The Backbone Blueprint: Pathways to Personal Triumph | Susan Marshall

In the landscape of modern life, where obstacles and possibilities are intricately woven together, resides the timeless pursuit of personal fortitude and adaptability. Central to this journey is the concept of the “backbone”— a metaphor for the vital attributes of strength, perseverance, and confidence that underpin personal and professional triumphs. Recognizing the need for these qualities in today’s fast-paced world, Susan Marshall founded the Backbone Institute.

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Susan Marshall The Backbone Institute

The notion of a backbone encapsulates not just the capacity to face life’s hurdles with grace but also the resilience to emerge stronger on the other side. Susan’s vision was clear: to forge a sanctuary where individuals could cultivate the essential skills and mindset needed to develop their own inner backbone. Susan’s initiative sprang from a deep understanding that true empowerment stems from within, and her institute serves as a conduit for transformation, guiding people toward realizing their fullest potential.

The inception of the Backbone Institute was inspired by the life and experiences of Susan, whose journey from adversity to achievement exemplifies the institute’s ethos. While unique in its details, Susan’s story reflects a broader narrative shared by many who navigate the unpredictable waters of growth and change.

During her younger years, her educational journey was far from linear. Initially, she set her sights on a future in the field of law. Unfortunately, her dream could not be realized due to her family’s financial limitations; she was the second of six children. Eventually, she attended a community college at the University of Wisconsin, Washington County campus.

“I went there for a year and then transferred to the University of Minnesota. I thought if I couldn’t be a lawyer, I wanted to be a journalist. So, I enrolled in the journalism school there in 1974.”

She soon found herself on an unfamiliarly large campus where her bike was stolen within the first hour of her arrival.

“I met a student radical—like dump lettuce on the cafeteria floor, students for a democratic society (SDS) radical—probably five weeks in. We decided we had a lot more interesting things to do than go to school. So, ultimately, I ended up dropping out and moving in with him.”

At the time, she was only 19 years old. Shortly after, Susan realized that he was emotionally unstable, leading her to feel concerned for her safety. She relied on her family for help navigating the situation.

“At one point, my brother and sister came to pick me up. We planned that when he went to work, we would throw everything I had into the car and get out of there.”

The initial plans fell through, and she ultimately married him, still fearing for her well-being. Years later, after they had divorced and Susan finished a 13-year trek to receive her undergraduate degree, she continued on to earn an MBA. “A friend of mine had said, ‘If you are going to be working in business, you should get that degree.’”

Following her graduation, the president of a struggling company approached her and asked, “Would you consider leading the marketing division?”

“It was a turnaround situation, and I said yes. We turned it around. And I thought, well, if I could do that here, maybe I can help other companies do the same thing.”

By this time, she was re-married and a mother of two. Given the success of the turnaround effort, she also authored a book.

“I said, you know what? If I’m going to do this work that I truly believe in—helping leaders and businesses understand what they’re doing, I need to commit. So, I went out on my own and wrote a book in 2000 called ‘How to Grow a Backbone’ and really launched all of that work, which I have been doing since then.”

She expanded her horizons by establishing her own business. According to her, the experience was quite daunting as she decided to take a leap of faith.

“I really had no idea how to go about any of that, even though I had grown up in the work of marketing for companies. That was sort of the genesis of understanding. I am really good at marketing other people. I am terrible at marketing myself. It’s not about me. It’s about the work. But I had been on my own in life, and I thought if I could figure out how to be a single mom at 22, find a way to earn some income while also helping my daughter begin to develop as a human being, I could certainly figure this out as well.”

She admits that she did not know where to start and felt clueless. However, her life perspective is what propelled her forward.

“People say, ‘How did you get where you are?’ I always say stumble forward. Just keep moving, pay attention, and ask questions. Figure out what you want to do and what you don’t. And that’s a lifelong process.”

President Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, particularly the “ask not what your country can do for you” line, served as a significant inspiration during her younger years.

“It was always about making a contribution. Don’t worry about what somebody’s going to do or recognize about you. Go make a contribution. It was naïve, particularly in the business world. The whole success framework was visible—get stuff, become powerful. And I’m like, well, I don’t really care about any of that, but it seems to me like a whole lot of people here need encouragement, support, and guidance.”

