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My Story - Lynn Herkes and the creation of WOWSuccessTeam
Growing up in San Diego, CA, I was crazy about horses, the Olympics, and taking things apart (and usually putting them back together). I was also obsessed with doing things that others said I couldn’t do. So when my parents purchased a set of six horseback riding lessons for me for Christmas when I was 12, and the instructor for the first lesson said that I was short, uncoordinated, and would never be able to ride well…that was just fuel for the fire. In those six lessons I improved so much I caught the eye of a different instructor, Jane, who took over the last two lessons. When I asked my parents for more lessons, it wasn’t even close to being affordable. Of course they thought that I would “get my fix” in the six lessons, and be done with that. So when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to ride unless I figured something out, I asked the second instructor, Jane, if there was any way I could work for my lessons. There were other kids working at the stable for lessons, and I wasn’t sure how they had gotten their jobs, especially under age, but it was worth a shot. Jane talked to the owner and we worked something out. I talked my parents into driving me to the stables 3-5 times a week where I would work after school and on the weekends for one lesson per week with Jane or whichever instructor was teaching a group lesson that I could join in. I worked my tail off and eventually became good enough to start jumping. At that point, I would offer to ride any horse, including all the difficult ones that none of the other students wanted to ride. This, along with my efficient and excellent grooming and tack cleaning skills, got me promoted to the groom for the owner’s expensive jumpers, which ended up getting me more lessons each week.
Jane had move on, but another instructor, Sue, had joined the team with a huge dressage background, and for some unknown reason, took an interest in me. I was now earning 2-3 lessons a week, plus I would ride any of the horses that were misbehaving and was able to get them to do what they were supposed to so that the instructors didn’t have to get on them. Sue took me aside and convinced me that I would improve much faster and become a much better horseman if I learned dressage in conjunction with my jumping. But to get private dressage lessons from her, I had to do more work, so I took on the senior “kid” position for grooming all the school horses as well as the owner’s jumpers. Looking back, it’s amazing how much time I had after school and on the weekends, and I was able to get all my homework done too. Although, there were a few nights, my mom found me asleep on top of my homework. But it was soooo worth it.
I actually kept that job and kept riding until I was 15 and my parents finally put their foot down and said that if I was going to start driving, I would need to get a job that made money so I could help pay for the car insurance. I was crushed of course. A job would take up all the time I needed to work at the stables so I couldn’t ride and take lessons, which was my one and only passion at that time in my life. And, unfortunately, our family did not have enough money to be able to afford to pay for the training I was earning by working at the stables. So, sadly enough, I got a job. At McDonald’s of all places. Not that anything is wrong with working at McDonald’s, but what a huge difference.
Since I had developed an amazing work ethic at the stables, it was quite easy to work my way up at McDonald’s and become a lead. I was one of the best employees they had. But it was not enjoyable, not a passion, just a job that helped pay for car insurance, school clothes, etc. My mom even ended up getting a job at the same McDonald’s. Of course, since she was an adult, with pretty much the same work ethic, she worked her way up to manager quite quickly. But you can imagine being a teenager (without a passion), working for and with your mom at McDonald’s almost every day, it was even less fun and I needed to figure something else out. By that time, I had been convinced by my auto mechanics teacher at high school that a girl, with good grades taking advanced science and math classes, who was so interested in auto mechanics, fixing things, should go to college for engineering. I did a little digging, research, and agreed. So I put my efforts into getting into college in the field of mechanical engineering. And, of course, got a part-time job at a different fast food company, so I could be somewhat independent.
My parents and I decided that the smart, and economical, thing to do was to go to community college for my general education, then move on to university. Community college was an interesting step. More independent than high school, and a bigger variety of people of all ages, but also a little bit like high school. I took up ballet as a hobby/sport because I had always like it, but I was not built or coordinated well for ballet. I did have a very positive and encouraging instructor at college, but due to my physical challenges, I also incurred several injuries. I relentlessly kept trying to make this ballet-thing my new passion, but it just was not as enticing. Meanwhile, I really did get into many of the classes at college such as physics, chemistry, and calculus. It was very interesting to me to be in classes with other people who were actually interested in the subjects, unlike high school where most of the other students in the advanced classes could care less about the learning, and were in the advanced classes because of random IQ testing down throughout the years.
