Set Goals: It’s so important to have things in front of you to help drive you forward in a crisis. Setting goals is one way you can train your mind to stay forward-looking. If you know you have goals to achieve, then you can re-engage quicker. The alternative — having set no tangible goals — sets you adrift in adversity and leads to a tsunami of negative energy and stagnation. In Conquering Adversity one of the 6 Strategies is Expectation and it is there to remind us that to move past a crisis we need direction. Goals provide that direction. They give us something positive to work for. I always tried to keep something big and meaningful in front of Ryan so he could latch unto that and get excited about what was coming. It might have been a trip to see family or working with a kicking coach or waiting for the new game release but something we could look forward to together.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher Novak.
Christopher Novak is the author of Conquering Adversity: Six Strategies to Move You and Your Team Through Tough Times — a powerful message about rising above even life’s toughest challenges and a resource on resilient leadership for organizations including FedEx, Pfizer, U.S. State Department and more. Novak’s professional experience includes senior human resources positions in manufacturing and higher education as well as an entrepreneur with his own company The Summit Team focusing on executive coaching, leadership training and motivational speaking. He has written 5 professional development books.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in a military family and moved 8 times before I was 18. I am the oldest of 4 boys who all became Eagle Scouts, served in the military, and have beautiful families. Remarried after the death of my first wife, I have an older son Ryan who is married and owns a chocolate company and a younger son Connor who is a freshman at Cornell University studying astrophysics. My business experience started as a human resources executive for Syracuse China Company, a century-old, unionized manufacturer of ceramic dinnerware. I moved on to be the director of human resources for Campus Life at Cornell University before leaving to start my own leadership consulting business, The Summit Team. There, I was an executive coach, leadership trainer, and professional speaker for more than a decade. In 2010, Ryan bought a small-town chocolate shop with dreams of turning it into a national brand. He asked me to help so I stepped away from my business and walked into the world of gourmet chocolate. Chocolate Pizza Company is now Central New York’s largest chocolate maker and has been featured on Food Network, Hallmark Channel, Discovery, and CNBC among other national media. My first book Conquering Adversity: Six Strategies to Move You and Your Team Through Tough Times was published by Cornerstone Leadership Institute in 2004 and became my signature keynote and training resource. The backdrop to that book was the death of my pregnant wife, Cynthia, in 1998 by a man high on drugs who ran a stop sign. Our son Ryan was 9 years old at the time and the tragedy shattered our lives. What I learned moving through that horrific experience was that there is a hero inside each of us and that finding purpose and passion again requires the resilience to unleash that hero. Conquering Adversity shares the insights and lessons I learned in that journey both personally and professionally. In addition to Conquering Adversity, I am the author of Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence (2019); Lead Like a Pirate: Leadership Secrets of the Pirates of St. Croix (2007); Inspired to Lead: 12 Powerful Lessons on Making a Difference (2010); and Inspired to Succeed: 12 Powerful Lessons to Develop Leadership Excellence (2012).
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My first book, Conquering Adversity, was also a keynote presentation that I shared at conferences, retreats, and functions for thousands of professionals nationally and internationally. I am humbled to still hear from people whose lives were changed by its message about the hero inside each of us. But there was one particular moment that has always stood out for me. I had been invited to speak to about 40 at-risk teenagers. The director of the program had heard me speak at another event and wanted to share that message with this group of troubled teens. As I was setting up my presentation, she apologized over and over for what she expected to be a very unruly and rude audience for me. I told her there was no need to apologize and that I would deliver the same heartfelt message that I gave every time I stepped in front of an audience. Much to the director’s astonishment, those young people were incredibly attentive and polite. You could have heard a pin drop during my 75 minute talk and afterward they crowded around me asking dozens of follow-up questions. The director said she had never seen anything like it in 20 years of working with troubled teens. Inspired by her compliment I went to retrieve my laptop and there on top of it was a notecard. I opened it and inside one of the teens had written, “Thank you for coming and caring about us. I needed to hear you. You changed my life today.” It almost brought me to tears but it taught me a powerful lesson — words matter, written or spoken the words we share from our heart have impact. I became a better speaker that day because going forward I had a sharpened perspective on every keynote I gave. From that day on, I took the stage believing that there was at least one person sitting in that audience that needed to hear what I had to say. And, if no one else took anything away from my message, I would still have come to that event just to be the difference in that one person’s life.