What you’ll discover: How to revisit the stories from your past and repackage them to create a thriving second phase career that instantly differentiates you from your competitors and offers true value to your clientele.
8 Leadership Lessons I Learned in Surgery
Organized life – business, career, healthcare – is all about reaching through the present toward a better future. I’m still so in love with the overall experience that if someone were to say to me, “You need the other hip done,” my answer would be a cheerful, “Okay.” How’s that for a happy response to the standard customer satisfaction survey question, “How likely are you to come back?”
This is the first piece of writing I have done since November 18 when I presented the back of my hand for the IV start. But I began writing it in my head the instant I emerged from La La Land, to discover myself already muttering something about politics (my worst case scenario come true: talking smack about current events when I’m not in full command of my wits and others nearby are holding the sharps, lines, tubing, straps and machines that go beeeeeeeeeeep). Hopefully this piece makes more sense now that I have had a few days to shake the anesthesia from my system and get on with the business of thinking clearly.
Here’s the briefest of backgrounds, just to set the stage. Two years ago, Nick Vincent (a client then and dear friend now) watched me hobble across the reception area of his North Carolina headquarters building. And he kindly said, “You’ve got to get that fixed.” For years up until that point, the pain in my hip would reliably go away if I just knocked out the chocolate and lost a little bit of weight. But that wasn’t working anymore. Instead of just going to the doctor already, my smarter-than-doctors strategy was to continue to beat myself up for my lack of diet discipline, compounding the debilitating pain in my hip with totally elective agony.
Being the expert that I am in all things I know absolutely nothing about, I knew that the most obvious solution – find an orthopedic surgeon, go to the hospital, replace the part – was the least attractive solution. And so I spent the next two years, thousands of dollars, and thousands of miles, trying everything but doing it right the first time.
One of the reasons I resisted (setting aside the blood, needles, and paperwork part)? My deep and broad knowledge about employee engagement, culture, years of watching NBC’s ER, and all those times I spotted nurses on strike in front of my nearest city hospital as I was driving by on my way to Carl’s Jr for a Super Star with cheese. New Mexico, where I live, isn’t high on many national quality-of-life lists, except for per capita DWI rates. I brought with me on this adventure of finding relief a really bad attitude about almost everything local, based on nothing more than presumption and elitist snark. So extreme healthcare interventions struck me as being higher quality elsewhere. I traveled as far away as Columbia, SC, and West Palm Beach, FL, in search of a solution, only to return unimproved to my little New Mexico house in the desert after a series of bizarre failed attempts.
I’m still so in love with the overall experience that if someone were to say to me, “You need the other hip done,” my answer would be a cheerful, “Okay.” How’s that for a happy response to the standard customer satisfaction survey question, “How likely are you to come back?”
Eventually, all things came together at the same time I caught some Ring video of myself galumphing on my front porch, even though I had, by then, lost a lot of weight. I resolved that enough is enough. And I joined the global cadre of “hippies,” who along their own journeys of delay and denial also eventually decided enough is enough. And, like me, all around the world, on November 18, answered the question, “Which hand do you want to use for the IV?” This would be the first of about five needle sticks for me that day – which was actually the worst part of the whole experience when you get right down to it. The other aspects of the day were other people’s job descriptions. My only performance expectation was just to hold still. And not look.
So why is this turning out to be an article on leadership – other than the fact that I’m just an employee engagement geek and can’t help myself? Because I was paying attention to the goings on of the day in the gleaming, brand new hospital in a small town one hour north of Santa Fe.
At every point in the entire process, I discovered a chain of passionate professionals cheerfully doing what they do best, easing a patient along this magic carpet ride toward one day feeling better and restoring hope for a pain-free future of just being able to walk across a room without wincing.
There were a couple of missteps, which I’ll also tell you about. But here it is, almost two weeks out from my Big Day. I’m still so in love with the overall experience that if someone were to say to me, “You need the other hip done,” my answer would be a cheerful, “Okay.” How’s that for a happy response to the standard customer satisfaction survey question, “How likely are you to come back?”
There are gallons of lessons to be drawn from the surgical experience. So I thought I’d have a little fun here and lay a few of them out for you (I mean, it’s either writing this piece or doing PT):
An often-overlooked leader role is to manage transitions – not simply keep focused on objectives.
