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Personal Development
January 9, 2024

Free To Fly

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As a top marketing strategist, Sheri Riley consulted with some of the biggest businesses around—BET, Coca-Cola, Converse, the NBA and Warner Media among them. As often as not, business conversations would turn to the personal challenge of balancing success at work with family life.
She would share an insight from her own life, “just the things I was doing,” that resonated with people and over time she found her focus shifting from professional expertise to personal empowerment. Today she coaches business executives, professional athletes and entertainers on how to go higher while staying grounded in a fulfilling life.
At the heart of that is the message of her 2017 book, Exponential Living—Stop Spending 100% of Your Time on 10% of Who You Are (described by one Amazon five-star reviewer as “a must-read book for anyone who strives to be a high-achiever while maintaining balance between personal and professional [life].”
What happens often is that people lean too much into their giftedness, Riley says. “So, for example, if our gift is to be supportive, but we do that too much, then what happens is it challenges our confidence because we then put ourselves in positions when we overserve and then people begin to use us.” The answer is to see where you might be self-sabotaging yourself and work on those areas, which she calls opportunities for growth (“I never like to say weaknesses”).
“So many of us are spending 100% of our time on 10% of who we are.”
Riley’s gift isn’t just helping people discover what they really want out of life. She then gets really practical in how they can realize it—which usually involves making some changes in what they do with their time. She gives the example of a successful but “depleted” producer of morning television shows who was run down because of her demanding job plus other commitments that included serving in her church and sorority. If anybody called her for mentoring, she would always meet with them.
“One of the first things I did was give her permission to recognize that her time serving in certain organizations was over, and that was hard for her,” Riley recalls. She made the letting go easier by pointing out that by continuing with all she was doing, the woman might actually be blocking someone else from experiencing a blessing through taking on that responsibility.
“So when she began to see, ‘Wow, what I think is me being of service is actually me being selfish because someone else is supposed to have the joy of serving in this seat,’ she was able to give herself permission to let that go.” By helping her client realize she needed to give up that role and others, Riley was able to help the woman free up 20 hours in her week for what really mattered and a more balanced life.
“We have to recognize we can have multiple dreams.”
Essence and evolution
Taking Riley’s advice requires some measure of reinvention—something she has had to do herself. The business and marketing graduate of the University of Louisville was director of product management at LaFace Records (where artists included Usher and Toni Braxton) before going out on her own as a consultant and strategist with Glue. Then came her third act, the launch of her Exponential Living coaching platform.
Having sensed there was something more for her, she was introduced to pas- tor-turned-leadership expert John C. Maxwell and became part of his teaching team. Learning about personal and professional leadership development, she realized that, actually, “this is what I’ve been doing my whole life” in some measure.
The payoff of her work isn’t just for the individuals she works with, it’s also for their businesses. “What happens between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. directly affects how productive your team is between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.,” Riley says. “If that parent is dealing with a 16-year-old and they don’t know where they are, you’re not getting the best of them when they come to work.”
Thankfully, more businesses are recognizing the importance of their employees’ health and emotional well-being, and how personal development leads to professional growth, she says. “The work we’re doing directly impacts productivity. It directly impacts retention. It directly impacts engagement. It directly impacts team and culture and environment . . . it affects the bottom line.”
Riley avoids saying “change” when talking to people. “The word just throws them,” she explains. And, actually, she doesn’t want them to alter the core of who they are. “I want the essence of you, but I want you to evolve,” she says. “So many of us are spending 100% of our time on 10% of who we are, and we’re trying to find 100% of our fulfillment in that 10%. So what I want you to do is I want you to evolve into that other 90%.”
Peace, clarity, courage
Though what she does now is different from her previous roles, in some ways there is also a thread through them. As singer Usher notes in his foreword to Riley’s book, back when he was just starting out and he was one of her marketing projects, she was as concerned about the person as the project. “She asked me questions and really listened to my answers, with no hidden agendas,” he says. She became “my friend and life consultant. Sometimes she was like a mother to me, sometimes like a big sister, sometimes like a coach… Going to her office felt like therapy to me.”
Drawing from her own story, Riley speaks of the importance of allowing yourself to have more than one dream. A lot of the high performers she works with reach the pinnacle of their profession “and they feel like they have to stop there,” she observes. But “we have to recognize we can have multiple dreams.”
Exponential Living champions “pursuing peace, choosing clarity and living courageously,” which Riley says is a three-step process. “What I’ve learned through my journey is that when we get the peace it always gives us clarity; it’s a guarantee,” she says. “Most of the time where we’re discouraged it’s because we’re not clear or we’re anxious.” Clarity gives you the courage to do what you need to, she adds—or stop doing what you need to.
What about those who may have graduated with a degree but who have no clear idea about what they really want to do with the rest of their lives? Riley has three pieces of advice.
Stop it! Quit saying you “don’t know,” because actually you do, at least in part. “We may not know everything and that’s OK,” she says. But that sense of uncertainty may be more to do with the fact that you may not be ready to make the changes required to go after what you want. “Focus on what you do know,” she says. For instance, you have a degree, so you know you’re able to complete things. “Ask yourself what wakes you up in the morning.”
Go easy. Give yourself some grace for not having it all figured out. Then allow yourself to discover what you want to do next. Maybe you need to get some further training or a certification to take you closer to where you want to go.
Be flexible. Don’t get stuck on the idea that your passion, your purpose and your profit all have to be in sync. They can be, but not necessarily. “Your purpose may be to serve, but you can’t figure out how to make money with that,” she says. “Well, that means you may have to do something else for profit, then your purpose you go and do on your own time, your free time.”
HANDLING HARD TIMES
Sheri Riley helps people reach for more, but she knows that life isn’t always easy. On her way to where she is now, she lost her father, her marriage and her company: “I know what it’s like to be on that cold bathroom floor, laying in a puddle of tears and the only thing that could get me up was, ‘Lord help me.’”
So the advice she offers to others facing difficulties comes from a place of understanding. It’s simple: get a pen and a piece of paper.
“On the right side, write everything that is a challenge,” she says. “Everything that’s a hurt, a frustration, a struggle.” Then, on the left-hand side, write down everything that’s great in your life. When she does this with people, “without fail, they’re going to stop writing on the right side eventually. I have to stop them on the left side, because the truth of the matter is, no matter how bad it is, there’s way more good in our own lives.”
Focus on gratitude, on the things that are positive, she says. “My favorite book [the Bible] says, ‘And this too shall pass.’ My favorite book says, ‘He works all things for the good of those who love the Lord.’ So, whatever that struggle is, we’ve got to know that we’re going to get better in it when we continue to press through it.”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.