When it came time to pick a university, I was at a total loss. The counselors at the community college had so many students and so little time, they were no help at all. And my grades were not as good as they had been in high school, although still As and Bs. I applied at a whole bunch of different kinds of schools from excellent engineering schools, to UC and State schools. But when my sister pointed out that USC would be the best school to go to because it had a ton of great looking, rich guys going there (and it happened to have a good engineering school too), I (or my hormones) jumped at the opportunity. I’m sure my parents cringed at the thought of the expense. But somehow we worked together with the school and I ended up with a partial scholarship, work program, and a lot of loans.
USC was a very interesting experience for me. There were a LOT of super-rich kids attending, but there were also some others like me that had either obtained full scholarships or loans or both. The one thing I did learn, quite quickly I might add, is that good looking guys are a humungous distraction to good grades. And three long years of figuring that out, left me with no boyfriends, not sparkling grades, and a work ethic that teetered on “whatever”! I was able to pull myself together enough in senior year to get good enough grades so I could at least look somewhat acceptable to some of the recruiters. This was an eye opener. When the recruiters for some of the biggest engineering companies in the nation came and assembled in one room, it was like “WOW”! I need to get it together….this could be exciting. The most exciting was Pratt & Whitney who designed the huge turbine engines on aircraft. I thought that would be such an amazing thing to do. Unfortunately, they were only hiring the cream of the crop, which I no longer was. But I did get an initial interview, which helped a lot in my ability to hone my very green interviewing skills for the next two companies.
I also interviewed with Mobil and Parker Hannifin. At the time, there was not Google, so I didn’t have an easy way to research those two companies, but I knew Mobil was a petroleum company, and Parker Hannifin was a hardware company and had numerous divisions in everything from aerospace to automotive to industrial equipment. So I knew either would have interesting engineering jobs. I was invited to second interviews with both companies.
The Mobil interview was amazing. They flew me to Denver, Colorado, which in itself was an adventure since I hadn’t done that much traveling prior to that time. They put me up in a beautiful hotel downtown, and all the potential candidates met the interviewers/company representatives for lunch at a super expensive restaurant across the street from the hotel. Of course, when you’re asked to come to the second interview, you have no idea that anyone has been asked. So when you end up at the restaurant with all the other candidates, it certainly took some of the excitement away, and brought up a whole level of nervousness and competition that I hadn’t even known was inside of me. After the lunch, which involved a lot of round table discussions, we went to the corporate office and went through individual interviews. Surprisingly, after the individual interview, I was asked to stay. There went that nervousness again. Nervous, excited, and freaking out all in the same few minutes.
Once in the executive’s office, he explained that they were looking for individuals that would join the team for an intense two year program which included being relocated to at least two and up to ten different petroleum facilities in that period. He also mentioned the starting salary, the moving/relocation benefits, and the travel and promotion opportunities. He could have just as well been speaking an alien language…when he mentioned the relocation, everything else seemed to just fade away. Like the room was moving away from me. I have no idea what brought on that feeling, but it was like falling off of a horse…you just felt like you were falling, and falling, and falling, then bam! the ground hits you.
On the plane ride home, I was a disaster. It would have been an outstanding salary, an awesome opportunity, and I probably could have done a great job moving up the ladder. But something inside of me kept thinking…how the heck would I be able to get a horse and become a successful rider if I had to keep moving around. It was like I couldn’t focus on getting back to my passion if I had a job where I has to move around all the time. At that time, I wasn’t able to recognize any benefits from that type of job.
So, I came home depressed with a heavy heart thinking that my newly chosen engineering career was going to interfere with my plans to get back into riding. Of course, I didn’t explain any of this to my parents. They were extremely confused why I wasn’t even considering the Mobil position, especially with a salary offer that would equal almost double what both of them currently made.
I went to the last interview with Parker Hannifin, which was held at their Control Systems Division. This was in a fancy new building that was just down the street from a decent stable. Cool! The interview was, in my mind, very annoying. I was in the room with four other engineers with various titles, and they were all taking turns asking me questions that resembled taking an exam in university but verbally. By the time, they finally got up and thanked me and shook my hand, I was so irritated by having to answer all those physics, math, and science questions, I honestly didn’t care if I got the job. And they really didn’t describe what the job would be except to say that they had five divisions in Southern California, and other divisions in other places, and they had an internship program that all successful candidates would have to complete before being placed in a division.
