on my decent bids and great relationships to keep the trains rolling. The logistics would make an air traffic controller cry.

Everything was about timing, since our elevator could only hold a little over two trains worth of grain, and we had eight chugging around the clock. Plus, we had to blend the grain to make any money, the good with the fabulous, and a little of the just okay thrown in because it was cheap. Then there were the ships. They had to sail in and sail out at exact times. Things called demurrage crept in, which meant you lost money if the ship sat in berth too long.

Despite obstacles, our program was working well. We were meeting and exceeding Herculean expectations. One day, I was standing on the deck of the ship, watching the grain flow into the holds when it hit me; what was I doing there? I don’t know what I was doing, or did I? Self-doubt took hold of me.

I was sick with worry. Our program could fail, and I’d be exposed as a fraud. I moved into my office; it was nice with an oversized couch and a bathroom with a shower. I was afraid I’d miss something if I left and went to my apartment. We had a microwave in our break room, so I ate there too.

I recall a rare outing to the grocery store to buy some frozen food for the microwave. I remember reaching into the frozen food freezer and seeing some poor person’s shaky hand, trying to grasp a box of Lean Cuisine. As I looked at the hand with pity, my eyes began to travel up the arm and I realized in horror; it was my hand! I was incredibly stressed, a fraud waiting to be unmasked.

I went back to the elevator, grabbed my hard hat, climbed the gangway to the deck of a ship we were loading headed to Spain. I fondly recall her captain, Captain Sabin, was standing on the deck. He was a frequent flyer with us, and I always looked forward to seeing him. He greeted me warmly, and he must have sensed that I was stressed, I can’t imagine how bad I must have looked. I told him I was fine, but his intuitions were right, I wasn’t.

“Now don’t you worry about a thing,” he told me. “You’re doing a great job here.” I said something profound like, “Really?”

He nodded. “The ships sail in, and they always sail back out.” He meant that things work out. I had a good plan, and we made all of those moving parts work on time.

That simple statement gave me great comfort and helped me begin my journey to accept my successes and move beyond Imposter Syndrome. Today, when I find myself in an untenable situation, I still think to myself, “It will be okay. The ships sail in, and they always sail back out.”

Did you ever shake the feeling off? If yes, what have you done to mitigate it or eliminate it?

Yes, I’m happy to say that I did shake off Imposter Syndrome, and it began with that simple kindness from Captain Sabin. My healing accelerated when I became a mentor to a new grain trader.

Enzo, a smart and elegant young man, had come from Italy to learn from us, the best in the business. I became his mentor, and as I shared my knowledge with Enzo, it became apparent that I was smart. I knew my stuff. From soup to nuts, I had a lifetime of experience, and sharing my experiences with this eager young man began to heal me. It was an epiphany: I knew my job, and I was good at it. The unwanted visitor named Imposter Syndrome finally left me, and good riddance.

In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone who is experiencing Impostor Syndrome can take to move forward despite feeling like an “Impostor”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Become a mentor. For me, the rubber hit the road when I served as a mentor to a brand new recruit in our business. I knew I could trade grain, but I forgot how deep my knowledge and experience went, how far I could go to explain a tricky industry to an enthusiastic new trader.

2. Create goals with deadlines. I realized that if I wrote down goals with specific deadlines, it was easier to see my accomplishments and feel successful.

3. Track your success. Many industries keep track records, and so can you. Successes add up quickly. Keep a record, and it will boost your confidence.

4. Embrace maturity. Your career maturity overshadows and will eventually fade your Imposter Syndrome — if you let it. Those false feelings may naturally wane as your career and experiences expand. Let it go; just let it all go. You’ve got this.

5. Engage a coach or other professional help. If you feel you need it, find some outside help to tackle your Imposter Syndrome. A career coach, or if required, a clinical professional, can help you to more accurately assess and conquer real vs perceived personal and professional impediments.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am so glad you asked because I have an idea. Let’s start a “Virtual Coffee” with friends and strangers alike, from around the planet. It would be an attempt to get to know each other better, to appreciate each other more. The latest technology could offer us a platform from which to connect, communicate, and share a virtual cup of coffee.

We could all use a little more civility and healing right now. Why not start with something as simple and almost universally appealing as a cup of coffee?

I wrote a dissertation for a Master’s Degree a few years ago while staying in Belgium. I used coffee as a metaphor to help explain cultural differences and the importance of cultural competence. I proposed the following question:

“Can a global common commodity, such as coffee, serve as an agent to start motivating conversation and promote cultural competence?”

I firmly believe the answer is “yes.” While we are all different, we have the ability to communicate, to paraphrase the late and great cultural expert, Geert Hofstede. Consider our common bonds; they lie within the history of coffee.

It’s an intoxicating tale. Coffee is a Muslim creation. She was born in Ethiopia, influenced by the Chinese, emancipated from Mocha by a smuggler into India, and the Dutch, then British, who sailed the globe with her, and coffee finally landed and was adopted by Christians in North America.

Coffee, with its enormous commonality, admiration, accessibility, and relative affordability, is a perfect agent to kindle a conversation.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

I would welcome the opportunity to meet with Melinda Gates because I admire her dedication to world health, especially considering her life station. She is doing something powerful with her life, intellect and her privilege, leaving a legacy that will last for centuries.

I would welcome the chance to meet Oprah because I am in awe of her sense of empathy. She feels like no other. I admire her, and I aspire to share her level of heart. She uses her privilege to make others’ lives better.

Finally, I would welcome the opportunity to meet Howard Schultz because I think I’m onto something with my idea to help heal the world through a communal cup of coffee. I think he may appreciate my vision, and he could make it happen.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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