How I Thrive: “Ask why a lot” with Ming Zhao & Courtney Malengo

I love learning and am an insatiably curious person. I ask why a lot. In my first job I tried to persuade the two 30-somethings I worked with to undertake a group challenge at improving ourselves. We created what became a universal swear jar, but since I really didn’t swear, they created a rule that […]

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I love learning and am an insatiably curious person. I ask why a lot. In my first job I tried to persuade the two 30-somethings I worked with to undertake a group challenge at improving ourselves. We created what became a universal swear jar, but since I really didn’t swear, they created a rule that I had to deposit a dollar any time I asked the question why. Between their colorful language and my whys, we managed to treat ourselves to lunch, several times.

At times it feels like wellness or elevating one’s wellbeing, is diametrically opposed to high achievement and high performance in one’s career. The stress, mental energy, long hours, lack of restful sleep, preoccupation that result from a high-achievement life seem to directly inhibit wellness. And yet, in order to sustain the creativity, flexibility, mental acuity and resilience that are necessary for high performance, wellness and wellbeing of the mind, body and soul are also mandatory. So how do we achieve both? This is the question I’m hoping to answer through conversations with high-achieving women who have gleaned and are practicing their own philosophies on maintaining their wellbeing. As a part of this series about what successful women leaders do to thrive, both personally and professionally, I had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Malengo. Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanize growth. A passionate communicator with 17 years’ experience, she holds an accreditation in public relations and a master’s in communication and organizational leadership.

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 and to where you are today?

Ever since the fourth grade I wanted to be a writer. My teacher, Mr. Turner, would afford us dedicated creative writing time in the afternoon. I remember becoming enthralled with that activity, losing track of time as I imagined a fanciful story. Writing quickly became a passion, along with my voracious appetite for reading. In high school I served as a reporter and editor of our school newspaper, while simultaneously interning with the local community paper. During my college years at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pa., I repeated that trend. I served as a writer and the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, while interning for Main Line Today magazine and freelancing for The Wayne & Suburban Times. During my senior year I decided I wanted to pursue magazine-style feature writing, so I set my sights on working at a magazine after college. I managed to land a gig with a trade association, working as a writer for their in-house magazine. The only hitch was it all centered on real estate investment trusts, not exactly a riveting topic for me at that time in my life. I was often tasked with interviewing fund managers who oversaw portfolios of real estate investment trusts and the CEOs of these large companies. At 22, I found myself reading the Wall Street Journal and covering a topic that wasn’t exactly exciting. After two years, I decided to freelance full-time for several local magazines, including Maryland LifeFrederick Magazine and Bethesda Magazine. It was this decision that opened me eyes to new ways to use my talents, because I also started copywriting for marketing firms. I found that I could apply my love of writing in unique and creative ways for marketing and corporate communications and enjoyed it immensely.

This track led me to a career of 17 years leading a variety of marketing, public relations and communications initiatives for several organizations. In almost every organization I worked for, my role was a newly created position. I loved that because the job description didn’t define me, rather I could define the job description (and in some cases, I literally wrote my own job description). It gave me the opportunity to be a trailblazer and create the foundation for the future of what that role would become. Looking back at my career, I see how that appealed to my entrepreneurial nature and helped me create in-house communications agencies at several different jobs. Along the way I earned my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) certification from the Public Relations Society of America, in addition to a master’s in communication and organizational leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Once I had my son though, everything changed. It is true when they say no area of your life goes untouched by having a child. For better or worse, women often carry the invisible burden of the mental load of parenting. When you combine that with trying to continue your professional career, have a social life, tend to your marriage and more, it can often feel insurmountable. There’s a tension between what you’ve always wanted and what you now need to do. I had several people tell me that women can have it all, just not at the same time. A child changes your perspective and your priorities. In my quest to thrive, I wanted to spend time with my precious son during these fleeting early years, but I also desired to continue challenging myself professionally. After years of high-stress roles, the pressure of constantly being on deadline and putting my needs on the backburner, I finally recognized I needed to prioritize self-care and make a change. All of these experiences directly prepared me to launch Spark + Buzz Communications.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In one of my previous roles as a director of public relations, one aspect of my job was event planning and creating memorable experiences. An all-time favorite event was a grand opening I was tasked with designing and planning. I knew I needed a notable guest speaker to anchor the welcome ceremony, in addition to the detailed preparations for approximately 700 guests enjoying an all-day affair. After researching, I narrowed down two or three solid options for speakers. Our team unanimously agreed upon the speaker and I began inquiring about booking fees and availability. Much to my dismay, our number one pick was out of our budget range and frankly, the other potential speakers simply paled in comparison. Despite this challenge, I knew this person would be the best fit. Not easily dissuaded, I had to try and figure out another way to make this happen within our budget. So, I tried an unorthodox tactic. I penned one of the most sincere, compelling letters I’ve ever written, respectfully requesting the speaker to consider an alternate fee because of our non-profit’s mission and budget constraints. You never know until you ask, so I figured it was worth a shot. Before I sent this plea off to the speaker’s handlers, I asked our executive assistant to read it and tell me what she thought. As she poured over my page-long letter she began to cry. I knew that if my letter moved her that much, it was certainly possible it would touch the speaker’s heart too. You can imagine my excitement when the speaker’s response was ‘yes!’

