Two White House Social Secretaries offer “an essential guide for getting along and getting ahead in our world today...by treating others with civility and respect. Full of life lessons that are both timely and timeless, this is a book that will be devoured, bookmarked, and read over and over again” (John McCain, United States Senator).
Former White House social secretaries Lea Berman, who worked for Laura and George Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for Michelle and Barack Obama, have learned valuable lessons about how to work with people from different walks of life. In Treating People Well, they share tips and advice from their own moments with celebrities, foreign leaders, and that most unpredictable of animals—the American politician.
Valuable “guidance for finding success in both personal and professional relationships and navigating social settings with grace” (BookPage), this is not a book about old school etiquette. Berman and Bernard explain the things we all want to know, like how to walk into a roomful of strangers and make friends, what to do about a colleague who makes you dread work each day, and how to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of social media.
Weaving “practical guidance into entertaining behind-the-scenes moments...their unique and rewarding insider’s view” (Publishers Weekly) provides tantalizing insights into the character of the first ladies and presidents they served, proving that social skills are learned behavior that anyone can acquire. Ultimately, “this warm and gracious little book treats readers well, entertaining them with stories of close calls, ruffled feathers, and comic misunderstandings as the White House each day attempts to carry through its social life” (The Wall Street Journal).
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About the Author
Lea Berman served as White House Social Secretary from 2004–2007, was Chief of Staff to Second Lady Lynne Cheney from 2002–2003 and, previously, Social Secretary to the Vice President. She is the creator of the blog America’s Table, and lives in Washington, DC.
Jeremy Bernard served as White House Social Secretary and Special Assistant to the President from 2011–2015. Previously, he was Senior Advisor to the United States Ambassador in France. Prior to that he was the White House Liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Jeremy is the Founder and President of JMB Global, LTD, a strategic consulting company, and lives in Los Angeles.
Laura Bush was First Lady of the United States from 2001 to 2009. She founded both the National Book Festival and the Texas Book Festival.
Read an Excerpt
Treating People Well
Believe you can and you’re halfway there.
The so-called White House high is unique. We’ve seen more than one hardened military professional wander the State Floor with a tear in his eye. It’s affecting to realize that as Americans, we share a common heritage with all the presidents who have lived in this historic place. It’s hard to be blasé about a visit to the White House: some people become giddy and others get a lump in their throat. We understood this because we never got over those feelings ourselves—the awe of gazing at the portrait of George Washington in the East Room and imagining Dolley Madison ordering that it be cut out of its frame to protect it from the invading British, or the shiver of anticipation when the Marine Band plays “Hail to the Chief.”
The flip side of this is that the White House can be an intimidating place to work, from the rigorous security procedures at the gate each morning to the sense of history that hangs in the air. Thomas Jefferson ate dinner here in the Green Room; FDR tracked the course of World War II there in the Map Room. Working among the ghosts of past presidents and alongside the ambitious men and women who walk its halls today can make you feel small: you’re in the command center of the country’s executive branch, where decisions that affect everyone on the planet are made daily. That would rattle anyone, and on your first day of work, you can’t help but wonder if maybe you don’t belong there at all.
It’s perfectly normal to feel out of your depth at times. Even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, nicknamed the Iron Lady, had the occasional moment of uncertainty. Catherine Fenton, social secretary to President George H. W. and Barbara Bush, remembers Mrs. Thatcher giving stirring remarks after receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Bush at a ceremony in her honor. Upon exiting the East Room, she turned to Cathy and whispered, “Was I all right?”
In moments like these, where you’re in a new setting or confronted by a mass of striving professionals, you need to take a deep breath and remember to be confident in yourself even if it’s the last thing you feel—especially if it’s the last thing. As the saying goes, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression.” This is your first lesson in treating people well.
Beginning with confidence can dramatically change your outlook, at work and at home, and help to create the calm capability with which real problems (which emerge less often than we think) can be handled efficiently. A confident person inspires trust—one of the most important components of all strong relationships. This empowering approach can take the form of consciously choosing to treat everyone with whom you cross paths graciously, such as saying good morning to a fellow elevator passenger or complimenting a coworker who has just finished a complicated task.
Now, we don’t suggest that you should be overly confident. An insecure person speaking more emphatically than others might think he is being persuasive, but bluster is usually unconvincing. Genuine confidence is earned through experience. The best way to stand out is by exhibiting a quiet confidence wherever you go. Lead the way by setting yourself apart.
