When I was nine years old, my parents told me that I was adopted.
I’ll never forget thinking, “Why would someone choose to abandon me? Why wouldn’t someone want me?” In a split second, my dignity shattered.
Up until that moment, I knew I had two loving parents who cared about me, but finding out I was adopted called my knowledge of this fact into question. It made me question where I belonged.
Though I could have never predicted this then, finding out I was adopted ultimately set me on a lifelong trajectory of seeking out what it means to rediscover our innate dignity, find communities where we feel safe, and remember that we belong to something larger than ourselves.
Whether it comes from being part of a team, culture, or organization that accepts us for who we are, having a sense of belonging allows us to take ownership and responsibility. And when we feel like we belong to others, we unlock more potential within ourselves.
In a process I call “Belong. Build. Believe.,” I work with individuals and teams to discover their innate sense of belonging, help them build confidence, and believe in their success.
Discovering our story of belonging—and how that story connects to our entire lives
All of us are born with an innate sense of dignity—the worthiness of being respected, cared for, and valued. Feeling like we belong strengthens that sense of dignity.
But if something overthrows our initial understanding of our worthiness
—whether it’s finding out life-shattering information about our families of origin, not making a sports team, or failing to obtain the “dream job”—that impact can stay with us for a long time.
As a kid, I struggled academically. I never excelled in the classroom, but there was one place where I did excel, and that was in sports. I was lucky to have coaches and teammates who believed in me on the field.
However, in eighth grade, a new basketball coach joined our school. Basketball was my favorite sport; however, the new coach, Coach Turner, didn’t pick me. I found out when the list was posted publicly outside the athletic director’s office.
I was devastated and showed up to the team’s practice session the next day anyway because I wanted to understand why I wasn’t chosen. Some of my teammates told me that I should be on the team and that I was one of the best players. They made me feel wanted and like I belonged.
That night, Coach Turner called me and said, “Mike, I made a huge mistake. You do belong on this team.”
Coach Turner’s decision to put me back on the team not only changed how I felt about myself that year, it reminded me to keep listening to my inner compass and have confidence for many years after.
Once we belong, we can build towards success
Through working with thousands of professionals in my career, I’ve learned that there’s one thing in common across all employees, regardless of their background: When someone doesn’t feel like they belong, they won’t have the confidence to bring their whole self to the table.
After finding my place of belonging in sports, I solidified my sense of “intestinal fortitude”—a phrase I use to describe strength and capability in rising above challenges. However, whether we feel a sense of belonging or not is something we will always be forced to return to, even after we’ve built some confidence.
In my early career, when I started at Wilson Sporting Goods, I was voted the “greenest salesman” in the history of my territory. Even though I belonged to sports groups and other communities, I didn’t quite feel like I belonged as a salesperson at my company. I had to build my confidence again in that space, despite having intestinal fortitude and belonging in other areas of my life.
One of my first client meetings at Wilson was with one of the company’s biggest customers, Tony. In the meeting, I gave Tony the wrong pricing. He was understandably livid, and I was mortified. I immediately picked up the payphone (this was years ago, after all) and called a senior member of the company to ask for advice. Sure, I had to disclose to my colleague that I made a mistake. And I was embarrassed. But if I hadn’t made that call, I wouldn’t have learned that Tony always got special pricing. More importantly, I wouldn’t have learned that my colleague would support me even though I made a mistake. After that, I was able to correct the mistake and see that I was building my capacity at work.
The experience taught me that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help isn’t something to be ashamed of;
it can help us deepen our relationships because we’re willing to be authentic, and that authenticity can allow us to find our way in belonging to a community.
Years after my call with Tony, I rose through multiple leadership positions in the company. And since then, I’ve led several teams at companies such as Wilson, Russell Athletic, and Yankee Candle, and supported them through major expansions and growth.
If I hadn’t built my capacity at work
and proved to myself that I could handle challenging situations and thrive, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to step into leadership opportunities.
And with each new opportunity that came my way, I had to come back to my sense of inner worth by finding people and spaces where I belonged.
Belonging is the foundation; building our confidence is the next step.
Yet, even after we build our capacity and discover that we do belong in our communities or companies, we still need to continue nurturing that sense of self-confidence as we evolve.
The importance of trying new things
Two of the ways I believe we can continue to build our confidence “muscle” are by:
- Not being afraid to try out new things; and
- Finding communities that we can lean on.
After years of leadership positions at other organizations, I founded my business advisory and coaching firm, Ask Inside, and more recently became a Vistage Chair, where I work with CEOs to maximize their impact and grow their companies through building personal trust communities.
By external measures, having achieved many of my professional goals, I was considered “successful,” which might make it seem like I’d be even more confident when making new career moves. Yet, I still
suffered from self-doubt and fear when I decided to run my own business and step into a new phase of coaching. I needed the support of trusted mentors and colleagues to help give me the confidence to move forward.
Over the past year, I also trained extensively for an Ironman, which required a level of dedication, motivation, and perseverance unlike anything I’d experienced before. The training process taught me so much about how I still question my abilities when they aren’t tied to professional goals. Luckily, my family supported me tremendously, and I formed a strong connection with my coach, Suzan, who helped me believe that I was capable.
As we work on building our confidence in different areas of our lives, we’ll inevitably find ourselves in situations that make us question our capabilities.
This doesn’t mean that we aren’t strong enough to face new challenges, but rather, it’s a great sign of our growth! We’re building our bandwidth and capacity for change and new opportunities.
There are very few things in life we can do without the support of others, and that’s why having a community that supports us—and reminds us that we belong—is so crucial when working to achieve our goals.
How can we continue nurturing and solidifying our sense of belonging?
Believing in yourself requires community
I remember working with an employee who had started to feel demotivated at work. Let’s call this person Kate. I could tell that Kate just wasn’t giving her best anymore, and I knew we needed to have a conversation. But when she came to my office, instead of discussing performance, I asked Kate to tell me a story about her life—any story, as long as it was true and about her own experiences.
Kate opened up to me about growing up in an economically disadvantaged town, her estranged relationships with her family, and how these experiences shaped Kate’s self-image throughout the years. In fact, she didn’t feel capable of the job she had at our company. I could see that this story was holding her back from becoming who she could really be. Without feeling like she belonged, Kate couldn’t reach her goals.
Building confidence, I’ve realized, is a continuous process that always loops back to belonging. Believing in ourselves looks like continually reminding ourselves that we’re capable—and having others reinforce that we belong, too.
We’re climbing hills, not mountains, after all.
I reminded Kate that she belonged at the company. And, together, we made a list of areas in her life where she knew she could thrive, as well as tangible action items for which I could be accountable in my efforts to support her. I told Kate that I believed
in her—a crucial aspect of supporting others.
Belong. Build. Believe.
As a Vistage Chair, I continue to do similar work: building, empowering, and helping other people to become the best versions of themselves by uncovering their stories and finding a path forward.
There’s truly nothing better than having human beings in your life who will grab you by the arm and say, “You’ve got this.”
Those who are honest with you and aren’t afraid to say when you’ve taken a wrong step because they trust in your ability to bounce back.
Having a community that supports us helps us get to our goals faster, because community reminds us that we aren’t alone in our struggles.
That’s the power of “Belong. Build. Believe.”
If you’d like to learn more about how we can work together, you can reach out to me here.