She struggled to get started with what would ultimately become her career path. “I had this tremendously independent spirit,” she says. However, from her prior experience turning around a corporation, she learned some crucial aspects of coaching businesses.

“One thing I recognized is that most people get hired for a role, and often, the role they’re hired to do is not necessarily the work they’re most equipped to do. So, one of the first things I did in the turnaround was I asked everybody to write a couple of sentences. What were you hired to do here? And given what you know about this company and its customers, what should you be doing? That was fascinating, and it helped us restructure the division so that people were actually doing work that they not only enjoyed but were also good at.”

After gaining insights from collaborating with various businesses and individuals, she formulated a unique concept outlining the key qualities that drive success in both professional and personal realms. She refers to this as a “backbone.”

“The three elements of a backbone are competence, confidence, and risk-taking. They really serve as a learning system. What do I need to get good at in order to build my confidence to approach a risk that I want to take, like asking my boss for a raise that feels risky? I need to know what he’s interested in, know what the company needs, and know what I’ve done in the past. So the risk varies from asking your boss for a raise to building your own organization to getting divorced to having a family and moving to a new place. So, it encompasses everything about us as human beings in a way that we can systematically kind of break it down into what do I need to learn next, and then once I gain some confidence in that, what can I add on top of that?”

Emphasizing five key skills, the institute places a strong focus on critical thinking, decisiveness, clarity of communication, integrity of word and act, and consistency. According to her, these elements were developed from a framework centered on competence, confidence, and risk-taking. Reassessing our approach to risks can either pave the way for success or create obstacles.

“I don’t think we step back long enough to ask what the lay of the land here is. We make all kinds of assumptions about ourselves, what’s needed, how other people will respond to us, and how that will limit or propel us.”

Doing so allows us to choose what path to commit to and helps us develop concrete actions to get there. The next piece is clarity of communication. “Once I understand what I’m doing, and I’ve made some decisions, now I can communicate that process to date.”

Providing insights into personal or professional challenges and practical strategies to overcome them is helpful to the people around us.

“Then, once I’ve done all of that to the point where people can question my decisions, I’m likely to be more grateful for the input than I am defensive for the attack. That’s because I’ve done my critical thinking. That doesn’t mean I’m done thinking. Obviously, critical thinking runs through continuously, but I’m much more clear in my communication.”

Integrity in both words and actions is also paramount.

“Imagine I say I will be somewhere Tuesday at noon, and I don’t show up. Well, now you don’t trust me. And we see this an awful lot today. Someone says something and does something, but they don’t match. Therefore, a platform of trust is now fractured.”

Finally, consistency in thinking, decision-making, and behavior is crucial. Being equipped with these skills is essential in navigating the contemporary workplace, where toxic atmospheres are prevalent.

“Toxicity is not only everywhere, but it is destructive in an insidious way. We don’t see it, but it accumulates. So, what I like to share with people with regard to the toxicity is that it’s like having a refrigerator on our back. It’s heavy and cold. We don’t know why it’s there, and somehow, we can’t escape it.”

Susan says that we all do a mental check, consciously or not, at the end of the day. This assessment can either strengthen or weaken our confidence, ultimately leading us to work overtime. It is common to focus on mistakes or conversations with colleagues.

“We are in power systems and power structures that, in my estimation, often destroy the humans that are trying to thrive within them.”

When faced with hostility in a professional setting, it is beneficial to approach the situation with a neutral perspective.

“Every time somebody comes at you and says you are ‘ABCDE,’ and you know you are not, flip it over. Recognize what they’re telling you is about them. They’re not telling you about you. You know you. They’re telling you about them in relationship to you.”

Painting a vivid picture, she recounts a situation in which a client faced accusations of being a bully by her colleagues. Susan explained that others may feel intimidated by her rather than it being a part of her inherent personality. During her one-on-one coaching sessions, she delves into specific aspects, such as that scenario.

