The Puzzle of “E”

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If you didn’t read my first piece, I was prompted to consider writing this blog by my own passage through late middle age to advanced middle age. I can see the end of the road, career-​wise, through the haze. My younger, more energetic colleagues are assuming more of the responsibility in our office and are saying more frequently “Go play golf or something.” Doug Heuck, a friend and Publisher of Pittsburgh Quarterly, agreed that a blog might be a good idea, so…

We all go through transitions that range from physical and intellectual development to social and professional ripening. In my line of work, executive search, I have shepherded hundreds of people through career transitions and consoled thousands more who didn’t get the job. Along the way, I’ve met people of every stripe and texture, some of the best of whom didn’t necessarily win the particular contest in which I was involved. On such occasions, being a spectator has occasionally been as painful as being a participant.

As an example, several years ago I was doing a search for a CEO for a publicly held company that had a long-​tenured and strong-​willed chairman. When I sat down with him prior to beginning the candidate selection and interview portion of the assignment, he assured me that he would not interfere in the process, beyond recommending one candidate, and would allow the selection committee to make its own evaluations and choose the winning candidate. After I interviewed and presented several strong candidates, along with the individual recommended by the Chairman, who did not measure up to the others, I received a call from the head of the selection committee, telling me that the Chairman had decided to hire the person he recommended. The committee head apologized to me; the gentleman the chairman recommended was hired as CEO; and the company began a downhill slide that continues today. The good news is that several of the other candidates from that search have gone on to be CEOs of other companies.

Recently, I’ve had a series of encounters I’ve had with a young man who is attempting to make an incredibly difficult transition from a life that can only be described as wretched to one of being a productive member of the community. He has the gifts of ambition, a superior intellect, a degree from Carnegie Mellon and a likeable demeanor. He is weighed down, however, by a life that has included being taken from his parents by Human Services at age 8, foster homes, homelessness, physical abuse, and never having been taught the rules by which many of us have been raised.

As one of my partners said, he doesn’t have some of the building blocks on which success is normally built. He has a difficult time with complex social interaction, simply because his experience has been confined to two very limited sets of circumstances. A year after graduating from CMU, he doesn’t have a job, and I think it’s because he just doesn’t know anything about the world beyond poverty and academia.

My first introduction to our young man — we’ll call him E — was when another individual, one of those smart, hard-​working, high performing individuals to which I alluded in my opening piece, who has been a mentor to E for about 15 years dragged him to an event the at the Duquesne Club. We happened to be seated at the same table. E looked and felt out of place, but it was the manner in which his friend introduced him, as coming from very difficult circumstances, that got my attention and prompted me to ask him to send me his resume and give me a call.

He did both, and since then we have met twice, once for lunch when he told me his story, and once at our office where he met with me and my colleagues to attempt to articulate his goals. He had a tough time with that. We’ve decided as a group to take him under our collective wing for a few months and see if we can help him find his way. We have no illusions that we’re going to have the kind of success that Henry Higgins had with Eliza Doolittle, and the effort may be a total failure, but we’ll give it a shot.

Tom Flannery

Tom Flannery is the Managing Partner of the Pittsburgh office of Boyden Executive search. He has worked in search for the past 30 years, initially with a local boutique firm that he owned and for the past 17 years with Boyden. Tom’s early career included ten years with Gulf Oil in a series of marketing positions and another eight as owner and president and owner of a multi-​state distribution company he acquired from Gulf and several other related businesses. Tom’s business literally takes him around the world and the people he has met in his travels have provided him with an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, reminiscences, and tales, some compelling and some somber. Writing is an important part of his business as he presents candidates to his clients and has been part of his life since he started writing short stories when he was in grade school. As he has begun to wind down his career, Tom wants to devote more time to writing and sharing some of what he encounters enjoys and endures on a daily basis. Tom is a Pittsburgh native, a father of two grown children, a grandfather of three and lives in Fox Chapel with his wife, Stephanie.

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