Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Midtown Manhattan offers a quiet private room with shaded lightning — the perfect place for a power meeting, say with someone like Mike Greenly. But the 70-something Southerner is long past his executive power lunch days.
A man of precise, confident words, Greenly is someone who has lived several lives and is much better for it. One wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he held key marketing positions at both Lever and Avon, mega-corporations that easily represent all that’s meant by mainstream America. But one would be surprised to hear that he threw that life aside to become an entrepreneur -- first, as a speech writer, and then, as a songwriter as well.
Yet for this songwriter/lyricist, abandoning that corporate world — or at least leaving behind working within its traditional confines — not only transformed his life and work; it was the best thing he ever did and made him a happier man for it. Explaining his decision, Greenly acknowledged, “I know for a fact that I will live longer having left corporate life, but it gave me a great advantage in the wisdom I gained from the experience.”
The mustachioed multi-talent realized that to be happy he had to follow his passion. “I knew I was good with words and enjoyed what I did with them in the corporate world, but nothing was as satisfying as what I’m doing now.” And in doing so he is inspiring others.
Greenly’s written “Our Great Virginia” — the official traditional state song of Virginia, which was signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2015. And he’s worked with pop star Kimberly Davis on the lyrics for several of her Billboard-charting songs. To do so, he applied his skills in wrangling corporate execs and their presentations into teaming up with singers and collaborators on their musical creations. So he outlined his process. “With singer Shara Strand I wrote from the heart. We collaborated but in order to contribute lyrics, I often interview an artist to pull a story out of them — much the way I interview execs when writing their speeches.”
In the course of interviewing Shara, it came to light that she was still angry at a former manager who had taken advantage of her. The result was “Not Gonna Miss You” — written with composer Paul Guzzone. The song helped Shara express her feelings about the betrayal and move on to happier times.
Is songwriting akin to speechwriting? “Absolutely,” Greenly affirmed, “A song or speech expresses something of importance to the person delivering the message. My job is to help that message be as effective as it can possibly be.”
Greenly had been successful in his corporate life. When Avon made him a V.P., he was told he was the youngest officer in the company’s history of more than a century. But once he realized that he’d had enough of corporate life, as he explained, ‘I knew it was time to discover and become my own authentic self.”
Along the way he confronted his gayness. “Until I admitted that I was gay, I didn’t feel whole. I knew I could never be happy in the world until I accepted my own identity for myself.” The risks he took were worth it, he added. “By fully accepting myself, I discovered that I could unleash more of my real potential — personally and creatively.”
Before he turned to songwriting, Greenly jumped into the cyber revolution as an early proponent of digital communications. After his corporate stint, he formed the Transcoastal Electronic News Service (TENS) with two colleagues he met online – Sherwin Levinson in Atlanta, and Diane Worthington in San Francisco — and they pioneered online interactions. As far apart as they were geographically, their online activity made them a team.
Typing on his then state-of-the-art RadioShack laptop, Greenly was in the reporter pool when tech super-guru Steve Jobs launched the Macintosh computer. He then became the first journalist to report on both the Democratic and Republican conventions and the Academy Awards, sending reports out online to readers who responded from around the world.
Greenly segued successfully into being a sought-after speech writer and coach — acquiring clients such as ExxonMobil, Google, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, New York Life, Novartis and Sanofi. Greenly’s assured his clients that he could help them “sound like themselves — only better.” And he still enjoys his speechwriting practice today.
So he outlined how he does it. “I interview my clients the way a journalist interviews a subject. In the process, I help them get in touch with the core of who they are. The result each time is a speech that is more authentic to the executive and to his/her mission which makes the message more effective and impactful to an audience.”
Said ExxonMobil’s Ann Juranek, “Mike is a true expert. First in developing presentations that wonderfully achieve their objectives, and then, in coaching delivery that makes his clients the winners they want to be.”
In the course of building his freelance corporate work, Greenly turned to songsmithing. His most successful hit so far has been “Say Yes” — written with hit dance-pop producer Tony Moran and performed by the talented vocalist Jason Walker. The song landed on Billboard’s U.S. Dance Music Charts as Number 1 in December, 2016.
Greenly has had four other charted hits, with another song — “My Fire” — coming out late May, 2017. This one, too, is performed by Davis and was written with Moran and Audrey Martells. It features the guitar licks of iconic composer/producer Nile Rodgers, who founded the chart-topping disco-pop group Chic and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In addition to writing dance songs, the affable creator has written songs with choral composer Jim Papoulis, whose tune “Always My Angel" honored the victims lost at the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Greenly also has worked with Guzzone on “Everything Happens for a Reason,” co-written and performed in Italian by tenor Michéal Castaldo.
Greenly has authored or contributed to several books, including Chronicle, The Human Side of AIDS, about the start of the global health crisis of 30 years ago. He also contributed a chapter to volume 8 of “The Change” book series. Greenly’s chapter is titled, “From ‘Stage Fright’ to the Power of Authenticity.” In it, he explains shares some of the insights he uses in speech coaching his executive clients.
Though Greenly admits that he “can barely change a light bulb,” it seems he has always had an affinity for words. He still remembers the first poem he composed at the age of four and — unusual, in his home town congregation — he wrote his own Bar Mitzvah speech instead of having the Rabbi write it for him.
Born on October 2, 1944, this 72-year-old grew up in Beaufort, South Carolina. “Eventually I went to Duke University. So I am a real Southerner by birth and upbringing. But I’m also Jewish which made me ‘different’ — especially back then. I actually had classmates ask, in all seriousness, if I had been born with a Devil’s tail.”
As he further recalled, “Being Jewish in the Deep South back then, I heard the phrase, ‘Dirty Jew Boy’ more than once and had swastikas carved into my locker. My own family pharmacist once asked a customer, right in front of me, if the man had ‘Jewed someone down’ to get a lower price. That hurt but… What could I do?”
His Jewish experience in the South helped to shape who Greenly was and who he became. Being something of an outsider -- the kid who didn’t quite fit -- motivated him to learn how to fit in, almost too much so. “When I went to high school, I was determined to become popular and, indeed, was voted ‘Most Popular’ as a senior. The problem was, that persona was not the real me, just the identity I had invented to hide behind.
“In college on a scholarship to Duke, I was called into the Dean’s office and was told I would lose my scholarship because my grades were just average instead of meeting the Dean’s List requirement. They said, ‘You're a smart guy, so why aren’t you getting better grades?’ What they helped me to discover was that my inherent anxiety from childhood was getting in the way of my studies. Thanks to their help, I got into psychotherapy, was able to keep my scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. That therapy was the best gift I ever gave myself!”
From that point on, Greenly began to develop the knowledge that has led him to the career and creativity he so enjoys today. “I can remember being at a sock hop with my classmates, where my job was to change the old 45 rpm records. Even just walking across the stage in front of my peers freaked me out. Now I can easily can give a speech to 5000 people. I transformed myself and eventually found a way to share the knowledge I gained with the execs I coach today!”