“Your biggest risk is that I’ll tell you what you want to hear instead of what I really think because you control my compensation.”
I once told this to an interviewer with a straight face, but it turned out to be true.
But not anymore!
There was a time when I had arranged all of my management books in my New York office at eye level so that people sitting across from me could see that I had read all the right stuff. That office is gone now, I’ve thrown away the books, and I no longer live in New York.
The Desire to Look Good
The desire to look good carried me through four advanced degree programs and drove my career for many years. It fed 100-hour weeks on Wall Street and fueled a global consulting career serving some of the greatest companies in the world. I lived at furious pace (I filled a new passport with stamps in one year), climbed many ladders, and had the opportunity to get to know some truly amazing leaders.
I’m extremely proud of some of the work I’ve done. It’s just not what I envisioned for myself. Growing up I did things like volunteer at a nature center, work in a commercial boatyard, and even as an EMT. I didn’t want to sit in an office. But about two years before college, I started giving up the things I liked to do for activities that I believed would look good on a college application.
Learning to Climb
I came from a place where kids grew up to be doctors, lawyers, and executives, and I learned to be pragmatic, to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains, and to ignore what I enjoyed doing in favor of money and prestige.
By the time I was 22, I had completed a yearlong challenging credit training program at Chase Manhattan Bank and was invited to join their Leveraged Finance Department. I was the youngest person in the group and I focused my efforts on working hard and making a good impression. That meant working 100 hour weeks and trying very hard to manage people’s perceptions of me. A year later, I was on the rise, totally exhausted, and very afraid of screwing up.
The good news was I discovered that I had a natural gift for understanding the most complicated concepts and an ability to communicate meaningfully with clients.
In those days, an MBA was a ticket to the top so I went back to school for my MBA in finance from New York University. In business school, I stumbled upon an applied psychology class about career development and became intrigued with the psychology of business. I thought about becoming a career counselor, but my friends thought I was losing my edge and throwing away a Wall Street career. I decided to go back to the street and “be somebody.” I soon found that it wasn’t the “somebody” I wanted to be.
Being a career counselor didn’t seem like enough so I set my mind on a getting a Ph.D. in psychology.
First I completed master’s degrees in both Counseling and Education at Columbia University and then did all the right things to craft a beautiful Ph.D. application. I got into about 10 programs and went to the University of Florida on a full ride. I finished my Doctorate in three years and I got married along the way. We moved to San Diego, California where I was interning in a counseling center. Life was beautiful; I had time on my hands, and I was good at my job. But as usual, I wanted more.
I discovered a firm called LRI (Leadership Research Institute). LRI was doing something called “upward feedback” which involved understanding what made great leaders tick, measuring people’s leadership abilities, and helping them get better at what they did. This later became known as 360 degree assessment and executive coaching.
I joined the firm and I loved it. Our name wasn’t in the papers but we served some of the greatest companies in the world including McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, ESPN, American Express, Pfizer, and others. I spent most of my time at McKinsey and Goldman and I got to work with some amazing people – ones that I call “The Naturals.”
Translating and Truth-Telling
At LRI, I really excelled at what I now call translating. Said simply, there’s a kind of language people think in and a kind of language people work in; I knew how to combine the two. I “clicked” with people at places like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey because I knew how they were wired and I understood the subtleties of what they did for a living.
I also learned that I had a knack for telling people the truth – even if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. This was actually a surprise to me because I had spent many years managing impressions. The credit for this lesson goes to Tony Smith who taught me that, if you care enough about your clients, you tell them the truth even if it means that they might not like you anymore.
Two years later, I had joined Goldman Sachs and made more money than I ever had in my life. I lived in a big house near the water and was a member of the country club. I was also at work all the time and spending most of my time managing how I was perceived.
When my wife was pregnant, I heard my son’s heartbeat on a speakerphone and I was on my BlackBerry when she was in labor. One Goldman Sachs partner later told me, “When you’re on your third kid, your wife will get used to it.” When the Internet bubble burst in 2000, I started thinking about leaving.
Then September 11 Happened
As we headed west, The Towers collapsed as we passed. Once we cleared the city, I was genuinely surprised that I had left because at the office, I was always the “last man standing.”
Something had shifted. All I wanted to do was be with my family. I also didn’t want to be on Wall Street anymore. The demanding hours no longer fit my idea of what it meant to be a husband and a father and I was tired of managing people’s perceptions of me and chasing bigger and bigger paychecks.
Finding My Resonance
So, I left Goldman Sachs and eventually moved to North Carolina to coach MBA students at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. I also worked with their Executive Education Department where I coached Navy Admirals and members of the Federal Government’s Senior Executive Service. I fell in love with North Carolina and decided to make my permanent home here.
Then I left the University to do my own thing.
Now I do what I do naturally and help others do the same. I’m not filling passports anymore. I’m not working 100-hour weeks. I’m not politicking. But I still know that world. I know the culture of high performing organizations and I can speak the language of business and industry. More importantly, I understand the pressures people face and I use my experiences to help clients discover what they really want to do and how to get there. That’s why people come to see me at my Chapel Hill office where they tell it to me straight.
A number of my old colleagues are in some pretty senior seats on Wall Street and every now and then the phone rings with a job offer. I can get tempted, and then I remember my CORE talent and my real priorities and I let it pass.
Since leaving my old life, I’ve discovered additional hidden talents and points of view that I didn’t know I had when I was in the perception management game.
I love giving people the right space and asking the right questions so I can help them speak with a level of authority and clarity that reveals the right opportunities. Using their CORE, some of my clients continue moving up in the corporate structure and some pursue something entirely different. My favorite speech that I deliver is jam-packed with stories of unique successes of my clients, with one thing in common – they learned to be themselves.
If my story resonates with you, if you’re ready to stop making decisions for the sake of your resume and start living from your core, I invite you to come to North Carolina and spend a day with me
Your biggest risk is that I’ll tell you the truth!