This I actually learned from a nurse at a neighborhood bar. Leading up to the Big Day, I tended to be, maybe, a little obsessive. And I talked about my worries in places where I would be overheard by strangers. One of those strangers turned out to be an off-duty traveling nurse, trying to enjoy her farm-to-table pumpkin soup, craft beer and new novel at the bar where I happened to have been sitting at the time. Come to find out, she’s a recovery room nurse. Since I love asking people what they like best about their jobs, I turned my focus away from myself for just a second and asked her my favorite question. Her answer: “Holding people’s hands as they come to and reassuring them that everything will be okay.”
Huh. When I got home, I pulled down my copy of William Bridge’s Managing Transitions, and made a mental note to write more about this role in greater depth. Later. But for now, I think it’s enough to just wonder how much wealth we miss with our unrelenting focus on the finish line.
Make sure the support staff knows all the relevant hard words.
The day before my get-acquainted appointment with my ultimate ortho, I got a call from the large health system’s call center.
“I see you have an appointment with Dr. B tomorrow to discuss hip replacement on your right leg. Is that correct?”
“He doesn’t do right legs. He only does left legs.”
And with that, the appointment was cancelled and more months were wasted while I resumed my search, wondering, “Why does this have to be so hard?”
Months later, my still small voice said, “Give Dr. B another call. Maybe there was a misunderstanding.” Yes, he does both legs. And no. Not a soul could figure out who this call center gremlin was and how she could have possibly had that belief. It wasn’t until I was immediately post-op, walking up and down the corridor with my PT who looks amazingly like Tim Ferriss, and who I will talk about later in this piece, that it dawned on me.
Hip replacement candidates quickly discover that there are essentially two main options for entry – posterior, which is quite literally a pain in the ass and anterior, the golden child of all desirable approaches for almost every possible reason. Understandably, I was on the hunt for an ortho who does anterior. Dr. B doesn’t do anterior by himself – it takes special training and loads of experience. And that note is on his cheat sheet for call center employees to refer to.
Call center employee must have seen the word anterior and thought to herself, “That must be one of those fancy medical ways to say right. I better make that helpful phone call and cancel the appointment.” And so she did.
(For the record: Dr. B works with Dr. J, who is, as it turns out, a rock star in all things anterior.)
No matter who is the most freaked out, leaders always have the power to set the tone for positivity and, even, celebration.
Did I mention that this was my first-ever surgery? My frame of mind in the pre-dawn hours of November 18, without benefit of either coffee or comfort muffin, could have been anyone’s guess. Walking into the hospital, with my little suitcase, the only thing I had going for me – mindset-wise – was the firm self-talk reminder that I am a big girl. Certain behaviors would be expected of me. Running screaming out the glass doors into the still-dark New Mexico November pre-dawn was not an age-appropriate thing to do.
Certain behaviors would be expected of me. Running screaming out the glass doors into the still-dark New Mexico November pre-dawn was not an age-appropriate thing to do.
Then I met Helen, who cheerily greeted me at Same Day Surgery. “Down to your birthday suit, ties in the back,” she instructed with the same smile on her face that, under a different set of circumstances, would have implied warm chocolate chip cookies and milk in my immediate future. “Okay,” I complied. And was rewarded for being a good girl with a warmed blankie, special non-slip sockies for my popsicle toes. And my first stick.
With my change of attire, and being hooked up now, the running outside option was now out of the question. So the only thing to do was to give myself over to the process and focus on the fact that based on all the smiling faces I saw hover over me as I was wheeled to the holding area, I had probably made a good decision. Everyone else seemed to think so.
Everyone has a name; everyone gets to say hello.
In the mandatory joint class I went to a couple of months ago, Yolanda, the fabulously passionate, positive, and excited nurse practitioner, gave us an orientation around what to expect. One of the things she forewarned us about is that during prep time, everyone is going to be super busy, behind face masks, and probably there would be no time for niceties. Fair enough, I thought. I’d rather they just got on with things anyway.
But as it turned out, I got to meet everyone, face masks off. Even Lawrence, the guy whose job it is to clean my blood and give it back to me in its own special pouch afterward. There were Dr. B; Dr. J; Lawrence; Louise; Chris and Chris, and, I think, Victoria, the recovery room nurse. They all said “Hello, we’re going to do everything possible to make sure your experience is a pleasant one.”
