The next 50 years have been filled with all sorts of professional, social, and academic challenges. All of these were wrapped in the same sense of fitting in and standing out that I experienced early on at the Shady Hill School. Somehow life during this time was less what I was seeking than what sought me out. It was my choice to pursue.
Throughout this time, one additional quality has been present—as part of standing out, the quality to be remembered. I am often surprised when someone I meet says that he remembers me from years earlier. Even now, after I have retired from my profession, I seem to be remembered.
Being remembered is a wonderful part of anyone’s life. Upon reflection, I believe two of my qualities contribute to this for me: first, my presence, and second, the easy curiosity bred in me. I was interviewed 30 years ago for an article in the Boston Business Journal about the “New Black Bourgeoisie.” The author called me “a handsome man in his early 50s whose presence is felt when he walks into a room.” I have used that to my advantage, in addition to my acquired skills and my curiosity. Over the years, I have conducted many interviews of candidates for positions as executives, engineers, organizational specialists, and even candidates for ordination in the Episcopal Church. My reputation is that of someone who asks the most penetrating questions with warmth and kindness. My natural curiosity allows me to step outside of myself and focus all my attention on the other person.
My latest triumph is that I have found a place where I can revisit some of my interests during my retirement. The Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR) has given me the opportunity to continue to learn, lead, meet interesting people, and continue to act onstage in the theater. Even in retirement, I am managing to fit in and stand out. It has been a good life.
So, let me turn now to the wisdom I’ve accumulated about organizations. Over the last hundred years, organizations and the environments in which they operate have changed. Companies are more mobile, firms are more widely spread, and even religious organizations are becoming more malleable. Companies merge and sell off parts as a matter of course; this organizational churning has a major impact on working individuals and groups of workers.
Individuals can no longer count on permanent employment. Most employees are employed “at will” now. Thus, the old concept of “lifetime employment” has evaporated. A job is a short-term work situation. A career is a series of jobs in the same organization or, more likely, several different organizations. Human resource professionals used to reject job applicants with many different employers, calling them “job-hoppers.” Résumé readers now have altered their view, so that an applicant who has been with only one employer over a long time may be seen as less flexible than others. This marks a sea change in organizational recruiting and admissions. Given the mobility of organizations these days, individuals are constantly moving into new operations or organizations and must use fitting-in skills to position themselves to succeed. Fitting-in skills are a quiver of talents to influence others to accept a person into a group. These talents, which I learned early in my life, include presenting a good introduction, finding a good mentor or sponsor, and showing up.
A good introduction is a clear instructive statement of who you are and why you are there. This should be accompanied by intensive listening to how the respondent reacts to what was presented.
A mentor is an individual who seems interested in you and informed about the group or organization and its formal and informal practices. This person may be your hiring manager or another member of the group. A word of caution: Do not confuse a mentor with a sponsor. A sponsor will guide and inform you, but only up to a point, not risking his or her own organizational position. A mentor will guide you even to the point of risking replacement. Woody Allen’s quip “90% of success is showing up” is, in fact, an important part of fitting in. Making oneself available, being prepared, and being dependable are all important aspects of showing up.
My family and I are a family of firsts. My father was the first in his family to go to college; I was the first African American to attend Shady Hill; I was the first black in the Ceremonial Guard in Washington, D.C.; and I was the first black to be elected to the vestry, the governing body, at Trinity Church in Boston. When I delivered the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral, I spoke of him as one who, throughout his life, plowed unfurrowed ground. I am proud that my son has continued this tradition by naming his not-for-profit “Unfurrowed Ground Foundation,” a Community Tennis Association partner dedicated to “creating uncommon opportunities in common places.”
I will end with one of my favorite Marshall Dodge stories. A Maine state judge was questioning an older Maine resident before receiving his testimony. The judge asked, “Where is your residence?” The man answered by giving his address. The judge then asked, “Have you lived there all your life?” The man answered, “Not yet!”
I’m not done yet either!