By ADAM VLACH
Nothing makes the challenges of life a little less challenging than learning from those who have gone before us. The same, no doubt, can be said for the predicaments of business and leadership. But the ones who truly succeed—who achieve peak performance—realize that the rules for succeeding in life, and for succeeding as a leader in business, are the same.
As it turns out, a number of individuals right here in the Topeka area came to this realization a long time ago. Fortunately, three of them have chosen to further their leadership and life journeys by putting their experiences down on paper and sharing them
with the world.
YOU CAN HEAR IT in their voices. Though they may not say it in so many words, each one of these newly minted authors makes it abundantly clear that the foundation of success—regardless of the endeavor—is to be passionate about what you’re doing. Doug Sterbenz—public speaker and a former Westar COO; Julie Castaneda—owner of Dog Day Afternoons; and Greg Gathers— founder and president of Custom Tree Care, all have a love for what they do. And all three now have a book with their name printed on it.
But what reason do a former-utility- executive-turned-speaker, the owner of a pet care business, and the CEO of a tree removal company have for writing a book?
In short, the desire to share their experience and passions with others.
LEADERSHIP THROUGH PRESENCE
“As a public speaker, I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I love the concept of your speech. Where can I take a deeper dive?’” explained Sterbenz.
A book, Sterbenz said, is his way of expanding upon the knowledge that he shares in a typical 45- to 50-minute speech. The lessons therein focus around leadership—specifically how to become a better leader—which Sterbenz acquired in no small part from serving as the chief }operating officer of Westar Energy. What Sterbenz has learned over the years, both from experience and from his executive coach, Paul Heagen, is that strong leadership requires one thing above all: Presence.
“I wanted to lead more authentically,” Sterbenz said when discussing his decision to partner with an executive coach. “Before, I could tear through a to-do list. I could get things done. I could take a look at dashboards and executive reports. But to really connect with people, from the front lines to my peers in the executive suite, I needed to do more. I needed to do better.”
In other words, to really succeed as a leader, Sterbenz realized he needed to be more present. Hence the title of his book, Must Be Present to Win: How to get back to the basics of leadership.
What does “being present” mean?
“It means being willing to physically show up where the work is being done,” Sterbenz said. “Leadership is not a position. Leadership is what you do. And leadership takes presence.”
As the individual responsible for overseeing operations, Sterbenz often found himself out in the field interacting with the electricians, equipment operators and engineers who were actually doing the work that powers people’s homes and businesses.
“I grew up in a working- class family, so it wasn’t too difficult for me to relate to the men and women on the front lines, but after years of being an executive, it’s easy to lose touch,” Sterbenz said.
Making an intentional effort to stay in touch with his teams, from the ground floor up, was critical to his success as a leader.
“Being a leader,” Sterbenz said, “takes someone who’s willing to engage at the other person’s level. In other words, don’t go out and talk about corporate statistics and budgets. Go talk about what’s happening at the front line. What’s it going to take to get the power on? What’s it going to take to solve customer complaints? That’s how you break through to people.”
In his book, Sterbenz shares story after story, each a real-life experience with a leadership lesson woven masterfully within. The lessons themselves, though, must be gleaned by the reader, as Sterbenz is a big believer in “show, don’t tell.”
Sterbenz’s executive coach, Heagen, reached out to him last year and asked him to co- author Must Be Present to Win. After finishing the manuscript, the pair worked with an editor to revise the book. Once the manuscript was copyedited, they sent it, along with a cover that Heagen designed, to Dog Ear Publishing, who published the book in March of this year.
“I think anyone who wants to write a book, should,” Sterbenz said, reflecting on his experience. “Everyone’s got great ideas, and it’s a great discipline to put them down on paper in an organized fashion. Put those ideas in a book and you’ll learn your subject matter so much better in the process.”
Julie Castaneda has held many different jobs over the years. She has worked in restaurants. She has been a bartender. She has even been a police officer.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life to put food on the table. But dogs,” Castaneda said, “dogs have always been my outlet, whether it was training dogs or helping others with their dogs. I don’t think I ever saw it as a talent or a gift, though, until in 1999, I decided to step out of the box and do what I had been doing for fun, for real.”
Castaneda opened her dog daycare, Dog Day Afternoons, in her home near Topeka High School. Soon, however, she had so many dogs coming over on a daily basis, she had to find somewhere else to operate her business. So, she rented some building space in Topeka, and things just grew from there.
As the years went by, Castaneda’s business continued to grow, until “one day I realized I was no longer taking care of dogs,” she said. “I was taking care of the people who took care of the dogs every day.”
Missing the dogs being at the center of her days, Castaneda decided she needed to do something to correct that.
