Why You Need a Funeral Principle | An Interview with Emily Callahan

When I call Emily Callahan, the first thing she does is apologize for rescheduling.  

The Chief Marketing & Experience Officer of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, has done more than most people have by 8 a.m.  Yet, she’s concerned about my schedule and flexibility. When I assure her I understand and know that she has a lot going on, she genuinely responds that everyone is busy and that I’m busy too.

This is a testament to the type of person Emily is and why she’s skyrocketed to success at just 40 years old, while maintaining an authenticity that I aspire to. She also has achieved an apparent balance in her life that a person with half her plate would find challenging. Case in point, when I recently saw Emily at Memphis in May BBQ fest she wasn’t in a suit or on a schedule. She was in denim shorts, surrounded by friends, and even in the mud bath that is Memphis in May, she had on fabulous shoes.

We talked about being nervous, her funeral principle, the need for therapy, her advice for women and, yes of course, we talked about the shoes.  

  Photo credit: Memphis Daily News

I wrote my initial email to you about this interview, I don't know, 10 times before pressing send. I think I was so scared of you saying "no" or not being able to that I was scared even press send. What’s something that you feel like you wish you would've done but you didn't, or you haven't yet?

I think it's perfectly okay to be nervous. For example, I recently told my team right before I was about to speak at my divisional, "Yeah, I'm really nervous about today." Two of the women looked at me in disbelief. I said, “Don't you all know I'm nervous every time before I speak? I mean, I'm not incapacitated, I'm not debilitated by it, but I absolutely am nervous."

A lot of times after I speak I just want to take a nap. That anxiety and adrenaline kick in, and then you come back down. You’re thinking about things and wondering how they will be received. It’s normal behavior that we all carry, it never goes away.

What kind of calms you down or helps you in those situations?

There’s a great book I'll recommend called The Confidence Code. I do a lot of work with corporate partners, selling or pitching. I always try to take a deep breath and try to calm down and relax before presenting and focus on what I want to convey. 

Many people, when they’re giving a presentation, are fixated on “Ok, these are my slides, these are my talking points, this is what I want to get across.” We end up coming off stilted and we beat ourselves up when we miss a word.  Before a presentation, I write out what I'm going to say, my talking points, but then I start whittling it down and I try to think about outcomes. If I only was able to get one point across, what's the one thing I want to make sure I convey?

Yeah, definitely. I think many people can relate to that. And sometimes it's the pressure you put on yourself, not necessarily the pressure others are putting on you to be perfect.

Most of the time that's exactly it. If anything, people are much more graceful than we think because they can relate to the nervousness of being in front people.

Earlier you said after a speech you just want to take a nap. I've totally been there and I've always attributed it to being introverted by nature and having to really push outside of my comfort zone. Do you think you're a natural introvert or extrovert?

You know, I think it's funny, there seems to be all this conversation about it and I would say probably if I took a test and on paper I would look like an extrovert. But, we sometimes stereotype it and think because we’re extroverts we don’t need self-time or reflection, or that introverts want to hide out and never talk to people. That's not true at all on either one of those. And so I think we sometimes overuse those terms. 

Regarding the desire to take a nap afterwards and to feel that rush of relief, it’s the human body’s reaction to relieving the anxiety of preparation after the rush of adrenaline kicks in.  That’s why some people get sweaty when they present or their hands get cold and clammy. Any of those things, that's your body's natural reaction to gearing up for something, and then that's the coming down of it. 

To your point about the audience doesn't expect us to be perfect, if done with authenticity, you can actually tell an audience you're nervous. You can say, "I'm so excited to be here today. I'm hoping this goes well. Thank you for receiving me." That's another way of saying “I'm nervous,” but it can be anything that discloses that you're human before you start something. Everybody can relate to that feeling of, "Wow, it's hard to get up in front of people."

Describe your personal brand and how you've developed it over your career.

It’s interesting; I just started teaching about personal branding. I really was intimated to do it because so many people talk about this topic, but I have a different approach. I try to live my life based on my funeral principle.

To caveat that before I sound like a creepy little Wednesday Adams, when I was a kid my dad was a funeral home director and my mom was an ER nurse, so being around death was a normal thing for me. My mom always said the most important times you can be with people, is when they come into the world and when they go out of it.

Looking back, there was a time in my career when I had all these crazy ambitions like needing to be a vice president by 30, yet when I truly took stock I didn't like who I'd become. I remember one day, I was at work at a big PR agency and going and going, working seven days a week. My husband called me one day and said, "I don't like talking to you during the day at work."

At the time, I’m sure I had choice words to say about that, but upon closer reflection later, I thought, "Wow. I don't know that I like who I've become either."

