My talk with Tony Johnston on World Radio Switzerland


Tony: When Mary-Jeanne Cabanel first arrived in Geneva WRG (World Radio Geneva) had just started, she describes her time in Geneva as like a cat with 9 lives. A bit like World Radio Switzerland and we’re on about 4 or 5 right now. MJ tells me she is on life no 7 at the moment. [MJ is] An entrepreneur and global leadership development consultant, life no 8 and 9 are ready for the creation. Let’s go back to the beginning like any good story. Life no. 1 is a newlywed fresh from the United States and living in a one bedroomed flat in Eaux Vives and probably paying a bomb for it as well.

Tony: MJ, Mary Jeanne Cabanel - Good afternoon and welcome.

MJ: Hi Tony, it’s great to be here.

Tony: Do you remember how you felt when you first found out you were going to live in Switzerland?

MJ: I do remember how I found out, I was actually in Paris because I had just married a French man, and I said “oh really” but I always wanted to live in Paris, so I was surprised.

Tony: What took you to Paris in the first place? How did you meet your husband?

MJ: So I went to Paris to work with the American Embassy in Paris and I met my husband at a Halloween Party.

Tony: What were you doing with American Embassy in Paris, or can’t you tell us?

MJ: Ooh I wish it was that exciting. I was actually with the commercial section working on some International trade events promoting trade between the United States and France.

Tony: How long had you been in Paris before meeting your husband at a Halloween party and then before coming to Switzerland?

MJ: So, I had been in Paris for 2 years before I met my husband at that Halloween party and frankly by then I had given up that I was ever going to meet my husband at any party.

Tony: Has he taken the mask off yet (laughing from both)

MJ: Umm from time to time he puts it back on, it’s kind of exciting and keeps things going if you know what I mean.

Tony: Let’s leave that discussion for another time perhaps.

MJ: Ok

Tony: What attracted you to a French man?

MJ: So I am French, my Grandfather was born and raised in Dijon so our family always had a lot of values around French culture, French language, French meals, the French style of family life so for me, moving to France in the first place was a dream come true.

Tony: Something in the blood MJ, perhaps? So tell us what it was like growing up in the United States. Where is home for you there and what was your youth like before coming to Europe.

MJ: Its funny I grew up in a small town called Gainsville, Florida, so it was central to Florida and is famous for the University of Florida and it’s also miles away from any from of coast and my theme tune growing up was ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ so I always had an inkling that I’d always go somewhere else someday.

Tony: Why do you think you had that inkling about ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’? Was it that Dijon blood that you had or was it something else? What was that curiosity about what lied over the horizon?

MJ: I think it’s this longing for this sense of adventure. Those of us who are global travellers and world citizens, when I talk to people like me, I went to an international school for my MBA, there’s always this longing to find new cultures, explore new places, meet new people and I had it for as long as I remember and I knew that Gainsville wasn’t the last stop, although I love going back there now.

Tony: What do you love to do when you go back to Gainsville Florida?

MJ: So I hang out with my Mother. We invariably go shoe shopping and do really simple things together like have coffee and talk to the neighbours and old friends.

Tony: What do you talk with your mum about when you catch up given there’s the distance, given there’s the separation? That’s been made easy by technology but what’s different when you catch up face to face? What do you like to talk with your mum about?

MJ: You know it’s hilarious, it’s just the sense of humour we have, this really ironic sense of humour. For example, we got pulled over by a policeman for speeding and he kind of flirted with us and we thought that was the funniest thing in the world and we started to call each other Thelma and Louise. So I’m a certain age and my mother is even more of a certain age and for us it was the greatest adventure of all, so we have a sense of mischief and humour that we share.

Tony: You talked about that longing just before, in coming to Europe - living in Paris, now here in the Lake Geneva region. I guess because WRG started at around ’96/97 so I guess you arrived here at a similar time. Has that longing been satisfied after some 18 years here in the region?

MJ: So well here’s what I’ll tell you. I Love Europe, I particularly love living in this region, I think its magical. I think we’re so lucky to be here. I mean all of us ex-pats who had a chance to come here. I have a longing to travel now and it’s different. This feels like home. Europe feels like my culture and my place.

Tony: Where do you want to travel too, now that you’re based here? Where do you want to go and what do you want to do in those places?

MJ: Well that’s funny because I just realised one of my dreams. I was in Singapore 2 weeks ago. I flew in for business for 48 hours. I was thrilled to be in Singapore although I wouldn’t recommend going there for 48hours.

Tony: You need longer.

MJ: I need longer. Interestingly I’ve got this new thing about California. I was also in California last month and I liked it. As somebody from the East Coast of the United States, I used to regard California with a kind of suspicion.

Tony: The Wild West

MJ: The Wild West, the woo woo Wild West. You know they’re weird out there but I really liked it this time.

Tony: What did you like about it?

