A Letter to My Sister, Cathy, on How to Live an Excellent Life

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 14, Issue No. 3
July, 2015

By Dan Coughlin



Every once in a while we get to know someone who truly lives an excellent life. When that happens we shouldn’t be in awe of the person. We should try to learn everything we can from that person.

One such person in my life was my sister, Cathy. She died on April 23rd, 2015 after an 18-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 57 years old. At the time of her death she had been the Chief Global Marketing Officer for AT&T and AT&T’s highest ranking female executive in the world for the previous eight years.

In this article I’m going to share with you what I believe made Cathy excellent as a person. My hope is that you will find these insights useful for your own pursuit of excellence.

I never saw Cathy in action at her job. I never sat in on a meeting or watched her speak to a corporate audience or saw how she handled difficult moments at any point during her 35-year career at AT&T, Southwestern Bell, and SBC Communications. I did read a few interviews she gave to Fortune magazine and watched a few interviews on the internet. But I didn’t need to see her in her professional life to know what made her excellent. My insights on her greatness came from watching her as a brother and from comments I heard about her from other people.

In our relationship we had an unusual dynamic. At least it seemed unusual to me. Maybe this happens in a lot of families. Cathy and I could sit next to each other for an hour at a big family dinner and barely talk to each other. Then we would go back to our respective homes and get in front of our respective computers, and immediately we would write the most wonderful emails and handwritten letters to each other that were filled with positive comments and encouragement and support and love for one another.

I’m dedicating this article to my wonderful older sister, Cathy, who taught me so much both through her words and her example. What follows are a wide variety of keys to an excellent life that I learned from her. The ironic and totally fitting thing is I can’t say these words to Cathy now. I have to write them.

Dear Cathy,

I miss you so much already. I loved when we were all together playing Catch Phrase or some game in the backyard. Of all the things you did for me, the thing I’m most appreciative of is that you taught me what it meant to live a life of excellence. In this letter I’m going to describe what I learned from you and try to give some explanation of how I learned it from you. Here goes:


You prepared yourself for great success. You worked tremendously hard at Rosati-Kain High School and in college at Northwestern University and for your Master of Finance degree at St. Louis University just to be ready when opportunity came knocking in the corporate world. Then when you got a new job within AT&T you would prepare yourself to be ready for the next opportunity mainly by getting great results in the job you were in. When you died, Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys said, “All questions about who was the smartest person in the room were answered when Cathy walked through the door.” You had worked with Jones on renaming his stadium in Dallas as AT&T Stadium. I can only imagine the amount of preparation you put into that project.

We all need to prepare ourselves for excellent opportunities.

Be Yourself and Do It Your Way

You once sent an email to Kevin, Jim, Mick, Mary Eileen and me that said, “I took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test today. I’m an ISTJ. Why don’t you take it and maybe we can learn how better to meet each other’s personality needs as siblings.” I wrote you back and said, “Between the two of us we are a whole person. I’m an ENFP.”

You and I were so different. You were always quiet and didn’t say a lot. I was loud and talked all the time. You told the newspapers you learned how to listen at our dinner table when we were growing up. I learned how to speak up at our dinner table just to be heard. You were the second oldest and I am the fourth kid. You were the one Mom and Dad put in charge when they went out, and I was one of the ones you were in charge of. I told people at your wake that I was your first employee. You were 11 and I was 5. You gave out a few “orders” back then. You went on to work for one of the world’s largest companies (AT&T) and I went to work for one of the world’s smallest companies (me, myself, and I). You loved to go for long walks, and I loved to read a book.

Even though we were so different in so many ways, I learned from you the importance of being yourself and doing things your way. You never encouraged me to be just like you. You encouraged me to be just like me. Your style was your style, and you stayed true to it your whole life. You never once tried to act like someone you weren’t. And you never tried to make other people act like you.

Each of us needs to stay true to our style, our personality, and our approach to life.

Work Long and Work Hard

In one of the last conversations I saw you have with a colleague at AT&T you two were reminiscing about your careers. You had been there 35 years and your friend had been there 37 years. You both talked about the importance of working long, hard hours.

People talk a lot about working smart. Working smart is important. And you certainly were smart. But there’s not nearly as much talk about the importance of working long and hard in order to be successful. You put in incredible hours for your entire career. Long, hard work was part of who you were.

In our pursuit of excellence, are we working long and hard as well as working smart? Excellence still requires old-fashioned values like long hard hours at work.

Have Calm Confidence

It’s a bit of an understatement to say you were quiet. You were totally comfortable not saying a word. You never bowled people over with bragging about anything. Okay, you bragged about other people quite a bit, but even that you did in a calm manner. You never, ever bragged about yourself even though you could have done that a lot. However, you also never put yourself down. You had a calm confidence in yourself and that really resonated with other people.

