Four Against-the-grain Practices for Greater Family, Faith and Work Balance

Before Marvin Ellison was the president and CEO of Lowe’s and made Fortune‘s “The World’s Greatest 50 Leaders” list, he was once a first-year college student at the University of Memphis trying to make a good impression on his English professor.

But, his first impression—in the form of a one-page paper—did just the opposite. When the professor returned graded papers to everyone in the class apart from him and asked to see him after class, Marvin knew something was wrong.

His professor was kind and also a realist. He told Marvin point-blank, “You’re going to have to work really hard because your high school curriculum did not prepare you for a major university. And if you’re willing to work hard, I’m willing to assist you.”

So, the next day Marvin got up early and went to his English professor’s office—ready to do whatever it would take to get him to pass the class. That semester, he was one of three students to get an A in English.

In retelling this story, Marvin offered his first piece of sage advice to the Gordon community as part of the Work Ahead: Ready for 2030 initiative, which was this:

If you find you’re at a disadvantage, treat it as a worthy challenge.

It’s easy, says Marvin, to use your disadvantages or weaknesses as an excuse for failure or a reason for mediocrity. “Oftentimes you’re going to walk into situations where you’re not as prepared or as capable as the person to your right or left. The question is: What are you going to do about it? Are you going to use this as an excuse for failure, as a reason for mediocrity? Or are you going to treat it as a challenge?”

The next piece of advice came from his wife, Sharyn, who joined Marvin in chapel this morning for the Conversation with the President.

Have the discernment to know God’s voice from the others inside your head.

As the spouse of a corporate CEO, Sharyn says she’s had to move a lot—eight moves in total, six of them over 12 years. Still, the promise of success or a big promotion isn’t enough to uproot their family of four. The Ellisons need to know it’s what God wants for them. Sharyn explains, “You must have an ear to hear what God is saying so that when he speaks to you, you have the discernment to know that’s the move of God—not somebody else in your ear.”

Be yourself—even when that  means “not fitting in.”

When Marvin moved to Minneapolis in the late-90s to work for Target Corporation as a director, it didn’t take him long to realize that he was one of the headquarters’ few African American employees. Upon realizing that he was in an environment “where no one looked like [him]”, he changed what he wore and how he spoke so that he would have an easier time fitting in. Marvin explains, “I did this for a couple of months and Sharyn could sense that things were not going well. I told her, ‘The job’s not that difficult, but I’m just having a hard time fitting in.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you try being yourself?’ The moment I did that people started to be more interested in what I had to say.”

Structure your work life around what is most important to you.

Marvin and Sharyn believe your calendar can say a lot about you—and what you value. “The best way for me to determine what’s really important to you,” says Marvin, “is not to listen to your words; it’s to look at your calendar. If it’s not on your calendar, it’s not important. So, my calendar will have birthdays, anniversaries [and] band concerts because all of those things are important. If I can get those on my calendar, then I can structure the rest of my work life around it.”

Stay tuned for more Work Ahead: Ready for 2030 events and recaps.