To which I was increasingly inclined to respond with: “Okee dokee.”
Teams are efficient. And it’s so tempting to skip the part about introductions and names, especially when the project at hand involves blood, focus, precision timing, and machines that go beep. But while I was lying there, still in holding, watching the movements of a very relaxed, confident, group of people wearing scrubs, everyone had time to stop, paint for me their vision of a successful, even pleasant, experience, and give me their name. What that said to me: They cared about my name too. I wasn’t just “the right hip.”
Treating someone according to what you perceive to be their category kills the charm.
The only awkward moment happened when the nurse anesthetist appeared looking exquisitely self-conscious. In a kind of fluttery way that stops being cute among girls older than 14, he sidled up to the big question:
“How much do you weigh?”
Me on the inside: “Really? After you guys knock me out, the first item on the agenda is an en plein air Foley catheter insertion, with the entire cast of a Fellini circus movie in attendance, for all I would know. And you’re getting all pearl-clutchy about asking me about my weight?”
Me on the outside, bearing in mind that he was the one who would soon be expertly shuttling me between two worlds, not too early not too late: “Why are you nervous about that question?”
Him: “Well, I know ladies don’t like to be asked about their weight.”
I put him out of his misery by matter-of-factly giving up the digits. I have to say that it feels almost churlish to even bring this moment up. He did a fabulous job, performing a scary femoral nerve procedure deftly, confidently and painlessly. When I woke up later I had none of the side-effects that I had read so much about. So all-in-all, zero complaints. I just hope that someone kind and expert reads this and takes him aside to say, “The ladies in pain aren’t vain about their gain by the time they come to you. They just want you to do what you do so well.”
Everyone wants clarity about their world.
I don’t remember a single moment when I didn’t have my glasses on. From the time they put the little mask over my nose to a split second later when I was in recovery, all toasty warm, muttering away about the headlines, I could see everything around me. I didn’t have to be able to see everything all the time; no, I most certainly did not. But I was able to understand my surroundings always, which is probably especially important when there’s not much personal agency otherwise.
There’s always a personal story behind the paperwork.
In my professional life, I help companies ignite a culture of self-perpetuating passion by helping employees link their personal epic sagas with the organizational meaning of the work they do. So I discovered instantly that I met a kindred spirit in Ben, the Tim Ferriss look-alike physical therapist. He told me later that the first thing he asks patients upon meeting them is, “Tell me something about yourself that I won’t find on the chart.”
Inside the initial hour where he’s considerately tying the back straps of my johnny gown, telling me “down with the bad, up with the good” (which I since remind myself every time I have to decide which leg to lead with as I approach a step), instructing me about form and posture over my walker, like I was a member of the US Ski Team, we’re talking about literature. The next day? The topics are blood pressure, breathing, walking with a flowing motion, and how objectivism empowers capitalism in such a way that supports society’s interests as a whole. I tell him the untold story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he tells me about his mother – a fluent French speaker and a physician herself, who opted not to use the French pronunciations of words commonly used in American conversation – because, she told him, it’s obnoxious to be an intellectual show-off.
During our check-out stroll about the room minutes before I was discharged, the word galumphing came up. It’s a great word, one I’ve used for years when snootily criticizing the way other people walk. Karma bides its time. And now I have to humbly own galumphing as my own personal situation. At least for a little while. But not for very long, if PT Ben has any say about it.
By this time my friend Kate, who was there to pick me up and drive my sorry butt back home to sleep off the oxycodone, was sitting on my room’s sofa scrolling through her phone. And I’m doing my click-roll-click-roll walker stroll around the room.
“Where does galumphing come from?” she asks. We both turn to her and say in unison: The Jaberwocky! And with that, the three of us piece together from memory the nonsense lines of one of the best poems ever.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
Everyone wants to be special and memorable in some way. And I know that PT Ben has seen many more patients in the days since we said good-bye at the hospital. So I know my place in the grand scheme of things. Still, it makes me smile to think we’ll always have The Jaberwocky. And of all the back-views of johnny gowns he will have seen in his career, it will be mine that springs to mind each time the word galumph comes up in conversation.
Joyful employees are the best talent magnets.