Three tools helped us become more confident in our daily lives, with each flowing naturally into the next. Maintaining a positive attitude is the first step to feeling confident. Being well prepared for whatever you’re about to do comes next. And from there, providing reassurance helps others build self-confidence and strengthens your entire team in an upward spiral.
That said, don’t expect an overnight conversion; being confident takes time and practice. It’s normal to feel anxious when beginning a new undertaking, whether it’s the first day of school, becoming a parent, or changing jobs. We’re no different; we both had the uneasy feeling that getting our social secretary jobs had been some kind of karmic joke. Neither of us fit the profile of a typical White House social secretary. Past occupants of the position typically came from prominent political families.
Witty, charming, and self-assured, Letitia “Tish” Baldrige, Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary, was a congressman’s daughter who had been Jacqueline’s classmate at Miss Porter’s and Vassar; Baldrige served in the American embassies in Paris and Rome and later went on to write definitive books on etiquette and style. Bess Abell, from the Johnson administration, was the daughter of the governor of Kentucky. Lucy Breathitt of the Nixon administration later became the first lady of Kentucky herself.
While we both had some political experience, we came from different backgrounds than previous social secretaries had, and we each had our own obstacles to confidence.
I was a terribly shy kid growing up in San Antonio, Texas. In kindergarten, teachers yelled for me to get off the steps and play with my classmates at recess, which I dreaded the way other kids dreaded the dentist. I spent most of my elementary and middle school afternoons with tutors who specialized in learning disabilities because I had severe dyslexia and teachers often had difficulty understanding what I said when I answered a question. Thankfully, my parents recognized this and made certain that I had the education and training necessary to succeed in school in spite of my learning disabilities. And it turns out that politics played a role in overcoming some of my shyness. The majority of my schoolmates were fairly conservative, whereas I had become enthralled by the political conversations and activism of my parents. My parents met during a campaign, and being involved in politics had become a way of life, so although I was introverted in other areas, I was always willing to jump into a political conversation or debate. But it wasn’t until my college years, and eventually dealing with my sexuality, that I felt confident enough to start to break out of the shell I had constructed for myself. The coming-out process allowed me to accept myself and gradually allow others to know who I am, which began to diminish my shyness.
I grew up on an isolated farm in Ohio and always felt unsure of myself around other children; I was so nervous about going to school that I was sick on the first day of every school year until I was thirteen. I didn’t know how to strike up a conversation or make a friend. I feared recess because I didn’t know how to play with other kids. My social anxieties mushroomed in high school, and I was miserable everywhere—except in class. I was the nerd who loved school but dreaded the cafeteria at lunchtime. College changed everything for me. I loved the freedom of starting fresh in a new place and indulged my passion for politics and history while developing lifelong friendships. But social anxiety is like a chronic condition: you never cure it; you only learn to manage it.
One of my motivations for taking the social secretary position many years later was to prove to myself that I could finally overcome something I’d considered a lifelong failing. If only we had known that feeling like outsiders when we were kids would help us later in life to be more empathetic toward others. When you’ve been an outsider, you become highly motivated to reach out and prevent others from having those same feelings of isolation.
• • •
We are living proof that confidence is a learnable skill. We started with very little of it! Other fortunate people are born with it, but the truth is that anyone can gain enough self-confidence to get along more easily in the world.
Years later, when the two of us compared notes about our first days at the White House, we laughed when we realized we had had such similar mental images of how it could end: with a brawny Uniform Division guard tossing us out onto Pennsylvania Avenue and wiping his hands, with a hearty, “And stay out!”
Everyone has his or her own personal worst-case scenario. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t imagine such things, but when that image pops into your head, take a minute, acknowledge it, and then think of it as the thing that’s not going to happen and push it to the back of your mind. Lea’s worst fear was being dressed down by either the president or Laura Bush, because they were always so controlled that it would have taken a real disaster to bring them to a verbal outburst. Jeremy’s worst fear was that uninvited guests would get into an event.
Self-doubt in a new situation may be normal, but it’s best not to put it on display. Have faith that others see your strengths and skills. You must have done something right to get where you are.