So I left the interview process from both companies, Parker and Mobil, feeling like a had spent all this time, effort, and money (which still had to be paid back) on a career that was just going to get in the way and be an irritant to what I really wanted to do, which was get back to riding. Oh if my parents had known what I was thinking, they would have had a major cow.
I must have done something right in the Parker interview, because I was hired into the intern program and shortly started the journey through each of the divisions. Once I started on that path, I became a lot more excited, but still nervous, and intrigued at what each division had to offer. The best part is that I ended up meeting a lot of really nice people along the way. And not just engineers, but technicians, machinists, testers, administrative people, and realized the huge amount of jobs that made up the pieces of this huge company. I became very interested, and good at listening. The more I listened, the more I learned. It became very interesting and I didn’t even realize along the way that my engineering skills were actually shining through at every division.
At the end of the nine months, it came time to pick a division. Of course, the head of the program made it very clear to all of us, there was nine of us, that our division has to also choose us, and that the assignment has to be mutual. I was selected by three of the five divisions (control systems, fuel, and air & space), so my choice of division was the deciding factor. I had chosen Control Systems division, so I was ecstatic that they had also chosen me. That division was growing so they received three of the interns. We were to show up for work on Monday prepared to go to our new manager.
I showed up for work on Monday to find out that instead of a position as a design engineer, I had been chosen by the stress team as a stress engineer. There was that horrible falling feeling again. I thought to myself that I was not going to settle for the stress team (doing stress calculations and reports all day in my mind was akin to pulling all your teeth out at the same time with no Novocain), and I had to state the unacceptability of my decision. I marched straight into the office of Phil, who was in charge of the intern program, and told him that I didn’t choose the control system division so that I could waste away as a stress engineer. I chose this division because there was a design engineer position, and that’s what I wanted to do. Otherwise I wasn’t going to stay.
Looking back, I don’t think any of those engineers and managers had ever had a woman, let alone a young woman, come across so strong willed. And afterwards I realized that there were no woman. Not in the engineering department as a whole, nor in the shop, and hardly any in the whole division. Those that were there were in more traditionally female roles (administrative assistants, etc). And later I found out that they had been targeting female recruits at the direction of the corporation to meet the federal labor laws. I had no idea what an uproar I had caused.
But I was switched with the only other female engineer recruit and I was given the design engineer position. I also didn’t realize that I made a huge enemy that day, but she wasn’t as upset as she should have been, and years later chose having a family over staying in engineering.
And I started a successful sixteen year career as a design engineer leading to many promotions, the title project engineer, and many successful projects. It was a good career. It was a great company. I learned a ton. I also learned a lot about customer service. Luckily for me, Parker Aerospace, and the mother company Parker Hannifin, was huge on being the leader in improving, which including lots of training in culture and customer service. This is where I received most of my customer service training and experience, all at a level that was world class and international. I worked with companies such as Lockheed, McDonald-Douglas, Boeing, as Japanese, Brazilians, French, Korean, and British. It was challenging, but exciting and fun. And I never stopped learning about people. I became one of the best engineers at getting the whole team involved in the design during a time when lean manufacturing and six sigma were just springing to life in the company and the world. It was fun, fast, and furious.
But you say what about the riding, the horses, the stables? I was right there! Shortly after starting my new passion/career of making things (aircrafty things), I went to the stables and found a trainer to get me back in shape. The funny thing is that it all worked out fantastically. The trainer was happy to have a student that had ridden before, was fairly fearless, and would ride anything. I just had to re-learn how to be a good student (since university had changed that part of me). I quickly found someone to let me ride there “crazy” horse for free and I began a double journey…an engineer and a horse trainer. Looking back I think the craziest thing is that each career helped the other. I could use the skills from one career in the other and vice versa. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but it just all worked.
On the horse-front, once I had a horse to ride, even a wild and crazy one, I was able to build a contagious, word of mouth that deemed I was able to ride “anything”. Soon, people were coming to me with all kinds of horses with all kinds of issues, regardless of the already existing trainers that hung their hats at that stables. The really cool thing was that horse trainers tend to have ginormous egos, so they didn’t even think twice that I was stealing clients. They just kept being thankful that they didn’t have to ride all those crazy horses. And so I started my horse business. Soon I was able to afford to get more training from bigger and better trainers, and I made sure I transferred all that knowledge to all my clients. My business grew so fast I had to stop taking on clients for lack of time. I had to hire a helper to get the horses ready, and I started going to my engineering job earlier so I could leave earlier (we had core hours, but the rest was flexible and we were all tied to pages and cell phones).