Over the following handful of days I met Mickey, Cody, Jessica, Pablita, Melissa, Leah – all of whom came to give me little pills in little cups, measure the output in the yellow bag hung at the side of my bed, plug my I-phone charger back into the outlet, measure, weigh, record, and respond to my call button in a matter of seconds. I discovered this drive to be the very best patient they had on the floor – their favorite – so I didn’t use the button very often (at least I hope I used it less than everyone else – maybe there’s a leader board in the nurses station somewhere and I was way down the list. If so, I don’t want to know my ranking).
The last person to come breezing into my room was the energetic, athletic, joyful Justin, who pulled the duty of reacquainting me with the lav after the last of my hook-ups were detached and I was free to roam about the room. I was still under strict supervision, of course….I learned the hard way that the bed alarm gets loud enough for someone strong to come running if a patient decides to go rogue and ignore the “call, don’t fall” signs posted all around.
By this time, in the company of all these caring professionals, I had come to the conclusion that we can still keep our humanity and dignity even under conditions involving yellow bags and back flap ties. And so I was basically okay with this young, handsome nurse tech cheerfully and confidently making sure I was securely seated before saying, “I’ll just wait right outside the bathroom door, pull this string when you’re done.”
To turn my attention away from myself, I asked him about him. He was born and raised in this town that most people like me drive through as fast as possible on our way from Santa Fe to Taos. As luck would have it, his professional career preparation coincided with the building and opening of this beautiful, quiet hospital filled with world-class healthcare professionals.
The dreary view of the town’s beige skyline outside my hospital room window reinforced my own ignorant opinion about what prospects there might be in a town such as this one. In my curiosity to learn more about why he would choose to stay in this town, I tried to be as diplomatic as possible (probably failing utterly). In response, he gave me his Instagram account name (jchav58_). Flipping through the photos of this young man’s life, I see a deep and abiding love for all things Northern New Mexico. Rocky Mountain hiking. High desert vistas. Trout fishing. Graduation days. The big pick-up truck his proud brother has finally bought. His grandmother, whose own delight on her face at the first time she went trout fishing in decades is recorded in an IG picture. The infant goddaughter whom Justin is holding on his lap and loves so much. The Christmas carols he plays on his classical guitar. The picture of his mother napping with a gigantic black lab sound asleep next to her.
This is life in Northern New Mexico. This is where new generations of centuries-old, established, local, multi-generational families continue their lives without having to uproot themselves in search of job opportunities elsewhere. Looking at his hometown through his eyes and camera lens, I can now see a landscape filled with love, family, celebration, music, and belonging.
Thousands of tourists blow through this town on their way to Taos for their ski vacation. They don’t look twice at it, except to maybe wonder who might live there and why. Then you meet Justin, who makes you feel just fine about needing maybe just a little bit of watchful help on the loo. And then you see his love for his life on Instagram. And then you might even think that maybe there’s a place for you there too, “I wonder what the job market is like here.”
Now that I’m in transition from stapled patient with my surgeon’s penned initials still visible on my right knee back to functioning observer of passions, trends and patterns, I can see how engaging leadership really is all about managing transitions.
Organized life – business, career, healthcare – is all about reaching through the present toward a better future. And when we remember to bring with us the love, the connection, the community, the traditions that make us who we are, we can transition from judgment to acceptance; ignorance to understanding; control to surrender; fear to confidence; false pride to authentic connection.
It really is going to all be okay.
Career Lessons the CIA Teaches Kids
“….and so, your father works for the CIA….” At least that’s what I think he said. But at that point, my ears were ringing with gauzy confusion. And I figured that the best thing to do was nod respectfully and wait until I got home to double-check with Dad. I could pretty much ask him anything. I might not get an answer I understood. But I assumed most kids didn’t fully understand what their parents did for a living anyway.
It was my 16th birthday, and I had already endured some good natured ribbing about learning a new “fact of life” on the school bus from the older kids who also lived on the Army base in cookie-cutter ranch houses that looked identical to my house I shared with my father, a fresh widower just home from a 3-year tour in Saigon. It was just he and I in that little house – my older brother off at college. And there was no laptop at home to do any private googling – which wouldn’t have offered up any useful intelligence anyway, if either laptop or Google had existed back then. It still doesn’t, at least as regards my father, who looked more like Professor Bunsen Honeydew than Sean Connery.