There's something wrong if your husband says I don't want to talk to you throughout the day.

My funeral principle is this - at my funeral I want them to say, "She loved God and others." And that could be big "G" God, universe, force or whatever someone believes. But it’s, “she loved God and others. She was an awesome partner. She was a great mom. A good friend. She made a difference in the world and she had fun doing it.”

My funeral principle then guides my personal brand. For example, I say “and she had fun while doing it.” Yes, I'm a professional and I have to dress up, but you know how I like to add funky shoes to my outfit – something a little bit fun. That's just a silly example of how those things manifest.

 Emily, with her husband Jason and their two children.

Emily, with her husband Jason and their two children.

That’s really powerful, especially the part about your husband saying he didn't like talking to you at work. To have someone who you're so close to say that to you. I of course at first would be like, "What do you mean?"

Oh trust me; it didn't go as swimmingly as I now tell the story. There were probably curse words involved. And by the same token, it created some long-term behaviors.  Your relationships don't grow if you don't invest in them. I wasn’t orienting myself to what the most important or making time for that. Making time for my relationships enables me to be a better person and to be a better executive.

You wear a lot of hats. You said it in your funeral principle. You’re a mom, you're a wife, you're a daughter, you're a friend. You're a mentor, you're a boss. You work out on your treadmill while you're reading. You're involved outside of the office in your community in Memphis. And you know, you have this small day job of yours.

How did you kind of shift from becoming that person that you didn't like, to the person you are now?

Thank you for the kindness of the way you perceive me, that's very nice. I’d be lying if I didn't say that shift came with times of therapy, or just talking with friends. My husband and I started talking a lot more, and we saw a couple’s therapist too. People need to get help during those times, but I don’t think we as a society talk about that enough. Even saying that to you, I'm thinking about how that might sound in an interview. But it’s one of those things that when you start talking about it, you realize how many other people have been there.

Yes, therapy is sort of taboo. But you’re right, it’s normal and needed for so many people. Do you ever just wake up and think, "Oh my gosh, where do I even start today?"

You know that phrase that they say on the airplane about putting your oxygen mask on before you put it on others? Well I hated it. Especially when I became a mom. They would say it and I was like, "Are you high? Of course I would put my child's oxygen mask on first!"

But it makes total sense. Because if you don't take care of yourself you can't take care of others. The first thing I do when I wake up after the alarm goes off is I lay in the dark and I pray and meditate. The first thing that I say every day is, "Thank you God for another day."

Then I exercise. I don’t love it every day, but I never regret it when it’s done. It feels so good to take care of myself, it gets stress out, it gets anxiety out. I do 30 minutes of intense lifting or running or whatever and, I feel so much better. What I've learned is I need to focus on myself and take care of myself, because that's the only thing I can control.

I'm constantly thinking about how to improve my day and how I spend my time. The reason I get up early in the morning and get a workout in, is because I never know what the rest of the day will hold. My schedule is always booked and I’ve learned that it could be totally shot by 8:00 a.m.  I do my best to organize my time but I leave room for interruptions and that way I don't fall apart when they happen.

But that also takes a lot of planning and preparation and having others ready to step in. So it's my job to coach, and teach and have people ready to go.

Right. I like what you said about what happens before 8 a.m. is your time. You’re in control. No one else has that part of your day (except your family but even then maybe they don't. Maybe they're all still asleep!)

That’s exactly right.  With my husband, it's nice because he's wired the same way. We both get up and we both work out in that morning time. We both realize that in order to be the best partner, parent, and team members, we have to start with taking care of ourselves.

The mission of Found & Fitted is that we find thoughtful gifts for everyone on your list so that you can spend more time with the people on it. When I think about it, my ideal client is someone like you. You've got a lot going on but you care a lot about your relationships and you want to put thought into giving a perfect gift but maybe you're too busy to actually run out to a local business and grab it. I can help to take that off of your plate.

Yes, yes. 100%.

I started thinking about the other areas of my ideal client’s life and where else I could help provide value. The more people I spoke to, the more I learned that a common theme was how to balance a career and personal life with increasingly limited time.

Do you think the concept of balance exists, or can exist to some extent or do you not believe in that?

I steer away from the word "balance" because the definition of the word means equal parts. I know I can't be the perfect wife, mother and executive, all at the same time. It's impossible. One of those is always flexing.

Too many times, we’re not honest enough about ourselves and what we need. Children and toddlers have this down. A toddler has a meltdown in the grocery store and it’s because he/she is tired, hungry or overstimulated. As adults, we have some of those same behaviors and don’t always recognize them.  Suddenly we’re being cranky to everyone around us or not performing our best. Really, the root of that can be that we’re exhausted or hungry. I start by saying you have to know yourself and what you need and only you can control that. That's probably why I shy away from work/life balance because it looks different for everybody. You have to do whatever it is that fills your cup back up. I say to people all the time, “if you work all the time, you're no good to me.”