“On Sundays, I would get up at 5 a.m. and go take care of the dogs myself, and I would just observe them,” Castaneda said.
She then began journaling about those observations—such as, “Have you ever noticed how dogs never move toward something they don’t like? They only move toward things that make them happy”— and would then post those journal entries on Facebook for her audience (now around 4,000 people) to read.
Her posts were met with great enthusiasm, with people leaving comments and sending messages to Castaneda such as, “These Sunday posts are like ‘dog church.’ This is so great.”
Castaneda thought that was an interesting take on it, but didn’t realize just how invested her readers were in her “dog church” sermons until one Sunday when she did not post a weekly entry, her inbox was flooded with messages.
“Is there no dog church today? What happened?” a message read.
That was when Castaneda saw that there was indeed a high demand for her “dog church” posts, and like any savvy business owner, she rose to meet the demand.
“I said, ‘I will do it for one year. I will write one ‘dog church message’ every Sunday, for one year,” Castaneda said.
And she did.
In total, Castaneda wrote 53 short stories, between August 2012 to September 2013, centered around unconditional love and other lessons we can learn from our furry friends. But then she moved on, with her dog church messages living on her Facebook page, but nowhere else.
That is, until her readers demanded even more.
“A few weeks after my final post, people started asking, ‘What happened to dog church?’ and I said, ‘Nope. I committed to one year, and I finished my one year,’” Castaneda recalled. “For the last five years, they’ve still been asking me about writing more, or asking where they could find the original posts.”
The solution? Write a book.
Castaneda spent the last year digging up all those posts and compiling them into a manuscript. After hiring an editor to help her copyedit and proof the manuscript, she sent it off to IngramSpark for printing. On June 1, Dog Church was officially published.
Not realizing the scope of the demand for her book, she initially ordered 200 copies to sell. Those 200 copies sold out immediately at her book launch on June 16.
“And it’s all happening organically,” Castaneda said. “I wrote the book because people asked for it. I’m not pushing anything on anyone. I’m just being me, because I’ve found that’s the one thing I’m truly, truly good at.
“That can be hard at times though, and I recognize that it can be hard for others, too. But that is my challenge to others: Just be who you are—just like a dog.”
FOLLOW THE CODE
Greg Gathers, the founder and president of Topeka-based Custom Tree Care, is proud to say he lives his life by the code: “Always do better today than you did the day before.”
This code is what he considers to be the key to success. If it was a secret before, it no longer is—at least since the publishing of his book, The Code: How to Win in the Game of Life and Business.
Gathers founded Custom Tree Care, which provides residential, commercial, and disaster-related tree removal services nationwide, about 19 years ago. His business }success—offices in Topeka, Kansas City and Pompano Beach, Florida—is something he attributes directly to his focus on continuous improvement in his personal life. These principles he lives by, which together comprise “the code,” are life lessons that he believes anyone could benefit from.
“About eight years ago, I just started writing down tips or thoughts in regards to running a business that I thought would be useful for others,” Gathers said. “That’s as far as it went until recently when I decided I should turn all those thoughts into a book.”
Never having had a mentor, Gathers learned many of his business principles the hard way: through his own mistakes. The goal of his new book, of course, is to share those principles with others so that they might avoid some of the traps to which many entrepreneurs and first-time business owners are susceptible.
“When I started my business years ago, I didn’t know anything about business. I learned as I went, but I also read a lot of books by other business owners, and that helped me out quite a bit,” Gathers said.
After putting his anecdotes and lessons down in ink and conducting some research on publishers, Gathers landed on CreateSpace, a self- publishing company that would distribute his book through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Once he had an edited manuscript, he simply uploaded it to CreateSpace, who then published his book and now distributes it at no charge to Gathers.
“A lot of it is geared toward business, but a lot of the lessons you use in business can be tied to real life,” Gathers said of his book, which was published in November 2017.
Gathers said he found the self-publishing process to be pretty simple, and to those who are wanting to publish a book themselves, his advice is straightforward:“Just start. What stops a lot of people from doing something is simply not starting. They’ll overanalyze the problem and talk themselves out of it, or they come up with a bunch of reasons as to why they can’t do it.”
By living his life by “the code,” Gathers has seen both great professional and personal success, and now also is able to call himself an author.
“Always do better today than you did the day before,” he said. “You’re not going to succeed every day, but if you commit to improving each day—that is how you succeed.”
Whether it is power grids or public speeches; Facebook posts or fallen pine trees; running a business or writing a book; Sterbenz, Castaneda, and Gathers do what they love, and love what they do. Now, as published authors, these three have expertly positioned themselves to share what they have learned as leaders in their community, leaders in their businesses and true students of life.