The acronym CIA wasn’t an unfamiliar one. He had already taken me to its headquarters in Langley, VA. In retrospect, I see now that it might have been a test run to see if I was going to act like a jerk as we crossed the iconic floor mosaic of the eagle and the wall of nameless stars, each one indicating the ultimate sacrifice of an operative in service of his country. I must have passed the good behavior test. (Now that I think about it, there was also that time at a restaurant in Spain, where my father kept repeating sotto voce, “Don’t turn around.” He always sat at restaurant tables in the chair that allowed him to keep an eye on the whole dining room. But this was the only time he kept repeating the same instruction about eyes forward.)
The next phase of my Sweet 16 ritual was this private conversation with the base’s civilian chief of security, who I only knew as the father of my friend who tried unsuccessfully to teach me how to canoe on a pond at the end of our street. (Dad and I weren’t exactly athletic. We were readers. A detail that actually does figure later into this story. The only upper-arm strength, coordination, and stamina we needed was enough to hold a book upright in our laps.) All his coworkers were, to me, my friends’ dads. And until that day, they all seemed to know something I didn’t.
Yes, that night my father confirmed what I thought I heard from my friend’s dad. Yes, the whole base is a CIA base. And yes, that’s why there are so many civilians living on it with a relatively small contingent of uniformed soldiers guarding it. This is where the senior case officers (not “spies,” by the way) come in, frequently after high-pressure assignments that involve hair-trigger world conflict and guns, spend a few years reuniting with their families, decompressing, and teaching what they learned in the field to incoming groups of new case officers. And yes, I’m expected to keep my trap shut at school. It’s a matter of national security. Okay? Okay.
So I grew up watching my one career role model dedicate his life and his family to a larger-than-life mission that entertained no questions, like “How was your day at the office?” Or even, “What’s your new phone number?” His devotion to his work and the fate of the nation played a major part in my mother’s early death. That devotion also explained why I moved 13 times in the first 13 years of my life. And why Cold War Era hot spots, such as Vienna, Berlin, Mexico City, Miami, and Madrid show up in my family’s list of home addresses.
That devotion, as wordless as it was, was also my most significant influence on my own career choice. Whatever I chose to do, I grew up just believing in as much as I believed in air, simply had to be so compelling and all-absorbing, nothing less was even thinkable.
CIA Career Lesson 1: Love your work so much that its mission eclipses almost everything else that might compete for your attention and loyalty.
Loyalty is a Myth
As I staggered through a checkered college career…painfully approaching a dubious graduation day, my father’s only advice was, “Work for the government, it’s recession proof.” He thought a career with the federal government was an unbreakable contract. No offense to current Federal employees who might be reading this today, but to my narrow mind in those days, “government work,” brought to mind soul-sucking cubicles; day-after-lifelong-day of standing in Washington, DC, weather waiting for the Metro bus; rigidly enforced promotion schedules and pay bands with ceilings so hard you could actually hurt your head. The very thought of that kind of career made me want to chew my paw off.
“No thanks, I’ll take my chances,” I would say, which would baffle him. A reaction that, in turn, continues to baffle me, because all these years later, he actually had the riskiest job of them all.
His job may have been recession proof but it wasn’t idiot proof.
He got fired. While on assignment. In Mexico City. One of these days, I’d like to see a movie where James Bond gets a pink slip like my father did. Right in the middle of an operation.
He wasn’t alone in this firing. The C-Suite of the Agency – those temporary guys who come in and out at the whim of the president, who is also temporary – had looked into the future and saw that the future of intelligence gathering was “signals intelligence (SIGINT)” not depending on the skills, knowledge, intuition, finesse, wisdom, perspective of blood-and-guts human beings (HUMINT). And so, Temporary Guy by the name of Stansfield Turner initiated the Halloween Massacre, in which 200 of my father’s peers were fired as abruptly as he was.
From all over the world, they were called back home to Langley. There they met a team of truly unfortunate outplacement consultants whose job it was to help them enter the unfamiliar private sector, in a terrible economy, with much-redacted resumes and career stories these guys really couldn’t tell. Not fully, at any rate.
“You seem angry,” said the hapless outplacement consultant with my dad’s file under his fingertips. “You’re damn straight,” my dad replied. And with that, he stood up, left the room, walked past the stars, across the eagle, out the building and never returned. It would be another 15 years before “outplacement consulting” would be uttered in my family’s home. I would be the one to bring it into the house the next time.
