What is it Like… To Lead in the Face of Adversity?

On Sept. 11, 2001, Jonathan McBride ’88 was 31 and running a start-up media company in New York City. Since then, he’s worked under former President Barack Obama as assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel and, currently, as managing director and global head of inclusion and diversity at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.

In the mid-1990s, I was living in New York with a buddy from my grad school days. We had this idea, which we initially developed while in grad school, to launch a media company. I had always liked magazines, and there were all sorts of magazines for successful professionals, but we thought, “What about people who are 28 and still have a bunch of student loans? Where is the magazine for them?” So we launched Jungle Media—based on the saying “It’s a jungle out there”—for that market. The company had three partners: one who did all the investor relations and finance, one who did the operations and content, and me, who did everything else. It was tough, because there was a lot of competition. It got a lot tougher, though, when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center.

For me, one of the hardest parts about 9/11 was when the Manhattan neighborhood travel restrictions were lifted and everybody could go back to the office for the first time. The last time we were in that office, I was standing on a desk giving orders after the first plane had flown into the north tower. As I was giving orders, horror suddenly registered on everyone’s faces when, through the large windows behind me, they watched the second plane hit the south tower. Now here we were, in that same office three weeks later, and my partners and I had our whole staff standing there looking at us like, “Now what?” And if you think things are tough, try to figure out what you’re going to say in that moment.

Many of the various experiences I’ve had in my life can be tied back to the foundation I built at University School. I still talk to my best friend from USM on a weekly basis, which is valuable, because those kinds of long-standing friendships tether you to your beginning. As you go through life, your beliefs and character will be tested, but those tethers remind you who you are and what you stand for.

President Obama used to keep little talismen, or trinkets, gifted to him by people he met along his many travels. They reminded him of who he worked for, and why he was there. When you’re in certain moments, those connections gird your resolve and clarify your purpose and, if you’re lucky, your choices. You have the confidence to make decisions when there’s no road map because you are not alone—the people and communities who raised you are with you.   

Jonathan McBride ’88 on…

Getting a job with Senator Herb Kohl:

The summer after graduating from Connecticut College I had gone to Washington, D.C. to visit friends and also to try out for a semi-pro soccer team there. I had gone into the office of Senator Herb Kohl to visit one of my friends who worked there. While I was there, the senator walked in, so I went up to him—I was pretty confident back then—and said “Hi Senator Kohl, I’m one of your constituents and I went to high school with your nieces and nephews,”—since they had also gone to USM—and his eyes just lit up. So we started chatting, and he asked me what I was up to for the summer, which wasn’t a whole lot, and he said, “Well, why don’t you come back tomorrow, talk to our chief of staff, and maybe you can do a summer internship here,” and I said “Sounds great!”

That night I went to try out for the soccer team and, while playing, I happened to break my leg in the same place that I had broken it the year before. I spent the night in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, and got home with just enough time to take a shower with my huge new cast, get up on crutches, and hobble to Senator Kohl’s office. As luck would have it, who walked in while I was waiting? The senator. Normally, it’s hard to see senators. You don’t usually get to walk in and talk to them. But he happened to walk in right at that second, and he’s looking at this sweaty guy who has a suit on that doesn’t fit right over this huge cast, and he’s staring at me. And I said, “I’m the same guy you met yesterday.” And he said, “What happened?” And he invited me back to his office. This is a true story.

I went back to his office and explained how I broke my leg, and he was impressed that I still made it to his office on time the next day, despite my injury and lack of sleep. We ended up talking for two hours about politics, what we thought about the world, and all kinds of stuff. It was the coolest conversation. And then he said to me, “You know Jonathan, you seem like a pretty good guy and you’re clearly not playing soccer this summer. We have an opening on our legislative correspondence staff, we’ve been interviewing people for weeks. Do you want to interview for it?” And of course I said yes. So he set me up with an interview with some of his people, and I got the job a week later.

Building community as a career:

When you look at my career, it’s all over the place. But at every single stage, from early on, I was involved in community building. At Connecticut College I worked on the admission staff my senior year; when I was at Goldman Sachs I helped to run the summer program as a recruiting captain for nine schools that I had to visit, etc. Everyplace I went, every job I’ve had, I’ve always been invested in the community, the team, the tribe I joined. It shows up in terms of wanting to take leadership roles in every community; wanting to play an active role in evolving that community; and caring a lot about how people interact with each other. Even recruiting, to get people into that community, literally it shows up everywhere. And basically I’ve been doing that now for the president of the United States and Larry Fink, BlackRock’s chairman and CEO, for the last eight years.

Working at the White House:

I started out as a special assistant to the president in 2009, and was promoted to deputy assistant to the president in 2012, and when I got the top job I became assistant to the president, which is similar to senior staff, in 2013. The White House is definitely a stressful place to work, because you have so few people working on so much, and the pace of it is faster because you’re in a regular news cycle. Things are constantly coming up in the news media that you have to address, and you’ve got this dynamic organism of people running around and they’re generating news, too, so it’s stressful.

People often ask me if I was stressed a lot working there. While I was there, I didn’t think I was too stressed. But in an environment like the White House, you have a certain amount of adrenaline that’s pumping through you all the time, so you don’t necessarily realize how much stress you’re under. That’s where the fatigue comes in and it takes a lot out of you. It is probably why presidents get so much gray hair. Your body is literally working faster and harder, you’re in fight-or-flight, which was meant to be in short spurts, mode the whole time, so it’s taxing on your system. And you’re in that moment quite a bit at the White House.

His career in human capital:

When I was coming out of my time at the White House, I realized at that point in my career that I needed to pick an area of expertise because I had become a super generalist. I had this theory that people were going to start spending a lot more money on the people they hire, not the things that the people produce. Companies often spend lots of money to develop great products and test them, but less money on making sure that the designer who designed that product is the best in the world. And I knew that gap was going to close, so I thought there was going to be lots of innovation and investment in human capital. That had been my theory for 15 years. We’ve seen it actually start to play out in the last 10. So the idea of somebody who’s been a strategist and entrepreneur, sales person and all that stuff, going in to human capital, to me was the right thing to do.

Working at BlackRock:

I would say working at BlackRock is not as stressful on a day-to-day basis as the White House, but it’s one of the few places I felt I could come to and have an impact on such a large scale. And specifically if you look at how BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink, leads when it comes to the concept of purpose, and diversity and inclusion, and how, as a CEO, you treat the people who work for you, his willingness to step out and take a leadership position on that has made him as global and as impactful as just about anybody. And so in a lot of ways, I feel like the opportunity here from an impact perspective is like my last job [at the White House]. If we play our cards right, or wrong, the impact could be significant. My sense of responsibility, opportunity, and risk is comparable to my time in the White House. In other words, I’m in a job that’s requiring my entire personality and life experiences—including my learning at University School—to try to do the right thing. It’s drawing on all of it and that’s something I’m keenly aware of. I think about it all the time.

More from “What is it Like…”

What is it Like… To Run the World’s Largest Music Festival?

What is it Like… To Co-write a Bestselling Novel with Stephen King?

What is it Like… To Live in Perpetual Movement?

What is it Like… To Save a Life?

What is it Like… To Work at the Vatican?

2 thoughts on “What is it Like… To Lead in the Face of Adversity?

Leave a Reply