I am thrilled to welcome Gregg-Brooke Koleno to The Trailblazer conversation this week. If you’ve been following the newsletter for a while, you know how much I nerd out over trailblazers. You also know that I value integrity and courage. Gregg embodies all of these traits and many more. She is a friend and a powerful voice for what’s possible. She not only sees people through the lens of their vibrance, but she reflects it back to them. I know from experience. When I talk with Gregg, I see that the next level of my life is within reach. She is a visionary leader who shows up with honesty and compassion.
MM: You and I have talked about women’s leadership several times. Why are you passionate about this topic?
GK: I am passionate about helping people, especially women, succeed both personally and professionally by becoming the best versions of themselves.
Have you ever heard the saying “crabs in a barrel” or “crab theory”? It is a metaphor to describe the tendency of whenever someone gets ahead, others from their community try to pull them right back down again. Women do this to other women, and it really upsets me! I believe it stems from jealousy which I believe is deep-rooted, dangerous, and damaging and with the proper professional help can be overcome.
In the corporate world we as women compete not only with men but with other women. I believe that as women, we need to support each other and celebrate each other’s wins and successes. We need to be happy for each other – when one woman succeeds and we support her, we all grow and win!
MM: I am glad that you brought this up, Gregg. I think about competition between women and see it as a learned behavior that is designed to keep us small. If we are fighting with one another, we will be far less likely to make a dent in the spaces where we want to show up. However, when we celebrate one another’s successes, as you mentioned, we not only build community but also focus our attention on the changes that we want to see in the world. The good news is that if this competition is learned, it can be unlearned.
MM: I see one of your strengths as seeing what’s possible for people even when they can’t see it for themselves. You help clients to transform their businesses and lives each day. Please tell us a little about yourself, your work, and your big “why.”
GK: I have always been passionate about helping others since I was a little girl. I have often found myself helping the underdog or those less fortunate. I am a natural problem solver, it is in my DNA, my mother is the same. I try to use it to help people solve their problems whether personal or professional. It brings me joy to help people see what they are capable of.
Throughout my career, I have worked in small businesses and have really enjoyed helping the business and the people within them grow. People are the most important part of an organization and helping each person find their greatest potential helps not only them but those around them. Working at IA allows me to engage with many small businesses which enables me to have a positive influence on so many people’s lives, not just the business owner’s life, but also their team members and families. I would say my WHY is being a positive influence and helping people become the best version of themselves in hopes that they will be happier and healthier which I hope helps them be a positive influence on those around them which can exponentially expand throughout the world!
MM: I consider you to be a trailblazer because you so often go first and then pave the way for others. You are doing it with the Schaumburg Business Association’s Women’s Alliance Group. Under your leadership, Schaumburg Women’s Alliance Group (SWAG) is creating a strong community of women leaders who collaborate to build relationships and make positive changes. What is the impact you hope to make today and for future generations?
GK: Thank you so much Michelle, that is so kind of you to say. I never thought of myself as a trailblazer. I am someone who is passionate about helping others and problem-solving. Our women’s group within the Schaumburg Business Association had a major transition this year. Our idea for SWAG was to bring professional women together to build positive relationships that are supportive and educational. I hope that by having a positive influence on these amazing women, they will take that energy and bring it to their personal and professional lives outside the group, in hopes that they will have a positive influence on those around them and it will spread like wildfire!
There is a powerful quote I share at the end of every meeting which is near and dear to my heart.
“Women need other women in their lives who think they are a big deal. No competition, no backhanded comments, no jealousy, no hate, just “I love you, I support you, and there is no one on Earth like you” kinda energy.” author unknown
MM: I love to talk with women about their courage because it is a model for all of us. We often think that we need to feel confident before we take action, but taking the difficult action before feeling the confidence is how we develop courage. Would you tell me about a time that you took courageous action even when you felt scared?
GK: For 14 years I worked at Interactive Health which became my work family for over 14 years. As a team, we worked very closely together across the entire organization like a family. Over the final three years the organization and culture changed in a direction I was not in agreement with, so I made the decision to leave and move on. At the time the decision was difficult, however when I look back, I know it was the best decision and has led me to where I am today which I love and am so grateful for. I believe everything happens for a reason and timing is everything. At the moment you may not know why the situation is happening, but I believe at some point in the future you will understand. Trust the process and enjoy the journey.
MM: So often women feel afraid to take up too much space because they experience backlash for showing up as their full selves. How do you navigate speaking up in your field?