“The first meeting we have is really a chemistry meeting. Do we interact well? If I am tense about something that makes you tense, or vice versa, we are going to struggle with each other. In that case, I can refer you to others. If we decide that initial conversation was fruitful and beneficial, and we feel like we can work well together, then typically we meet once a week.”

She requires a minimum commitment of three to six months, with a preference for a longer duration, as she believes in the gradual nature of change.

“We practice a lot of life skills and ask questions like, ‘Am I thinking clearly about this?’ ‘What assumptions am I making about my boss, about the family that owns the company, whatever it may be?’ Then, we question what we can do differently. The decision piece will alter the interaction. So, we go through all the options. ‘Communication is up to me, right?’ If I decide I want to tell people I’m working to change, great. And then the consistency piece and integrity of word all build confidence. When done poorly, you erode confidence.”

She aims to empower her clients by providing support without fostering dependency.

“It’s me sitting side-by-side with you to look at what is really holding you back, troubling you, causing whatever. If we can look at that together, we can begin trying different things. There’s a lot of laughter in the work I do. I believe in play. I think when we laugh, we are more open to acknowledging things we’d rather not and be willing to try different approaches.”

Her personal history enables her to establish strong connections with her clients.

“I did not have a privileged upbringing. I had to figure things out, and I made a whole bunch of mistakes. The more willing I am to say this and not be embarrassed by it, the more comfortable clients get. It’s foundational to any kind of coaching or supportive relationship. I share my journey depending on the circumstance, especially when it relates to identity and embarrassment. It’s not, you know, let me open the kimono and show you everything. It’s not about me.”

She frequently notices other life coaches attempting to simplify things into a formula or belief, transforming into guru figures who only share their philosophy. One of the critical aspects she focuses on with her clients is helping them develop the skill of setting boundaries.

“If we never say no, we never really say yes. I find that is such a factor in the erosion of confidence. People think, ‘If I say no, they will stop asking me. I might miss out on something. I might offend someone, right?’ This happens with women in particular. The fact of the matter is that we are all finite creatures. We only have so much time and energy. When we say yes to everything, we lose.”

She emphasizes her focus on practicing saying no, especially with women. “Often, we dare not risk going against what people expect. And then I ask, whose expectations are you living up to?”

Susan says they can get pretty deep into the weeds during her coaching, but she is mindful of her limitations.

“It gets very uncomfortable at times. It gets even scary at times, and that’s when I will often say, look, I am not a therapist. And if this begins to get into things that you need someone with that background, please let me know, and I will refer you.”

She believes we are currently experiencing a new wave of confidence erosion due to social media. Social media plays a crucial role in shaping people’s feelings of disillusionment and unhappiness.

“I detest social media. I think about this a lot because I see so much confusion. We all had to decide who we were and then build this brand and get it out on social media. When I’m on screen, I can be anyone I want to be, exaggerating what I think is good about me. Conversely, if I look at everything on social media, I may wonder why everybody has their lives together except me. It’s horribly destructive to confidence because we’re all play-acting.”

According to her, society has a prevailing anxiety about disconnecting from social media. Individuals often find themselves immobile, turning to social platforms to project a captivating persona while complying in their work lives to avoid repercussions. At other times, it has the opposite effect.

“Social media gives a false sense of self-power, confidence, whatever you want to say. It has led people to reach for things they’re not qualified for. And because in the workforce now, there are way more jobs open than people who can take them. It’s an absolute opportune time to jump for more money; People are doing that a lot now. There is satisfaction in having more money and having a better lifestyle. The sort of wrinkle in that fabric is that someone may continue to jump for money but now has to start questioning whether they’re really qualified to do that work. And so, we’ve got the makings of a pretty rickety, you know, unsustainable future.”

At the same time, power structures and systems are being transformed by technology.

“Power systems and power structures will be redistributed as people have online access to company information. Customer feedback really was where this started, right? And if your customers hate you because of whatever, they post that online. Oh boy, you’re in trouble. So, how is decision-making going to be distributed? One of the things that I learned many years ago about the redistribution of power is that it’s not typically voluntary; it doesn’t happen very gracefully, and people generally get hurt. Because systems are challenged, sacred cows are challenged, and people who hold power don’t typically like to give it away, particularly to people they don’t know or trust.”

