Zen and the Art of Being Alyssa Mastromonaco

I know it’s August, a time for light and fluffy business stories but this, I assure you, is not one of them. I’m deadly serious. Leadership development has to soldier on, even on the beach. It stops neither for sangria nor sun cream.

I have a crow to pluck with the Observer newspaper about its recent review of Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, a new book by Alyssa Mastromonaco, who worked closely with Barak Obama for many years.

I have a very high regard for Mr Obama and, by extension, anyone he rates. My children roll their eyes at my Obama-isms: “yes you can”, I would say to them before school. And they would roll their eyes.

My children roll their eyes at my stories all the time. Like the story about the time I met Nelson Mandela – I did, in Cape Town in 1994. Unimpressed – or is it because of the frequency of my telling that story? I dunno – they roll their eyes.

Or my story about the time I performed the Heimlich Manoeuvre – I did, on a train at Victoria Station in London about ten years ago. At that one, they roll their eyes and at the same time they make gagging gestures.

Perhaps my children feel that my stories are thinly disguised virtue signaling. They’re so wrong. I’m merely trying to use stories to help others. But, as the Bard said, “sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the ingratitude of a child”.

Anyway, enough about me, and back to Alyssa Mastromonaco. Gawd I love her name. Don’t you? Why don’t I have a name like that? Ciarán Fenton doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like Aly-yssa-Mastro-mon-aco. I could roll that name around my mouth all day.

All that was by way of a circuitous introduction to address the critique the Observer reviewer gave Alyssa’s book with the damning summary: “It all gets a bit ‘Dear Diary’, giving the book a dated “Bridget Jones in the Oval Office” feel”.

That’s a bit harsh. T’is true that the book is heavy on personal anecdote, light on deep Obama insights. Yes, there are several pages of fine detail on how she managed to get the first Tampon dispenser into The White House, which left me blushing on my own, but that’s a statement about me, not she.

To be fair, she makes very clear, from the outset, why she wrote the book and what the book is about: it’s not only about the truism that “hard work and a good attitude” gets you far it’s also about how to do it, which she demonstrates through anecdote. And there are lots of good Obama stories.

And yes some of the anecdotes are a bit pedestrian, but work is sometimes a bit pedestrian, even in The White House.

I’m enjoying reading this book and recommend it, not only to those starting off their careers but to everyone interested in how to work under extreme pressure.

It contains useful “in the moment” descriptions about reactions to crises. I particularly liked her riff on her anger at being referred to almost like a “travel agent” by the Press on one occasion. She describes her feelings and her actions and how others reacted to them including how POTUS told her off for sending a “snippy email” about the incident. How many of those have you or I received or sent?

But he didn’t just tell her off. He told her she needed to “realise the power of [her] words” and she learned from him that “developing self-awareness is a lifelong process”.  It sounds like President Obama was a good boss.

I hope my children don’t read this. They will roll their eyes and make gagging gestures. Then again, they haven’t yet started work. And it ain’t easy.

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