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I love to write. I always have. When I wrote my Personal Mission Statement about 25 years ago, writing was the first point I listed. I think I inherited my love for the pen from my late dad. He was a master story-teller who enjoyed scribbling down short stories on notepaper as much as he loved telling them around a campfire. There is an art to telling a good story and in that space he was Picasso. It’s about connecting with the reader or listener and moving them emotionally. What makes my books different I think is that I always try to honor that connection. In my books, I try to capture that story-telling element. I am convinced the written word has the power to transform and inspire people. I want the reader to be drawn into the learning, not gloss over it. The best professional development is when it doesn’t feel like professional development. My goal is to write books that leave people inspired and that give them practical tools they can apply in their work and life. I like to write in a themed-learning genre where the reader can draw parallels from the storyline to their own experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Too many to mention starting with a host of family and friends whose support never wavers. But speaking professionally, two people come immediately to mind. Neil Strodel and David Cottrell. Neil was the VP-HR at Syracuse China Company and hired me to be his HR manager. I had just left the service, finished a masters degree and had zero experience in human resources. But he liked the qualities I brought and saw potential in me so he took a chance and hired a greenhorn. He spent the next 8 years being a powerful mentor and professional role model. When he moved on, it was his recommendation that promoted me into his position. He was one of the first people at my house the day my wife died and our friendship has spanned nearly 30 years. David Cottrell and I have actually met very few times and yet he played a key role in my work as an author. He was the CEO of Cornerstone Leadership Institute, one of the country’s premier publishers of business leadership books. On a flight from Dallas to Buffalo, David read one of the countless manuscripts he received every week. It moved him so much that when he landed in Buffalo he made a call and gave me the news that he would like to publish what would become my first book, Conquering Adversity: Six Strategies to Move You and Your Team Through Tough Times. His guidance as an editor was critical and taught me to trust those professionals who shape a meaningful message into a marketable book. The lessons of Conquering Adversity would actually become a roadmap for David later as he navigated the loss of his wife to cancer. He speaks frequently of its impact on his own life. We would work together on other books as well and developed a friendship that has stood the test of time.
How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resilience as sustained purposeful motion. It is the ability to engage life at every level — through the highest highs and the lowest lows. In Conquering Adversity one of the 6 Strategies I offer is Locomotion and I think that is where we find characteristics of resilient people. It starts with purpose. In order to be resilient, you need to be grounded in something unshakable. It could be faith, family, mission, survival or even a promise but it has to be powerful enough to withstand life’s harshest moments. Purpose becomes the foundation for standing back up after you’ve been knocked down — it is the solid footing that you need to rise. Which brings us to another characteristic of resilient people and that is motion — to rise up again, to move forward, to lean into life’s headwinds. Resilient people understand that stagnation is the enemy of recovery so they stay in motion. There were countless mornings after my wife died that I did not want to get out of bed, did not have the strength to face the day and wanted nothing more than to curl in a ball and wish the nightmare away. But I knew that doing so meant I could not help my son get through another day — stagnation was quitting on him and on myself and that was totally unacceptable. So, every morning I swung my feet over the bed, stood up and walked into the day because my son needed me to be there for him. Purposeful motion. And that leads to the final qualifying characteristic of resilient people and that is their ability to sustain that purposeful motion over long periods of time. Time is a multiplier for resilience — there is an exponential component to sustained effort in the face of adversity. The longer you can maintain your purposeful motion the greater the positive impact on your circumstances.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage on its own is the fusion of purpose and fearlessness. It is an act that stands apart from what might be expected or even prudent. It is apparent in the moment and stands the test of time as something extraordinary and praiseworthy. It differs from resilience because as an act or action it is finite and specific. It is the fireman running into a burning building to save a child, or a mountaineer summiting a dangerous peak, or a student stepping in to confront a bully. Episodes of courageous acts are everywhere and inspiring. Courage, unlike resilience, does not need time as a measurement. But courage is two sides of the same resilience coin. An act on one side, but an expression on the other. Courage as an expression of resilience share key characteristics. If we accept a definition of resilience as a relentless journey forward, then courage becomes the wind that fills those sails. Resilience requires time-released courage, a steady flow of that powerful blend of purpose and fearlessness that becomes the adrenalin we need to stand back up time after time, to push forward when we’re exhausted from the journey, to face our fears when the outcome is unknown or unpredictable. Time tested courage is found in the decision of a single parent to raise a child, or in the person who wants to better their future by going to college while working full-time, or the entrepreneur who walks away from a corporate job to follow their passion and start a business, or someone who loses a loved one and decides to honor them by living life to the fullest. These journeys and a million more take courage every day to achieve. They require us to be constantly connected to courage — that sense of purpose and fearlessness — to answer the bell every morning and not quit no matter the setbacks or challenges.