Even better than expected – part 4

(This is the final installment in a series about my career’s twists and turns. If you missed the previous three posts, I encourage you to go back and catch up: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Now, for the final chapter… so far:)

When I left GTRI for Institute Communications at Georgia Tech, I didn’t just move across campus. I traded a 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, schedule for being on call 24-7, nights, and weekends.

I was the Institute’s media spokesperson and the public information officer for the Georgia Tech Police Department. Tethered to a mobile phone, I was never completely off work, and I endured some of the most difficult circumstances of my career, including the night a Georgia Tech police officer shot and killed a student.

That tragedy took a toll, and invigoration turned to exhaustion. By the time ethics complaints had me on local television once a month explaining the latest violations and firings, I was ready for a change. My great boss, Associate Vice President Lisa Grovenstein, retired, and I decided my performance in the job for three years would be enough evidence that I was capable of moving up into her job.

I made it to the final two candidates before losing out to a highly qualified external candidate. I was disappointed but not crushed, and I was staying busy serving as the chief intermediary between Georgia Tech and the University System of Georgia’s communications team. The USG lined up the television interviews, coached me on speaking points, and relied on me to carry the message they wanted delivered. There were times I felt like a double agent, trying to carry the message of Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson as well as the University System’s talking points. Then my own department at Georgia Tech was embroiled in a transition when our vice president was let go.

Lance Wallace appears on WSB-TV as a Georgia Tech spokesperson.
Friends would joyfully proclaim they saw me on TV. My response was always the same: “If I’m on TV, it’s a bad day.”

I was asked to attend the August Board of Regents meeting to facilitate media interactions for President Peterson. I showed up at 8 a.m. to meet with Charlie Sutlive, the USG’s vice chancellor of communications at the time. Instead of going over the details of the day, Charlie informed me he was leaving his job at the end of the week, and he wanted me to serve as the interim in his place. I would be on loan from Georgia Tech, and it would be a great opportunity to gain visibility with the USG leadership before his replacement, the out-going governor’s communications director, Jen Ryan, could return from maternity leave and take over the job on a permanent basis.

I had been deep in conversation with NCR about a position to serve as a university relations representative, building a program for the Atlanta-based financial technology company to interface with the institutions in the state. I decided to withdraw from that process and pursue the interim at the USG. President Peterson was understanding and glad for me to have the opportunity to look out for Georgia Tech from the USG headquarters. Dene Sheheane, Georgia Tech’s vice president for government relations, was put in charge of Institute Communications, and he blessed the arrangement as well, serving as a confidant and mentor throughout my tenure downtown.

It was an insightful experience, which I found challenging and exciting. Other than having to carry three mobile phones – one for USG, one for Georgia Tech, and my personal phone, I enjoyed it. Consulting with 26 institutions instead of just one was dizzying but enriching.

The four months flew by. Jen and I were originally scheduled to overlap the first week of November, but when she arrived, the decision was made to keep me on until the end of the calendar year. Those additional two months made Jen’s transition smoother and helped me land back at Tech with a new job on top of my old director of media relations position – interim associate vice president for creative strategy and brand management. 

I took on management duties for half of the Institute Communications operation and began interfacing with a new team of direct reports. I also applied for the vacant vice president of Institute Communications position, and although I felt like it was premature for me to ascend to that position, particularly after not getting the AVP job, it was an opportunity from which I knew I would learn and grow.

Winter and spring 2019 were difficult as I juggled the responsibilities at Georgia Tech, continued interfacing with the USG and went through interviews, presentations and project proposal drafts as a part of the VP search process. I was also able to participate in the USG’s Executive Leadership Institute, further allowing me to grow as a leader. 

But when the dust settled in the spring, I did not get the VP job, and I was feeling more and more burned out by the amount of work I was producing and the feeling that my profession was dominating my life. Jen Ryan kept in touch throughout my Georgia Tech VP candidacy, and when that fell through, she reached out and asked if I would be willing to come back to the USG as the associate vice chancellor for communications.

I needed a break from Tech, and working as the no. 2 to Jen seemed promising, particularly since she indicated she had a clear exit strategy she was planning over the next two years. I came back to the USG in August 2019, feeling relieved of the burden of 24-7 on-call work for Georgia Tech and its myriad, daily crises.

