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Heroes Among Us: “Be open to the potential in people”, With Lesley Lykins of CXPA

Be open to the potential in people. Very early in my career as a Surface Warfare Officer I was in charge of a division of Sailors. I’ll never forget their individual stories, but I remember one of our hardest and smartest Sailors in the division opening to me about how he’d been homeless and sleeping […]


Be open to the potential in people. Very early in my career as a Surface Warfare Officer I was in charge of a division of Sailors. I’ll never forget their individual stories, but I remember one of our hardest and smartest Sailors in the division opening to me about how he’d been homeless and sleeping on the streets before he enlisted. I got to know another Sailor who has been in a gang in Los Angeles prior to escaping by joining the Navy. One of the more amazing things to witness in the military is the way that so many people from so many different diverse backgrounds come together and willingly risk their lives for each other.


As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lesley Lykins Marketing Director of the Customer Experience Professionals Association. Raised in rural Ohio, Lesley grew up learning how to milk goats. She accepted a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corp scholarship to Boston University as a method of escaping Ohio. After graduating with a degree in General Management she started her career driving warships for the Navy. After three years in the Navy’s Surface Warfare community, she was selected as one of the Navy’s 200 public affairs officers. She had opportunities to collaborate and lead major Navy outreach opportunities including New York City Fleet Week, and ended her active career in the Navy standing up the Navy’s social media program. She had a brief stint as a community manager for SocialMedia.org and then was blessed to be introduced to CXPA, the Customer Experience Professionals Association. She now serves as the association’s marketing director and has remained an active reservist in the Navy. In November 2018, she returned from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan supporting U.S. Forces Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support mission. On the home front, she spends time fundraising for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, participating as a leader in her church and is a wife and mother of four young children living once again back in Ohio. (No goats this time!)


Thank you so much for doing this with us Lesley! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

My parents moved our family from San Diego to northeastern Ohio when I was four years old. From the moment we moved until the moment I graduated from high school, I longed for sidewalks and questioned what my parents were thinking. I participated in 4H and showed goats at the county fairs and completed speaking competitions at the state level. In high school I developed a passion for running and participated in cross country. My father who had served fours years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War would wake my siblings and me up yelling “reveille, reveille all hands heave out.” He would also frequently use terms like “gee dunk” and “all hands on deck.”

I was desperate to return to California and at the very least go to an out-of-state school. So in high school when a young alumni came and spoke to our class about her experience in the U.S. Navy R.O.T.C. program, I went home and told my Dad I thought that would be a solid plan for me to get out of Ohio.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Today, I’m the Marketing Director for a seven-year-old global non-profit, the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA). A few months after leaving active duty, I was brought on by the organization’s co-founders to build the community, programming and overall member value for this brand-new association. I’ve served in every capacity for the organization and have such passion for our members and their dedication to improving the experiences of customers around the world.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I reported aboard my first warship in the summer of 2001 as a brand-new Ensign. My best friend and I arrived together and when we walked aboard the ship, the officer of the watch told us we had the wrong ship that “they didn’t have girls on this one.” We were the first women assigned aboard the USS Elliot (DD 967) and I served as first the electrical officer and then the damage control assistant. I was completing additional training in Newport, R.I. on September 11th and that day forever shaped what would be required of my military service in the future. I went on two deployments and then transferred into the Navy’s Public Affairs community, a small segment of roughly 200 Navy officers that focus on telling the Navy’s story to the American public. My last active duty assignment was standing up social media for the U.S. Navy while assigned at the Pentagon. In 2011, I left active duty and joined the Reserves to continue providing health insurance for my family. Last year I was mobilized and deployed to Afghanistan for nine months during which I supported the NATO Resolute Support mission as well as the U.S. Forces Afghanistan operations. Today I have nearly eighteen years of service in the military and speak to our local elementary school each year on Veterans Day about what it’s like and why it’s important.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

On January 11, 2008, I approached an apartment door in downtown New York City in a one of the low-income housing units to notify a mother that her son was dead. That became such a traumatic experience for me that months later in December when I was journaling the significant moments of the year, I couldn’t remember anything about January.

The previous year, I’d been working closely with the family of Navy SEAL Lt. Michael Murphy as they prepared to receive his Medal of Honor posthumously. I became intimately familiar with working closely alongside Gold Star families and it was both heartbreaking and inspiring all in one swoop.