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I could speak to several people who embody resilience including my wife, Jeannette, and my youngest son, Connor, both of whom demonstrate extraordinary characteristics of resilience. But if I must choose one person it would be my oldest son, Ryan. He was 9 years-old when his mother, my wife Cynthia, died. She was driving home from work when a man high on drugs and out to sell his poison ran a stop sign. She was 7 months pregnant with our second child. They airlifted her to the trauma center where I waited and prayed for a miracle that never came. Then I had to do the hardest thing I have ever faced in life. I had to tell Ryan. I was the one who struggled to breath and who choked on my words to tell him his mom was not coming home. I was the one who shattered his world with news no child should bear. I know the depths he plunged to on that August evening which is why 23 years later I can say Ryan is the most resilient person I have ever known. Today, that shattered boy is now a successful man and an example of what resilience truly is. He did not succumb to depression, anger or fear — he faced them, battled through them, and conquered them. He made a promise on the day she died that he would make her proud and he lives every day trying to keep that promise. He grew up a scholar-athlete, was a nationally ranked place kicker coming out of high school, made the Syracuse University football team and graduated with a degree in entrepreneurship. He got his first job at age 15 as a dishwasher at a small chocolate shop in his hometown and by age 21 was the owner of that business. Since 2010, he has grown Chocolate Pizza Company into Central New York’s largest chocolate maker and has been featured on Food Network, Discovery, Hallmark Channel and in Forbes, People and Entrepreneur magazines. He married his college sweetheart and he lives life full-speed and with a smile that lights up the room. The journey Ryan has made from tragedy to triumph is the epitome of resilience and an inspiring example of what the human spirit can achieve.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I had taken the job of Director of Human Resources for Campus Life at Cornell University shortly after Cynthia died. It was a dream position and a big change from my role as head of human resources in the private sector at a large ceramic manufacturing company. I loved the university atmosphere and the team I was working with but I was commuting nearly 3 hours a day. I had made the decision not to relocate so that Ryan could maintain a stable environment in the school, neighborhood, and friends that he had and that he needed in his recovery after his mom died. After a couple years, it was apparent that I needed to be closer to home and Ryan. These were difficult years for him and he needed more of my time in his life. So, I left Cornell and made the leap of starting my own business, The Summit Team. I focused on leadership training, executive coaching, and career transition services. Initially, it was a major setback financially. I had saved up enough money to give myself a year to see if I could make this entrepreneurial dream a reality. There were no social media channels — just a website, email and cold calling. I had not yet written my first book so there were no speaking engagements or book sales. I worked at first from a desk in my living room and then rented a small office space 2 blocks from my house. Those were lean months trying to gain traction as a consultant. But resilience means sticking to the plan — adapting as needed and never giving up. Ten months into my one year timetable I earned the assignment that would ignite my business for the next 8 years. I would work with over 1,500 mid-senior level leaders across a dozen states with Fortune 500 companies that rewarded me financially and professionally. The result would eventually launch my work as an author and motivational speaker.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I grew up in a military family. My dad was an Army officer and Vietnam veteran who made the military a career. As a result, we moved every couple years and so I learned from a young age to adapt to new surroundings and new challenges. We crisscrossed the country — Virginia, Ohio, Georgia, California, Oregon, and overseas in Belgium. It’s not easy to move when you are young — your school changes, your old friends disappear, your house is different, cultures are different. That’s particularly true in your high school years. I remember I was a rebellious 16 year old when dad got orders to move from Oregon to an assignment with NATO in Belgium. I boldly told the family I wasn’t going — I was done moving — I would stay with my best friend’s family and finish my junior and senior year of high school. That protest went nowhere and I would graduate from SHAPE American High School in Mons, Belgium. It would also be the most transformative years of my young life to that point. I met my future wife, Cynthia, there; I traveled through Europe and the Middle East; I made lifetime friends. I did those things because I had learned to push past my fears and embrace the reality of the moment, turning my attention not to what was lost in my previous home and school but what was there now in front of me.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Set Goals: It’s so important to have things in front of you to help drive you forward in a crisis. Setting goals is one way you can train your mind to stay forward-looking. If you know you have goals to achieve, then you can re-engage quicker. The alternative — having set no tangible goals — sets you adrift in adversity and leads to a tsunami of negative energy and stagnation. In Conquering Adversity one of the 6 Strategies is Expectation and it is there to remind us that to move past a crisis we need direction. Goals provide that direction. They give us something positive to work for. I always tried to keep something big and meaningful in front of Ryan so he could latch unto that and get excited about what was coming. It might have been a trip to see family or working with a kicking coach or waiting for the new game release but something we could look forward to together.