Jen announced her departure ahead of schedule, and I was not tapped to become the vice chancellor. Former WSB-TV investigative reporter Aaron Diamant, one of the people I had recently stood in front of cameras for explaining a Georgia Tech cybersecurity breach. I liked Aaron, but I was disappointed that my plans were not working out.

The full scale of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic became known in late winter, and I started working from home exclusively in mid-March. Not commuting two-plus hours a day gave me back time, and I began to write again for fun.

Lance Wallace wearing a suit and tie talks on a video about mental health for the University System of Georgia.
I’ve been told I have a face for radio. If I had possessed more foresight, I would have taken broadcast journalism classes back at Troy.

I re-launched this blog, and blew the dust off my novel manuscript, which I had set aside in 2012 after attempting a rewrite. In May, Carla gave me the StoryWorth online weekly memoir, and I began to carve out time each day to write. For nine months, I worked on my novel, wrote a series for the Reflections devotional book, wrote monthly View from the Pew and New South Essays blog posts and crafted responses to the StoryWorth weekly writing prompts. The time was a gift, and the opportunity to write reconnected me with the dream I had as a 7th grader writing short stories.

One month ago this week I accepted the position of vice president of marketing and communications at Oglethorpe University, leaving the USG after three years as associate vice chancellor. Joining the team at Oglethorpe, meeting new people, working on communications plans and engaging in pro-active media relations has been fun. And who wouldn’t want to go to work at Hogwarts. In fact, I learned this week that a former president from long ago in Oglethorpe’s history called the Gothic architecture on the Brookhaven campus “the silent faculty.”

Lance Wallace in a coat and tie and sunglasses stands in front of the Lupton Administration Building on the Oglethorpe University Campus with the sun peaking over the rooftop.
It’s all sunshine and smiles as I start a new adventure at Oglethorpe University, which has a distinct architectural look on its 100-acre campus in Brookhaven.

My career path has been winding, but so has everyone’s in the communications world as the analog era shifted into the digital age and communication became nonstop and ubiquitous. After 30 years of writing, editing, crafting stories and engaging with the media and the public, I don’t know what the future holds, but I am thankful for the experiences, the people and the successes along the way. I’m filled with gratitude and eager to make an impact, ready to embrace the next chapter.

Thanks for sticking with this winding story over these four posts, and if you missed one, feel free to revisit them. I appreciate you reading!

Even better than expected – part 2

Note: This is the second in a series on the unexpected twists and turns of my career. If you didn’t see part 1, go back now and catch up at https://newsouthessays.com/2022/09/17/even-better-than-expected-part-1/.

Learning the ropes of public relations from Ben McDade reinvigorated my career. Getting home before 6 p.m. every day reinvigorated my relationship with Carla. After a year, I was able to start, tuition-free, Mercer’s Master of Business Administration program. I had a new vision for what I could achieve, and my career expectations shifted from running a newsroom to running a university relations office.

Lance sits on a church pew in a small chapel full of people looking forward. His head bowed, Lance types on a smartphone.
From clacking away on a computer keyboard in a newsroom to clicking away on a smartphone on Twitter, my career took off while at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with the advent of social media and the introduction of a 24/7 news cycle. Here I am over-tweeting a CBF Coordinating Council meeting at First Baptist Decatur.

Two years into my tenure at Mercer, Ben left to start his own consulting business. A new AVP named Judy Lunsford was brought in to run the office. Judy was a nice person and a capable public relations professional. I had no qualms with working for Judy, and I was well into my MBA. There were elements of the job that frustrated me, but overall, I was happy. Carla and I even began planning to start a family. My dreams, which seemed ambitious at the time, were actually pretty confined: enjoy our new house, start a family, work my way up to AVP at Mercer, stay close to Carla’s parents in Sandersville, and enjoy life. That was disrupted when Ben called me one day in early summer out of the blue. He wanted to meet for breakfast and “check in.”

After “rescuing me from newspapers,” Ben had a new proposition. Among his marketing clients was a faith-based nonprofit headquartered in Atlanta called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Founded in 1993, CBF had its national headquarters in Atlanta, and Ben had a contract with them to do marketing and public relations. CBF’s chief communications officer, David Wilkinson, was leaving, and CBF asked Ben to come aboard and lead the communications and marketing efforts. Ben explained to me that he planned to take the job and would be voted on at the Fellowship’s General Assembly in a few weeks. Among his conditions of accepting their job offer was that he be allowed to hire someone to come in and build a media relations enterprise from scratch.