MJ: You mean aside from egg whites and avocados for breakfast? There was just a real ease, a real healthy living style where I was. I was in Napa for a while and I was in Orange County. Beautiful places and it was easy.

Tony: Good wine in Napa?

MJ: Oh yes!

Tony: Great surfing in Orange County.

MJ: Oh yes!

Tony: And all of the smoothies and In and Out Burgers in between. Did you have an In and Out Burger while you were there MJ Cabanel?

MJ: No no, no burgers, I was on the vegetarian, no gluten route.

Tony: Trust me, next time you go trust me.

MJ: In and Out Burgers.

Tony: I’m sure they do a gluten free one as well. Perhaps not. Mary-Jeanne Cabanel, MJ, is my ex at profile this afternoon, 25 minutes after 4. I mentioned in the introduction she describes her time here so far as like a cat with nine lives. You’re on life number 7 at the moment. Give us a snap shot of lives 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

MJ: Ok, so if I can remember this, life number 1 was a newlywed. Life number 2 was new Mommy. Life number 2 was also new Mommy and stay at home Mommy so that was 2 and 3. One of these lives was let’s try to go back to work so that was cautious Mommy, how do I balance work and home. Life number 5 was frantic Mommy because I took on an 80% job in the hedgefund world. I have a financial background professionally and then that frantic nature took me to the end of life number 5 and basically almost killed me. And then I decided to do some self-exploration which I did do and re-tooled for a new career. So life number 6 was about re-learning, about becoming what I do now, which is a coach and trainer and consultant for organisational development and recently I fairly graciously slipped into life number 7 which I adore, which is almost balanced, never perfectly balanced.

Tony: Entrepreneur and global leadership development consultant. Is that why you were in Singapore recently?

MJ: Yes

Tony: Tell us what you were doing there, tell us what you do as an entrepreneur and global leadership development in life number 7?

MJ: So, I organise leadership development programs for companies and organisations here in Geneva and other places around the world. I am, also like a hired gun and I’m hired by many organisations to deliver programs that they already have. I serve on the faculty of the Coaches Training Institute and I’m a senior corporate leader for teaching managers and leaders how to coach and how to work with their people collaboratively, so that’s what I was doing in Singapore. Working with, it’s no secret, it’s the Singapore Civil Service. It’s a huge part of the Singaporean Government.

Tony: I was having this discussion with David Whaley and Cyril Ritchie who were two of my guests last weekend and both had had most of their careers in the UN and Inter Governmental organisations, 30, 40 and Cyril had been living in the region for 50 years and were talking about collaboration and how to get people within an organisation, in this case Inter Governmental, to collaborate more effectively. How do you try and achieve the work that you do MJ?

MJ: That’s a fantastic question and step one is really to stop looking at work like a zero sum game. There is a way in which when people come together and work collaboratively they can create an even bigger pie than they imagined. There’s lots of examples of success around this. The idea is that 1+1=3. It doesn’t equal 2. So step 1 is really to get people to look outside their silo or their corner office or their little cubby-hole to see what’s possible and to get connected with what they want to create as opposed to what they want to protect. And when we can work with people like this they become innovative, they start to think of new possibilities of doing business and working with other people and in fact what you have is a more collaborative work environment, more fulfilment at work which is my own mission, which leads to productivity and the data completely supports that.

Tony: Your eyes lit up just now. You became so passionate when you started to talk about what you’re doing at the moment, when you started to talk about collaboration. Do you think MJ, given all of the previous lives that you’ve had, do you think that you’ve always had this knowledge, this awareness with in you and it’s just so, you had the opportunity, you had the burn out, you had the midlife crisis around life number 5 - You decided to re-school, to re-train and to re-create, re-invent yourself. Do you think its something that you’ve learnt since life number 5 and beyond?

MJ: That’s such a great point Tony. Really all of these lives and this isn’t just my story this is everybody’s story, are all stepping stones to who we are and who we become and this life, number 7, would not be possible without all of the other steps and all of the experiences I had. One of the reasons I said that I am so fulfilled here, even if slightly off balance is because it all has come together in a beautifully synchronistic way so it’s a great opportunity to be where I am right now and I’m thrilled to have it and to have created it with all the people who have supported me.

Tony: How can we all live more fulfilling lives do you think?

MJ: To live more fulfilling lives it’s really easy. It’s to get back to who you are as a person and what’s important to you. In coaching language we talk about values. Sometimes that word trips people up but it’s really who are you at your core. What’s important to you. What do you love to do. What is the longing that you have. Where do you lose track of time and space and what gives you energy. It’s not that difficult, it’s just a question of having the honest conversation with one’s self or some trusted one. Whether it’s a professional, a friend or a family member.

Tony: You’re based here in the Lake Geneva region, how do you sell yourself to the rest of the world?

MJ: That’s so funny. My way of selling myself is that I’m really curious. I’m really curious about human beings and what makes them tick. And I’m really curious about organisations. I have to say that I have an MBA, I genuinely love and respect business and organisations and their missions. For me the sales process isn’t about selling me, it’s about getting curious about them and what matters. During that process often times I discover things where my team and I can be of assistance. It’s a discovery process and its always about the people that I and we serve.