These families in the midst of horrible grief dig deep and bring strength you often can’t imagine in an effort to ensure the true heroic story of their loved one killed in service to the country is not forgotten.

As I look back these are two separate but connected stories that played a huge role in my appreciation for the very real and in my face sacrifices that were made in defense of our country. As service members we are sacrificing for a country with believes and freedoms we value and want to protect. At the same time we also hold our own personal stories and life values and loved ones that care about us. While the names and numbers of those killed in action was reported by media, seeing the first hand loss and the gritty determination in the faces of those families effected reminded me of the consequences and the value of each and every life.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

The word hero carries so much expectation with it. I’d say throughout my career I observed a number of times when a fellow service member acted heroically. Typically, those weren’t movie-like moments, but rather just moments when extra courage was required to benefit more than just the individual. There was an instance on my second deployment aboard a ship when a very dangerous situation occurred at no fault of any of the crew or the commanding officer. It resulted in two small RHIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boats) left floating in open water nearing Iranian water. On a destroyer like the one I was assigned to the commanding officer is a Navy O5 or a Commander. My Captain at the time would have been around my age today. I think about the sheer amount of responsibility for the lives aboard the ship and the missions we were tasked with, and I would label him as a hero. He was able to make calm, smart decisions with clear leadership and we recovered the Sailors and the two RHIB boats quickly and safely.

More recently I witnessed true heroes in an American 25-year-old and a group of young Afghan women who would run together in Kabul and were training for marathons as part of the Run Free program. These women would come to our base and run weekly. They trained on the dangerous streets of Kabul and ran through threats, sneers and truly dangerous conditions to demonstrate health and strength and empowerment to their fellow Afghan citizens. I’ve never met anyone braver in my life.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

A hero is a person who displays bravery and/or risks harm to himself/herself to benefit others. When we are looking at heroes in real life, those people don’t wear capes or look invincible. Often I’ve found they struggle with their own insecurities and the consequences of the path they have traveled, but they put others before themselves and take measures that speak of an internal strength that inspires us all.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

No. A hero is someone who demonstrates great courage to benefit others and potentially risk harm to herself/himself. If you are willing to be vulnerable to benefit others, you are taking heroic steps.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Working longer hours isn’t always productive. While in Afghanistan the leadership there took the approach of working around the clock seven days a week with little to no break. I understood that we were in a war zone and that we needed to ensure people didn’t die, but there were watch rotations and when the emergency was happening everyone could rise to support. What I witnessed was a burnt-out culture that had lost fresh thinking and became numb to the day-to-day support. It was detrimental to the mission and to the motivation.
  2. Be prepared and understand what motivates others. Our team at the Pentagon had been pushing to stand up social media for around 8 months. We had everything ready to launch, the plans were in place and we had the benefits and ROI detailed out. It took the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 to get the go ahead to launch social media. In other words, know your story, have your facts and present and present them in the style that best resonates with the stakeholder from whom you are seeking support.
  3. Do it now. Don’t procrastinate. There will be tasks that you want to put off but work hard and don not put things off. The military has strict requirements around preventative maintenance and training drills. If you put off that maintenance or push training out, it can present deadly consequences. I learned early one that sometimes you just have to dig deep and get those things done that are so tempting to push off.
  4. Be open to the potential in people. Very early in my career as a Surface Warfare Officer I was in charge of a division of Sailors. I’ll never forget their individual stories, but I remember one of our hardest and smartest Sailors in the division opening to me about how he’d been homeless and sleeping on the streets before he enlisted. I got to know another Sailor who has been in a gang in Los Angeles prior to escaping by joining the Navy. One of the more amazing things to witness in the military is the way that so many people from so many different diverse backgrounds come together and willingly risk their lives for each other.
  5. Sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission. I hesitated writing this, and hopefully can explain what I mean by this. Too often since leaving the military and working in the civilian world, I’ve witnessed employees wait for direction and decisions to come down from the top, rather than proactively approaching leadership with a thought out and confident plan of action. There are often times in the military where someone still very young holds life or death responsibility and must make quick decisions. This builds a sense of confidence with a healthy dose of risk acknowledgement and trains people to feel comfortable operating under their own well thought out initiative.

