What cancer taught me about running an ad agency

"I want to be very clear -- this is not a call for sympathy or a way to boast on a heroic feat. It's simply some invaluable lessons that required me to be bedridden to learn."

Last month, I went to see my ENT doctor for the five-year anniversary of my last day of chemotherapy.

On this day, they stuck a camera up my nose and down my throat, then shook my hand and told me I was officially cured. When it was all over, I couldn’t help but look back and reflect on all I’d gone through and learned over those five years.

When I initially got the diagnosis, I had already been tackling some really tough personal   challenges. Somehow, some way, I was doing OK handling them all as well as my business, and mercifully, they were beginning to become more manageable.

Then, on December 5, 2014, I got the news everyone dreads. Cancer.

Over the next couple of weeks, I met my medical team of six amazing doctors. I had intense talks with my incredible brothers and sisters. A treatment plan was put into place. Radiation. Chemo. No solid food. Yay! Let the fun begin!

Each day I grew more tired than the day before and felt a little more awful. From a business perspective, I could read emails, sign checks, make a quick phone call, and on occasion make a trip to the office.

For the most part, it was me, my meds, and I. All day. All night. Thinking. Reliving. Beating myself up. Rethinking. Challenging. Opening up. Reconsidering. Imagining. Praying. Listening. Writing. Changing. Promising.

So, here I am. A little slimmer. A lot grayer. Hearing, sense of smell, and taste forever altered. But ahh, the lessons. The wisdom. I could never have predicted this but, after the fact, I must tell you, it was a surprisingly fair trade.

Cancer is a teacher of profound subjects. Business is one I didn’t expect. While it was impossible to know at the time, I was presented with an opportunity I sorely needed – the chance to take a step back and look at my business from a new perspective. The irony is that that opportunity was always there, but cancer forced me to be more serious, honest, and open than ever before.

Here are five lessons I learned from having cancer:

1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Realizing I was powerless to impact my business on a daily basis for the foreseeable future forced me to grow – to be more patient and to embrace that uncertainty. Love for others became a source of inspiration. It made me address succession, helped me identify gaps, and find ways to strengthen the agency for the long term.

2. Empower and listen gracefully. I literally struggled to talk, and yet at the same time my listening skills were sharper and clearer. I made the most of that superpower and empowered others with a more gentle, understanding, and supportive approach. It helped me inspire others with less talking and more hearing and leading.

3. Muster smiles. When you’re the boss, the staff can read into every word and each grimace. I constantly reminded myself that my game face mattered. While I saw things that concerned me, I was motivated to address them, but in a much more patient, humble, and open way. That pause was creating a more thoughtful me.

4. Get out of the way. If you’ve read the e-Myth, you may be familiar with the story of the baker who found more success by stepping out of the familiar role working "in" the business to the more elevated perspective of working "on" the business. I felt motivated to build the bakery. I knew what I needed to grow, and I just needed to do it.

5. Do not entertain negativity. The key to this is staying present in the moment. I highly recommend embracing the power of now, with or without a life-changing catalyst like cancer. You will recognize joy in the simpler things; you will breathe in gratitude and exhale hope. I trained myself not to succumb to negative thoughts and cynicism, both dangerously insidious. Always stay positive. Root out negativity like cancer. It will kill your business.

I want to be very clear -- this is not a call for sympathy or a way to boast on a heroic feat. It’s simply some invaluable lessons that required me to be bedridden to learn. It shaped the person I am today, and who I will strive to always remain. I hope these lessons may inspire you - minus the cancer.

Rob Farinella is the president and CEO of Blue Sky Agency.

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