Confidence radiates outward; it makes people relax and eases tense or awkward moments. Upbeat people are likable and nonthreatening, and they tend to make others want to respond in the same good-humored way. And that’s not just first-day advice. Exuding optimism and self-confidence is something you should strive for every day. There’s a Washington saying that the best staff never bring problems to the president and first lady; rather, they bring them solutions. Our bosses always knew they could trust that our attitude would be enthusiastic and solution-oriented. Beginning a new situation with optimism is the first step to lasting confidence.
I came through the White House gates for my first day of work on a cool March morning, the sun shining brightly above me. I was exuberant, although I couldn’t help feeling nervous. What was I getting into? Could I really do the job? The White House is filled with hyperconfident people armed with agendas, political and personal, and I was worried I wouldn’t fit in.
The first item on my schedule was the morning senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing, across the hall from the Oval Office. The chief of staff sat in the chair reserved for the president when he attends meetings there. As in the Cabinet Room nearby, the back of that chair is slightly higher, a subtle symbol of power. The most senior advisors sat around the long rectangle table; everyone else stood. The meeting began with Danielle Crutchfield, the director of scheduling, reading through the president’s schedule, followed by someone in the Communications Office discussing the talking points and issues of the day. Participants gave briefings or updates as needed. My hands trembled, not so much in fear, but more with an excited awareness of where I was. It was easy to be happy, I thought to myself, when you start your day in the Roosevelt Room at the White House!
Just before the meeting concluded, I was introduced to everyone by the chief of staff, Bill Daley, who asked, “How can I get the gig you just left?” I’d been a senior advisor to the ambassador at the US Embassy in Paris. Working at that embassy was one of the most coveted jobs in the government. I laughed along with everyone else at Daley’s question, but I also wondered if I would regret leaving the Paris “gig” for the White House. As it turned out, I never had a moment’s doubt.
There had been an unusual amount of press with my appointment as the first male and first openly gay person to hold the post. As people slowly dispersed after the meeting, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, approached me and said, “Man, who is your PR agent?” I laughed nervously, hoping the press was over and intending to keep a low profile going forward.
After the senior staff meeting, I went to the Situation Room and was buzzed inside. I showed my new White House badge, checked my phone at the door, and walked past a roomful of screens and people monitoring them. I picked up the President’s Daily Briefing book, which contains details of the president’s activities for the next twenty-four-hour period. My name was on the front page, and I was struck with disbelief. I was really here.
My office windows looked out onto the mansion and South Lawn. Sipping an ice tea in a recyclable cup stamped with the presidential seal, I could see the president’s Marine One helicopter landing and taking off, a sensational occurrence at the beginning. (Later, my coworkers and I would become oblivious to it.) The windows in my office were actually doors, which allowed me to step out to the roof of the White House, above the Garden Room. My assistant cautioned me to always call the Secret Service before going out so I didn’t get shot.
“Shouldn’t there be a warning on the window about that?” I asked in astonishment.
There were back-to-back meetings in which I was bombarded by information about events the Social Office was overseeing. Later that day I felt overwhelmed, but instead of expressing that feeling, I decided to focus on my elation at being there, knowing it was important to have a positive attitude from the beginning. Act like you belong, I kept reminding myself. It was important to give my staff the confidence to follow my lead. I knew the last thing they needed was someone who appeared hesitant and out of his depth.
I was helped in this by the fact that from my first day, both the president and the first lady were welcoming. When I walked into the area of the West Wing where the president’s assistant sits, she greeted me warmly. Moments later the president emerged from his office, shook my hand, and asked me to step into the Oval Office, which feels more like a movie set than a real place because it is so bright and pristine. Unfortunately, I don’t recall anything about that conversation, but I do remember being immediately put at ease by his affectionate hug and his giving me the sense that I belonged there. We chatted and laughed for a few moments while Pete Souza, the White House photographer, snapped a picture. (Within a week there would be a large White House envelope on my desk with a photograph inside of my first Oval Office visit as social secretary.) I was starting to realize that this was my new normal.
That afternoon, I received an email from a friend in San Antonio, my hometown. He’d sent an AP photo of my assistant and me walking from the West Wing, with the caption “He’s on the job.” It reemphasized to me the pressure and visibility of this new position; any misstep might be a public embarrassment, not just for me but also for the president and first lady.