GK: I have never been one to hold my tongue. In fact, speaking my mind has gotten me in trouble. Over the years I have worked with a communication coach to think before I speak and to filter what comes out of my mouth. I have always been direct in my communication and have not been good at sugar coating or softening a message. I have had to learn to slow down, think before I speak, and choose my words wisely, which is still a struggle for me. I am a work in progress and try to have patience and grace with myself to become a better communicator.
My communication coach also taught me a breath/break method. Now before I respond I take a breath and then respond. If the conversation starts to get heated or is not productive, I take a break from it to think about it and then come back to it at a predetermined time by both parties.
I also have a saying that I created with my coach “Listen to learn, not perfect, correct, or reject” which has helped me become a better listener and communicator. I have a daily reminder on my calendar that comes up with this message to keep this saying top of mind.
MM: Gregg, that phrase is powerful. “Listen to learn, not perfect, correct, or reject.” It centers curiosity.
MM: I’ve heard you talk about an abundance mindset. It’s something that I am curious about because it is part of my journey. What does that mean for you and how do you practice your abundance mindset?
GK: To be honest with you I never heard of the abundance mindset until my friend Dave told me about it. I believe if someone puts their mind to something they can accomplish it. I also believe there is enough to go around for everyone and that you are the creator of your own destiny.
If something in your life is not meeting your needs it is your responsibility to change it, whether it is a friendship or romantic relationship, career, family issue, or anything else, we each control our destiny and we need to take responsibility for our actions.
I am a living example of this, believe it or not, I used to be a very negative person. I am not proud of this and it did not serve me well so I began a quest to become a positive person. Through this journey, I worked with a therapist and coaches, surrounded myself with more positive people, and shed toxic people out of my life. This transformation has made me a more positive person which has resulted in a much happier and healthier life.
Another trait I am not proud of is I used to get jealous of others. Through the work with my therapist and coaches I have been able to overcome it and now I am truly happy for others in their wins and success and am able to celebrate their success with them. I see their success as a source of inspiration and motivation rather than feeling threatened or envious.
So, I guess you can say I now live with an abundance mindset as I approach life with no jealousy and a positive attitude. I view setbacks, challenges, and failures as learning opportunities for growth. This has had a profound positive impact on my personal and professional life.
MM: I agree with you about viewing setbacks as opportunities. That was a challenge for me for decades because pain does not feel like an opportunity in any way. However, it’s not so much about the setback as who I become in those moments. I learned that the times I’ve felt jealous of others were really about witnessing my own lack mindset. I saw a gap in my life when I looked at theirs. These days I’ve shifted that mindset from wishing, hoping, longing, and comparing/despairing to recognizing the untapped potential in myself. That becomes a roadmap.
MM: We know that we stand on the shoulders of trailblazers who have gone before us. Tell us about an influential trailblazer in your life and what you learned from them.
GK: My friend L (I won’t share her name to protect her identity), is my inspiration! She was a client of ours almost 20 years ago. The first time I met her was in a business meeting with 10 people. When L walked into the room, she carried herself with grace and confidence and when she spoke it was as if everyone soaked in every word that came out of her mouth. She was smart, confident, and brilliant and I was in awe of her, I left that meeting and said to myself when I group up, I want to be just like L.
The next time I saw L was when she came to visit our office in Chicago. We went out for dinner with the team and L and I instantly bonded and became great friends. The next time I was in Ohio, L invited me to her home to meet her family. During the evening, I was shocked to see my confident, smart, beautiful friend in a whole new light. She was a submissive wife. I thought to myself “What is going on here?” this is not the L I know. Later L and I had a private conversation about what I observed. She confided in me that her husband was jealous of her successful career which made her feel like less of a person so she would act submissively to keep the peace in her household. This was something she was not proud of and wanted to change. She is a problem solver too so we instantly went into problem-solving mode and put a plan together for the next few years of her life to leave her husband and begin her new and true to herself life. Long story short L is now living her best life and is one of the happiest people I know. Watching L go through this was an important lesson for me and has greatly impacted my life and the choices I have made. We need to respect ourselves and be true to ourselves. If we are in a relationship that is holding us back, is toxic, or not supportive, we need to do something about it!
MM: Thank you for sharing this story, Gregg. Seeing ourselves as worthy of autonomy, calm, confidence, and happiness is not always easy. I am not surprised that you showed up for L. You were her “hypewoman, that person who has her back and cheers her success. You are a force for positive change in this world and I’m lucky to call you a friend.