Tony: What do you love? What do you enjoy most about what you’re doing at the moment? Its life number 7. I’m building up to lives number 8 and 9 which are yet to be created, which we’ll finish up with this afternoon in just a moment. But what do you enjoy the most? What do you enjoy about life number 7, the life that you’re living at the moment?

MJ: So Tony what I love about the life that I’m leading at the moment is that no day is ever the same. I wake up, I could be on an aeroplane, I could be driving down to your studio and everyday involves meeting talented, fascinating, brilliant people and helping them to achieve what they really want. I have to say that this is my groove. I have a real value around change, dynamism, not being static or stuck and I just love the adventure of everyday. Today I’m here, tomorrow I’m in Paris, next week I could be in Singapore.

Tony: Are you really in Paris tomorrow?

MJ: Yes, 5 0’clock train. AM.

Tony: We’re lucky it’s only 3-4 hours away. In some cases its actually quicker these days than taking the plane itself. What I would like MJ, I want to invite you back. I want you to stay in touch so that we can hear more of your story and perhaps you can coach us.

MJ: Ooh!

Tony: And I’m not talking about the staff at WRS. Sometimes we could do with it. Just to coach us generally. The people living in the Lake Geneva region from abroad. We could talk to you every few weeks and just get some thoughts from you. What would you like lives number 8 and 9, and lets not limit it to 9 even though a cat only has 9 lives.

MJ: Oh good.

Tony: What would you like lives 8 and 9 to entail?

MJ: Well I think as my children get older, my oldest is 16, number 8 is going to have some reverse engineering. Both of my kids were born here…..

Tony: Not talking about cosmetic surgery here are you

MJ: No (laughs). Well that might be a possibility but we’ll go there another time. But my kids of course are dying to live in the United States, perhaps in Canada. So we really envisage that they will do that in university. So part of life number 8 will be supporting them, letting them go off wherever they go and perhaps re-discovering my homeland, so to speak. I don’t know that I would want to live there full time, but there’s a bit of a longing to have some kind of a link back in the States. Maybe a Pied-à-terre or a house. Someplace where I could go. Who knows maybe some place in California with all those avocados and egg whites.

Tony: (laughs) That’s got your attention hasn’t it. Gainsville Florida look out. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen here in the Lake Geneva region since 96/97?

MJ: Oh I think it’s hilarious. When we moved here and had our choice of apartments and there was so much housing to be had, and then all the organisations moved in and the companies, one couldn’t find an apartment anymore. I also find that the beauty of this region, which is no secret, is the diversity of its people. There are people from all over the world and what we’re seeing with Geneva in as much as I am no longer kind of hip and cool, we are seeing a more cosmopolitan environment. You know youth is excited and energised here, where before it felt like a quieter, at least when I moved here in 96, it was a quieter city. I used to say it’s a great city to be married in but a terrible one to be single. But I’m told now by my single clients and friends that there is life after dark here.

Tony: There is, you’ve just got to search for it. Although some people would disagree with that. What are your memories of WRG in the early days? ’96/97, a fresh faced Mark Butcher. Newly arrived from Bern where he’d been working with Swiss Radio International and the team back then. What are your memories of WRG?

MJ: Well of course it’s Mark Butcher. Always Mark Butcher in the morning and I happen to love his sense of humour and I thought he was hilarious and it made me feel so comfortable and at home to have him you know accompanying me on which ever trajectory I was going on. I have to say my favourite thing about WRG and WRS was driving my children all over the Lake and I mean all over for the sport.

Tony: Mum’s taxi.

MJ: Yeah Mum’s taxi. And listening to Hansine Johnston’s programme. As a matter of fact I used to send her letters until I was afraid she’d think I was stalking her. Because she would just have this thumping disco music that I loved and we would just be jumping up and down in the car, in the seats. I loved that.

Tony: It’s got a great history. There’s been so many people over the years who’ve contributed to that including Mark who’s still here today. Hansine as well. All of the staff at the old WRS when it was public service. I was one of them in the early days as well and here we are like a cat with 9 lives, we’re still here, we’re still alive. Sometimes it’s not easy but we’re all in this together aren’t we. MJ, terrific to catch up. Final question, back to Paris.

MJ: Yes.

Tony: what did you wear to the Halloween ball?

MJ: Oh, I was Madam Du Pompadour and I had a magnificent gown and a white powdered wig and a fair amount of décolleté I might add.

Tony: We’ve gone full circle this afternoon. Bring on lives number 8 and 9, although not to quickly. We want to be able to enjoy them as well.
Thank you so much for coming in and sharing your most interesting story.

Mary-Jeanne Cabanel, MJ Cabanel - who some of our listeners would know very well. Stay in touch won’t you.

MJ: Yes of course. Thanks Tony.


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