22 November 2007

Lessons from a Red Cap

Susan Getgood tagged me in Kami Huyse's Thanksgiving meme: "Who had a big influence on you and how did that affect the direction of your life or career?" Just by watching Susan over the past year I've learned a lot, so in a way I could just say "Susan" and be done with it.

The obvious answer to such a question, at least for me, is family. My wife is obviously the most influential person in my life today. Growing up, it was my mom. And I'm incredibly fortunate to have them in my life.

Professionally, I've had the opportunity to work for and with some amazing people. A living legend in the US Senate. A world-renowned pediatrician. A dynamic communicator who built a global company from scratch. I'm so grateful for those experiences.

But as I thought more about the question, I tried to think about someone I've met who has influenced they way I work today. I kept coming back to one guy. When I met him, he was working as a "red cap" baggage handler for Amtrak and living in a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston with his wife and (then) two kids. Today he's a member of the Massachusetts State Senate.

His name is Steven Tolman.

I remember finishing an internship in a Congressman's office in DC and preparing to go home to Massachusetts when the Congressman's press secretary asked me if I would be interested in meeting a guy who was thinking about running for state representative. I was heading back to school in Boston (the internship was a "co-op" from Northeastern University), so I didn't have a ton of time but I agreed. That was about 18 years ago.

So I met Steve at work - South Station. Steve was wearing a redcap uniform and had a look in his eyes that said "I'm really serious about this." His authenticity and his modesty appealed to me. So I agreed to volunteer on his campaign as a jack-of-all trades.

I remember working the door at his fundraisers, listening to old-school Irish Boston pols tell the same jokes they always tell but laughing at each like it was the first time I heard them. (Joe Moakley telling the story of registering people to vote with his dad - at the cemetery. Joe skips over a worn headstone with an illegible name and his dad protests: "hey, that guy has as much a right to vote as anyone else!") I remember holding signs at debates. I even remember dressing up as a clown and marching in a parade with him on a hot day - though now I think his campaign just wanted to see if they could get me to do it.

Most of all, however, I remember knocking on doors with Steve. That's how you win local races. You walk the streets, knock on doors, and get to know people and their concerns. You show the proper respect as you enter someone's home. You listen and make sure that your agenda is relevant to their concerns. And you build relationships with as many people as you can. If you're lucky they'll vote for you and maybe put a sign on their lawn. If you're really lucky, you'll build a new relationship.

I wasn't particularly comfortable with door-knocking - there's just something awkward about showing up at someone's house unannounced and asking for something. I remember hearing the cynical jabs some people took. "Sure, you show up when you want something but you won't be back after you're elected." Or the uncomfortable silence when you realize you don't agree on an important issue or you discover the person is supporting another candidate. But there's something about getting out into the neighborhoods and building relationships. We heard stories from families with sick relatives who were struggling to get by. We heard concerns about education, about job security, about crime. I watched Steven listen and learn and win a few people over. And that was great to watch.

To be honest, this is really what I'm doing today with social media. I'm knocking on virtual doors and I'm talking about the issues that matter most to people. Sure, I'm targeting where I knock and I have the advantage of knowing a bit about the person I'm visiting. But I learned about the 3R's: Respect, Relevance and Relationships just by knocking on doors in Allston and Brighton. I learned about the importance of transparency and authenticity. I learned that it's not just how you look but what you believe that matters. And I learned that people are a lot smarter than many politicians (and now companies) think.

Steve didn't win that campaign, but he knocked on more doors and won a few years later, and he never looked back. Steve's done some very impressive work obtaining resources for mental health services in Massachusetts and he's been a strong advocate (not surprisingly) for building new transportation projects.

I also remember that Steve's brother, Warren, introduced me to a group of people and a project that eventually and in a very roundabout way led me to my current job.

I haven't seen Steve in nearly a decade, but I'll never forget the lessons I learned from a sincere and straightforward red cap from Brighton who wasn't afraid to knock on doors.

So I'll tag Joanne Bamberger, Jeff McIntire Strasburg and L. Kirkland to keep this going.


Susan Getgood said...

Great post David. Have a terrific holiday today.

PunditMom said...

Thanks for this great post. I will put my thinking cap on for the tag! And have a great holiday!