The 5-Step Framework for an Unstoppable Career

Maria Kauffman, Engineer and Podcast Host of The Everyday Heroine

Maria Kauffman Headshot

In this episode, we take a look at the intersection of focus and resilience. We hear from Maria Kauffman, a women’s leadership expert who transformed her corporate engineer experience into a life coach practice (as well as creating the podcast “The Everyday Heroine”). Maria discusses the common misconception that resilience is a personal trait, when in fact it is a skill we can all develop. She shares a 5-step process that provides the structure to focus on who we are, how we may choose to face our challenges, and how we can take ownership of our careers. Join us for an inspiring and joyful conversation.


Cummings-Krueger: Welcome everyone to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. I am Megan Cummings-Krueger and today we’re going to look at the intersection of focus and resilience. While resilience is often seen as a personal trait, it is in fact a skill that we can all learn, and it has never been more useful. The impact of focusing on who we are, how we choose to face our challenges is powerful, most especially for women in taking ownership of our careers. I am delighted to be able to discuss this with today’s guest, Maria Kauffman. Maria is a women’s leadership expert who delivers transformational opportunities to women seeking positive change in the world. She challenges her audience to leverage their personal brands and pay attention to what most matters at work and in life with her five natural steps. 


Maria began her career as an electrical engineer and has more than 30 years of experience in automation and manufacturing. It was over the course of her career that she realized she had a strength in both overcoming obstacles in STEM as well as a unique ability to provide problem solving perspectives to others that enables them to succeed in some of the most challenging environments. Ten years ago, she became a certified professional coach and an Energy Leadership Index (ELI) master practitioner. Building upon this focus, Maria is also the creative creator and host of the podcast, The Everyday Heroine. Don’t worry, we will be providing a link to her podcast when we post our podcast, 


Maria received her Bachelor of Science from Widener University and her coaching certification from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Maria currently resides outside the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania region, is the proud mother of a daughter who attends college not too far away, and I am happy to report she is in the midst of mentoring her second Menttium mentee. Welcome, Maria. 


Kauffman: Thank you so much, what a very honorable introduction. Thank you, Megan. 


Cummings-Krueger: You are more than welcome. One of your areas of specialties as a life coach is career advancement. As I referenced in my introduction, you have a five-step natural framework around this. Given these hectic, chaotic times that we are currently living in, I suspect your clients find it useful to have a framework to work with. Can you share with us what this framework is and how have you seen it work for others? 


Kauffman: Yes, I would love to. Frameworks are a nice place to get grounded and certainly I love when the two worlds of coaching and engineering collide together in some fun ways. In electrical engineering, it’s important to stay safe and you’ll need a grounded system. It’s the same in life coaching and mentoring, right? The five-step framework, I’ll give you the high level and then we can dip down into each step as we see fit. But it happens naturally as we think about what we want in life. Step number one is what I like to call the dream step. Step number two is the discover step. One and two are things that happen more inside of our heads and our minds. Step three is explore. This is where we step out into the world and life happens. We’ll wake up every day and do it all over again. Step four is advance, and step five is sustain. So, those are the five steps. 


If I take a step back and highlight more in step one, what I like to say is, what we do in the dream step is we create unstoppable goals. I have found this important in mentoring when kicking off a mentor mentee relationship. Where are we going? I’m here to serve you, so help me understand how I can make that happen. That’s a nice intro to those types of relationships. Certainly, in the coaching world, then it builds that framework into how I can help and serve. I like to say, you can’t have an unstoppable life without unstoppable goals. I do have a specific recipe that I have learned over years and years of being a student in the game of life and being in the student seat in various self-development and leadership programs. After a while you start to think, there’s a little bit of repetition here. With that repetition too, and I love your lead in here, focus and resilience, help me focus and build that resilience because life is hectic. No better way to do that than an unstoppable goal. Usually it takes about, I like to say, at least one hour per unstoppable goal. I challenge my clients to create three to five unstoppable goals. Once you get three to five, it tends to describe a rich life. It takes about a month to do that, to give yourself that time and to think, I’m really talking about my life. These are not just career goals, but these are life goals. Back to that focus piece, once we get to the explore step, we know it’s coming. How can I help prepare myself the best I can and in a couple of ways? 


Cummings-Krueger: Let me just stop you for one second, because I think it will help everyone if you provide an example of an unstoppable goal. 