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

By giving myself ample time to proof campaigns and projects, I’ve managed to keep myself out of any major disasters. With that said, in my first job out of college, I often interviewed fund managers and big-wig CEOs. One day I had a scheduled phone interview with a CEO, to ask him questions about his company for a magazine feature I was writing. As you can imagine, most CEOs of big real estate investment trust companies are pretty busy and I’m essentially a mere peon, or necessary evil, depending on how you want to look at it. About 30 minutes before the call I went down to the basement of our building to grab a quick snack from the food court. The elevator I took to get back to my office got stuck. Murphy’s Law was in full effect. Thankfully, I was the only person in the elevator (I’m not keen on being stuck in small spaces with a ton of people). After pushing the emergency button, I waited in the elevator for 30 minutes before I was rescued. As a result, I missed my interview. I made it back to my office unscathed, but realized I was going to have to call this CEO and figure out a believable apology, if, and that was a big if, he would still take my call. I prepared for the worst. I started with my apology saying, ‘I know this will sound like I’m making this up, but I missed our appointment because I was stuck in an elevator. I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but might you still have time to talk to me?’ A raucous roar could be heard on the other end as he replied, “you know, that sounds a bit like the dog at my homework excuse,” he said chuckling. “Okay ‘Miss Stuck in the Elevator’, let’s do this interview.” A wash of relief flooded over me and I was able to conduct the interview and finish up my feature story. While it wasn’t a mistake in the conventional sense, it taught me a lot about others. There were countless CEOs I interacted with who could care less about who I was, because as a reporter I wasn’t deemed influential or important. You learn a lot about the character and integrity of a person by how they treat others at all layers of an organization. I knew that regardless of what position I would come to hold in life, I never wanted to make anyone feel insignificant, small or beneath me. I was grateful that this CEO didn’t treat me that way, despite many of his fellow CEOs who had.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture and work life?

Not to oversimplify things, but don’t be a jerk. I’m a huge believer and proponent of the servant leadership model that was popularized by Robert Greenleaf. Your job as a leader is to help people realize their potential and create opportunities for them to grow and thrive. It is NOT about what you can get out of them or simply what they can do for you and your organization. There are countless discussions about whether an organization is separate from its people and vice versa — but I don’t believe an organization can exist without people. Essentially, an organization is its people. It is short sided to think otherwiseIn every role I’ve held, I’ve always strived to be transparent, fair and honest, treating people with respect and helping them get to that next opportunity. Whether that is learning a new skill or eventually moving on to a new gig, I want to help others grow and thrive. It’s important to always make space for personal conversations and understanding what inspires those who work with you. I believe you should love what you do and have fun while you are doing it. If you don’t love it, then let’s figure out something you do love. I’ve had my fair share of amazing bosses and not-so-amazing bosses, so I’ve learned from both examples. I’ve seen first-hand how toxic cultures can permeate an organization and handicap its success. It’s true, it starts at the top. You must model and exhibit the behavior you want to see, and expect, from your team. Alignment between what you say and what you do is crucial for culture and consistency in communication.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. In my work, I focus on how one can thrive in three areas, body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers two self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

Since having my son and starting my own business, it is a lot harder to find personal time for just me. It is something I am working on, but it isn’t always ideal. When I do have time to sneak away, I pamper myself with a massage or pedicure. It helps me relax, decompress and come back refreshed. Those who know me can attest to the fact that I am slightly obsessed with lavender and essential oils. I always have lavender at the ready to help refocus me; it creates a calming effect when I’m very busy or stressed. At a previous job, I was known for whipping out my eucalyptus and lavender-infused Badger Balm Headache Soother stick and calmly sniffing it while on frustrating conference calls. My team thought it was hilarious, and probably quirky too, but it helped me manage the overwhelming amount of mind-boggling calls I sat in on.

Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

I love learning and am an insatiably curious person. I ask why a lot. In my first job I tried to persuade the two 30-somethings I worked with to undertake a group challenge at improving ourselves. We created what became a universal swear jar, but since I really didn’t swear, they created a rule that I had to deposit a dollar any time I asked the question why. Between their colorful language and my whys, we managed to treat ourselves to lunch, several times.

I’m always thinking and musing about a new idea or venture — sometimes this trait can be both overwhelming and worrisome to others around me (my husband thinks another idea equals another project on the honey-do list …). I find inspiration in a lot of places, from direct mail pieces that arrive in my mailbox to a beautifully executed brand identity on retail packaging. Everything I do is about communication and I look at everything through the lens of a story. This is why I like to dive in and understand the subject matter at hand, people included. And if I don’t know something, I want to learn — that way I can gain that knowledge and use it for the future.

While I don’t have the time to read like I used to, each morning I listen to a daily curated news feed that highlights tidbits from national news and the culinary scene to creative and unique companies in Fast Company and Inc. magazines. I also regularly sign up for webinars and other continuing education opportunities so I can keep tabs on broader trends and discussions.

Finally, can you share with us two routines that use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

For me the essential combination is anchoring my life with God’s Word and surrounding myself with upbeat, positive friends. I make it a habit to greet each new day with a scripture from the Bible to keep me focused on what matters most. I love using YouVersion’s Bible App as it makes connecting with God’s Word easy and accessible anywhere. There are days when things descend into chaos quickly, especially within the ever-changing dichotomy of running a business and managing a toddler. Just when I think my day can’t get any crazier, I quickly glance at my phone and find a word of comfort.

Since making this transition of becoming a mom and business owner, I’ve also tried to truly focus on quality time with friends. We all know life is short, but it often takes the loss of loved ones to remind us to reprioritize what’s important. It’s easy to default to that ‘busy’ setting, where it feels like I’m just running from one thing to the next without really living life. I earnestly make it a priority to connect with others on a deeper level, instead of being “too busy.” It has helped strengthen my friendships and bring joy to my soul.

When life is very busy, and you cannot stick with your ideal routine, are there any wellness practices, rituals, products or services for your mind, body, or soul that you absolutely cannot live without?

It seems like my ideal routine happens less and less these days, but it is teaching me flexibility and discipline in unexpected ways. The one product I can’t live without is an all-natural, herbal supplement called Ashwagandha. My integrative physician introduced it and it’s been a lifesaver. It’s an adaptogenic herb (or adaptogen), meaning it adapts to your body and helps you better manage stress while boosting your immune system. I swear by it for stress management and sustainable energy. It helps me maintain some semblance of balance and calmness on days when my routine is completely unpredictable.

All of us have great days and days that are not as great. On days when you feel like a rockstar what do you do? What does that day look like, and what did you do to get there?

When things just fall into place, or I’ve landed a new contract — that is when I feel like a rockstar. I liken it to having a perfect hair day, hitting every green light on my travels and having ample time to swing by Starbucks for my favorite coffee creation. It’s a gleeful feeling when you’re on point and things just work!

While there’s no formula to creating these moments, I have found they are more likely to occur when I’ve done all of the prep work necessary the day before, get a good night’s sleep, and manage to have some time to myself before my son wakes. He’s a great sleeper, but no matter what time he goes to bed, he still gets up by 7 a.m. I must confess, I’m not much of a morning person, though I’m often forced to be one by default of both my professional and personal obligations. I’m not sure I’m a night owl anymore either. As I’ve gotten older, it seems I’ve become neither! I truly love my sleep and so getting a good night’s sleep — a minimum of eight hours — is crucial to my overall wellbeing and ability to function.

