On Friday, I called Cathy DeGraff on her business line this past Friday at 5 p.m. for the very last time. Cathy DeGraff, has been my business manager, executive director of our National Leadership Academy and Global Youth Leadership Academy, and chief operating officer of the Tommy Spaulding Companies for the last decade. When placing the phone call, I knew it would be the last time that I’d speak with her in these capacities. And, the last time until her Tommy Spaulding business line changed to her Cathy DeGraff retired phone line.
I mustered the strength to start our conversation with my infamous: “CATHY!!!” – the way I always greeted her on the phone ever since I hired her back in 2006, when I was the CEO and president of Up with People. I then squeaked out four more words, “you should be proud!” And then there was a long pause. Long enough for Cathy to figure out that I could no longer speak. I was crying like a baby.
Of our thousands of phone conversations over the years, I will never forget this one. I told Cathy that I loved her, I will miss her, and I will never be able to thank her enough for dedicating over a decade of her life to changing the world with me. They just don’t make business partners, employees and teammates like Cathy DeGraff.
In 13 years, Cathy may have made mistakes. May have made a blunder or two. And may have, at times, fumbled the ball. But she ALWAYS had my back, and that is something I will never forget.
Cathy and I both started working together years ago at a life-changing, mission-driven organization, and probably the most impactful organization we both ever worked for. But sadly, it was also the worst culture we ever worked for. Perhaps that is why when I hired Cathy to run my company 10 years ago, that we both were committed to build a different, trusting culture. Our last job had a “stab your back” culture, and we built a new company, together, with a “got your back” culture. And boy, what a difference!
I think we’ve all worked at a “stab your back” culture. And I think we all would agree that there is not a more toxic work environment when there is a lack of trust. As my friend Pat Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says so eloquently, “there is nothing more important to a successful team than trust.”
When there is trust, there is safety.
When there is safety, there is healthy conflict.
And when there is healthy conflict, there is a culture of the pursuit of excellence.
I guess that is why I was crying like a baby last Friday night. It’s hard to say goodbye to someone who has been one of the most trustworthy and loyal people in my personal and professional life. And although our new Tommy Spaulding team is beyond talented, smarter than smart, passionate and deeply committed to continuing to change the lives of others, it will take time to build the kind of trust that Cathy and I had built over the years.
Thank you, Cathy DeGraff. Thank you for teaching me that “having our backs” is more important than “patting our backs.” And for teaching me that the three most powerful words you can share with a teammate is, “got your back!” I will certainly always have yours.