Just like that, almost all the seasoned case officers were removed from the ranks like the scraping of nutrient-rich topsoil. Years later, while I was interviewing the agency’s chief covert officer about what happened, he observed that the CIA’s long-term prospects were devastated with the one sweep of the org scythe because the nation’s best high-performing, high-potential college graduates could tell at a glance there was no one to apprentice to. And so, for several decades, the brain trust quality of the Agency took a precipitous tumble. It has been said that there is a direct connection between the Halloween Massacre and the massacre that took place on September 11, 2001.
CIA Career Lesson #2:There is no loyalty. That’s not bad. That’s not good. It just is. Have a resume that doesn’t need to be redacted. Choose a career you can actually talk about. And assume nothing.
“It’s An Attractive Offer, But I’ll Pass”
Smart kids know to take advantage of their parents’ connections to get their first step on their career ladder. If they can. Being self-made is wonderful. But why not take the advantage of it’s-who-you-know, if it comes your way? One conceivable reason in my particular case: The neighbors might think you’re a call girl.
I graduated from college. I decided to move up to Manhattan to have my first grown-up adventure. I snagged a sweet apartment in a West Village brownstone, built in the 1800s, with a cast-iron tub, and a kitchen so small that I used the ironing board as a counter for chopping. It also had a fireplace; and I still feel bad about the fact I didn’t know about opening the flue. I slept on a mattress that a friend found discarded on the sidewalk. And I can’t remember where I got the desk, which doubled as the dining room table. This was no Nora Ephron movie, and I was no Meg Ryan.
My father thought that maybe his connections might help set me up with a sweeter deal.
“How would you like to run a safe house?” he casually asked me, quietly in a loud Greek restaurant closer to the East Village. Anyone watching us would have thought he had said, “Pass the souvlaki.” He still had friends on the inside, and they offered to get his crazy daughter set up in better digs.
Again, I did what I always do when befuddled: I waited quietly for clarity.
“It’s a beautiful apartment in a doorman building in the Upper East Side. You can live there for free. There are just a few catches,” he added.
“First: You have to keep the place clean and tidy for no-advance-notice drop-ins. Second: You have to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, any time day or night. There will be people you won’t know who will need to be let in. Third: You can’t write while working this assignment.”
Well, I am a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was 8 and read Charlotte’s Web. But who am I kidding? It was Catch #1 that I knew I wouldn’t be able to live up to. But Catch #2 was enough to make even my dad see that this wasn’t a good idea. But I still had to spell it out for him.
Here I would be, 22 years old, living in an Upper East Side apartment. By myself. With sketchy gentleman callers coming in day and night. Whatever would the neighbors think?
Plus I had a boyfriend. He was a reporter. And he didn’t appreciate secrets. Snagging an exclusive story about a safe house in the middle of Manhattan would have been a break-out career move for this boy reporter. A sudden move uptown, with no required safety deposit to speak of, and with strange in-and-out habits would have driven him to relentless questioning. I’ve never been a good liar; and he was already trying my patience in a big way. On the other hand, if all this went on under his nose and he found out about it only later, what would that have done to his professional confidence?
So I said no. And I continued to sleep on the mattress just long enough to finally decide to break up with the guy and head back home to McLean.
CIA Career Lesson #3: We are all paid to keep our employer’s secrets to some degree. Just make sure that those secrets don’t destroy your personal reputation, create deal-breaking holes in your resume, or slam doors on your future options. (And don’t take a job that will make you look like a hoe.)
The Tree and Its Apple
“You know what? You’re doing exactly what your father did.” It was Steve Harrison, founder of the outplacement firm, Lee Hecht Harrison, who made me see what was in front of me all the time. We met while sitting next to each other in the back of a hotel ballroom at a Fortune Magazine leadership conference right after 9/11. I was making snarky comments about the self-impressed speaker, and he was laughing. Politely, probably. As we got to know each other better, I filled him in on the details, which I could speak about more freely by that time.
In classic outplacement counselor style, he connected dots and found the pattern:
“Think about it….What you do is you enter someone’s life, make friends quickly, establish trust and rapport, ask people questions designed to inspire them to relax, open up and say surprising things. And then you disappear again.”