In contrast, on days when you feel down, what do you do?

On days when I feel down, I have a couple of things I always try do to do. First, I like to squeeze in a nap if possible (it is super rare these days, but welcomed when the stars align). Everything always seems better after I’ve slept on it — sleep brings clarity to whatever is occupying my mind. As I mentioned in my previous answer, I love sleep, hence why I’ve probably never fit the definition of an early bird. Second, I look for a small way to carve out time for myself and briefly indulge in something that makes me happy — that could be getting a manicure or simply wandering through a store at leisure. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I pray. We have a choice over our feelings, and I find that prayer is the quickest way to keep my thoughts centered on what’s most important.

You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving caretaker at home?

This is a great question, and one that is rather unique for me. In my quest to thrive, I essentially combined these two roles. I’m a work-from-home mom with a tiny toddler. While I am lucky that my loved ones support me by helping babysit my son, he is with me most of the time, so he’s practically Spark + Buzz’s second employee. In many ways, he was the impetus for launching Spark + Buzz, so he plays a unique role in this adventure we’re on. I made this choice because he’s only young once and I didn’t want to miss out on those precious, fleeting moments. Each day is truly an adventure, because it requires me to shift from my professional hat to my personal hat at any given moment. That hasn’t been easy and is not without its challenges. Depending on the day, that experience can be either terrifying or thrilling. I’ve learned to be strategic in ways I never thought possible, especially regarding how I optimize my workload and workday. I’m probably breaking all kinds of rules experts counsel you against, but I don’t have a defined stop/start between my personal and professional life right now, but that works for me. Even at other companies, I was always working, so at least this scenario allows me to decide when and how I get that work done.

My workday is fluid and flexible, which allows me to focus on client projects and enjoy simple things like taking my son to the park. Because of that, it also means that weekends and evenings are often prime quiet times for me to finalize projects. I don’t believe it has to be all or nothing and I also don’t believe building a business should be at the expense of yourself or your family. My schedule won’t always look like this, which I remind myself of. It is temporary and before I know it my toddler will be toddling off to preschool and I’ll have more dedicated time to focus on other things (which I must confess, I am looking forward to).

Is there a particular practitioner, expert, book, podcast or resource that made a significant impact on you and helped you to thrive? Can you share a story about that with us?

After years of feeling exhausted and burned out, I set out on a quest to find an integrative medicine practitioner in 2017. There were a series of life events that brought me to this point, but I had become frustrated with the overly popular notion in medicine of simply treating the symptom and not the root cause. On my quest to focus on whole-person wellness, I am grateful that my first integrative practitioner, Dr. Nicole Farmer, encouraged this and supported my journey to a healthier, more energized version of myself. Around that same time, I also started reading more about Dr. Andrew Weil’s integrative practices and subscribed to his Daily Tip email, which I still find useful and very practical.

On the professional side, I cannot thrive without Asana, a web-based application for project management and team collaboration. It keeps me sane and organized. I’ve used plenty of other programs, but I’ve found this one works well for creative teams. It also doesn’t hurt that a unicorn, Yeti and other brightly colored creatures fly across your screen, serving as amusing affirmation for completing tasks.

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. 🙂

Every interaction is an opportunity to influence. All of America’s problems that we see playing out on the political stage can be won in the seemingly mundane, daily interactions we have with friends, family, coworkers and neighbors. Sometimes, we think we need do something big or grand, like starting a movement, to make a difference in the world. It doesn’t have to be that complex. We can start by making life better for those around us, in our direct sphere of influence. That can be as simple as the kindness of a smile, taking a meal to a neighbor in need, buying a stranger’s coffee, encouraging your employees — it is stopping to think of others first rather than obsess about ourselves. It is about creating room to be less busy and more present. That’s a movement that can happen with anyone, anywhere.

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

I’ve always been a huge fan of C.S. Lewis and countless quotes speak to me, so it is quite hard to choose. One that I think is particularly fitting given my line of work is, “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.” This speaks to me about communication and what we ought to strive for. It also reminds me of what I counsel my clients to do. Keep your promises and do what you say you are going to do. That consistency goes a long way in building trust and cultivating an environment for open communication.

What are the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

You can always find me on LinkedIn at and I recently joined Instagram at @sparkandbuzz.

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

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