2. Read Inspiring Stories: Resilience is an internal reservoir and it needs replenished from time to time. I found a good way to recharge my resilience batteries was by reading inspiring books or watching motivational movies. Absorbing the life experiences of others who have risen above adversity is a powerful tool for giving yourself a dose of optimism and hope. If others have faced this or worse and still moved on, then I can too. The genre isn’t important — it’s the message you want to extract. I remember reading mountaineering books about extraordinary treks filled with danger and tragedy and yet the stories showcased courage, perseverance, and an unrelenting will to survive. The circumstances were completely foreign to my own challenges and yet the response and the characteristics of pushing on were exactly what I need to feel.
3. Cultivate Friendships: One of the 6 Strategies in my book is Collaboration and it is one that I spend the most time with during my talks. Resilience is rarely a solo act. The stronger the circle around you the more capable you are of bouncing back from adversity. It is alright to lean on people in this struggle. Somedays it is all you can do. Building that network of family, friends and colleagues is critical but the key is to have it in place when adversity strikes. You cannot build shelter in a hurricane. You must invest interpersonal time and effort now so that it is there for you when you need it. In my talks, I illustrate this point by asking the audience to imagine they are driving a lonely backcountry road in a brutal snowstorm when your car goes off the road. You aren’t hurt but your cell phone barely has battery for one call. Who do you call? Think of your network as 3 concentric circles — the closer you are to the center, the stronger the connection those people have to you. If you call the people on the outside circle they will alert the authorities that you need help. If you call the people on the middle circle, they will wait for the weather to break and then come to your aid. But the people on the inner circle, those are the ones who will put on their coat, climb into their vehicle and if they must drive 5 mph through a blizzard they are coming to find you because you need them. Those are the relationships you need to cultivate; those are the people you want to have in your life when the bottom falls out.
4. Focus on what remains: One of the principles of the Affirmation Strategy in my book is to acknowledge what is and is not lost. Resilience needs hope and hope comes from recognizing there are still things of value that need my efforts. In the wake of Cynthia’s death, I felt shattered, destroyed, completely despondent. Everything had been taken from me — my wife, our unborn baby, a lifetime together that would never happen. It was beyond comprehension. But then I saw Ryan. Looking at his face reminded me that not everything had been lost in this tragedy. Something — someone — still remained who needed me now more than ever. It was a transformational realization because it took my focus from what I could not control and put it on something I could — guiding the two of us forward through a nightmare. In every setback, tragedy or adversity where it seems that all is lost, there is always something of value that remains and finding that nugget and clinging to it is the first steps of resilience.
5. Be gentle with yourself: There is no manual for navigating the difficulties you encounter. There is no path that does not have potholes. You will make mistakes as you go forward — it is inevitable. These are extraordinary circumstances you are dealing with and one of the tenants of resilience must be the notion that perfection is not the standard you march to. Go easy on yourself. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Know that your intentions are true even if your actions or decisions sometimes are not. The last person you need filling your life with negativity and remorse is the one you are trying to pull up by the bootstraps. Learn to forgive your own shortcomings.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would create a television channel dedicated completely to inspiring stories about ordinary people rising to overcome adversity. It would feature stories about everyday people who refused to be defined by tragedy, setbacks, adversity or mistakes but instead elevated their life to something positive. You would be able to turn to it any time of day or night and be inspired or touched by real-life people facing real-world challenges and pushing forward. It would celebrate resilience and be a place to recharge and reconnect with your own journey. If millions of people can sit and watch people selling cookware or bug zappers on a shopping channel, then there are plenty of people who would welcome a channel where the products were hope and inspiration and all it cost you was time.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Tim Tebow would be a person I would enjoy sharing a private meal with — and giving him a copy of Conquering Adversity. I believe he embodies resilience, is a man of deep faith and works tirelessly to help others. He pushes forward despite the odds or criticism, marching to his own drumbeat and in the process setting an example that I admire. I think Tim Tebow would relate well to my Conquering Adversity message about the hero inside each of us and I would love to learn from his many experiences. And, I would be sure to bring a Chocolate Pizza and Peanut Butter Wings from my son’s Chocolate Pizza Company for his wife, Demi-Leigh.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website is leadershipauthor.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!