As I made the rounds, meeting the staff and learning the floor plan of the White House, I made eye contact with everyone I came across and remained very mindful of my posture—standing up straight makes you look and thus feel more confident. I was conscious to acknowledge each person: the Secret Service agent at his post, a housekeeper, a gardener, a fellow staffer. I greeted them, introducing myself and asking how their day was going. I joked about the Hermès tie I’d bought just a few days earlier at the Paris airport duty-free shop in an attempt to use up the last of my euros. The color stood out, a slightly off-orange shade that invited a few comments—some favorable, some not so much. When Mrs. Obama welcomed me into her office in the East Wing, she said, “Oh my . . . your tie!” I froze, until I realized that Kristina Schake, Mrs. Obama’s communications director, had told her about how we had joked about the tie earlier that day. They all burst out laughing; the first lady gave me a warm hug and welcomed me to “the family.”
Hours later, the dinner for combatant commanders, an annual reception for top Pentagon officials and their spouses, began in the Blue Room. All the details had been worked out, so my only job was to greet guests. I recall being in awe at how beautiful this historic room looked, facing out on the South Lawn and beyond to the Washington and Jefferson Memorials. At the end of the evening, I walked with the Obamas from the Blue Room to the elevator that would take them up to their residence. This would become a very familiar practice after an event. I felt like I was walking through history. The graciousness of my new bosses enhanced my confidence and my ability to “act the part.”
We all have hidden strengths that we tend to take for granted. I did have one big advantage when I began at the White House: I had worked for the Obamas since the inception of the campaign, in February 2007, when I started a fundraising-consulting firm with several colleagues. Raising money and introducing a then-little-known senator to people in California had allowed me to develop a rapport with the Obamas. They were accustomed to my humor, and I had proven to be a loyal supporter. This was a huge benefit. It was intimidating to be dealing with the president and first lady, but knowing them as “people” prior to the White House made it less so. Reminding myself of this on my first day helped shift my perspective appreciably. I realized that my qualifications for the job were never in doubt—except in my own mind.
• • •
Here are some things to remember about sustaining a positive attitude:
Remind yourself of your strengths. In the uncertainty of a new situation, it’s easy to get in your own way and focus on what you don’t know. Instead, try to remember that you have reasons to be confident. Maybe it’s your experience, or maybe it’s your great attitude or your willingness to work hard. Think about what you bring to the table that’s valuable, and take pride in those qualities.
Engage with the people around you. Ask how someone’s day is going; make a joke; wish a colleague a good evening; let others see that you’re open and hopeful. You’ll be establishing yourself as a person who is pleasant to be around.
Look on the bright side. Set a time—maybe a few hours or a day—when you decide to be in a good mood. Make it a conscious choice so that, when daily life intrudes, and you discover a favorite shirt has a stain or your car won’t start, you can focus on the things that are going right. It’s a circular process: a good attitude makes it easier to stay positive, and before long it becomes second nature.
When I arrived in the White House, the Social Office had already been through two social secretaries and had weathered a high-profile state dinner security breach. Morale was low. White House staffers work long hours in relatively low-paying, high-stress jobs with constant pressure to perform at the top of their game. In exchange, they have the honor of serving their country in a valuable, career-enhancing opportunity. It is said that the average length of service of a White House staffer is eighteen months. By the time I arrived, some of the staff had worked for almost two years in the presidential campaign before coming to the White House and had reason to be weary.
Yet I couldn’t hide my feeling of absolute joy at being there. At one point, a Secret Service agent commented that I was “virtually dancing” as I walked from the West Wing to the mansion. I looked around at my staff, with their serious and apprehensive demeanor, and remarked, “Let’s step back and look at where we are. We are working inside the White House, we work with the president and first lady on a daily basis, and we don’t have to make life-or-death decisions. We aren’t worrying about invading another country or going to war. I hate to steal from Disneyland, but we should feel like we are at the happiest place on Earth!”
I wanted to remind them of how lucky we were to be there, but it was also my intent to make the office feel more fun. Often I used self-deprecating stories, hoping to convey that I had a sense of humor about things. Other times I would ask colleagues to share funny anecdotes about the Social Office prior to my being there. It helped to emphasize that though our work was important, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. It didn’t happen right away, but eventually the staff reflected what I’d hoped it would be—a warm, cohesive ensemble—and nothing made me more proud.
Finding your self-confidence is an important first step. The next is being prepared for the job at hand.
