Even better than expected – part 3

Note: This is the third 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 on part one and part two.

Transitions are never easy, especially when you believe you are following a calling.

When I interviewed with CBF, then national Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal warned me that working at a faith-based organization can cause you to lose your faith. I don’t think I lost my faith, but the economic recession of 2007-2008 certainly tested it.

As giving to churches dropped, the funding from churches to CBF fell even more precipitously. In response, the CBF leadership was forced to lay off 13 employees, several of whom I was close to. In addition to financial difficulties, CBF faced a leadership transition. Daniel Vestal was retiring, and after 10 years on staff, I felt like Daniel’s transition was the right time to test the job market. I decided my resume and experience matched up best for internal communications and media relations jobs in the non-profit or higher education sectors. I began applying for jobs in April 2012 but didn’t get many bites.

While working in the newsroom of the CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, that summer, I received a call from an Atlanta area code. Convinced it was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s religion writer working on a story about the Assembly, I took the call only to discover it was the administrative assistant for the vice president of communications and marketing at the Georgia Institute of Technology wanting to schedule an interview. I had applied for the director of communications and marketing position at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) but hadn’t heard anything for several months. Grateful for a call-back of any kind, I put the time and date on my mobile phone’s calendar and returned to the pressing matters at hand. After the Assembly, I did my homework on GTRI and decided it was a much larger, more respected and more profitable version of the applied engineering research center at Mercer University for which I handled the public relations as a part of my School of Engineering duties.

Lance Wallace wearing a navy blazer white shirt and orange tie with Georgia Tech Research Institute on the wall in the background.
When one of the lab directors at GTRI first met me, he sized me up and said, “Well, you’re clean cut.”

When the day came for my interview, I was on a conference call for a CBF project about an hour before my interview. That same 404-area code phone number popped up on my cell phone, and I knew I had to answer. I begged off the conference call, thinking it was the administrative assistant just confirming the details of the phone interview. I called the number back only to learn I was 15-minutes late for the actual interview.

Back when I put the appointment on the calendar through my cell phone, I was in the central time zone. When I came back east to Georgia, my cell phone automatically shifted the appointment back an hour. Frazzled and confused, I did my best to talk my way into the interview even though I was late. It took me about 10 minutes to slow my heart rate and get into the flow of the interview, but fortunately I had scripted my answers to the first few obvious interview questions. From there, we had a great back-and-forth with my natural curiosity driving my interaction with the committee. Whether or not my time zone mishap had blown it, I felt good about my performance and left the results up to God.

Returning to higher education seemed natural, but joining the staff of one of the top ranked public institutions in the country was intimidating. I was invited for in-person interviews and spent 90 minutes being grilled by a 10-person committee. Rather than frightening, I found the experience invigorating. I enjoyed the engaging questions and again let my curiosity into their processes drive my questioning.

Poster with my headhshot and blue and white gears with the heading "Welcome to GTRI Communications" Lance Wallace Director of Communications
I received a warm welcome at GTRI, including posters in the elevators.

The co-chair of the search committee, GTRI’s chief of staff at the time, Tom Horton, (may he rest in peace), addressed the elephant in the room right away, much to the dismay of the human resources representative. He wanted to know how my work for Baptists could translate into working with engineers and researchers. I deflected with humor and focused on the work I had accomplished in media relations, publications, web development projects, fundraising campaigns, and advocacy marketing. I walked away from the interview feeling I had made a connection with the members of the committee and given good answers to their questions. I was sure I would be invited back for the final round.

That invitation came during our family beach vacation less than a week after my in-person interview. They scheduled me for a full day at Georgia Tech. I met with GTRI’s director and deputy director and held up under an hour of grilling from two obviously brilliant scientists. When it was over, they took me down the hall to Tom’s office where I had a few minutes to catch my breath before heading to Institute Communications for my interviews with their leadership. Tom asked if I knew where I was in the process. I told him I thought I was a finalist and today was my “make-or-break opportunity.” He took all the pressure off when he said, “No, you are THE finalist.” He explained the committee’s scoring process and that I was the leading candidate. Reassured by Tom’s revelation, I had a good day interacting with the staff at Georgia Tech.

I spent three years in that role at GTRI and relished learning a completely different domain. I had to fight feelings of imposter syndrome that constantly reminded me I didn’t have technical training. Despite my lack of engineering savvy, I tried to keep in mind that I was hired because they thought I was competent and could help them with their communications. Another challenge was managing the staff. There were personnel issues, and I had to learn to navigate those conflicts. GTRI’s leadership wanted to centralize communications, so my staff expanded from eight to 20. Tom, who was a great boss, retired, and one of the lab directors, Jim McGarrah, was hired as chief-of-staff. A Georgia Tech and Annapolis-trained Navy engineer, Jim was a former admiral and AT&T executive who brought a world of experience to the job. His heart was in the right place, he had the highest ethical standards, and he was a person of faith. I enjoyed our one-on-one interactions. 

