Cameron Powell – The Memoir Version
What ultimately matters in coaching is emotional and intellectual skill and the nature of the coach’s intent, and not all skills will be reflected, or predicted, in a coach’s background. However, because we know a coach’s background is nevertheless of interest to our clients, who want to know of their coach’s successes and failures, independence and conformity, intellectual influences, and even of their more direct experience with life events such as career transitions, this is the slightly longer version.
Note: there is one brief instance of PG-rated, non-corporate language, but it’s not mine. It’s my late grandmother’s. When I was nine, she predicted this would happen.
Portrait of the Coach as a Young Man
You Can Sail a Long Way in the Wrong Direction
Engineering and Business – Why Not?
Conflict: Helping People, or the Achievement Treadmill?
How to Avoid a True Love
More Law and Business
A Good Place to Be
Let’s just say I was a reader of books in a family of survivalists. The Powells of Western Colorado are like the Hatfields, but probably are better shots, and those who aren’t like the Hatfields are like the McCoys. You remember how they got along, don’t you?
I was born in Rangely, Colorado, oil and coal and cowboy country, to a German mother, Inge, who loved opera and travel (now retired and in her 12th year of staring down ovarian cancer), and a father who was in Vietnam with the Green Beret at the time (Special Forces, Airborne/Pathfinder, LRRP). I was still gazing at my toes when my mother and I moved to Germany, where I learned to speak the German that I later forgot and only badly relearned. After a few years there, my mother married an American GI who looked like Elvis to me and we left for the American South. A sister joined us when I was five. But the southern days ended as things do and we returned to Rangely, to the high desert, to tumbling Russian thistle and to rain-starved earth that, as Gramma Powell admitted of her two-day-old biscuits, was harder than the back of God’s head.
My grandfather, who in roundabout fashion had given me my last name, had died in the meantime, of emphysema. “The doctor told that man,” Gramma Powell would say to us, “‘Mister, you don’t stop smoking them goddamn cigarettes they’ll kill you.’ But that son of a bitch never could listen.” Like my grandfather, who’d played cowboys and Indians on horseback in the ruins of Mesa Verde, she was one of the first settlers of Western Colorado. She was a quarter Cherokee and a quarter gristle. She bore ten children and presided over dozens of in-laws and grandchildren. They worked on ranches and in the oilfield that pumped the town’s lifeblood, and they hunted every animal in
every season. To them I was a distinctly alien life form. I had a vaguely formulated plan of sorts, and it involved being the first on either side of my family to go to a university.
I mostly grew up (ambiguity intended) in Rangely, raised by my mother. In Western Colorado there are six dialects in the language of men – hunting and fishing, four-wheeling and fighting, drinking and sports – and of those I spoke only sports. Late-blooming, small, lacking the killer instinct that comes from a sense of righteous entitlement, I nevertheless excelled at tailback, wrestling, hurdles.
There was a particular urgency to clearing hurdles. Early on, it seems to me now, there began the divergence between who I really was and who I thought I should be. Needed to be.
I had a strong dislike of the sorts of boxes that people always want, presumably in order to save time, to put us in. As a pup I seemed to run right down the middle of every skills, aptitudes, or personality test ever invented (including the much-abused Myers-Briggs). During high school I worked and played three varsity sports; I had some all-conference honors, a school record in the hurdles, that sort of thing. I also read everything not nailed down and graduated first in my class, a fact that, given my small class size, is exciting to no more than 36 other people. I was Student Council President; the trivia team I captained was the best in the state and 9th in the nation. (These modest accomplishments are not meant as boasting. I’ve got a point looming around the corner.)
I needed money for college. My goal was to obtain a National Merit Scholarship, and to become the first graduate of Rangely High School to receive the Boettcher Scholarship, a four-year grant with broad criteria modeled after the Rhodes Scholarship. I reached both goals. Looking back, I see there was already a sort of auto-pilot in effect here, achievement for the sake of achievement, perhaps because I imagined, or hoped, that in that direction life lay.
If you can just rigorously plan out all the inputs to happiness, happiness will come, right?