Kauffman: Thank you so much, because I almost moved on, but examples are so important. An example can be easy. I do like to boil it down once we get into the deep process of it to really build one out. I simplified in the end with a two-to-three-word title. For example, I want to be director of engineering. That could be just a simple title or an example of an unstoppable goal. I’m early in my career, an unstoppable goal should be bound lists. It should be something that I could be 20 years out of, could be completely unstoppable. So, a title if that’s what you’re going for in your career, could be a good example, whatever that is for you. Now, on the personal side, one that I will always have is a deeper loving relationship with my daughter. This is something that I will live my whole life working toward and never get to the end because the end is just literally unbounded.


Cummings-Krueger: Those are great examples. 


Kauffman: Thank you. The second step is the discover step and the focus here is asking yourself, who am I to make my dreams come true? It’s simple, but it can get distracting out there in life. Before we go play in the world and explore that question, I like to tickle that out. Some of the buzzwords that we hear these days are being authentic and I love to hear that. I love to hear people talk about that because it’s such an interesting topic and how can we do that? That’s an unstoppable goal, which is being authentic.


I love to also add a perspective of empowerment whenever I’m working with women’s leadership and bringing that focus into that realm, because this is where my coaching school comes into play. There are two types of energy in the world and seven different levels, so I like to talk about it as disempowering and empowering and it does not mean that we should not either do disempowering acts. I like to talk about acts of empowerment and acts of disempowerment. An example of an act of empowerment is being in the middle of an argument and you’ve got that sense of this is going nowhere, so what can I do to get out of it, but still stay with it? One trick is to ask, how can I help you? Because when there’s confrontation in that back and forth and that battle, the blame game is an example of a disempowering act. It’s my mother’s fault I never got married to the greatest guy in the world. It’s easy for us to do that. Or it’s the boss’s fault that I don’t get promoted. Those acts, that thought or those words or acts of disempowerment, how can I serve you is an active empowerment. I’m saying, listen, I’m going to either get to neutral and then take us both or all of us a little higher. 


One more thing that I want to mention about the discover step and about the framework that came from my coaching school, because you mentioned transformation. I’m all about transformation. There are two stages of transformation opportunities. One is that point where empowerment and disempowerment shift. The easiest way to describe that is if you’ve ever been in a good mood and you switch to a bad mood, or if you’re in a bad mood and you switch to a good mood. That’s the point that I’m talking about. Sometimes it’s just time heals all wounds, and a bad mood will have its way of dissipating if you just give it time. But that’s one of the transformational levels, because if we can grab a hold of that special place, I mean, who wants to stay in a bad mood? Maybe you do, I’m not going to judge. Definitely as a coach I would never judge that. If you want to stay in a bad mood, then maybe we must have a different conversation. But how can I quickly get out of that when I don’t want to be in it? So, there’s power in learning that and that’s the energy leadership aspect that I love to bring to these relationships.


The other one is a transformational point in which there’s a world we live in with problems and there’s a world we live in without problems. A lot of your multi-millionaires, your highly successful people have this. They’re better at getting or living in a world where they don’t see problems. Everything’s an opportunity. It’s different than good mood to a bad mood. It’s more like, I’m taking control of my life and this situation. It’s the opposite of blaming and it’s seeing how you can give it that place to stay more focused and resilient towards your unstoppable goal. So, that’s the discover step. 


Step number three is explore and in relationships with mentees or clients, this is where you take those two steps to figure out where we’re going and who you are to make that happen. Then you just have to live life. Stuff’s going to happen. Days are going to come, and we’ll see what happens on one aspect, but then on the other aspect, this is where smart goals start. I say, never have a smart goal until you have an unstoppable goal first. It took me a long time to figure this out myself and learn this, but this is why I teach it is because so many times we learn these neat tricks and smart goals are fabulous. But if we’re creating smart goals just to keep us on a distracted path away from our unstoppable goals, that’s easy to do. Life is going to pull you or push you in certain aspects. So, that is the explore step. 


