Join Roger Ream ’76 in this week’s Liberty + Leadership Podcast as he speaks with communications expert, author and world-champion whistler Chris Ullman. Roger and Chris discuss Chris’ new book, “Four Billionaires and a Parking Attendant,” his time working in communications in Washington and the valuable life lessons he’s learned along the way.
Chris shares his insight about how a clear purpose in life can serve as a compass for navigating life’s turbulent waters, and the role personal branding plays in professional success. Also, stay tuned for the end of the conversation when Chris serenades listeners with a surprise whistling tune!
Chris Ullman is the founder and president of Ullman Communications and former managing director at The Carlyle Group. He also served as the director of communications for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and the director of public affairs for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Chris is the author of two books, “Four Billionaires and a Parking Attendant” and “Find Your Whistle.” He is a four-time national and international whistling champion and has performed with major symphony orchestras, whistled for President George W. Bush in the Oval Office and whistled the National Anthem at major league sporting events. Chris earned a master’s degree in political science from Binghamton University.
In 2023, Chris was elected to the TFAS Board of Trustees. He previously served on the TFAS Board of Regents from 2017-2023 and he has served as a volunteer, mentor, guest speaker and internship host for TFAS students since 2001.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today, my guest is Chris Ullman, president of Ullman Communications, Senior Advisor at Narrative Communications and world Champion Whistler. You heard that right. Chris is a four-time international whistling champion. He is also the author of two books: “Find Your Whistle Simple Gifts: Touch Hearts and Change Lives,” and one that was just released “Four Billionaires and a Parking Attendant: Success Strategies of the Wealthy, Powerful, and Just Plain Wise.” Chris was elected to the TFAS Board of Trustees in July 2023, following over two decades as a key supporter of our work, including as a volunteer, speaker and supporter. He often speaks to students on professional development and networking. He served as a mentor to students since 2001 and joined the Board of Regents in 2017. Chris, thank you for joining me today and congratulations on your new book. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Chris Ullman [00:01:24] Well, Roger, it’s great to be here and thanks for this opportunity.
Roger Ream [00:01:29] Well, I appreciate you joining me, and let me say right off the bat that I truly enjoyed reading the book, which is just coming out publicly for sale now. Before we get into it, let me set the stage a little. You’ve had a distinguished career in the public and private sector, focused mainly on roles in communications. How did this focus on communications come about?
Chris Ullman [00:01:55] Well, first, it warms my heart that you read the book and liked. For an author, that is a neat experience to put all his work into something and then have people react to it. So, this is an important part of the journey. So, I’ve had an amazing and very blessed career. I came to Washington in 1987. So, for 36 years, I’ve been in the communications world. In Capitol Hill, the executive branch, in a Republican and a Democratic administration. Private sector, at a place that you’re very familiar with, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Free market advocacy group. Then I was at the Carlyle Group, which is a global investment firm for 18 years, running their global communications function, and then five years ago started my own PR firm and it’s me. When you call Ullman Communications, you get Ullman. So, I’ve had this amazing career and I’ve just met these amazing people along the way. I love Washington. I met my wife here. We have three children. It’s a great city and I’m really, really blessed.
Roger Ream [00:03:09] Well, this career path you described in a nutshell there has given you the opportunity to work with some incredible people and some very wealthy people. But I guess right off the bat, the title “Four Billionaires and a Parking Attendant,” I want to disabuse people of the idea that this is some formula for get rich quick or something like that. More importantly, I think it’s how we can each as a person be a better person and fully utilize the talents and skills that we were born with.
Chris Ullman [00:03:43] That’s exactly it. Titles are important and this title is meant to kind of show this juxtaposition between wealth that the four billionaires and the common folk, a parking attendant, and that wisdom can come from anyone, and that’s captured in the title. There are 15 people featured in the book, 14 of whom are either billionaires or they were CEO of this or governor of that or chairman of this. So, there are these like potentate type people. But this parking attendant, a young man named Salah, who is an Ethiopian immigrant, just really touched my heart, and that lesson is about choosing to be happy. It had just a big impact on me as a person, especially because I’ve known so many, like hyper Uber successful people and they’re not all happy. That’s why this notion of like choosing to be happy is so important and powerful. And that said, what I’ve learned from these bigwigs has just changed my life. It took me from the minor leagues to the major leagues in terms of the types of things I was exposed to, but perhaps more importantly, helping me understand how to be my best. Because at its core, this book is about success. However, you define it, It is not a prescription for being a billionaire. Now, if that’s your objective, that’s fine by me. I’m a capitalist. But ultimately, this is about how can you be your best? How can you be successful in however you define it?