When GTRI’s director left and a change of leadership was on the horizon three years into my tenure, the director of media relations in the central communications office for all of Georgia Tech became available when my friend and trusted colleague, Matt Nagel, left to take a job at New York University. I wanted to be more directly involved with the Institute’s president and senior leadership, providing communications counsel and handling more complex issues.

In what had to be an incredible difficult decision by then Associate Vice President Lisa Grovenstein, I was selected for the position over an internal and much-beloved candidate. That candidate, Jason Maderer, would turn out to be one of the best and most supportive team members of my career, and he could not have handled the situation with more class and dedication to the work.

But unbeknownst to me, I was taking on what would turn out to be one of the most challenging and stressful jobs of my career.

One year and counting

Today marks the first anniversary of my joining Georgia Tech Research Institute as director of communications.

I kept mentioning it to people all week because in some ways, I just couldn’t believe it. A year had flown by, and I have alternatingly felt like I have always worked at GTRI and it is my first day all over again. It’s a complicated place that solves some of the world’s most complex problems. It can be daunting.

Today’s essay is one of those times when my vocation and avocation collide. I chose to write about my employer because if Atlanta is the capital of the New South, then Georgia  Tech is at the technological center. Tech Tower rises among the historic brick buildings and stately oaks in Midtown, surrounded by some of the most technically-advanced laboratories in the world. The juxtaposition is exactly what I’d call “New South.”

The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.
The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.

As one of the top-ranked technology-focused learning institutions in the world, Georgia Tech is currently riding a wave of positive momentum. I was fortunate enough to arrive at Tech when enrollment has increased by 11 percent in the last five years and applicants increased by 70 percent. As more and more students want a Georgia Tech education, 2,764 freshmen were enrolled this year out of more than 17,000 applications. The average SAT score of a Georgia Tech freshman this year? 1,421. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t have gotten into Georgia Tech.

It’s not just the academic side that is experiencing growth. In the past five years, contract awards for research have increased by 40 percent to top out last year in excess of $655 million. GTRI alone has accounted for more than $300 million of that research each of the last two years.

Whether or not this record-setting pace continues remains to be seen, but these statistics support the idea that Georgia Tech is a good place to be. I’ll spare you any more of my public relations sales pitch, and instead offer three observations from my first year of working at Georgia Tech:

1.) People think you are smarter when you say you work at Georgia Tech. I have had this happen to me all year long. I try to explain that I’m not one of the smart ones, I’m just a PR guy, but when people see that yellow ID badge, they make assumptions. I do my best to keep my mouth shut and not shatter the illusion.

I exhaust my knowledge of technical topics very quickly, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to research communicators John Toon, Kirk Englehardt and the rest of my communications team for helping me acclimate.

Every day I have to remind myself that I know things that can help. These engineers and scientists may know things I could never wrap my mind around, but I can help them tell their story in a compelling way through the proper channels to engage people (and sponsors) in their work.

2.) Scientists and engineers are people, too. When I went into the interview process at GTRI for this position, I decided I could not make a case for my scientific acuity. Instead, I decided to treat everyone I came in contact with as a human being. Not only did it land me the job, but I think it has helped tremendously in building a rapport with colleagues who are world renowned experts in their fields.

I have found the people at GTRI and Georgia Tech to be some of the most engaging and accepting people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. They have welcomed me warmly, graciously taking the time to explain what they do and exhibiting good humor in the process.

They have lives outside of the lab, and enjoy connecting on a personal level. Yes, there are those who fall into the “Big Bang Theory” caricature, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

3.) Technology and discovery do not replace the power of relationship. When I came here a year ago, I never thought scientists and engineers could make a work environment feel like family. I know not everyone gets along with each other. I’m not naïve.

But the general atmosphere of GTRI is one of compassion and genuine concern for each other. I’ve seen a comforting embrace offered to someone who had just suffered a loss of a loved one. I’ve had prayer with a colleague who was concerned for a co-worker who was in the throes of traumatic illness and life circumstances. I’ve listened as team members shared their personal and family challenges.

As much as my Georgia Tech and GTRI colleagues are some of the world’s brightest minds, they have some of the world’s biggest hearts.

So at the risk of sounding like sophomore Nick Selby, who went viral this week when his Freshman Convocation Speech landed on YouTube, I’m thrilled to be at Georgia Tech. I can only hope to contribute to Tech’s upward trajectory.

Forgive my love letter to Georgia Tech, but maybe you have had similar experiences at a job or with colleagues? Leave a comment and share what makes your work place a great place to be. Or maybe you love Tech, too. It’s OK to say nice things about Tech. The Tech-Georgia game isn’t for another few months. I won’t tell on you.