In high school I had been a decent athlete. I wasn’t afraid of public speaking. I could write well enough. I’d aced our modest math and physics programs. On each of the verbal and math sections of the college entrance exams I got exactly the same score. This was my problem, in a nutshell: I wasn’t obviously better at any one thing – which way to go?
I went to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder for three reasons, if I recall correctly: (1) it had an aerospace engineering program and I was going to be an astronaut, (2) my scholarship required that I attend an in-state school and I believed at the time I wouldn’t be able to pay for college at, say, an Ivy League institution, and (3) perhaps I was just a little fearful of the big unknowns represented by the elite schools.
I started out in aerospace engineering because as a boy I’d been fascinated by astronomy (and maybe I was confused about how rocket science could bring me back to that joy, but at least I was listening to my heart). I think I also equated engineering with more financial security than the liberal arts disciplines whose purposes were then, regrettably, so unclear to me. With a relatively impoverished math background and no familiarity with studying, I failed my first calculus exam with the grand sort of failure of the overachiever. I’d been advised not to take the weed-out calculus class because of my prior math, and I still have the drop slip I almost used, but instead, I began a regimen of sleeping from 2-6:45a.m. and studying the rest of the time. In the end, rocket science wasn’t, as they claim, rocket science. In spite of the rough start and my overachieving attempt to run track at a Big Eight university, my grades ended up being excellent.
There were more clues, in the search, in what I chose to do and be outside of class: the resident advisor role, the obligatory congressional internship, a coach of a high school girls track team, and a dedicated role as a campus lecturer against date and acquaintance rape.
In Western Colorado my mother struggled for decent work while trying to raise two children. In the summers I worked eighty-five hours a week, oil field or construction work by day, pizza-maker or dishwasher by night, and she gave me her ’76 Cutlass Supreme for helping out — the good ol’ Gutless Supreme whose transmission I dropped once or twice. (Apparently it’s advisable to come to a full stop before shifting). I hit upon the idea of public service when her employer caught a whiff of a wisp of a rumor that she might have breast cancer (she didn’t). He fired her to avoid paying insurance. It wasn’t fair, she pointed out. Probably I was vulnerable to something unspoken: People should listen to each other.
So, already bored with engineering, a naïve vision of public service gripped me. A lot of congressmen had gone to law school, hadn’t they? There was no one to ask. Driven by a lifelong anxiety about money, for pre-law I switched to the College of Business, which, unknown to me, signaled that I would have to actually educate myself, later.
I had two new goals, and I poured everything I had into achieving them. I hoped against hope to get into a top-ranked law school, and I also set my sights on a Rhodes Scholarship. (A voice even then wondered if I wanted it in part because it was the highest honor a collegiate could attain, at least in my mind, but I held the voice under water until it stopped kicking and went away.)
The Rhodes, as I found, wasn’t so realistic. The Rhodes Scholarship, oddly enough, was for scholars. Study in business administration, I sensed, would put me at a disadvantage. So, back in the time when the only coach I had was me, I developed a strategy. I prevailed on professors for independent study, took Honors classes in arts and sciences, and though of course no business school requires a thesis, I wrote one anyway: “The Business Mind: What They Don’t Teach You at Business School”. I had run track and played rugby, done student government, collected awards, had a 3.97g.p.a., and in my senior year, I made the state finals for the Rhodes.
In the state finals, I was the only candidate of 13 called back for a second interview to determine the two spots reserved for Coloradans in the national finals. But in one of the big early disappointments that I can only hope built character as consolation, both of those selected in my place went on to win one of the scholarships awarded to only 32 of the 100 national finalists. So close! After three years of work and hope, I was crushed. I would later be told by the Rhodes committee that I might have gone to Oxford, too, but for having had the dubious judgment to major in business administration, and having declined their advice to apply again. Here, in my lack of it, is also a small illustration of my belief in the power of coaching.
I didn’t apply again because by the following year I had somehow found my way into Harvard Law School, thus prompting my misbegotten familiarity with the old riposte –
Q: Why did you go there?