 Emily with Rick Shadyac Jr., President & CEO, ALSAC during the St. Jude Memphis Marathon.

Emily with Rick Shadyac Jr., President & CEO, ALSAC during the St. Jude Memphis Marathon.

Know what you need and prioritize that as best you can and then do that for yourself. That can sometimes be uncomfortable in a world where we are worried about pleasing everybody else.

I think prioritization is crucial to productivity. I can get caught up in checking things off my to-do list and then I have to take a few steps back, and think, what do I actually want to get done today? What’s most important?

I vividly remember sitting at my desk at 6 o’clock at night feeling overwhelmed and thinking I could work forever and not get it all done. If you think about it that way, it is depressing. Start with the three biggest things you've got to get done (some days, it might only be one) and focus on that. Once I started doing that, I found I was a lot more productive.  I always tell people, the higher you rise, the shorter your to-do list better be.

We’ve talked about your busy life and your career success, but will you share your thoughts on what it means to fail?

I wish people would not think so much about failure as final and more as a constant. We talk about this fear of failure, but no one ever died from being yelled at. Nobody ever died from disappointing others.

Successful people- and I say “successful” not only in terms of title, just healthy, balanced, fulfilled people-use failure as a teacher. Expect that it's going to happen, lean in and learn from it, and then rise up. When I fail, I try to address it with people so we can all learn and move forward in a way that feels more focused on learning and growing, not condemning and shaming.

What are you working on with yourself right now?

I think that was part of my big epiphany, that when I life my life by my funeral principle, other things come. It's ironic to me that I used to strive to be a VP by 30, but when I let go and started orienting my life toward my driving principles instead, I was an SVP by 30 and CMO by 31.

But, you asked what I was working on. One of my favorite books I’ve read in the last couple years was The Self-Centered Marriage, by Hal Runkel. The book has transformed not only my relationship, but it's taught me a lot about myself, and it's improved my work relationships. It shifts from looking at a marriage as a couple and focusing on starting on yourself. You have to know yourself, you need, what you want, what you're trying to communicate. So I’d say the thing I’m working on the most is myself because it’s the only thing I can control in any situation.

I haven't talked about this a lot, but I was diagnosed with cancer in April of this year. It’s called T-cell lymphoma. I'm fine, and it will be fine, but my doctor told me that I’ve got to take care of myself. So, for instance, I’m even more focused on making that morning workout a priority. Before, it was more about, oh losing weight, or looking better, and I still want those things but now it’s about taking care of myself.  It’s about prioritizing eating well, knowing when I need to rest, or needing a book to change my perspective. It’s about knowing when I need to get coffee with someone or have a conversation like this to ground myself in what matters.

 Emily was diagnosed with cancer in April 2018. Even in a hospital gown, her shoe game was strong! (In actuality, her feet were really cold! She’d want me to caveat that…)

Emily was diagnosed with cancer in April 2018. Even in a hospital gown, her shoe game was strong! (In actuality, her feet were really cold! She’d want me to caveat that…)

You keep mentioning working on yourself and really listening to yourself. I hear people say to listen to yourself a lot. But, when you get quiet and you listen to yourself, what are you listening for?

I am listening for reminders of the good in my life and insights into the areas I need to address and change. 

I start every day with gratitude that I am here (and I did that long before April). I've always leaned into -and I believe this truly- that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. That there's a purpose. That I matter. So I start with that – the basics. Notice in the funeral principle I say I was an awesome partner. I didn't say I was perfect. I said I was a great mom. I didn't say I was, like, the best mom ever.  I say I made a difference in the world. And sometimes that difference in the world isn't any big grandiose title. Sometimes making a difference in the world is loving my children and sending them off in the world to be a better person that day. Finding myself is just a reminder that I matter and have value and am expected to give back in this world. 

Listening to others is important too. We as human beings are often very fixated on the negative and not the good. In the book, Expect to Win, Carla Harris says you need three people in your career. I added a fourth. She says everybody first needs advisors and these are the people in your life who will tell you the truth. These are the people who you can ask a dumb question to, or will give you honest feedback. 

Second, she says, in the work world, everybody should have sponsors. All the decisions about your career are made when you’re not in the room, so you should have those people who see the good in you and see you shine and will speak up in that room. 

Then, she says, you should have your mentors. The people you seek out. That’s someone in your field who you tell the good and the bad to and who will help you work through your failures and your successes. And don't confuse your sponsors and your mentors. Because it's very hard for those people to behave as sponsor when they know some of your other side. 

