People close to me often comment, “I’d love to be inside his head for a few minutes to see what’s actually going on in there.” In reply, I simply remark “No, you wouldn’t. Most times, I don’t even want to be there!” Here’s a sketch of me and my life up until now. Short of an autobiography, it paints a picture of who I am, where I come from, how I tick and where I’m headed. At this point of my life, my approach is to be an open book.
A son and sibling
I was born the sixth of nine children to John (1932-2008) and Nancy (1932-2018) McCormack. We grew up as practicing Roman Catholics in a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. My siblings (five sisters and three brothers) are my friends. My younger John passed away before he turned 50 years old of cancer and was my closest friend. My Dad was a combat veteran in Korea and my Mom an orphan. Both were devout Catholics and met in grade school in Chicago. All of their ancestors were Irish immigrants. Nearly all of their lives were spent in three states: Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Both of my parents had a profound impact on me and cared for all of their children deeply. Only a few years after their death, there’s talk of starting the cause of their canonization as saints in the Catholic Church. As God as my witness, they lived exemplary lives of virtue and should be made saints.
A father and friend
As for me, I was married for nearly 30 years before getting divorced in 2020. I raised nine children (six girls and three boys) who are amazing, smart and unique in so many ways. I’ve worked hard to get them through college. To date, four have graduated from college (Notre Dame, North Central College and North Carolina – Chapel Hill), two are still in college (Purdue and Notre Dame) and two have gone back for more (North Carolina State and Loyola University of Chicago). Being a father matters greatly to me and one I struggle with after my divorce.
Recently, I became a grandfather.
I’ve been blessed with many close friends. Over the years, I have formed strong ties with my co-workers, clients and members of the U.S. military, specifically the special operations community. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a big family and raised one myself too, but I have benefitted from a deep capacity for friendship and been able to make friends with some of the most remarkable people anywhere. One thing they all have in common is a sense of humor. We all know how to laugh or we probably won’t last long as friends.
An entrepreneur at heart
One of my Dad’s wise sayings to me was, “the hungry hunter hunts best.” As he was raising a large family, he worked super hard to ensure they’d have a better life than he did. As his father was a bellman at a local hotel and the family couldn’t afford for him to go to college, he promised to pay for all of his children’s undergraduate degrees (and fulfilled every cent of the promise!). Inspired by his generosity and drive, I set out to work hard yet struggled in the early years of my career to get experience. My Dad had wisely encouraged me to study liberal arts and I majored in English Literature. After graduation, I soon discovered it was hardly a marketable skill and had to hustle to find work in sales and marketing to gain a foothold.
During the first ten years, I was lucky to work around a few entrepreneurs and was able to study their successes and failures up close. In 2006, I left a nice job as senior vice president at Ketchum, a top-tier marketing agency, where I had spent nearly seven years honing my craft in branding, narrative messaging and marketing strategy to start my own firm. The Sheffield Company was born in July and I focused specifically on the core value of a concise message and the power of visual storytelling to get your point across beyond words. The small agency grew doing impactful work for brands like Harley-Davidson, MasterCard, First Data, SAP, BMO Harris Bank and a variety of large and small companies looking to clarify their message.
Word spread and Sheffield gained a strong, loyal clientele. In 2011, I was asked to teach strategic communications to special operations forces (SOF) at Ft. Bragg, NC. At first, it was intimidating, then it became clear that this was an enormous opportunity to help our nation’s best become elite communicators.
A reluctant writer
After continuing to lead Sheffield forward, I made the decision to write my first book to help strengthen and support the growing number of courses I was teaching in the SOF community. “BRIEF: Make a bigger impact by saying less” came out in early 2014. At that time, I had no explicit career plans to write a business book. In fact, running a business, raising a family, traveling the country, teaching and writing all at the same time seemed too much to juggle. Through encouragement from key people in my life, the book became a reality.
Word again spread. As fate would have it, I decided to launch a business inside Sheffield called “The BRIEF Lab” to teach not only military leaders but also professionals how to become lean communicators. That same year, we opened two dedicated facilities, one in suburban Chicago and the other in Southern Pines, NC near Ft. Bragg.
An eye to the future
Though I loved building a vibrant and viable agency business, I sensed that The BRIEF Lab had significantly more potential to impact people – and grow. For a while, we tried to run both businesses simultaneously, but it became clear to me a few years later that I needed to focus on the most important of the two. In 2018, I put Sheffield to bed (with lots of sad goodbyes and moments of grief) and set my sights on the benefits of brevity.
With renewed focus, I launched a podcast (“Just Saying”), enhanced our product offering and decided to write my second book, “Noise: living and leading when nobody can focus.” The next book was released in late 2019 and really meant to be a “prequel” to BRIEF, tackling the issues of information overload, digital distraction and splintered attention. For me, both books were designed to be paired together.
So, looking ahead I see that my professional calling is to help people become intentional communicators. Clear thinking leads to concise, pointed communication. Helping people zero in on what really matters.