We don’t need to trumpet our accomplishments to be heard in the world. Many times it is the person with calm confidence who magnetizes other people to them.

Be Excellent In All Areas of Life

If you had never worked for any company, I would still say you lived an excellent life. That’s how good you were as a daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. We would have family gatherings for one of the grandkid’s birthdays and you would always do something incredible for each of them. At some point one of the adults would always say, “I want an Aunt Cathy.” That’s how kind you were to everyone. To be your friend was to always get a visit from you when you were in town or to receive a personal letter or a phone call on a special day.

Leading an excellent life is much more than just about our work. An excellent life means striving for excellence in all areas of life.

Do the Right Things in the Right Way

You never made up stories. You never lied about things. Even in the smallest of items, you made sure that you did the right thing. Your integrity meant a great deal to you.

Integrity lays the foundation for long-term excellence.


Your primary strategy for success in all areas of your life, I think, was caring. You cared about all your family members. You cared about the quality of your work. You cared about your business results. You cared about your relationships with people at work and people in your personal life. Under every activity you did there was a caring attitude that sparked your movements.

Here’s just one story. I met a woman at your wake who had worked with you in St. Louis in 1983. She told me that back in those days her husband traveled a lot and she didn’t like to be by herself. You said, “I have to travel to New York a lot this year. Why don’t you just stay at my apartment?” You had a small one-bedroom apartment, and you were offering it to a co-worker when you were gone. 32 years later that woman came to your funeral parlor just to share that story.

Okay, just one more story. When Sarah was about seven years old she had to do a project involving Flat Stanley. She was supposed to send it to people in different cities. So you took Flat Stanley with you and got your picture taken with it in New York City, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and several other cities. Then Sarah used all your pictures for her project. You just brought Flat Stanley into big corporate settings. When I asked you about it, you said, “You know me. If I’m going to do something, I’m going all out.”

Okay, okay, one more story. In the last month of your life Mom and I came to visit you in Dallas. And three times you went for a walk with Mom to a park. Once I went with the two of you. Mom’s knee was really hurting her, and yet the two of you walked hand in hand. I’m not sure who was helping who more, but I was really touched by your tender, loving care for each other.

Who do we care about and what do we care about? Our answer will drive our efforts toward excellence.

Be a Mentor

One of the most inspiring things about your wake was the number of people whom I had never met before who came up to me and said, “Cathy was a great mentor for me.” There was a man from Chicago who told me that. There was a woman from New York City who didn’t even work for AT&T who flew all the way to St. Louis just to say what a great mentor you were for her. And then there was a woman from Dallas who told me that she was at a large group meeting with you, and that you told her to come see you after the meeting. She said to me, “If Cathy wants to meet with me, then I want to meet with Cathy.” Apparently you told her to speak up more at meetings and share her opinion more. She loved your advice. Mentoring is just one way that your impact on the world still lives on and will live on for a long time.

Who can we mentor right now in a down-to-earth way behind closed doors that will really matter for that person?

Maintain Perspective

Your boss, Randall Stephenson, told a great story about you being at an executive meeting. You were in an intense meeting with several other executives at AT&T and after listening for a long time, you simply said, “Everyone, let’s just take a breath.” You calmed the group down, and they were able to figure out what to do next. That was your approach to life. You never let a moment become too big to be handled in an effective way. You never lost your cool. Well, maybe when your team lost at Catch Phrase, but other than that you always maintained your perspective.

What situations are we facing right now that we need to just take a breath for?

Surround Yourself with Good People

At the funeral parlor, I talked with your Executive Assistant, Executive Coach, Personal Trainer, Financial Planner, and Chief of Staff. That’s five really impressive people. You were always smart enough and open-minded enough to surround yourself with really smart and talented people. You never acted like you had all the answers.

Who can we surround ourselves with to help us raise the bar in our own lives?

Give Back to Your Community

One of your strengths was your ability to be a valuable contributor in high-level meetings. Consequently, one way that you gave back was to be involved on national boards. You were on the board of Northwestern University, the Girl Scouts of America, and the American Film Institute. You gave your resources of time, energy, and money to really important causes. This was a very big part of your life.

In our community, what can we do? Let’s take a moment to really think about how we can give our time, talent, energy, money, connections, and so on toward a cause for which we will not be financially rewarded in any way.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

You never stopped cracking jokes, usually in a self-deprecating way. Someone made these green wristbands that said, “CATHY STRONG” on them. There were literally more than a thousand people who wore these bands. There were two sizes. One was pretty small and the other one was much larger. I had one of the small ones and it was tight. About a month before you died, you handed me a much bigger one and said, “Here, wear this bigger one. I don’t want people to say, ‘His sister had cancer, but he died because of her wristband.'”