Do you think your in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

Absolutely. I learned critical thinking skills in the military as well as leadership lessons. I think now having spent close to the same amount of time in business as time spent on active duty one of the biggest things I realize the military taught was a sense of initiative and “can-do” attitude. You are expected to observe, identify and execute with very little guidance and oversight in the military. Service members are trained to make observations and then act on those observations in the best interest of the organization. This means assuming risk and understanding those elements are critical to move the ball forward.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

My return home from my recent mobilization to Afghanistan has been the hardest four months of my life. I’d previously deployed three times on active duty and had completely underestimated how challenging it would be to return from a reserve deployment to my very civilian life, family and employer.

I came home to my marriage in serious jeopardy. My children were craving my love and demanding it at a rate I wasn’t prepared for. My employer had moved on, and I lost my role as Executive Director. I had deployed as an individual without a unit and now had returned home separated from everyone I had served with for the past nine-months in Afghanistan. I put the experience in a mental box and stored it in the back of my head as I tried to recover the life I’d left behind while I was away.

The key for me has been patience. I’ve told myself to go slow and patiently as I return to my civilian life

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m working on building a virtual week-long summer camp for children with Cystic Fibrosis. People with the genetic disease are not able to come into contact with one another due to a high risk of spreading dangerous bacteria (as recently highlighted in the major motion movie “Five Feet Apart”). My goal is to host a week-long “summer CF camp” that brings in other adult CF role models and incorporates fun activities done from home but with a virtual group of CF friends.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

I’d ask “how are you enabling your team members to accomplish the team’s goals?” A leader can easily default into acting on everything and expecting the rest of the team to fill in the gaps. I’ve learned that it is important and difficult to step back and let those you lead accomplish work in the way they do it best. Your job as a leader is to open doors, offer support and ensure they are enabled to succeed.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Know each person on your team. Spend the time right up front to get to know each person on the team. Spend a lot of time listening. Make sure that the middle managers understand you expect them to have an open door policy and want to see them enabling those below them as well. Encourage innovative thinking and listen to ideas with an open mind.

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 about that?

When I was stationed in New York City, I arrived pregnant with my first child. The Navy has a very small public affairs office in the city with two mid-grade officers assigned to it. It just so happened that Lt. Cmdr. Tamsen Reese was the director I reported too, and she played a critical role in mentoring me through the critical life work balance of a working mother.

At the time she had two-year-old twins and shortly became pregnant with her third. I followed her example closely and her support, encouragement and guidance have been critical to my continued ability to be both a working professional and mother.

Later when we were both assigned to the Pentagon, I watched Tamsen accept a deployment to Guantanamo Bay leaving behind her husband and four children, including a very young infant. She was the first person I called when I realized years later I’d be required to leave my own four children to deploy to Afghanistan. Her strength, grace and commitment to both family and service paved a path for me to follow and I’m forever grateful.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I sure hope so! After leaving active duty, I’ve really devoted my time to three specific things: my family and raising four children, my work with Customer Experience and advocating for medical advancement for Cystic Fibrosis. Our seven-year-old has CF and we’ve passionately worked to educate people about the disease and advocate for more breakthrough research and affordable and accessible care.

It is important to me that I put my time into things that are bigger than me alone and have the potential to improve peoples’ lives in the future.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

Community. My passion in life is bringing people together, and what I’d love to see is more people slowing down their hectic schedules and being willing to open up and be a little bit vulnerable to come together as neighbors supporting one another and eating meals together. For working parents today, dinner time can be such a disaster and mad rush. I think too often we blow through it with whatever can be grabbed. I’d love to see people taking turns inviting neighbors old and young to share simple meals with each other — get to know one another and be there to really support each other in communities. There are certainly cultures around the world that are still participating in this type of family/community fellowship, but it’s something I’d love to see more Americans participating in.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!” — Robert Burns

My father used to quote this to us growing up and I’ve carried it with me ever since. It is so important to be able to empathize and listen to others and be willing to participate in self-reflection to grow as a person or organization. This quote is very apt for the customer experience profession that I’m in now. So many companies are seeking voice of the customer and big data to understand how to improve business, retain customers and grow. Whether an individual or an organization, knowing how others perceive you is an advantage.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Brene Brown — her audible book “Power of Vulnerability” has been critical to my reintegration from my most recent deployment to Afghanistan. I’d love to share a meal with her.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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