Roger Ream [00:05:28] Well, I’ll not necessarily follow the order of the way you laid out the book there, but since you mentioned the parking lot attendant, I remember you in the book, quote, David Rubenstein, one of the founders of Carlyle and one of the billionaires in your book, as commenting that most of the wealthy people he knew were not happy. I think you mentioned that in the context of this advice from the parking lot attendant. I have always thought choosing to be happy, that is a choice that a person makes. I mean, it’s sometimes a difficult choice to make because of things happening in a person’s life. But talk a little about that story of the parking attendant.
Chris Ullman [00:06:09] To think about it that to be blessed with immense wealth and to not be happy. It is a tragedy. And then you have the flipside of this young man who is an immigrant from Ethiopia, learning English, learning the American ways, who when I would drive into the parking garage at Carlyle every day for four years, who would greet me with this brilliant smile and a good morning, Mr. Chris, how are you? And we talk about our weekends, talk about our families, talk about our faith, and just amazed at how he approaches life that it is a choice. And because he and I have talked about this, that it’s partly about his faith, and he’s a devout Muslim. And, you know, Muhammad says you must love your neighbor, you must be a part of your community and you must have this bright outlook. So, that’s a big part of what motivates him, and it is infectious. It really touched my heart. And we became such buddies that when he became an American citizen, I took my daughters to his naturalization ceremony. If folks listening right now have never been to a naturalization ceremony, they must go because it is a magical experience to see a whole group of people of different religions and ethnicities, the color of their skin across the rainbow, all pledging allegiance to a new country, and not just any country, but America. For an American to see that, it’s amazing. I remember giving Salah his first American flag after that ceremony. So, he’s had a big impact on me, and he has earned his way into this book.
Roger Ream [00:08:00] You almost didn’t make it to the ceremony, but that’s another story today.
Chris Ullman [00:08:05] But we did make it.
Roger Ream [00:08:06] Yes. Well, in that same section of the book, you also said something interesting. We don’t have to go further with this, but you talked about that too many people I think, are concerned with the wealth disparity instead of the happiness disparity and I thought it was a good way on putting it.
Chris Ullman [00:08:19] I suspected you would pick that up. Yes, I wish there were less of a gap in the wealth. Let me reference one thing related to that. I think that being blessed with wealth, however hard you worked for it, is a duty but it’s also this immense opportunity. Because what’s interesting about wealth is that you don’t worry about the normal things that virtually everyone else worries about food, clothing, shelter, daycare, elder care, you name it, you don’t worry about any of those things. So, in the absence of that, you would think that by having all this money, you’d be able to spend more time figuring out how I harness it effectively and then do something with it to make the world around me better, which should bring you a lot of joy. So, that’s the great irony or conundrum.
Roger Ream [00:09:15] Yeah. Well, let’s start with your first strategy in there. It’s about being purposeful, and I think there’s a lot in there. You talk about a lot about Arthur Levitt there. Yeah. One of his strategies I’ll call it, is to think every day what your successor would do if he were in your job. But I think being purposeful as is just an important point you make. So, could you talk a little bit of what you write in that chapter?
Chris Ullman [00:09:45] Yeah, that’s section. So, the book is broken into these eight success strategies. The first one be purposeful because it really sets you on a path to have purpose. I also refer to it as having it, like what’s your thing and do you have it, do you embrace it and are you in pursuit of it? Whatever you’re it is. At one point I wanted to become the best whistler in the world, and it took years and years of work, and arguably I achieved it for at least for a brief shining moment until other great whistlers came up. My another it was being focused on being the best communications person that I could be, whether it was the Budget Committee or the White House or the Carlyle Group. So, having purpose to guide us, it’s just so central. When you meet people, especially young people, and you say: “Well, what do you into, what do you want to do?” And they’re like: “Well, I don’t know.” And I’m like: “Oh my gosh, how is that possible to think that especially someone who has education, has a family that supports them, has the Internet with exposure to an immense and unfathomable amount of information that can excite and entice you to not know what your purpose it?” So, it’s not this black or white thing that you find purpose one day and it’s a journey and purpose can evolve over time, but having purpose is so important. So, that that lesson you referenced that like think like your successor every day and it’s a super powerful lesson. It’s this notion of, you know, I go to work every day and I get and get used to doing things and today is like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today. And these patterns get established. And are we handcuffed by this constancy or are our brains open and welcoming, if not actually soliciting new ways of thinking? Because if you lose your job or quit or die and someone else takes your job, the next day, they’re going to come in and they’re going to survey everything you did, and they’re going to say, brilliant, good, mediocre and crazy. Well, why should I wait for someone else to come in to dispense with the mediocre and crazy? I should be doing that. And that’s really a key part of this book, especially in terms of the how do I embrace these lessons is by being humble and being open minded, so that when I’m exposed to these 50 lessons from these immensely successful people, I can envision me embracing them, doing them. This is important, none of this is rocket science. This is actionable stuff. This is basic stuff about being humble and open minded and being purposeful, so that I will decide what is bad because I’m getting good feedback, discard it, and then be able to up my game. Like, that’s not rocket science. It’s about being humble and open minded, which are basic things.
