I first met Andy in 1992 as I was forming a Cub Scout den. An African-American, he was the son of a single mother who was struggling to make ends meet. He was taller and heavier than the other eight-year olds in the group. And he was quick to anger. But he had an incredible hunger to be with others. This fueled the bond between him and me that lasted through years of get-togethers of one kind or another. As he grew through high school, I saw less and less of him—I sensed that he was pulling away from me as any teenager would grow distant from adults. But I did see him cross the stage at his high school graduation and clapped noisily as he took the diploma. Afterward, I asked to take a picture of him with the diploma; but he seemed reticent. It turned out that he hadn’t received the “academic diploma,” the high-octane kind of certification that he had fulfilled all of his academic requirements. Instead, he received a “general diploma,” indicating that he had merely fulfilled some kind of attendance requirement. Without an academic high school diploma, one’s employment prospects in the U.S. are limited.
The next day, Andy and I marched back to the school to find out what it would take for the principal to upgrade Andy’s diploma to the full-strength version. The answer: he had to pass courses in geometry and algebra; and the principal wouldn’t wait long. Andy would have to pass summer-school courses that summer or else toil through a longer general equivalency process. I started making calls: enrolled him in courses; lined up tutors; drove him from work to classes and tutoring; and celebrated the progress he made. When Andy received his academic diploma at the end of the summer, the principal said to him, “You don’t know how lucky you are to have had the help you got.”
That success juiced up Andy’s self-confidence. He told me that he wanted to go to college and become a lawyer. We found a school in Richmond that would accept him; I paid for his first semester and helped him arrange loans for the rest; and I helped him move in to the dorm. Given the distance from Charlottesville and the distractions of college life, I saw much less of Andy thereafter. Plainly he was struggling to adjust to an environment that required much more self-motivation than before; and the college in question proved to be more like a diploma mill and not much interested in helping the stragglers. Two years later, Andy had dropped out, joined the Army Reserve, finished basic training, and started a tour of duty in Iraq. He did return to Richmond safely, where I gather he is living and working. I reach out to him every so often, but get no reply. He is on his own.
This recollection came to me after watching the new movie, The Blind Side. It is based on the best-seller by Michael Lewis and recounts the incredible intervention by Leigh Ann Touhy of Memphis, Tennessee, in turning around the life of Michael Oher, a poor African-American kid who with Touhy’s help finished high school and college and became a professional football player. The movie presents some wonderful character portraits as well as some none-too-flattering stereotypes of well-to-do whites and poor blacks. I commend the movie as a stimulus to reflection about the difference that intervention can make. [I have read very favorable reviews of, but have not yet seen, another new movie, Precious, a work with apparently similar themes.]
Recollections of my experience with Andy and the gush of recent books and movies prompt several reflections.
First, intervention doesn’t always work, or at least not in the ways that you may idealize. After seeing The Blind Side, one may feel inspired to go and do likewise. But I can say from personal experience that this kind of intervention is very hard work, fraught with difficulties, and absolutely not guaranteed to succeed. But maybe you should consider what “success” means: I doubt that Andy will become a lawyer, but he’s employable and employed. He didn’t get a college degree, but he didn’t get mixed up with drugs or crime. I’m proud of Andy’s come-back effort after high school.
Second, the focus of the intervention has to be receptive, to want to be helped. Andy listened and responded. Many people in tough circumstances are obstinate, bone-headed, depressed, unmotivated, or worse. As a teacher and now as a general manager, I have seen many people shrug off help or the second chance that might set them straight. In the outstanding autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean, writes, “Each one of us here today will, at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question.”We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?” It is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us, but we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding.”
Third, if you intervene on someone else’s behalf, you will change too. In my 17 years of acquaintance with Andy, I learned a whole lot about the issues surrounding race and poverty in the United States. The experience challenges assumptions one gathers over a lifetime like old belongings in an attic. The point is that you need to listen and reflect as well as direct. But whether you want it or not, you will emerge a different person—this was the ironic discovery of Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady).
Fourth, opportunities to intervene don’t arise with much warning. Andy’s graduation was for me a “firebell in the night”—I remember sleeping that evening with difficulty because of disappointment, anxiety for him, and not a little anger. I had to do something just to deal with the way I felt. As a general manager now, I see opportunities to do something every day. The challenge is to listen for more firebells in the middle of a very noisy environment.
Finally, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am more mindful than ever of others who intervened in helpful ways in my life, such as parents, friends, peers, and teachers. Three professors spontaneously suggested that I might make a fair academician; without their nudging, I might never have chosen this career path. Even competitors and critics deserve a tip of the hat: their “interventions” made me think more keenly about what I do and why. I strongly suspect that everyone in my sphere of work (faculty, professional staff, and students) benefited from someone(s) who intervened in their lives. I’ll keep reaching out to Andy—ideally to help again but at least to learn more about ways to make a difference.
This day, then, is a useful moment for thinking about the ways we can usefully intervene in the world around us—or receive intervention. Much of what is practiced in business, and what we teach in B-schools, has to do with interventions of some kind. If you see something, say something. Much of good management is about how, why, whether, and when to intervene in the face of problems and opportunities. Intervention is what defines a community and virtually all successful enterprises. “No man is an island,” said John Donne. The business manager as soloist, maverick, and Lone Ranger is a bad model for a rising generation of business leaders. A good B-school experience should model the kind of engagement and intervention that builds a community.