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.