So there I was creating the business of my dreams teaching and training dressage, competing and training with some of the best riders and trainers in California. And becoming a very successful project engineer at the same time. It was an amazing time. And I loved every minute of it.
I learned a lot on both careers. I learned the importance of connections, customer service, providing more value than promised, and what happened to those who did not provide enough value, as well as how important it is to find your ideal market and your true talents. At heart I realized that I was a problem solver that really liked helping others, including people and animals.
So the story seems like a fairy tale, but not so much. I had difficulties all along the way at Parker. While they were a good company, and they did take good care of their employees (good benefits and perks), they was still an underlying corporate essence that made it difficult to change things that weren’t working or create better things, especially if it meant violating the corporate “norms”. And there was a lot of stress. I suppose that’s normal when you’re in an industry that has to put such a huge emphasis on safety, but it was a killer, literally. Many of the friends I had made along the way who had reached retirement age, retired and shortly thereafter passed away. There is nothing sadder in life than to see friends who were so alive at work, and happy with their families, finally retire, and have nothing but health issues that lead to a quick surmise.
In addition, in an attempt to grow my horse training business and differentiate myself in the dressage niche, I had over extended my time and my finances and was not able to complete some of the very important certificate trainings that I was taking part in that would have elevated my expertise and qualifications to a much higher level. Huge business lesson there! So instead I moved my business to another nearby training facility hoping to attract a more prominent level of clientele. I did not succeed, and I lost most of my huge client base, and was not able to attract any new clients.
At the same time, I had decided to fulfill my mother’s longtime dream and take her to Hawaii on vacation, something she said she had always wanted to do with my dad before he passed but they could never afford it. So I planned it all out and off we went. Over the years, I had become quite independent, however my mother had grown somewhat introverted since my dad’s passing, so our trip ended up being a bit awkward. I wanted to try anything and everything, and she wanted to move a little slower, relax a little more, and poke around at shopping areas. Needless to say, we weren’t the best roomies during that vacation.
However, this was a huge turning point for me. During the time from getting the job at Parker and starting my horse training business, I had not taken a vacation to do anything but compete or train or go on a business trip ever in over 10 years. Traveling had been on my radar a little bit when I was growing up, but had quickly faded as I was trying to discover myself as an engineer and horse trainer. And the thought of traveling only brought up the hard questions of “who is going to run my business while I’m away”? And “who’s going to take care of my horse”? And how the heck am I going to be able to catch up at work and catch up at the business when I get back”?
So the fact that my horse business had recently gone from 30 clients (part-time after work and on weekends) to 5 clients at the new facility, and I was in between projects at Parker, made it possible to “get away” without too much stress. And there was no way I was going to “relax” and not take advantage of all the activities available on this beautiful island and once in ten year vacation.
So while my mom hung out at the pool and the beach, I went on adventures. I learned to scuba dive. I went hiking. I explored. I snorkeled. I tried a bunch of different things (and dragged my mom on some of them too).
The weather was perfect. The water was perfect. The people were friendly. I had an awesome time. I had no idea how really awesome other things could be because I was so wrapped up in everything else I was committed to.
Much to my mother’s surprise when I got home I declared that within three years I would move to Hawaii and start a new career. In the back of my head, I hoped that included riding, but I wasn’t so interested in engineering. I had enough stress and needed to have fun. I went back to Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai, two more times to do some research on moving there. Just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke and that there were things I could actually make a living at. I used the down time from riding to get certified as a scuba instructor. And decided that I could make a living doing that.
I met my intended target date and moved to Kauai in 2003. I did get a job as a scuba instructor for about 5 years before realizing that was not necessarily a challenge for someone coming from such an intense background. It was fun, it was much less stress, but it was turning my brain to mush. And I wasn’t a big fan of tourists. I did learn a lot more about customer service – what not to do, what companies did wrong and what they did right, and how easy it was to create long-term, repeat, loyal customers with a caring, helpful personality.