The White House is actually quite small considering how many people work there. Constructed between 1792 and 1800, the modern White House offers the same amount of entertaining space that John and Abigail Adams enjoyed. The State Dining Room can hold 140 for a seated luncheon or dinner and the East Room up to 200. The East Wing was built in 1942, to cover the underground Presidential Emergency Operations Center, and still manages to (barely) hold the staff of the first lady, the Visitors Office, the Military Office, and Congressional Affairs. The small scale of the surroundings made it all the more important for each of us to figure out how everything and everyone worked.
We couldn’t help but notice that our bosses, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, were always prepared for events, big or small. Mrs. Bush read the “line by lines,” the Social Office’s detailed descriptions of how each event would unfold, and would have her personal aide call Lea with any questions. Before every event, Mrs. Obama received a briefing from the Social Office with details such as where she was to enter or if there was a teleprompter. She listened patiently and then would focus in on particulars that needed special attention. The first ladies’ groundwork extended to their guests. They would find out a bit of background about each one, which meant they could approach each guest in a personal and gracious way. Being prepared is a form of consideration.
There was no reason for me to be so nervous in my first weeks as White House social secretary in 2004. It should have been familiar territory. Like Jeremy, I had a track record. In my case, it was being social secretary to Vice President Cheney and Lynne Cheney’s chief of staff. Still, when Laura Bush hired me to be her social secretary in November 2004, the shift from one end of the White House to the other was like landing on an alien planet. The butterflies began each day as I drove onto the White House grounds and showed my pass at the gate. I was cleared through three successive checkpoints, each time drawing closer to the White House until I was directed to park just outside the East Wing doors. It was a real change from the VP side, where I was one of several thousand staffers working in a building adjacent to the White House. It was an odd thing to be in awe of—a parking place—but it was my first concrete indication of how much things had changed. The parking space, the “Good Morning, Madame Secretary” greeting from the Secret Service agents, the deference of the residence staff: focusing on these small things allowed my confidence to grow.
When you’re about to enter into a new job or situation, it’s immensely helpful to think about at least one thing over which you have control. A little trick I learned is that dressing well and comfortably gives me one less worry in an unfamiliar environment (both President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg famously feel the same way). I chose a favorite heather green wool suit on that first day of work, which I’d worn to my interview with Mrs. Bush the week before. When I’d arrived in the family residence, one of the first things she’d said to me was, “Oh, I have that same suit!” It turned out that we were on the same page about a lot of things. We liked the same kinds of flowers and foods—she wanted to serve healthy, seasonal meals presented in a natural way rather than tiny portions arranged in towers—and was interested, as I was, in the details of hospitality. From that first meeting, she was friendly and inclusive, and the green suit became sort of a good luck charm for me.
In those first weeks I worked closely with Catherine Fenton, the current social secretary; we were overlapping through the month of December at Laura Bush’s suggestion so I could begin to get a grasp of the job while experiencing the intensely hectic White House Christmas. I was grateful for the guidance. But the presence of two social secretaries in the house was tricky and a little confusing for the rest of the staff. Having a trainee along was the last thing Cathy needed in her final, whirlwind weeks, but she couldn’t have been more gracious and patient about it. Her kindness was a lifeline—and an example I’ll never forget.
Each day we made the rounds, going into the Usher’s Office, the kitchen, and the chocolate shop—a tiny, cold, stainless-steel-covered closet where the pastry chef poured out fresh candies and special desserts and which always had a sweet smell hanging over it, even when no one was working there. I met two people I’d be working with closely: Nancy Clarke, the White House florist, and Gary Walters, the chief usher, both of whom had been there for decades. I peppered them with questions. The chief usher is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Executive Mansion and the ninety permanent staff who work there. My incessant questions must have been annoying, especially at such a busy time, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt driven to understand everything, and luckily, Nancy and Gary loved their work and were happy to explain how things were done.
Cathy found me an empty office in the East Wing and showed me “The Files”: more than a thousand folders with details of every White House event of the last four years. I burrowed into the temporary office, where I read every one obsessively. I wrote long lists of questions and itemized the things Mrs. Bush had asked me to see to as part of my new duties, some of which required diplomatic conversations and delicate negotiations with people I’d just met.
At the end of my first day, Cathy appeared with a photograph of the extended Bush clan—more than a hundred people—and said, “You should try to learn the names and faces of everyone in the family. They’re a closely knit group and some of them visit a lot, and we must recognize and welcome them as family.” It seemed like an impossible task at the time, but it proved to be great advice. Family members did visit regularly, and it was worth the effort to be able to greet them warmly because the Bushes appreciate a thoughtful gesture. If word got around that Barbara Bush or George H. W. Bush were in the building, residence staffers would appear from behind hidden doors and greet them joyfully.