Then the fourth step is advance. Now for women typically, this is one I love to focus on. It is an opportunity to build resilience. So, in the advance step, let’s say we wake up every day and we check in with our unstoppable goal. We answer who we are to make that unstoppable goal come true. We go out into life, and we explore, and we live it. We come back at the end of the day. Here’s where we turn a SMART goal into a SMARTER goal, and the “ER” on a SMARTER goal is evaluate and redo. The focus here is making sure that we advance because it happens naturally. This is a truth of life. The question is, do you self-deprecate, or do you self-promote? What’s that mindset inside your head after you’ve had a really bad day? You can turn a really bad day into a worse day by thinking you should have done better. Not to say that you should have done better, but there’s a way to discern what you need to learn from it before you redo again and beat yourself up.


I don’t know about most of the women out there or even the humans out there, what is that self-talk like for you? Because I know as I’m learning my own five steps, there’s days where I just beat myself up too much. I didn’t realize that. I didn’t have mentors that helped early but we’re living in some amazing times right now. It’s easier to get that kind of support, certainly through the efforts of Menttium and other organizations and people out there that want to help. It’s a good time to be alive. That’s the advance step; make sure we are self-promoting and not self-deprecating. 


The fifth step is sustain. Keep in mind, advance is a step in and of itself. How we think about our day is one thing. I’ll say a tip and a trick, three minutes every day at the end of a day, this saved me once on the job, journal your accomplishments. Maybe it’s what you did and count them. I spent so many hours doing this, whatever you do. It could also be handling a difficult conversation. Maybe you’re proud of yourself and the way you handled it. I took the approach one year; it was a new job and my manager at the time didn’t have a lot of interaction with me. I thought, that’s so weird, how does he know what I’m doing? People want to do a good job. People want to be recognized. I thought, this doesn’t look like it’s hitting the trajectory that would benefit me. If it doesn’t benefit me, then it also doesn’t benefit my boss and the company. So, I thought, every day, at the end of the day, three minutes, I’m just going to write down what I did. One year later it came to my performance review. I’m a new employee, so I don’t know how their performance review goes, but I had all the documentation. I had plenty of information to put into my performance review and promote myself. In the performance review, all I remember my boss saying is, “wow, I didn’t realize what you were doing.” I was so grateful to myself and then to him that I can communicate that to him and that everyone could benefit. Three minutes a day journaling. 


Cummings-Krueger: I appreciate that as an example. It sounds so simple, but it is powerful, and I like both of those sides that you were talking about. Absolutely your ability to communicate it and self-promote and have tangible examples. But also, that other element that you were touching on which is, I think a lot of us if we look at our resume if we’re down our career path a while, we’ll be amazed and think, did I do that? It’s also that internal awareness of it’s so easy to look ahead and lose track of all that we did. It’s a powerful reminder to ourselves. 


Kauffman: Yes. Two things that I love to talk about, thank you for the reflection, because we do this in sports and businesses do this too. We’re always counting. It’s a natural part of life. If I go back to my example on this deeper loving relationship with my daughter, it doesn’t feel natural. I’m not going to count the number of text messages that I sent or the number of phone calls. But on some level, maybe this was a bad year between me and my daughter, a lot of stress at college, this, that, and the other thing. But you do, there is something in you, even with some of these personal goals. What I’d like to say is be the CEO of your own life. Take charge of that. This is where those distractions start to fall away once you gain that clarity on who you are and what you’re meant to do in life. 


Cummings-Krueger: You shared the structure and what you have found that has really been powerful as a coach. I’d also like to hear a little bit more about how you got here as far as where you are now. As I said at the beginning, you are a female engineer who worked in the field for 30 years. I loved the analogy of electricity and grounding. Along the way you’ve shared you really found out your passion is contributing to the world, helping women by finding more joy in their lives. I’d love to hear how you realize this passion and having realized this passion, I imagine you’ve learned a lot both through coaching, as well as your wonderful podcast. 


Kauffman: For me, there was always this piece early on in life where I felt different. It’s a bit of a natural thing to always look out and think that other people have a better life than you do. There was always this sense that I was missing something and that created a thirst and a craving in me just to explore in so many ways. I wanted to understand what made me different. But then I remember coming to high school and being clear at that point on some level that I’m good at math. When you’re in school and you have classmates and I had older brothers as siblings, you have a sense for where you fit. Math was my solid fit and hanging out with guys was a very natural fit too. But then there were other influences from outside and sometimes from adults. In high school, I was already accepted to an engineering school, which was clear for me, and that path was one of the solids. But then you start getting these reactions, like isn’t that a man’s world? I’m looking around and thinking, wait a minute. I have two older brothers, and no one is going to tell me compared to them what the world looks like. A man’s world, what are you talking about? That was so weird to me, but then on some level, my parents were traditional. Dad always drove the car, always paid the bills. There was a sense there that I didn’t even understand at the time, what’s up with this world that we live in that these things are the way they are? 