“There’s only one person in the country for this job,” Ben said over coffee at the North Macon Cracker Barrell. “You have the background in Baptist life and journalism. You’re it.”

Once again Ben had taken me outside of my comfort zone. My immediate response was threefold: I didn’t want to quit on my MBA, I didn’t want to move to Atlanta, and I didn’t want to work for Baptists. The whole thing felt sketchy and unstable. Our first born, Barron, was just an infant, and being close to Carla’s family, our babysitters and support, was a primary concern. I told him I would pass on his offer and thanked him for thinking of me.

After the General Assembly, I started following CBF in the Baptist media. A controversy over a plagiarized sermon plagued the meeting that summer, and I felt even better about passing up working for Baptists. Then Ben called a second time to ask if I would join him at CBF. The answer was still an emphatic “No.”

Unbeknownst to me, Ben had a mole at Mercer. Ben enlisted Mercer Creative Director, Steve Mosley, a close colleague and confidant, to inform him the next time I had a particularly difficult or frustrating day. Inevitably such a day came. It was a Friday, and I had spent the morning rising early, driving to Atlanta, filling a seat at an event that was not the least bit related to my job, and returned to Macon after lunch with a full day’s worth of work ahead of me. Steve and I were working on a redesign of the university’s signature alumni magazine, The Mercerian, and it wasn’t going well. The first new design we submitted was rejected as “too fresh,” and we were sent back to the drawing board. It was a long, hard day. Ben later confessed to me that Steve called him on his way home that night and told him “Now is the time to give Lance a call.” I wasn’t the least bit suspicious when my cell phone rang on Monday morning. Ben reiterated his offer, and I found myself coming around to the idea.

“I’ll think about it,” was my response to Ben’s third offer.

At the time, I was also struggling with a sense of calling to ministry. As I told my pastor at the time, Dr. Jim Dant, I had done every role in a church except serve on a church staff and was wondering if I should be pursuing full-time ministry. At Mercer I was handling the public relations for the relatively young seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, and was intrigued by the possibilities of enrolling. When Ben made repeated appeals for me to join him at CBF, I believed it was the answer to my prayers, combining both my sense of calling and professional skills and experience.

When Ben was able to commit to helping me financially finish the MBA, that sealed it for me. Carla and I believed we wouldn’t have to move, and I could just commute to Atlanta. My three initial objections had been addressed. The last remaining roadblock was resigning my current job. Leaving Mercer meant telling the Vice President for Advancement, Emily Myers, the most feared and effective administrator in Mercer’s history. Other than telling me “Ben’s just hiring you to do all of his work,” she did not try to stop me from leaving. In November 2002, I went to work for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I flourished at CBF. I immediately hit the road with Ben, traveling across the country, building relationships with reporters who covered religion, introducing them to CBF and helping them understand who we were in the crowded and confusing Baptist landscape. Those first four years, I visited more than 140 newsrooms and averaged 5-10 nights away from home each month. I juggled graduate school, a young child and marriage. It was a difficult period made more difficult by our transition to the metro Atlanta area.

After commuting the nearly two hours from Macon to CBF’s office on the north side of Atlanta four days a week, it was clear that I couldn’t sustain such a grind. We started looking for a house in the areas near CBF and found a great neighborhood in Lilburn with a house that met all of our conditions.

I found the work at CBF challenging and rewarding. After I finished my MBA, I was promoted to director of communications and marketing and for the first time in my career inherited more marketing responsibilities. Working for a faith-based non-profit satisfied my sense of calling to ministry because I was telling stories and facilitating CBF’s annual fundraising campaign for missions. The first year I was in charge of the Offering for Global Missions campaign, I cut the amount we spent producing the promotional materials by $75,000 and increased the amount raised by $75,000. Making a $150,000 difference felt good. I traveled to ministry sites for CBF’s domestic rural poverty initiative, Together for Hope, on Native American reservations in South Dakota, small towns in the Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas, and communities along the Rio Grande River Valley of Texas. I went to Southeast Asia seeing firsthand the work in northwest Thailand, Singapore, and post-tsunami recovery areas of Aceh Province in Indonesia.

The position helped me develop communications abilities beyond writing. I spoke frequently in churches and developed a network of advocates with whom I frequently met to resource them to promote CBF in their congregations. I was given the opportunity to run the media relations operation for more than 100 reporters at the historic New Baptist Covenant first meeting in Atlanta with representatives from Baptist denominations all across the country. I achieved so many career firsts while engaging my faith in my vocation. In many ways, CBF felt like the perfect fit and a place where I could work for the rest of my career.