I took the photo home to study, my head full of lists, more questions to ask, and people to seek out the next day. I began keeping a pad and pen on the bedside table to write down any questions that popped into my head during the night. I was energized by what lay ahead and resolved to surround the new job from all sides. Improvise, adapt, and overcome, as the Marines say.
• • •
Here are some concrete steps you can take to help you feel confident and ready on the first day—and every day:
Do your homework. Research your new organization before you begin. Try to get a sense of your colleagues and their accomplishments. If you’ve been hired to handle a particular client or area, come in on the first day with some background knowledge and a few fresh ideas. Once you’ve arrived, don’t be shy about seeking information. The more you learn, the more you can excel. Look for sources of institutional knowledge and ask questions. Most people love to give advice, so you will not only be educating yourself, you’ll be creating an ally.
Dress the part. Choose clothes that make you feel well dressed but comfortable and in tune with your surroundings. Pick your outfit the night before. It may seem obsessive, but people who get ready this way don’t have to worry about a missing button or a stain on their pants, and it saves time in the morning. It’s one less thing to be anxious about; feeling at ease is worth a little extra effort. Notice how others dress, especially your boss, as a guideline for what’s acceptable. But remember: being neat and well groomed, however casual your office environment might be, shows poise. (And if you’re invited to a party and you don’t know what to wear, don’t be shy about asking the host. It beats showing up in the wrong attire and feeling foolish.)
See and be seen. Hiding in your office or room does not telegraph self-assurance. Move around in your new environment, find out how things work, and get to know the people you’re working or studying or living with. Seek out people who can help you become familiar with your new surroundings, and show your interest in building a relationship with them. Being a dynamic, interested colleague lets others know you’re committed to working well together.
The life of a first lady is not all motorcades, Vogue covers, exotic travel, and entertaining world leaders. Today we expect first ladies to work hard, campaign on their own, take policy positions, and be role models. An endless parade of people waits for them: staff with schedules and questions, friends and acquaintances with favors to ask, reporters seeking interviews, and everyone else who just wants to be in their presence. The first ladies we worked for exuded confidence while leading highly pressured lives, but they also understood the value of instilling confidence in others.
Everyone likes to be told that they’re doing a good job. Both Michelle Obama and Laura Bush made their staff feel appreciated, with office luncheons in the family residence, staff birthday parties, visits to local eateries, and group tours of nearby museums. One of Mrs. Obama’s most memorable perks for her staff were the retreats to Camp David, where there were team-building sessions and guest speakers in the morning, and the remainder of the day was spent relaxing by the pool, playing golf, hiking, or riding around in golf carts. It was her way of letting people know that their hard work was valued.
Laura Bush had years of experience with the residence staff, as both first lady and the daughter-in-law of the president; she is also a shrewd observer of human nature. She managed the staff in a quiet and efficient way, establishing clear lines of authority and setting routines that made things run smoothly. In the past, she had approved the menu for every meal served at a White House event. After several weeks on the job, I made a routine visit to Gary Walters’s office. As he handed me the menus for the next few weeks, he said, “Mrs. Bush told me this morning that she doesn’t need to see the menus anymore. She said you would be approving them from now on.” He paused and looked at me appraisingly: “That’s never happened in my time here.”
The story got around pretty quickly. Mrs. Bush had let it be known, in her own subtle way, that she trusted me. It made the staff take me seriously, and it showed me that she appreciated the job I was doing. We didn’t know each other very well yet, but her trusting me with the menus made me feel all the more ready to succeed.
• • •
Everyone has momentous projects at work—occasions that require massive coordination, preparation, imagination, and luck. For a White House social secretary, a state visit is a rite of passage. There are hundreds of people to be organized and instructed on their roles, from the Secret Service at the gates to the Fife and Drum Corps, the chefs, butlers, florists, flag-waving guests, and military aides. There are usually famous entertainers performing, who may turn up late, nervous, or under the influence of a controlled substance. There are technicians and staffers who can make mistakes (like mispronouncing the name of the country of the visiting head of state) that become the only thing anyone talks about afterward, and VIP guests who sulk when they find they’re not sitting at the president’s table. Wardrobe malfunctions, forgotten lyrics, dead microphones, massive security, and botched arrival announcements are to be expected. In the midst of all this, having bosses who made us feel we could handle anything did wonders for our ability to do so.