And I added coaches. Sometimes you just need to work on something. For me, words come easily but numbers take my brain longer. So I have a coach for financials. 

So I also will say I've got those people in my life, that help me know myself. Who certainly validate and cheer me on when I do well and tell me when I need to do begged. I believe in my self-worth. I learn about myself. I try to know my own behaviors and not expect somebody else to come tell me I need a time-out.

So, you mentioned a second ago that becoming XYZ by X age ... And you, you're 40 now, is that correct?

I did. I turned the big 40 in March, thank you.

I'd say, you're 40 and you are CMO of a large global nonprofit. You've accomplished just a ton. What advice would you give to a woman, and not someone just starting out, but a woman in a senior leadership position at a company, who really wants to continue to move up?

I sound like a broken record, but I would say first make sure you fully assess yourself, and you know what your strengths are, and you know where your areas of improvement are. And work on those things. Then be comfortable with who you are. You know, I am certain things, and other people are not. Certainly I would say develop that board of directors, because it's invaluable. And quite frankly, the higher you rise, the more important connections are. Having my board of directors is critical to my success.

As is hiring people who are smarter than you. We too often feel like we've got to be the boss, we've got to know everything. I mean, I have on my team right now, two former CEOs who report to me. Almost everyone on my management team are at least 10 to 20 years older than me. That doesn't intimidate me. I'm confident and secure in the role I play. I have skills that have put me in the leadership seat, and I'm in the seat for a reason to add value. But, I don’t know everything. I’ve surrounded myself with people that, in a different environment, maybe I'd work for them. It just depends. But in this environment, I add value and provide subject matter expertise. So I always say, hire up. It just makes you rise higher. 

I really admire that you are in a position, and rightfully so, where you have former CEOs reporting to you, but you feel confident enough to say this is my subject matter expertise. I'm hiring you for yours.

But that can be very intimidating to people. I think that's part of learning and growing, right? I mean I've worked here at a place where some of the greatest teachers we have are the tiniest. The patients teach us so much, often more than an adult ever does. So I’m a big believer that learning can come from people of all ages.

This question was proposed to me by a member of my private Facebook community, The Gift Exchange: “We're living in a time of leaning in. How do you deal with those who don't live by that, and don't support one another?”

This idea of people not supporting one another, or women not lifting each other up. My first answer is, I don’t have time for that. I don't tolerate it. Everyone deserves respect and help from others. 

My husband gave me a great piece of advice about managing people on teams. He said oftentimes we spend way too much time on the problem. Imagine how much more success you would have if you invested that same amount of time on those who are a problem, with your superstars instead.

And that's always stuck with me. I don't spend time with people who don’t want to learn or tear down others. They're not my circle, they're not my people, and they're not my board of directors. If I find that on my teams, I explain that's not the behavior we have here, and coach them to realize that you rise when others rise.

So you mentioned it earlier, but let's talk about those shoes for minute. When I first met you, I remember thinking, “She’s a badass. She's got spikes on her shoes!” You always continue to have fabulous heels, but some people shy away from making a bold statement with fashion in the workplace. How do you feel about that?

I wrote a blog post for a friend of mine, Katrina McGhee, for her blog Loving on Me, about executive presence. I commented on this idea of fashion and how dressing the part can boost your confidence, but in a world where clothes don’t make the person, it can be paradoxical. Executive presence is partly about style, distinctiveness and finding your own. Clothes that fit and are tailored should make you feel confident, or at least so comfortable that they’re an afterthought.

 I do, I love great shoes. It's part of my funeral principle “and I have fun while doing it.” But they're my little bit of expression in the world. For other people, that's a piercing or ink, or socks or a watch.


I love it. So, my last question. Giving a gift is, to me, is more than a material object, but it's a way to show you care. Can you tell me about the best gift that you've ever received, and why it was the best?

There are two things that came to mind. One was when my husband proposed to me.

When I was a little girl, I would go into my grandmother's bathroom and she had this one platinum diamond ring that I would always go and try on. I think I’d mentioned this to my husband once, in passing. But he heard me. So when he proposed, he used the diamond from her ring. The diamond I wear on my hand are her diamonds out of that ring. They were reset for me.

And the second. Two Christmases ago, my daughter got me this very delicate little Oklahoma necklace. It's this tiny little charm. Oklahoma is my upbringing and my home, and I loved that my daughter would have thought about that and how important it is to me, all by herself.

This interview is part of the Gift Exchange - a community for successful women to connect and exchange ideas, failures, and advice about advancing their careers, improving themselves and achieving balance in their personal and professional lives. It gives women a chance to learn valuable ways to reclaim and restructure their most precious commodity – time. Join the Facebook Group here.