I did not see how the seeds were being planted for the next big transition of my career.

On the move

As I dipped a scoop of chocolate ice cream onto a sugar cone, it hit me: the Normans really are moving.

A Sunday afternoon ice cream party for our friends appeared to be a typical Southern backyard get-together. Children played. Adults talked. Everybody ate. But what I hadn’t really thought about as we prepared for the festivities was that the Normans were moving away.

Insert “change” cliché here.

for sale sign
Signs like these spring up in lawns around our neighborhood every spring and summer like flowering weeds.

There are so many I won’t even attempt to supply one, but any of them will work to express the cultural phenomenon of transition that has come to characterize life in the New South.

Carla and I are feeling the disorientation of relationships transitioning as several friends are moving away from the Atlanta area this summer. We’ve had summers like this before, and in our nine-plus years in the Atlanta suburbs, we have said goodbye to dozens of good friends.

This time through the cycle, though, I can’t help but notice how these transitions reflect the culture of the New South. As this economy spurts and stalls, folks have to move to advance in their careers or, in some cases, just keep their jobs. Plus, some folks land jobs after prolonged periods of unemployment and have to move.

The effect of all this moving is that relationships tend to be more temporary, more seasonal.

Rebecca, Michelle and Carla
No more coffees, no more Easter Sunday lunches, no more commiserating about husbands for Rebecca, Michelle and Carla. Michelle Norman, center, is moving to Greece this summer, breaking up this trio.

Long gone are the days when you started with a company after you finished your education and retired from that organization 40 years later. We all know intuitively that changing jobs, even changing careers, is part of the fabric of our lives these days, but it takes a toll on our relationships.

Yes, we can now stay connected with friends through Facebook, but what is lost is the interaction. The cookouts, the play dates, the church suppers, the celebrations of new births and graduations as well as support during medical or personal crises. Our kids don’t get to grow up together, and they see and feel firsthand the emotional pangs of letting go.

I remember making a huge transition from Dallas-Fort Worth to central Florida as a 12-year-old. It was traumatic, but it was a change I embraced at the time. I think it helped me have a sense of independence and possibility, so that when it came time to go off to college, I was better prepared emotionally to begin to separate from my parents and live on my own.

Maybe all of our transitions help our children cope with change, but I fear that it’s teaching them to be cautious in their relationships. They are learning subconsciously to not form deep attachments because they’ll only be hurt or disappointed.

It’s too much of a generalization to say that all relationships in the New South are only at a surface level, but I do think it’s much more likely now than 30 or 40 years ago.

Matt Norman
Everyone was all smiles at the going away party for Matt, foregound, and Michelle, background, but now that they’re gone so is a part of us.

I celebrate the transitions my friends have been able to make over the past few years and will make in the months to come. The Normans have been trying to move to Greece for at least two years, and the relocation represents the fulfillment of a dream and a calling. I’m genuinely happy for them.

But I can’t help but feel a little diminished each time we lose the close connection with a family that we once spent time with. Yes, we can visit, and they can come back here to visit, but over time, those visits become impractical and the busyness of life takes over.

Rather than give into shallowness, here are my three strategies for enjoying friendships in the New South:

First, enjoy your friends while you can. Invest in other people deeply. Eat together often. Get together. Play. Laugh. Don’t count the cost or worry about the future. Be present for each other and enjoy each other while you can. You don’t know how long it will last, so don’t take the relationship for granted.

Second, do what you have to do. Don’t let your friendships hold you in limbo if an opportunity arises that you need to pursue. Sometimes, a better thing requires a move. Go for it. You can continue to invest in your friends – although in a different way – from a distance, and you will discover new friends.

Third, talk to your kids about transitions. Don’t leave them to process these grief experiences alone.  They can learn from other people’s transitions as well as their own and begin to prepare for their inevitable life transitions.

So as we all say “goodbye” with greater frequency, take time to savor your friendships. Celebrate the successes and new opportunities your friends experience. And keep putting yourself out there, investing in people and relationships.

New or old, the South just isn’t the same without a sense of community.

Have you had to make a transition recently? How did you handle it? What did you do to help your kids weather the move? Share your thoughts in a comment below.