In the era of remote work, new methods are required to establish and uphold a strong backbone. Many of them have to do with regulating our relationship with ourselves.

“I’m a huge proponent of journaling. For instance, if someone was off camera, what story do I tell myself about that? What did I expect that didn’t happen? There are all kinds of opportunities to capture what’s happening in your world and then to sit back and reflect on what it means. We don’t take time to consider what has happened or how we might position ourselves differently to take advantage of something we see not working well or simply avoid the drama everywhere.”

Nowadays, Susan has expanded her work from individuals and companies to educational institutions.

“Right now, we’re doing a leadership development program for a charter school system. All of the things I’ve been talking about are there in totality. And so, It’s really helping them understand. Depending on their roles, we deal with leaders, principals, assistant principals, counselors, and operations people. What is their responsibility as educators in the world today? And that’s a big, messy question. And so, there’s a lot of uncertainty about rules. The whole field of education is changing so dramatically, and it may feel like we don’t understand how or why.”

She is working on a mechanism by which parents can match students with the best places to learn from pre-k through high school. Thriving in a challenging situation, she attributes her success in this process to her expertise in boosting confidence, a skill many are currently struggling with. “There’s a lot of fragility in the human condition right now,” she says.

According to her, the landscape of education has been significantly altered by technological advancements. She recounts that when she grew up, something as simple as being assigned a new seat in school was always a thrilling experience, bringing the excitement of sitting next to new classmates.

“We’ve got learning pods now. We’ve got activities. We’ve got partnerships in high schools and even middle schools with businesses to get kids involved in business environments. So, what we knew worked in education decades ago simply no longer works. Everyone is uncomfortable, from families to kids to educators. We need to help people understand that you still have these responsibilities. How best can we meet those responsibilities to continue to educate and help our citizens grow up?”

When faced with the responsibility of caring for her parents, who were both suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, she implemented her own system, specifically dealing with the unfamiliar, to manage the situation.

“I was responsible for making many decisions regarding their healthcare along with legal and financial stuff. And I had no clue what I was doing when I kind of was thrust into that.”

There was much to learn, so she connected with other caregivers, eventually starting monthly compassion chats.

“So, in one realm, we may have tremendous confidence, and, in another realm, we may have zero or limited confidence. There’s a huge opportunity to help people become stronger there. I’ve got a foot in both of those worlds, which is interesting because the context is so very different. What’s consistent is the humans and our struggle to be good, to be validated, to feel like we’ve done the right thing for the right reason.”

She currently sits on the University of Wisconsin’s Initiative to End Alzheimer’s Board of Visitors. With a history of taking charge and initiating projects, she emphasizes the importance of continuous learning for leaders. Change is within reach for all individuals.

“In terms of leadership, understand the environment and the people making it up. Understand what things really drive the pace of what you’re doing and how people learn. How do you take 3 seconds to reflect? How do you pause? How do you speak respectfully when someone’s talking trash? How do you disengage from a high-intensity hostile environment without looking like you’re tucking your tail and running? Those are human behaviors that allow people to either decide to trust you or say ‘I’m not on that train—that’s nutty.’”

Ultimately, she underscores what it means to have a backbone.

“Having a backbone is having the strength of self to be in any circumstance with some calmness to be able to speak what you need to say with respect.”

Discovering a backbone may be difficult, yet the end result is truly fulfilling. She recounts a touching tale of a student who temporarily left one of her classes due to feeling overwhelmed, only to return and bravely share her experience.

“Nobody’s judging, right? Because they’re all focused on their own stuff. It literally transformed her. And that’s the power of this. When we give each other permission to be a mess, we can clean it up. If we never acknowledge the mess, we stay frantic that it will be discovered.”

She offers valuable guidance for individuals facing challenges with self-assurance in that journey.

“I think the key for all of us is to be kind first to yourself, to be gentle with things that are troubling and to recognize you have the agency, the tools, and the ability to be different. You have it all. You don’t need it from someone else.”

Susan Marshall The Backbone Institute