Three days before you died I flew down to Dallas to be with you. I rushed into your bedroom and said all kinds of nice things and you gave me a hug. Then I made the mistake of continuing to talk. You raised your eyebrow and slowly raised your hand to give me the cut sign to stop talking. That brought a smile to my face. I knew I had gone on too long.

Even in the toughest moments, excellence requires that we never take ourselves too seriously.

To Those Who Have Been Given Much, Much is Expected

You knew you had a lot going for yourself and that you had been rewarded extremely well. You also knew that because of that much was expected of you. You never backed away from that responsibility. It was amazing how many organizations told us about your impact on them. This was true in St. Louis, Dallas, San Antonio, Chicago, New York and on and on. I met a man who worked in your apartment lobby as a concierge who is also an artist. You bought two of his paintings and then many other people in your building bought paintings from him. You were always helping others.

If we have been given a lot, then it is expected of us to give back to others.

Rethink Possible

Of all the themes and marketing campaigns that AT&T put on under your watch, the one I enjoyed the most was “Rethink Possible.” To me, that was not only applicable to where AT&T was at, but it totally represented your life. You rethought what was possible in your life on a regular basis. You LOVED to be with your eleven nieces and nephews. You would come to our house and immediately get down on the floor with Sarah or Ben when they were little kids. I think maintaining a child’s perspective of the world was tremendously important to you, and it helped you to continually rethink what was possible for your life and for the world.

Look for Models of Excellence

You loved the fine arts. You loved paintings and theater and films. One of your favorite family activities was for us all to go watch a film together. You loved sitting in a theater and being immersed in a film. I remember watching Field of Dreams in 1989 and Lincoln in 2012 with you. Everywhere you lived from college graduation onward was filled with unique and beautiful works of art. I think you were looking for models of excellence to inspire you.

What are our models of excellence? Who is it or what is it that inspires us to live a life of excellence? I find my models in observing and studying people. My walls are filled with books by and about all different kinds of people who in some way demonstrated excellence at something. What can we surround ourselves with to always remind us of the excellence we are capable of demonstrating?

Nice People Can Finish First

Anyone who met you would undoubtedly say you were a really nice person. That part was genuine. You would ask about people’s families and you would remember details about them. I was told that before big business meetings you would make sure everyone was introduced to each other. So you were definitely a nice person. You also finished first. 60 days before you died AT&T was named the Most Admired telecommunications brand in the world by Fortune magazine, and you had been responsible for the AT&T brand for the last eight years of your life.

We can be respectful of other people AND do extraordinary work that puts us in first place.

Take Care of Yourself Physically

You made time to eat properly and exercise. You shopped at Whole Foods Market for their organic foods, walked at least four miles three times a week, and did Pilates on a regular basis. You traveled constantly with your work, and you knew the importance of physical health and maintaining great energy. This was a big part of your ability to sustain excellence over a very long period of time. No one can explain how an awful disease like pancreatic cancer takes over a person’s body, but you did everything you could to maintain your physical health at a high level.

What can we do today to take good care of ourselves?

Stick to What You Believe In During Good Times and Bad Times

About three weeks before you passed away, I was sitting with you at MD Anderson Hospital. We had a few minutes to ourselves and I said, “Cathy, I admire you so much. You are the same person in the best of times and in the worst of times.” You said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “You never bragged no matter how successful you became, and you never complained no matter how much pain you were in.” You said, “That’s because nobody wants to listen to a bragger or a complainer.” That was one of your beliefs that you stuck to no matter what happened.

You were also a devout Catholic woman your whole life. You almost never missed going to Mass on Sunday no matter how successful you were or how sick you became. About three months before you died you called me one night. You were in Dallas and I was in St. Louis. You said, “Dan, just know that no matter what happens everything is going to be fine. I believe in God. You believe in God. I believe in the afterlife. You believe in the afterlife. So everybody at work and at home just needs to relax! This is not the end of the world. People get sick. It happens to every family and it’s happening to us right now, but everything is going to be fine.”

What beliefs are we going to stick to no matter what happens? They certainly don’t have to be the same as Cathy’s, but whatever they are we need to stick to them in the best of times and the worst of times.

Leave a Legacy

After 35 years of intensely hard work, you are best known for three words: It Can Wait. Your most famous work was not in running operations for different parts of AT&T, which is what you did for most of your career, or for leading marketing and branding efforts, which was your highest responsibility. You are best known for being the driving force behind a campaign to get people to not use their cell phones. That is, to not use them while they are driving a car.

You HATED the thought that anyone could be injured or killed while texting and driving. You wanted everyone to sign a commitment to not text and drive. And really it’s more than that. It’s to not look at your cellphone for email, texts, weather reports, maps or anything else while you’re driving. Keep your eyes on the road.

One time you were in the backseat of my car, and I was texting. You said, “Dan, don’t text and drive.” I said, “Cathy, I’m parked in a parking spot. The car is not moving.” You still weren’t happy with me. So I put my phone away. You took it seriously. Very, very seriously.

