17th Cup: Thom Singer – Family guy, networking advocate and international speaker.

The Place: Starbucks on 5th and Lamar

The Cup: Non-fat vanilla latte is Thom’s drink of choice (and as he told me later, his guilty pleasure. I know, fat-free doesn’t sound all that guilty right?!?)  I enjoyed a delicious fat-free double espresso which I promptly made fat-full by adding half and half. Oh and a shake of cinnamon.  Yum!

Background: Imagine my surprise when I walk into BlogathonATX a few months back and was greeted with, “Melissa Lombard!  Coffee with a stranger…I read your blog!”  Huh?  Is someone punking me?  Who set this up?  OK, not to be all self-deprecating or anything, but I was on something like Cup 6 at that time and had no clue I was on anyone’s radar. Sure, I see my traffic and am delighted you are here reading, but to be recognized was totally shocking.  I will say, it hasn’t happened again since and I will also say that Thom followed me on Twitter so knew I’d be at the event and knew what I looked like.  But still, it was super cool!

So why was Thom at BlogathonATX?  You’d probably guess that he’s a blogger. And you’d be right.  But, he’s also a highly sought after public speaker, an author of 10 books and an extremely cool and humble guy. He’d never say the “highly sought after” part, but it’s totally the truth. Over 50 speaking engagements a year is my proof! Which made scheduling this coffee a bit of a challenge as he was CONSTANTLY on the road speaking.  I took a chance, hoping Thanksgiving week I’d find him in Austin relaxing at home and in the mood for coffee with an almost stranger.  Lucky me, I was right.

How does one find themselves traveling the country, being paid to speak? For Thom it was 1 part ham, 1 part natural talent and 1 part luck and 3 parts fearlessness. That started off sounding like a recipe for something you put on a bun.  In this case, I don’t mean the salty, nitrate filled meat product loved by many.  I mean the show-boating, love being in front of a crowd tendencies that make someone crave an audience.  Thom admits that if he had it to do over again, he would have almost certainly gone into acting. Surprising he didn’t since he grew up in Los Angeles. Lucky for connection seekers everywhere, that wasn’t the path he chose.  More on that in just a bit.

So Thom wanted to be an actor, but instead ended up a news anchor for Apache News – the news station at Arcadia High School in Southern California.  From there, his performing had to take a back seat to college, followed by getting a job. Bummer! But folks, don’t despair, things are about to get interesting and our protagonist will soon find himself in front of an audience again. A law firm is where Thom lands – doing marketing. Thom is a natural connector and the partners notice this and ask him to create a class to teach the lawyers to be better networkers. Tom was convinced they’d hate the class so he was blown away when the feedback he got was resoundingly positive.  So positive in fact, they soon started offering Thom’s class as a value-add for clients of the firm.  I bet you can see where this is going. After several years doing this for the law firm, a bank and a consulting company, Thom decided to take the plunge and start his own business.  It’s now been 3 1/2 years and Thom says it’s been a lot of hard work but feels blessed and fortunate.

Conference Catalyst is the program Thom is most often asked to present. Thom explains that when you ask someone why they go to conferences, the number one answer is “for the networking”.  Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between what people say they want and what they actually do and it’s this dissonance that Thom built a business around.  He delivers a keynote in which he encourages people to get out from behind their smart phones and look around. Beyond several obvious lessons, he also offers up tons of tricks, tips and hacks on being a better networker/connector in business and in life. He sticks around for the entire conference to provide additional lessons throughout the conference and to also participate in the networking (i.e. make sure people are doing as he instructed).

I am fascinated by success and the lessons people learn along the way to achieving it.  Here are a few things Thom has learned.

  1. Never assume you know how someone else feels or what they are thinking.
  2. Listen more and talk less. Hard for someone who makes a living talking, but perhaps even more important. Thom says for him, this one came with maturity and experience. We all make mistakes, but you have a choice to keep repeating them or to learn from them.  He works daily on this one.
  3. Titles and degrees don’t matter. Or at least matter much less than he thought when he was younger.  This lesson came from meeting a wide variety of people with vastly different backgrounds.  “Everyone has something to contribute”, Thom chimes.
  4. We are really all the same at our core. This is one I can attest to as a lesson I learned very early on in this 5 Year Project journey. Sure we all have stuff that makes us unique. But the stuff we have in common is far greater that the stuff that separates us.

I ask Thom if happiness were the national currency what he’d make his living doing. Can you guess what he said? He told me he’d become a salmon fisherman.  No, actually he didn’t. Of course he said he’d be doing exactly what he’s doing today. Living the dream! Someone recently asked him to name one thing he doesn’t like about public speaking/corporate training. As hard as he thought he could not come up with an answer. Sadly, I know many people who would have just as difficult a time coming up with one thing the love about their current job.

I think the travel aspect of being an international speaker sounds amazing, but I don’t have kids and I have a husband who’s job is flexible enough that we could hit the road together. But knowing Thom has a wife, a 15 year old daughter and a 10 year old daughter at home, I assumed travel might make the dislike list. But no. He explains that the business is a family business. No one loves when he has to be gone for 3 nights or more, but its rare. He usually leaves for 2 nights and then is back home for a bit before setting out again. And here’s what I love. If he gets asked to speak during someone’s birthday or another special day, he will not make the commitment before getting the thumbs up from the affected family member.  What a guy!

Where does this awesomeness come from?  Well, I didn’t ask him that specifically, but here’s what I can assume based on some things we did talk about. Thom grew up with parents who adored him and made him feel special and loved every moment – a parenting philosophy he lives by himself.  He had three older brothers who are each very different and Thom considers himself blessed to have had three loving and vastly different mentors in this brotherly trio. Thom has a wife who supports his career and believes in him as much or more than he believes in himself.  She’s also a cookbook author, so I think it’s safe to assume the man is fed well which we all know is a huge factor in happiness. He’s got two daughters who think he hung the moon and a career that is a dream come true. The awesomeness is a combination of all of this coupled with a drive toward constant improvement, a willingness to help anyone who asks (and even some who don’t), a generosity and willingness share what he has/knows and a winning smile which never hurts!

If Thom could deliver a 30 second message to the world, what would he say?  His answer is three things.

  1. You can never love your kids too much.
  2. Don’t assume anything.
  3. You’re never too busy to give back. Even the busiest people in the world make time for what matters to them.
It’s obvious in our 90 minutes together that this isn’t just Thom’s message to the world, it’s his way of life. He adores his family and makes sure they and the world know so, he keeps an open mind and open ears and he donates 5% of his speaking fees to a cause very near and dear to his family – research for kids born with craniofacial abnormalities through Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and Dell Children’s here in Austin. They started giving 5 years ago and as Thom explains, when you just start doing something, even if it’s small, eventually it adds up and turns into something big. I think that’s a great lesson with multiple applications. If something matters to you, do something, even something small. And do it now – no reason to wait.
To learn more about Thom check out his website and follow him on Twitter to keep up with where he is and what he’s up to.