After my parents had my sister Lisa and me, they were told they could no longer have children. But my mom and dad decided they were not done growing their family, so they adopted an eight-month-old girl from South Korea. It was a bold and beautiful thing to do in a time when adoption was not as accepted as it is today. I was six years old when we picked Michele up at John F. Kennedy Airport, and that day remains one of my happiest memories.
Now, I love Lisa with all my heart, but Michele and I have a different kind of bond. Thing is, when you have a biological sibling, your love is instinctual; we’re wired to care for our own, after all. But Michele and I chose to love each other, which is something very distinct. Today, we share everything in common except for our DNA, and I know for sure that we would not be nearly as close if we had grown up biological siblings. As our mom says, “Michele wasn’t born in my tummy. She was born in my heart.”
Twenty-five years after I met Michele for the first time, I met a three-year-old boy named Anthony. He was the son of the woman I would soon marry, Jill. For me, it was love at first sight. If you had told me right then that twenty years later he’d be nominated by a United States senator to attend West Point Military Academy, I would have instantly believed you. And that, of course, is what happened. Jill and I had two perfect children, Caroline and Tate, and I love them with all my heart. But like my bond with Michele, Anthony and I have a special relationship. I chose to love my stepson, and he chose to love me.
Family is not always found in the home. I have a small staff of around six people who help me run the Tommy Spaulding Companies, which includes my for-profit leadership coaching and my two nonprofits, the National Leadership Academy (NLA) and the Global Youth Leadership Academy (GYLA). I’m constantly in awe of how my team pours as much of their heart into our little organization as I do. They may not have founded it, but they chosen to love it, and their heartprints are everywhere. I met Lauren O’Grady when she was just a baby and she attended the NLA in high school. She loved it so much she never left, and today she manages both the NLA and GYLA programs. The wonderful Cathy DeGraff ran my company for twenty years before she retired two years ago, and her incredibly talented daughter, Kaylee, has been with us for ten years and counting. Lauren, Kaylee, and everyone else at our organization are family, and we would do anything for each other.
I’ve worked with thousands of organizations over the years, from mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 500 corporations. Without fail, the ones that succeed treat their employees like family. A few weeks ago I had coffee with my dear friend Stephanie Treusein, who is a Vice President at a mortgage company called Luminate Home Loans. I love and cherish her, her husband, and their three children, who joined us in Greece last year with GYLA. Steph and I get coffee together every month, but this time I could tell something was wrong.
“I have stage-three ovarian cancer,” she explained. Her doctors successfully operated, but she now has to undergo chemotherapy. “What did your boss at work say?” I asked, nervously. The chemo treatments are time-consuming, and it could mean having to miss a lot of work. A lot of companies would look for an excuse to lay her off.
Instantly, Stephanie’s face brightened. Apparently her boss, Eric, sat her down and said: “Steph, we’re going to beat this cancer. Whenever you need to rest, you rest. Whenever you want to work, you work. We’re going to get through this together.” Not you’re going to get through this. We’re going to get through this. That’s how true heart-led organizations are run: like a family.
It isn’t hard to spot an organization like Stephanie’s—a place that its employees choose to love and work at because of the culture. My favorite breakfast place in downtown Denver is Snooze in the historic Union Station. They’ve got a few dozen locations nationwide, and anytime I’m in a city with a Snooze, I get breakfast there. Well, a few weeks ago I ate at Snooze in the Denver Tech Center, which I had never been to before. It’s a popular place, because when I arrived there was a line of twenty or thirty people waiting to get a table.
As I stood in line, the maître d’ rushed through the entrance with an armful of coffee. He handed them out to the guests and thanked them for being so patient. Then he shook hands with each of us and introduced himself. His name is Isaac, and one look at him is all you need to know you’re in for a memorable experience. Isaac’s head is shaved except for a small, neatly trimmed mohawk. He wears a t-shirt that says boldly, “All for Love and Love for All.” Isaac makes it his job to ensure everyone waiting in line feels appreciated and loved. When he found out that Anthony was attending West Point, he explained that he too used to be in the military and even worked in the Pentagon for ten years. Isaac had a big job with big responsibilities, but he wasn’t happy.
“So,” he explained, “I decided to hijack back happiness.” He quit his job, moved from Washington, DC, to Denver, and became a maître d’ because being around people and making them feel loved is what made him happy. I later discovered that since Isaac started at the Denver Tech Center Snooze, their sales have soared and their wait times are among the highest in Colorado. Simply because people like me go there just to see Isaac.
Isaac doesn’t own Snooze. He’s not an equity partner who gets a cut of every coffee and plate of eggs. He just genuinely loves coming to work, and he considers his coworkers family. When I see Isaac loving his customers, I know I’ve seen that love before. It’s the same kind of love that I share with my sister Michele and my stepson, Anthony. Remember that family can be your spouse and children. It can be your friends and neighbors. It can be your coworkers and boss and clients. Try to hijack back a little happiness and see the potential for these relationships to grow into something beautiful. Because at the end of the day, blood may make you related, but love is what makes you family.