You knew that we live in a distracted era. Our lives are filled non-stop with distractions. You knew how dangerous those distractions can be at any moment. One of the last commercials you helped to create was a beautiful one with Jordan Spieth, the now famous winner of the Masters Golf Tournament whom you signed as an AT&T-sponsored golfer. He was talking about how much he loved staying in touch with his family through calls and texts. Then he put the cell phone in the glove compartment of his car and said, “I love them and that’s why sometimes I don’t use my phone at all.” It Can Wait. That commercial aired during the Masters about 10 days before you passed away. What a great final commercial to represent your legacy.

It’s fitting that your legacy wasn’t about you and what you accomplished. You are best known for something that most people have no idea you were involved with. You led the effort that other phone companies and other corporations have gotten behind and that is to remind people to stop doing something that is insanely dangerous. To me, it’s totally understandable that your ultimate legacy is about caring for other people.

What legacy do we want to leave behind? What impact do we want to make on the world?

Compete and Be Tough

You could be tough. I know that personally. You provided me with tough love when you felt I needed to hear a certain message at different points in my life. At your wake people you worked with that I had never met told me how much they appreciated your toughness in a caring way. You didn’t verbally abuse them or berate them. You simply said, “I know you can do better than that, and I expect you to do better than that.” You stopped the AT&T sponsorship of a variety of famous athletes when their personal behavior became incongruent with what you wanted AT&T to represent. You were competitive, and you competed with a toughness that was genuine.

If we want to achieve excellence, we will have to compete and work to win.

The Power of the Personal Touch

Mom is the queen of handwritten letters. All of her life she has written long letters to people. I still have several from when I was in college. Dad was also a great letter writer. You took that habit to new heights. In your papers after your death we found several sheets of paper that said, “Thank You Notes” at the top. Under that there were dozens of names of people, and each name was crossed off. You wrote hundreds of handwritten letters every year to people. Every one was personalized with a special touch. As quiet as you were, your handwritten letters spoke volumes and touched people’s lives in really meaningful ways.

Who can we create a handwritten letter for today? What can we say to a specific person that will touch them in a personal way?

Apply Our Parents’ Advice

When we were growing up, Mom and Dad had a certain set of beliefs that they repeated over and over. Two of them stand out for me right now, and you applied both of them tremendously well.

The first was, “You can achieve anything you want if you are willing to work hard enough and educate yourself well enough.” Education and hard work were mantras that we heard about every day. Many times over the course of our lifetimes Mom would encourage all six of us kids to try things with the admonition, “It will be a great learning experience, and you will get something out of it.”

The second was, “Respect every other person, but don’t be intimidated by anyone.” Mom and Dad would say, “You’re just as good as anyone else.” And then if we became too big for our britches, they would say, “You’re no better than anybody else.” We grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Jennings, Missouri. From one perspective, the odds of anyone going from there to Chief Global Marketing Officer for AT&T seemed almost impossible. From our parents’ perspective, it seemed totally reasonable because they taught us to work hard, educate ourselves, respect ourselves, and respect every other person. They believed that if we did that anything was possible.

At your wake I met about 30 people I had never met before. Person after person told me that he or she felt a special connection with you as though he or she was your favorite. Then it dawned on me why each person felt that way. You treated EVERY person with respect. It didn’t matter at all if the person had a big title and income or not. None of that mattered to you.

We can become what we want to become if we work hard enough and educate ourselves well enough, and as long as we respect every other person but are not intimidated by anyone.

Final Thoughts

Cathy, I love you so much. Thank you for everything you did for me. I love every email and letter you wrote to me. I loved when we used to wash dishes together after a family dinner and we would just talk. I appreciate so much your kindness for Barb, Sarah, and Ben. I admire you so much, and I will try my best to carry on your legacy of excellence in the world. You were right. Everything is going to turn out alright. You are with God now. Life is good.


Cathy, I wrote that first draft about three weeks ago. Last night I was working on a new article. It’s called “The Strongest Characteristics of Your Character”. I took about 60 words related to character from a variety of sources, and I clustered them together until I got down to what I consider to be the ten most important characteristics of a person’s character. They are integrity, resilience, caring, collaboration, poise, appreciation, curiosity, perspective, spirituality, and humor. In my article I’m going to suggest to the reader to list those ten words from strongest to weakest in terms of how they perceive their character strengths. That way the reader will have a stronger idea of what he or she has to really work with to make a significant difference in their organization.

This morning I was thinking about you as I often do. I realized you were tremendously strong in all ten of those character characteristics. So the last lesson I learned from you on how to lead an excellent life is to work to be really strong in all aspects of character.

Who is someone you know that has led an excellent life? Write that person a letter and explain all the lessons on excellence you have learned from him or her.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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