A: Because they let me in.
— and making me a better life and career coach for it.
But in college I began to re-discover that there was more to me than what I could see. I began a life-long practice of growth — inward, outward, deeper. Outside of any classes, I read widely in philosophy and theology, religion and meditation. I studied pranayama yoga and meditation. I was introduced to Zen Buddhism. My studies never ended, but my practice lay fallow during most of the law school years and for many years afterward. But my spiritual practice is flowering now and I couldn’t be happier about it.
The fourth time I saw my father I was twenty-two and it was a late-spring day of graduation. I had for many weeks bent to the task of composing an eight-sentence invitation that held no false words.
I graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration (Finance and Human Resources emphases), summa cum laude and valedictorian. (The College of Business had missed my file and, at the public ceremony, presented the award to someone else. They quietly made a correction afterward.)
In law school, people who barely knew me called me “Gov’ner” and confirmed, it seemed, that my destiny was manifest. I was inspired by the talent around me: I was on the same campus as Barack Obama, former Solicitor General Paul Clement, former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, and many others. I studied governance and public policy, political theory and democratic process, and I was a rapt pupil. My peers elected me president of our class. In the summers I worked with Ken Salazar, who would become Secretary of the Interior under Obama but was then chief legal officer at the Colorado Governor’s Office, on public policy matters. I also worked for the Alaska Attorney General’s Office, on the Exxon-Valdez spill, as well as for international corporate law firms in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium.
Oddly enough, it was in the largely ceremonial (read: extraneous) role of class president that I had another hint of what I really enjoyed. It wasn’t while organizing bottles of honestly undrinkable wine with HLS 1992 labels on them, or getting clever t-shirts printed up (though they were clever) or planning the commencement that did it. What gave me some fulfillment was, rather, serving the role of intermediary and sometime diplomat among my classmates, and between class factions and the administration, during a particularly troubled and politically charged period in the school’s history. Something about working with and for people . . .
Following law school, the six-year-old political aspirations quietly died – from the taint of money, from the malodorous intellectual dishonesty of demagoguery and partisanship. Politics, an outward-directed process of compromise, began to seem increasingly less a reflection of my personality than was my growing engagement with the uncompromising businesses of understanding my self and others, and the internal, lonely pursuit of writing.
But my convictions about democracy, meritocracy, leadership, generosity, and due process remained. All my life, I see now, I have railed against institutions that lacked these values. In the years since, I have wrestled with whether it was possible to do work in furtherance of these values without being in politics.
I wouldn’t, however, use the word mistake for business school, law school, political aspirations, legal practice. I’ve learned not to regret what I’ve not known how to decide differently. The diversity of my experience has made of me something I like. But I began tacking in a different direction some years ago, setting course for greater proximity to the written word, to marry the writing life that I realized had been one of my earliest and most faithful loves to the life of art and culture, the human mind and spirit, and the furtherance of democratic processes large and small that are my adult passions
In response to some childhood trauma that now lies beyond the reach of memory, my mother encouraged me to write. (Ah, the Memoirs of a Nine-Year Boyhood). Diminutive, bespectacled junior-high teachers were fit subjects of later narratives (“At the tender age eight Mr. Dwire killed a dog with a fork. When he was twelve he killed his first man and that night his mother wept as she packed his bag.”) In my first teenage year I began writing a novel, the events of which took place on the planet Jupiter, in the only sensible way I knew: exactly like Edgar Rice Burroughs. I have kept a carefully observed journal aimed at self-understanding since I was nineteen. And all along I have read as if starved for words: I have always been an autodidact.
I enjoyed writing assignments in high school and college, but the idea of being a writer (coaching did not exist then) was as foreign to me as the idea of being an artist was alien to the people among whom I grew up. I shouldn’t doubt there was an unspoken assumption that connected all creativity to sexual deviance. In any event, I had too much ground to make up, financial security to achieve, more visible achievements to conquer. The idea of permission to pursue what I enjoyed never entered my mind.