I also learned that there were lots of businesses in Kauai that had no idea what customer service was. A lot of people started their businesses because they were passionate about their hobby or skill and knew they could make a living doing it. However, many of them didn’t realize that it was difficult keeping customers coming back year after year in a vacation destination environment if you didn’t have anything that really differentiated you from the mass amounts of the same type of businesses all serving the same type of customer.
Once I realized I didn’t want to take tourists diving for a living, and I didn’t have the finances to start my own dive shop with a boat, and all the equipment necessary, I got a job in marketing at one of the hotels on the island. It turned out to be a great opportunity to gain insight into the hospitality and tourism industries. I started out working on the backend of the concierge at the hotel in the vacation ownership division. We supported the hotel by acting as a concierge via phone while the front end employees sold time share vacation ownership in the main lobby. From my previous careers, and the diving jobs, I had excellent internal and external customer service skills, and my technical skills allowed me to get promoted and respected by my managers very quickly.
At the same time, of course because that was my mode operandus (MO), I restarted my horse training business with some clients on the north shore (that had money). It wasn’t much, but it allowed me to ride, teach, and pay the bills.
Unfortunately, when the economy turned into a huge recession, that vacation ownership division had to shut down and we all got laid off. I was without a job and a purpose for a very long time. I went through some very rough times financially and emotionally. Prior to the layoffs, I had met the love of my life which was wonderful and timely. It made the rough times seem not so bad. Just when I had found another job, he got laid off. And then my mom passed. The same day Bob told me he got a job on the big island of Hawaii, I learned my mom had passed. It was a year of massive ups and downs and ups.
The good news was that his new job was going to pay for us to move from Kauai to Hawaii and we got to stay in the hotel for a month all expenses paid. WOW! Nice employee perk and another great cultural learning experience. At the same time as all of this was happening I had signed up to get my masters degrees (business management and project management) thinking, of course, that it would get me involved in two things that I had been very good at in both engineering and my horse training business. But the economy was sooooooo bad, that there was nothing out there on this huge island for someone who had three advanced degrees, had run a horse training business, and was generally either considered too big a threat to be hired for fear that I would jump ship for a better job, or too over qualified for the rest of the jobs.
Of course, I made several attempts to restart my horse training business on this island, but there was something about the horse people on this island that seemed to make it not a lucrative venture. And they seemed to zap the life and passion right out of me. Either that or the passion was zapped out of me for other reasons and the horses were not enough to re-ignite it.
I eventually found a management job at a hardware chain of all places. Retail. Hmmm. Interesting. Our at least their version of it was interesting. It was a confusing state confusion. The focus was on sales not customer service, but the “automated” training was on customer and safety. Inconsistent. I worked as hard as I could, but all I ended up doing with tearing both rotator cuffs at the same time, which, as you can imagine, lead to a very low point in everything. Once I realized that was not the place for me, and there were no jobs that would encourage healing my shoulders, I got a job at property management company as an administrative assistant. You can imagine the low. Going from a very successful project engineer and successful horse trainer at the same time, to many, many flops and ending up with two torn shoulders at an admin job that was boring enough to put me to sleep every day. Not to mention that the culture and customer service of the company was a wreck.
So my husband, who was also struggling with landing a job that he thought would be a good career advancement and turned out to be more of an aggravated daily lesson in inconsistent culture and customer service, suggested that I start listening to audio and video podcasts from TED and TEDx, and other more intelligent influences to get energized again. He had his paddling (he is an avid paddler) to keep him sane, but with two shoulders healing from surgery, there wasn’t much I could do but go insane. This is where you realize that exercise in not just about losing weight, staying in shape, and keeping fit, it’s about sanity. And when you go from too much activity (riding, mountain biking, and kick boxing), to nothing at all, you don’t just gain weight….you go nuts.
So I started to retrain my brain and realized that I hadn’t lost anything but my passion and drive towards a goal that I wanted really, really badly. I just needed to find a goal. Now that I had found my soul mate, we could develop goals together.
So through an enlightening process of re-education, experimentation, testing, and growing, we came to the conclusion that we were both really good at customer service, training, teaching, coaching, and change. Which led to this company and hopefully bringing the WOW and the feeling of Success back into our lives and all those who would like to have that feeling.