In our interview series What’s Your Wish, we bring you career and life insights from inspiring business leaders. Find out how they landed where they are today. What makes them tick. How they have overcome obstacles. Advice they would offer to recent graduates. And always, what is their wish for young professionals.
Meet Susan B. West, Owner and General Manager at M2 Well-Being, a mobile mindfulness studio that brings mindfulness training to the workplace.
What’s the highlight of your career so far?
The highlights of my career come from the decisions that represented the most risk for me. And they each paid off in very different ways.
For example, I bought a one-way ticket to Santiago, Chile with no job or prospects, less than a year after graduating from college. I had a nice marketing role at a local bank in Philadelphia, but was driven to get international experience, hoped to work in consumer packaged goods for the marketing training and wanted to explore my roots (both my parents were raised there).
Despite not having a recognized degree (BA in International Relations) and failing psychological tests (I didn’t fit into the profile of a “typical Chilean woman”), I was hired as an Assistant Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble, Chile. It was a spectacular professional training ground and provided a solid foundation for my career. Plus it was a huge life adventure. I thought I would spend a year or two in Santiago, but stayed for four.
Then there’s the time I Initially declined a promotion at Arizona State University because they asked me to increase my part-time hours (3 days/ week) to full-time. My son was six months old then, and full-time hours didn’t feel like the right balance for me. But after two weeks of giving it more thought, I went to my boss, told him I wanted the expanded role, and thought I could do it well working part-time hours.
Lucky for me, he gave me a chance to prove I could, and I did. I was the only person on the senior management team (or on my marketing and communications team) who worked part-time. There was some internal resistance to my schedule, but we all made it work for six years. I was proud and gratified that I paved a different path.
Another career highlight was when I decided I was worthy of risking capital. Over the years, I started a of couple businesses and even quit paying “day” jobs to pursue them. But if the business required more investment than the opportunity cost of my income, I lost my nerve.
It took one year of research, pitching and cheerleading to gather the courage to launch and lead M2. There were (are) So.Many.Things I had no idea how to do or approach. But I took a leap of faith, and I’m so glad I did. However this unfolds, I know I will not regret it and I am curious to see where it will lead.
Is there anything you wish people knew about your company?
Too often, I hear that mindfulness is for hippies, new-agers, religious people, slackers or the otherwise lost and forlorn. In fact, mindfulness is practiced by corporate and government leaders, neuroscientists, professional athletes, first responders, military personnel and people of all walks of life and pursuits.
One in 5 people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime. But despite its prevalence, many of us are hesitant to prioritize our mental well-being. That could mean reaching out for support when you’re going through a challenge, recognizing you need a break, or taking a class to improve the way you handle stress.
We don’t question the importance of choosing nutritious foods, or the positive impact of physical exercise on our health or prioritizing skincare to fight breakouts in teens. Advocating for our mental well-being should be just as accepted, too. One of M2’s intentions is to bring people together to support and enhance their mental health and capacity for resilience.
What surprised you most about your current role?
I can like sales! As a career marketer, I have always appreciated being one degree of separation away from sales and direct revenue generation. Closing deals made me uncomfortable. Now I am an owner-operator, so my tasks range from driving the mobile studio, to directing branding and marketing, to bookkeeping, to hiring and managing talent, to business development and sales.
But it’s the latter that makes or breaks my business at this point. While I’ve always managed products or services that I care about and know provide important value, this is the first time in my career that I feel completely at ease evangelizing, and it’s made pitching and selling super doable.
How do you increase motivation when you are just not feeling it?
- Schedule it. Whether it’s a presentation, a confrontation or an activity I don’t enjoy, I put it on my to-do list and on my calendar. And I discipline myself to focus on that activity only. There is a lot of research that discourages multi-tasking, and it’s especially self-defeating when motivation is weak.
- Examine it (or meditate on it). Sometimes it helps to be curious about why I’m not feeling motivated. Negative feelings about myself or the business can make any activity seem like a chore. Am I feeling insecure about our revenue pipeline? Or how participants are engaging with our service? I try to put some distance between me and my thoughts and feelings, and identify if there’s an emotional burden I can try to let go or diminish.
- Step away from it. Sometimes I just need a break or a rest. I give myself permission to do something totally different– exercise, work on a crossword puzzle, prepare a meal, admire my dog—and come back later.
What have you found helps you in terms of organization or productivity?
Paper lists for daily tasks (nothing beats the subtle action of scratching out a completed to-do item) and quarterly, published goal setting and tracking to focus the bigger picture and keep priorities and activities on track.
How do you turn off when you leave the office?
My ongoing intention is to be present in whatever I’m doing. Work is always on my mind. So are my kids. As is what’s for dinner. Mindfulness appeals to me because I am trying to tame my monkey mind and be less wrapped up in the stories I create.
It’s a daily, hourly practice and journey that includes intermittent 30- second check-ins (a few deep breaths); “Do Not Disturb” on my phone so it pings me less often; scheduling fewer activities for me and my family overall; and making an effort to notice my body or thoughts. I don’t turn off, but I do practice letting go and returning to wherever I am. Sometimes I succeed and often I don’t. But I keep trying.
Do you have any recs for free time? (apps, books, podcasts, movies, music)
While I spend my fair share of time scrolling social media, I make a big effort to get away from electronics each day. Every week includes hiking with a friend, yoga, meditating, reading fiction and listening to podcasts (I’m kind of obsessed, though perhaps that doesn’t count as “away from electronics”). I also spend an inordinate amount of time talking on the phone (the good old fashioned way) with close friends.
What should a recent grad be looking for in a new career opportunity?
I find it hard to dispense general advice since everyone’s circumstances and aspirations are so different. But I can share what was very valuable about my experience in my early 20s.
- Work or intern during college. Before my senior year I interned at an NGO in Washington, DC; it helped me decide to pursue a path in business instead. Since I took almost no business classes, I opted for another internship second semester senior year– in marketing at a bank– to help pave the path. That turned into a job which turned into a career.
- I joined a bigger organization with complex products, services and budgets. Procter & Gamble had structured training and the opportunity to experience all facets of product ideation, development, launch and growth. Broad exposure was critical for skill development.
- Unless you’re pursuing a career that requires graduate school as an entry point, get work experience before continuing. Education is a great investment, but a big one. It should be part of a discrete plan; it’s not a good alternative to buy time to make a plan.
What’s your wish for young professionals?
I wish you the awareness to know what really matters to you and the courage to seek it out, even if it defies traditional roles or culture. We are all pretty preoccupied with external “shoulds” that don’t fully satisfy us deep down. I also wish you the flexibility and patience to accept that you may not have it right away and that it will require sacrifices.
Mastering skills and developing expertise takes time, practice, effort, discomfort and humility. So does earning trust, credibility and building a network. Listen carefully. Judge less. Be kind to yourself and others, always.
Now that you’ve learned all about the journey of Susan B. West, check out our previous What’s Your Wish interviews! Read Money, Meaning, and the MBA, with UCLA Anderson Marketing Professor Dr Cassie Mogilner Holmes, and get to know Suzanne Ginestro, Chief Marketing Officer at Quest Nutrition.