Roger Ream [00:13:22] In that in that section on being purposeful, you tell the story of your work with Mitch Daniels when he was the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Mitch is a TFAS Trustee Emeritus, and I know you and I were both with him earlier this year in Florida. But the lesson you bring from him as part of the big personal is to define your brand. Can you talk some about that? I think that’s something that people would be interested in is how you define your brand.
Chris Ullman [00:13:55] Yes. So, brand, in my definition of a brand and this is not the visual brand like the Coca-Cola logo, that’s not where we’re talking about. What we’re talking about here is this kind of emotional reaction and kind of set of facts that you and that you develop in yourself, so other people are reacting to you and understanding things about you. And Mitch, who’s an incredible leader, so I first met him at the White House, but have followed his career when he was governor of Indiana for two terms and then president of Purdue for several years or something like that. So, he has very thoughtfully paid very close attention to his brand. Now, some people might say: “Oh, well, that’s just so engineered is not authentic,” and I’d say: “It’s actually incredibly authentic because his brand really was him.” But as I as a professional communicator, what I have long said is that if you don’t define your brand, someone else will. And when you’re in a political world, if you won’t like the way they define you. So, Mitch really worked on his brand. So, what is Mitch’s brand? So, Mitch is Whip-smart. Thrifty. Super creative, indefatigable. The guy just works like a dog. Fantastic writer, and became a man of the people, like when he was running for governor. And I realize this years later, of just how well he had defined his brand by reading a feature article about him in Businessweek magazine. So, I hadn’t talked to him in a few years. And so, I’m just reading this article and it’s like, check, check, check. Like every one of his so-called brand attributes of what makes Mitch, Mitch, was in there. So, it was clearly defined, and he was consistent with it. Because if you’re not consistent, then it’s not going to be observable by people on the outside, just over time. And so, when you’re running for office or even much more prosaic, as I like to say, if you’re just a normal human, your brain matters because you maybe want to have a date. You want to get a loan from a bank. You want to get a job, and your brand is going to be a good brand or a bad brand. Are you a reliable person or not? Are you inquisitive or not? Are you a team player or not? And these are all kind of attributes that can be part of your personal brand. So, kind of the key takeaway here is the importance of both defining what your brand is and then living it, like being authentic and then sharing that over time with people.
Roger Ream [00:16:42] Yeah, I think the Mitch Daniels example’s excellent because he didn’t create a brand that was inconsistent with who he was, as you were saying, and that’s reinforced by the fact that he got on a Harley-Davidson when he campaigned for governor. He stayed in people’s homes, not in expensive hotels. And that’s something he could do because it fit with who he was as a person. He wasn’t doing something artificial. I don’t see other candidates being able to do something like that.
Chris Ullman [00:17:14] Remember when they started calling him my man Mitch?
Roger Ream [00:17:17] Yes.
Chris Ullman [00:17:17] Because he’s like a mensch, man of the people.
Roger Ream [00:17:19] A man of the people.
Chris Ullman [00:17:21] It really helped him. And that’s who he was. He didn’t fake it.
Roger Ream [00:17:25] Yeah. Well, the second of your eight strategies is to innovate and accomplish. And there you tell several great stories to illustrate that, but you tell the story of a Deena Friedman, who was a colleague of yours at Carlyle and then left for was a Goldman Nasdaq.
Chris Ullman [00:17:45] Nasdaq.
Roger Ream [00:17:46] Nasdaq. Very successful at Nasdaq, became the CEO and then I think chairman of the Nasdaq. But you cite her as an example who someone who really had a strategic plan for her career. She knew what her it was. Could you talk a little bit about the concept of being purposeful and innovating to accomplish?
Chris Ullman [00:18:07] Yeah. So, in all the mentoring I’ve done through TFAS, which I have immensely loved, and a little sidebar, this book effectively came about because of TFAS. So, I found myself over the past quarter century just meeting with dozens, if not hundreds of TFAS students, helping them think through their careers and then saying: “Oh, let me tell you the story about Deena or Arthur Levitt or David Rubenstein,” and that kind of would help them figure out life. So, I accumulated a whole bunch of these lessons, 15 or so, and I said: “I should write a book.”