But then life gets busy, and I get into engineering. As soon as I did my co-ops in college, and I got into the workforce, all steel toed shoes, hard hats, problem solving, and manufacturing. These environments, they’re loud and clunky and all that they are. I was like, this is like home for me. So once again, there’s this part of me that feels this is so right. But then, why am I the only woman in the room? Fast forward 20 years later, I’m trying to live life. You have bills to pay, you have life to do, having fun here and there. I came across a Ted Talk and I really felt at that time that I had arrived. I got my career and I’m out here doing it. I felt I was meant to change the world, so I felt I was on that natural path to contribute, until I came across this Ted Talk that mentioned between 2000 and 2008 we were losing nearly 70% of our women in STEM fields, or maybe even engineering specifically, I don’t recall all the details. That broke my heart because I felt like, here I am. I have an unstoppable goal to be a woman engineer. I know who I am to make that dream come true. I’m out there doing it and I felt there would be this wave of women behind me. Just 20 years later to look back and realize, my girlfriends all left me, what’s up with that? 


Some of these things evolve, even the path evolves. I wanted to explore that and that was the point at which right before I started exploring life coaching and diving into leadership full tilt, I decided enough with the whole engineering thing. I’ve got that down, that’s the easy part. I know how to problem solve; I know how to get all the things. So that became a good 10 years, because I’ll say it’s closer to the 15-year mark of that part of the journey. The first 10 years was just consuming all these things to a point where I wanted to understand the root of it. Whenever we do root problem solving, I want to get to the root. I wanted to have something like the five-step framework that could apply to anything. It took me a long time to get to the true bottom of it. I kept thinking, this next one thing is the one thing that’s really going to do it and one more thing. There are so many things out there, they’re so exciting! They can be distracting too. I wanted and I felt like I needed to get to the bottom because I felt that in my lifetime I then needed to be able to understand my own life in a way that I can talk about it with others, share it with others, and then at some point, really reflect.


The podcast was a labor of love for sure and it wasn’t until I started interviewing and seeking out all these other women engineers that I finally realized that even though I’m the only one sitting in this room, I am not the only one and the only woman sitting in a room by herself with other individuals. That was really powerful. It was a little bit of hindsight, so 10, 15 years ago, I felt like I was on this path. There was something inside of me that needed to have an answer. I had a question; I needed the answer. The podcast was really, I didn’t talk in too much detail about step five, the sustain step. The sustain step is that moment in time where we get to the end of the day, and we must regenerate in a way that we can get up tomorrow morning and do it all over again fresh. Because the bad days can beat us down a bit. 


The podcast was a little bit of that paying it forward. I want to share not only my story, but I want to hear the stories from these other women, they blow me away. I’ll categorize it if I may, as it’s more age or career development phases. In the early stages of a career, there are some amazing women out there entering careers in the STEM fields. They get it and they are primed and ready. So that was validating for me. My presence in this career was worth it. Even if there was a gap there that we might have lost some people, things have a way to correct. So cool to hear from these women, these younger women that really get it. Then we’ll have the mid-career women. Not only do they get it, but they’ve been in there and they are hyper focused at a strong element in the fifth step for sustain. They already get that they should pay it forward. They’re already earlier than me, saying not only do I need to do this career and have this, but I’m going to make sure that I’m having an impact for these other generations, because we’re going to leave this world better than we found it and this is how we’re going to do it. So that’s amazing. 


Then you get to the more seasoned women in STEM fields in their careers. Talk about blowing your mind with empowerment! They come and I love it because they have something that they want to say already, and they say it in the most beautiful of ways. I say the most beautiful because some of the seasoned women that I’ve had in interviews, they will talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly unabashed, no shame in it. No shame and no guilt. This is just talking reality. This is what we had to go through and that gives the opportunity then just to say I once again wasn’t the only one that had those things happen to me. 