Actually, that pretty much sums up what I do for a living. It’s more complicated than that, of course. But you can say the same thing about what my dad did. And it was more complicated than that for him too. For starters, in his line of work, guns were involved occasionally. With me it’s the frustration of a missed phone appointment. Or an exploding printer cartridge. For me, the outcome of my labors is a new business book. For him, the outcome was the fate of one or more nations. But our job description and skill sets were exactly the same. (Only mine don’t involve quite so much prevarication.)
CIA Career Lesson #4: If we’re observant and watch our role models closely over time, we can pick up truly valuable, differentiating transferrable skills that support us as we pursue our own passion.
The Apple Helps the Tree
“Dad’s died. Call me.”
My brother wrote a gentler email than that, to be fair. But still that’s how I found out. I had just spent a fabulous evening with my favorite New York publisher. A dinner and a Broadway musical. I had flown in from California to give a lunch speech before relaxing with my friend. A tummy full of incomparable Italian, a slight buzz brought on by wine and the show’s stickiest tune, “Why Oh Why Ohio?” Key card in the hotel room door. Bed freshly turned down. I open my laptop, which by now existed, and this was the email that greeted me.
The next morning I was on Amtrak headed down to the DC area. And the full following month was devoted to cleaning out his apartment. I had plenty of time because it would be a full month before Arlington National Cemetery could accommodate our small family and the urn my dad had requested because caskets were coming in at an unprecedented rate from Iraq and Afghanistan.
I spent that time flopped on my stomach on the floor flipping through his files of correspondence. For a girl who grew up knowing that even “How was your day?” might net her a half-truth or no answer at all, so better not to ask, going through her father’s private papers felt more like safe-cracking. He was a prolific letter writer. Even as a teenager he typed his letters on carbon paper so he could keep a copy always. I was glad to have the full month to get through the paperwork.
A letter to his own father, dated 1936, made my eyes fly open. “I want to be a book author, just like you,” he wrote to his father, who had put Prentice Hall on the map with his set of scathingly fascinating books on accounting. A. Book. Author. Just. Like. You.
A book author just like me, too. Grandfather. Father. Daughter. The torch was passed.
His book, Spymaster, My Life in the CIA, which he wrote with his former CIA boss and best friend, wasn’t out yet. But he died knowing that it was due to come out inside the following year. Manuscript was finished. Now we waited for the CIA to give its blessing.
To quote the old Hamburger Helper commercial: I had helped. My brother edited the manuscript that my father had labored over during the last 10 years of his life. And one day while we were all quietly sitting in his living room, with books on our respective laps, I said to my father, “You do know, right, that I have contacts in publishing.”
He looked up from his book, as he had over years of gazing at a silly teenager, a bad college student who wasn’t working at her potential, the young woman who could probably do better than that New York boyfriend, the freelance writer who exasperatingly turned her nose up at steady jobs and daily Metro bus rides.
Here, sitting in his living room, looking remarkably like his daughter, was someone who, with a single phone call, could get him the attention of a literary agent, who would, in turn get him the attention of a publisher that respected the CIA’s place in history and wouldn’t butcher the story. That was a very specific order, that under normal circumstances would typically take months, if not years, to fill: Two unknown (I mean, really unknown) writers shopping around a book with an unpopular topic. None of us knew that both of them would be dead by the time the book would come out. So that single phone call that I was able to make on my father’s behalf was more valuable than we could have known.
While we waited for the many phases of book publishing to do their thing, back surgery was on his agenda. Which went as expected. Two nights later he was confidently transferred to a convalescent center to finish his recovery. According to the night nurse there, his last words were, “I’ll be fine.”
Just a handful of days later, I’m belly-flopped on his carpet tenderly lifting tissue paper carbon copies, one after the other. And I find the letter.
His teenage wish came true. And he died knowing that it would. Which really was all that mattered as far as I was concerned.
My brother and I still get checks from the publisher, 15 years later.
As I write this, I wonder how generations influence each other in their life’s work, whether they know it or not. One friend, who is a CHRO of a major global company, thinks of the influence her father had on her. He was a minister. Another friend, who is a business and finance writer, introduced me to her father this summer. He was a corporate communications executive.
We’re about to enter the season when families come together from great distances, seeing each other for perhaps the first time in a long time. If you’re lucky enough to sit at a table with two or more generations in it, play a little game. Do what Steve Harrison did for me and connect the dots.
You might be amazed at the patterns that emerge.