But just before my law school graduation, a close cousin and once my best friend, who until recently had been so reminiscent, in face and body, of Michelangelo’s David, died of lupus. He was 23. As writers will, I turned to writing about our time together to bring order out of chaos. I’ve been writing ever since. Short stories, novels, essays: my affair with writing, with both fiction and what Richard Rhodes calls “verity,” had begun the long trek out of the dessert. Thus also began my work in creativity coaching.
The inner voice I’d heard a number of times was still too quiet, certainly not boisterous enough to overcome the hum of the kind of Stairmaster I was on. And, lacking a coach myself, I probably wouldn’t have known how to act on it had I let myself hear it, so onward I went.
Following graduation from law school, I served as a judicial clerk to a chief federal judge, and then, still aiming for public service, I was accepted into the apparently prestigious and very secure (you are seeing a pattern, yes?) U.S. Attorney General’s Honor Program for young lawyers, in which I performed as a negotiator and trial lawyer for several years, earning a number of commendations and a record Clean Water Act penalty.
But opposing counsel! The proctologists of the law. I left Justice and, in the next chapter, developed expertise in intellectual property law (which seemed vaguely connectable to publishing) while at the nation’s tenth-largest law firm, Foley & Lardner, started up a literary agency (look! a true love roused from its slumber), and taught copyright and trademark law at the nation’s top IP law school, The George Washington Law Center. I wasn’t satisfied. I could have checked off quite a few of the items in 15 Early Warning Signs of Career Trouble.
Then came the first big move. I left the law and went into business. A headhunter brought me aboard the Corporate Leadership Council as an associate director and speaker. CLC was the leadership and employee practices division of a best practices consultancy called the Corporate Executive Board (NYSE: EXBD), then a 550-employee, $500 million company serving over 1300 Global 2000 corporate members. While there I absorbed best practices in leadership and other aspects of business from the company’s membership of hundreds of Global 2000 companies. In the United States, Canada, South America, New Zealand, and Australia, I coached executives in over 120 corporations on best practices dealing with:
- Leadership development
- Leadership succession planning
- Onboarding of new leaders
- Employee retention
- e-commerce models
- Strategic and workforce implications of e-commerce
- Strategic planning alignment
- Leveraging IT
- Fomenting creativity
Clients I was honored to serve directly included: Sun Microsystems, Anadigics, Autodesk, National Computer Systems, DaimlerChrysler, Amgen, The Vanguard Group, Lockheed Martin, KLA-Tencor, ADP Inc., Rockwell, Chase Manhattan, SmithKline Beecham, Genzyme, Lexmark, Anixter, Litton, Mobil, Bell South, Wang Labs, and more.
Already an avid traveler, I got to travel extensively and meet regular folk and business people all over the world. By 2000, through business and personal travel I’d been to over 30 countries (some more times than was strictly necessary) and 49 states. What was next, said my inner coach, but some concrete experience as a business executive?
Are you still with us?
So I packed up a fine life in Washington, D.C., where I had a lot of good friends, and took myself back west, to Austin, Texas, and then Portland, Oregon, where I knew no one but became an entrepreneur because I’d always wanted to do something in French. In Portland and, later, Seattle, I helped start or co-started several venture-backed companies, Internet and otherwise.
And in a dramatic process that I’m now happy explain to any career coaching clients, I finally decided what I really wanted to do was help people become successful and fulfilled. I could give of myself, read, think, write, and learn from others. I’d done that informally over the years, catch as catch can, and it was immensely fulfilling to me. Surely you couldn’t make a living having so much fun and learning from so many fine people?
Well. Apparently you can.
Now, in the outdoor wonderland of Telluride, Colorado, I play-as-work, read, write fiction, run on trails, hike, mountain-bike, ski, meditate, do yoga, and travel elsewhere. Sometimes I even “work,” but I couldn’t tell you how much. As I want it to be, work is too closely integrated into the rest of my life, and vice versa, and too fulfilling, for me to be able to tell how many hours I worked, say, yesterday.
Now that I live in my strengths, passions, and values, I live more often in a state of flow.