Roger Ream [00:18:42] Yeah. Good.
Chris Ullman [00:18:43] But I didn’t have enough. So, I sat down, and I would encourage everyone to do this: sit down and think of all the people who’ve affected your career and your life, and then say: “What did I learn from them?” And if for no other reason to give them credit, like to call them up and say: “You really touched my heart, my brain, my career, my life, and I’m grateful for that.” So, what I realized and really came to life working for Deena. So, Deena really melds together both the tactical and the strategic when thinking about her career. There’s this old notion, I think it was from Wayne Gretzky, the great hockey player, who said: “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going.” And that is the strategic approach to your career, is to say: “All right, I’m 25 years old now. I want to be a CEO someday. It’s not going to be next year. Probably won’t even be in ten years, but it might be in 20 years. So, what do I have to do between now and then to kind of strategically position myself for success, like to eventually become a CEO?” That is very strategic, and you have to think about who are the people I will need to know? What are the types of jobs I will need to have along that journey? So, that’s strategic stuff. On the tactical side, and I tend to be very tactical and not strategic enough, which is why this lesson really impacted me. So, like I approached things very tactical: Do I like that job? Do I like the people? Do they pay me well? Does my opinion count? Is there room for growth? Those are all important, but it’s not strategic. And because of Deena, I saw what she did with her career is that they got to a point where she realized she was not going to become the CEO of Carlyle, so she left. She went back to Nasdaq, where she had been before, became president, and two years later, she’s CEO. Two years later, she’s chair and CEO. And I said: “Wow, that’s strategic. So, around eight years ago I said: “Hmm, I think my future at Carlyle is kind of winding down. I had been there for 15 years, and I had pretty much done all I could do.” So, I said: “Well, what am I going to do next?” And I said: “Well, I want to start my own PR firm, even though I’ll be 55 years old at that point.” And I said: “Well, what are the things that I have to do between now and then to make that happen?” So, it was a much more strategic look at where I was and where I wanted to be and then taking these kinds of micro steps to get there. And it’s worked. So, past five years, I’ve been on my own and very pleased with how it’s going. I attribute a lot of that to Deena’s very strategic thinking and seeing it in action. I mean, once they named someone who was likely going to be successor to the current founders, I was like: “Gosh, she’s not going to be around much longer,” and she left. I’m really impressed by that. She didn’t say: “It’s me,” she acted and like furthered further her career.
Roger Ream [00:21:57] Yeah. I don’t think the words time management appear in the book, which is probably a good thing.
Chris Ullman [00:22:04] They don’t. That’s a good point.
Roger Ream [00:22:06] But it’s clear that what a lot of these people have in common is a focus on what’s important. You quote, I think, it’s David Rubenstein saying that he’s sprinting to the finish line. So, you tell this, the fact that he doesn’t watch much TV at all, rarely takes vacations, rarely sleeps, I think doesn’t futz around, I think you put it. These people are, I won’t say they have a single-minded focus, because many of them are involved in several different things besides just their career, but they don’t waste time. Can you explain kind of the importance of focus and impatience is another thing, I think, you talk about impatience?
Chris Ullman [00:22:57] Oh, yes. The power of impatience. The quick anecdote there with impatience where Arthur Levitt, who was then the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission and I was his spokesman, were standing in his office and he’s just rattling off things, say: “All right, we need to do this. We need to do that and do this, do this, do this, do this,” and I’m like: “All right, this sounds good. What about that?” Yeah, let’s do that. And then when he got to the last item, he said: “Well, how’s it going?” And I said: “Well, what do you mean?” And he said: “With task number one.” And I said: “How can I do test number one? I’m sitting here talking to you. “And he’s like: “You better get going.” That is like harnessing impatience to go get stuff done. People have said to me: “How did you have found time to write a book? You’re you have a busy career; you have three kids. You’re doing all sorts of things.” And I said: “I don’t watch a lot of TV. I sleep a reasonable amount, not too much. I avoid social media.” It is such a time suck of it. I see my kids doing it and I’m like: “Stop, stop. Life is short.” I’m 60 years old now and it’s becoming even more noticeable that time is short and in life is a gift, and we must embrace every moment. So, a lot of that came from Rubenstein because he is a man on a mission. I would challenge anyone in the world to find a busier human than David Rubenstein, like his capacity to do stuff, like he’s chairman of five major organizations. These are not dinky things. University of Chicago, the Kennedy Center, the Carlyle Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Gallery of Art. That was six and the Economic Club of Washington. And he’s active. These are not just titles. And he doesn’t go on Twitter and do stupid things with that.