Cummings-Krueger: It reminds me, I know anthropologists in all their research, they end up concluding the most important thing that every human wants to know is that they’re not alone. All this work that you’re doing, including the podcast is absolutely achieving that. The other thing I want to touch on with you, because we’ve seen it in action earlier, many of us talk about these challenging times. I noticed a little earlier, you said, this is such an opportunity and part of resilience is being able to reframe with positivity, not Pollyanna, but just reframe with positivity.


It reminds me of, I don’t know if you ever saw The Mary Tyler Moore Show but one of the characters, Ted Knight had a heart attack and then he was a changed man. He said, “it used to be, I’d get up, I’d have breakfast, I’d go to work, I’d come home and go to bed.” And he said, “Now I get up and I have breakfast!” It was such a wonderful example of how to frame things. You are known of course, and I must believe that part of that ability to reframe has allowed your strength in being able to overcome obstacles that you’re able to remain most of the time, at least positive in tough situations. Was that something that came naturally to you? Was that something you’ve learned along the way? 


Kauffman: Not only have I learned, but I continue to learn. I’ll also include in there that I am quick to go to battle and bring out the fight when the influence coming at me is disempowering and meant to disempower me. It’s an interesting dynamic there, right? Because like Pollyanna, not just positive, but if we get trapped into this idea that everything is supposed to be perfect, and I’m a perfectionist, I almost had to be being the only woman in the room, it’s a trap. There’s a joy in me and sometimes I have to throttle it because there’s a little bit of not the best kind of joy when I go to battle. I’m so schooled at understanding the influences that are meant to attack and disempower, but at the same time, that’s where I understand that everything that I have been through is putting me in this moment for a reason with this person to go to battle. So, it’s okay. It does need to come with a lot of compassion. A lot of compassion for this other person who’s less equipped than I am. I must know that and handle that appropriately because I want my behavior to define me, which is the only thing that can, and I realized that other people’s behavior is going to define them. 


Cummings-Krueger: We could talk forever clearly, but I do just want to close with a couple questions. This next one is the catch all because I’ve been peppering you with questions, but I want to make sure you’re able to share what we haven’t touched on. What would be your advice to up-and-coming leaders? That classic, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? Obviously, a lot of this we’ve covered, but what have we not touched on? 


Kauffman: My biggest advice at this moment in time is to get in touch with intuition. Intuition is a game changer and it’s something that everyone has. It is something that you can cultivate, but it is something that you need to cultivate. I would suggest a journal to tap into that because a lot of times it’s like, is this my ego or is it my intuition? You have to dial that in and have a sense for it. To help it, and I say help, it’s like a relationship. So, you want to have that relationship with your intuition, because I think that’s the level up for the future of leadership. I think it’s important for anyone that is going to be in leadership positions that are truly making progress, creating positivity, and leaving the world better than we found it. We need more people with that sense. 


Cummings-Krueger: I love that. I keep thinking it’s never been more important because we are all in such a fast pace, so pausing. I forget what the exact quote is, but it’s something like, “I kept chasing and then when I finally stopped, it caught up with me, the wisdom.” I think about how important it is again, with your focus being able to pause and listen to that intuition that’s been knocking on the door.


Kauffman: Yes, because the how-tos are only going to get you so far. You’re going to be in a heated situation you’ve never been in before, and you’re going to want a source that you can trust. 


Cummings-Krueger: Yes, absolutely. Final question for you Maria and this may be hard to pick but do you have a favorite quote or motto you’d like to share?


Kauffman: I do. It comes in the form of a motto and I say, “more joy, more respect”. 


Cummings-Krueger: That really captures it. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and your experiences and reminding us of how important it is to pause and listen to ourselves and be intentional about how we are interacting with the world, but also interacting with ourselves.


Kauffman: It has certainly been a pleasure. Just another plug, because that fifth step, once again, sustain is doing what Menttium does and helping people with these relationships is so crucial. It’s certainly an opportunity to be a mentor, glad to have it and wish I had one when I was younger.


Cummings-Krueger: We hear that so much from our mentors. Many are passing it on, but so many are those wonderful personalities who wish they had it and know how meaningful it is. I think we’re all doing meaningful work and we’re fortunate to do that. I also want to thank all our listeners for joining this Menttium Matters podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to share it with friends and colleagues. Again, when we are posting this podcast, we will also of course include Maria’s podcast link as well. If you are interested in additional resources, you can find our show notes on the Menttium website, and we look forward to having you join us for our next inspiring conversation.

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