It doesn’t have to be a state dinner. Inclusion is a form of reassurance that makes people feel part of something bigger than themselves, even if it’s just the weekly staff lunch at a local barbecue joint. It’s a powerful yet surprisingly easy thing to do for another person, and an incredibly hurtful thing to withhold. Be the person who makes others feel accepted and welcome; there are few other gestures that will make you feel more confident than an ability to get along with others.
As the new kid on the block, I felt a lot of pressure for my first state dinner, for Germany in early June 2011. I had large poster boards that described where Mrs. Obama would walk and stand at various points. It included a detailed time line from the arrival ceremony to the end of the evening when the president and first lady would escort Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, to the limousine on the South Drive just steps from the Rose Garden, where the dinner was to be held. My deputy, who had been there from the start of the administration and understood the mechanics better than I did, was on hand as well in case there were any protocol questions to be answered. I was nervous as I began to present the outline of the day. Mrs. Obama was encouraging. “This is much easier than all the hype they make it to be,” she said. “Just follow our lead.” As we finished going over everything, she closed by saying, “It’s going to be sensational. It’ll be fine,” with a wink to display her confidence in me and in the staff. Her relaxed demeanor made everything we were facing seem doable, allowing us all to take a deep breath and ease into the event ahead. And the German state dinner was a great success.
• • •
Here are some guidelines on how to reassure others effectively:
Set the tone. Be the first to be kind, inviting, and magnanimous. If you’re leading a project at work, welcome each person individually at a team meeting. Plan what you want to say and anticipate some basic questions or complaints that might arise. And then, as you discuss the way forward, isolate what each of your team members has already contributed to the project and what you still expect them to accomplish. This puts you down the path of earning and keeping the trust and respect of everyone around you.
Speak kindly. This is important to remember outside the office too. If you’re the coach and your daughter’s soccer team has just been handed their fourth loss in a row, draw attention to their hustle and sportsmanship. If you have a friend who’s job hunting and losing heart because she can’t seem to get past a first interview anywhere, bolster her flagging confidence by reminding her she hasn’t landed on the right thing yet and telling her you have faith that she will find it soon. Just as you take encouragement from the trust others show in you, be generous in reminding people of their good qualities.
It’s wise not to overlook the value of humility as you strive to be more confident. After all, the most effective leaders emanate self-assurance, not self-importance. General George Patton was known for both his tactical brilliance and his arrogance during World War II. His outbursts against some of his troops, the other Allied commanders, and the Russians were not just impolitic; they made his bosses’ jobs harder, and they punished him for it by making him sit out parts of the war, despite his acknowledged capabilities as a commander.
If you never have a moment of doubt, if you never second-guess yourself, if you brush off the concerns of others, you may be a bit too confident. False confidence can lead to serious miscalculations. It’s also a form of self-indulgence; it masks insecurities with bravado and attention seeking, creating an addiction to being admired rather than a true understanding of the situation.
President Gerald Ford was known as both a confident and a deeply humble man. When colleagues in Congress flattered him, he was quick to say, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.” A few weeks after the Fords moved into the White House, the chief usher, Gary Walters (yes, the same Gary Walters—he served in the White House for nearly forty years), received a call from the president early one Sunday morning. Ford said, “I don’t have any hot water.” Gary immediately offered to send an engineer, and President Ford replied, “There’s no problem. I haven’t had hot water in two weeks. I’ve been going down the hall and using Mrs. Ford’s shower.” Walters was mortified that the president hadn’t had hot water since he’d moved into the White House but impressed by how easily his new boss took it in stride. It’s no surprise that Gerald Ford was beloved among the residence staff.
So as much as we encourage self-confidence, it’s important not to let the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction. Arrogance alienates; confidence inspires.
Table of Contents
Foreword Laura Bush ix
1 Begin with Confidence 1
2 Humor and Charm, the Great Equalizers 23
3 The Quiet Strength of Consistency 51
4 Listen First, Talk Later 73
5 Radiate Calm 89
6 Handle Conflict Diplomatically 109
7 Honesty Is the Best Policy (Except When It Isn't) 123
8 The Gift of Loyalty 137
9 Own Your Mistakes 151
10 Keep Smiling, and Other Ways to Deal with Difficult People 167
11 Virtual Manners 181
12 Details Matter 197