Note: This is an excerpt from Taking Stock: 10 Life and Leadership Principles from My Seat at the Table.
After the sale of TD Ameritrade, I was determining the next chapter in my professional life. Due to a 2-year noncompete agreement, I couldn’t work in the financial services industry. I just knew I wasn’t ready for the dreaded word, retirement.
My colleague Lauren States suggested I look into the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI). Lauren, a 2015 ALI Fellow, talked glowingly about the transformational nature of her experience in the program.
The description on the ALI website caught my attention:
The Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellowship is designed to enhance and leverage the skills of highly accomplished, experienced leaders who want to apply their talents to solve significant social problems, including those affecting health and welfare, children and the environment, and focus on community and public service in the next phase of their careers.
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to make a complete career pivot to social impact work exclusively. But I liked the fact that the ALI program focused on advanced leadership and offered an alternative lens through which to view seemingly intractable, wicked global social issues. The thought of being at Harvard and interacting with all those brainiacs was exciting too.
I learned that the ALI program has several appealing dimensions. It includes participation in a learning cohort comprising the other Fellows. These Fellows, originating from all over the world, are leaders in their respective fields, including business, law, education, health care, government, nonprofits, public service, and the arts. Each participant is selected because of his or her accomplishments, passion for leadership, and desire to give back.
In addition to a comprehensive ALI cohort curriculum, ALI participants are invited to audit as many courses as they can handle across the various schools at the university. I had always wanted to take courses in Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to scratch my political itch, and at Harvard Business School to further refine my leadership skills. To do so without the requirement of completing papers or taking exams was attractive. I had never thought much about the other schools, but I began to think that they were equally likely to offer courses that would provide eye-opening experiences.
As I was researching the program, I thought the opportunity to build relationships with current and past cohort members, along with professors and other members of the Harvard community, might be enough to justify the program’s time and effort. When I reviewed the list of the previous year’s Fellows, however, I became instantly intimidated.
The individuals were all so accomplished. Two participants hailed from the United Nations while another had spent twenty years at the US Department of Justice. Another was Zambia’s ambassador to the United Nations, while another led Amazon’s books and entertainment media businesses. Did I belong alongside such accomplished individuals? I wasn’t at all sure. A rush of past insecurities came flowing back. Still, I kept investigating.
Participating in ALI would allow Michelle and me to move back to our native Boston, closer to our two daughters and other friends and family members, after living in the Midwest for seventeen years. That would be a great benefit. Another benefit, however, was the one that tipped the scales in the program’s favor. ALI invites the spouse or significant other of the participating Fellow to fully participate in the program. Many of these partners are highly accomplished as well.
This is brilliant on Harvard’s part, considering that the participants and their significant others come from all over the world. Participation makes the decision to relocate to Cambridge for a time easier, and it allows those individuals to be truly involved and engaged. Michelle and I could go through the program together.
Michelle was excited about this opportunity. Participation would give her a strong sense of purpose since she would once again be leaving her community work and friendships in St. Louis. She had made a significant impact helping to grow the St. Louis Community Foundation and had served on the boards of St. Louis Children’s Hospital and St. Louis Public Radio.
After going where we needed to go for my career over the past thirty years, we could now do something together, something that would tap into the talents and interests of each of us. This was something Michelle and I could have fun with. Together. We decided to do it. There was just one small detail: I had to convince Harvard that I was a good candidate.