Roger Ream [00:24:52] He also hosts several TV shows.
Chris Ullman [00:24:54] He wrote four books in four years. He’s got three TV shows that he hosts. It’s stunning. So, you mentioned earlier his philosophy of sprinting to the finish. It is fascinating philosophy, which is not to sprint to your death, but to sprint in terms of getting as much of your dreams accomplished while you have time, and it’s amazing. I have tons of dreams. Like my next dream is to write a screenplay about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to make a major motion picture, which is the craziest thing I’ve ever thought of. But why not? Who stopping me? Maybe I’ll succeed, maybe I won’t. And this is really the key. I grew up in this kind of regular, middle class Long Island. People wanted you to succeed, but it was not a supercharge type environment. I get to Washington and I’m around these just super bigwigs, John Kasich and Arthur Levitt and Mitch Daniels and all these billionaires and Glenn Youngkin. And you’re like: “Wow, how do I learn from that?” And it just supercharged my life and doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone or anything like that. It just means that I am trying to be my best. And this is the lesson I teach my children. I said: “If getting a B is your best and you can say that with a straight face, then I accept that,” but if you get a B and you’re like: “Well, I shouldn’t have gone on TikTok so often.” All right, we need to change something. So, that is at the core what we’re trying to accomplish with this book is to say to someone: “What is my idea of success,” and then: “What are the mindset that I need to get there, which is having driven, having humility, having discipline, which are really tools and then being exposed to ideas and lessons and practices that are very accessible.” This is not rocketing science I’m dealing with here. That is really the key, and it will just supercharge your life.
Roger Ream [00:27:06] Yeah, well, I think you’ve accomplished it with this book. Now the challenge, of course, is getting it in the hands of people of all ages, really. I’m obviously toward the tail end of my career in my life, but I found things that are actionable, things in there that I want to implement in my day-to-day life in my office. I also think it’s a book that I want to buy for everyone on our team at TFAS to read. Young people, young and old alike. I think it’s particularly good for young people to read it. Some of the lessons won’t resonate as much now, but they’ll be living it as they go through their careers.
Chris Ullman [00:27:49] Well, that’s it warms my heart to hear that, because I’m at this point, I turned 60 this year and I say, all right, like hopefully I have 20, 25 good years left, right? So, I printed up a whole bunch of these, and any time I mentor a TFAS student, I’m just going to give them a copy of it, the soft covers, because that is, you know, a keyway for me to give back. I look people in the eye, and I say: “Look at me right now, right here,” and I say: “If you read this book, it’ll change your life.” Like not marginally, it will radically change your life. Don’t you want that?
Roger Ream [00:28:27] Well, and the examples you give because you tell stories and real-life experiences, they have a stickiness that I think will stick with people. I should mention you also in the conclusion you have things not to do. You have your list of top ten things you shouldn’t do, and some additional advice that you throw at the end, which is also very good advice.
Chris Ullman [00:28:51] Because you could easily read this book and say: “Oh, it’s just a suck up to all these rich people that he’s worked for,” and they are human just like everyone else. The working title for this book was “Rich People Have Feelings Too,” which does get a chuckle out of most people. But I learned a lot of things you shouldn’t do. Now, I don’t attribute them to any individual. These are my friends and I do have an active consulting business that I need to stay active, but they are very powerful. One is “don’t let emotion rule, don’t bow down to the committee.” I mean, I’ve seen that so many times where to, you know, get consensus, you just watered down the idea or the direction or things like that. Another is just “don’t be mean.” I mean, I didn’t know bosses who were just mean people. And like, don’t be arbitrary, which I detest probably more than anything. I learned, you know, we all are sinners and imperfect people and me right up there. So, these have affected me as well. If I ever felt I was being arbitrary, because arbitrary is where someone says: “Why are we doing that?” Well, because that’s arbitrary. And versus having facts and logic that can almost like dictate that this is a logical way to proceed. So, there’s good and bad. Most of them are good.
Roger Ream [00:30:21] Well, among your strategies of being humble, being authentic things that I think clearly, we all value. But this gives you the actionable side of. How do you promote a book like this besides coming on this podcast?
Chris Ullman [00:30:36] This book, because I’m on this podcast, I will sell 100,000 books. I’m very, very excited. Well, I do marketing for a living, so it is word of mouth. So, I’ve told all my friends multiple times, everyone I whistle Happy birthday for, and I do it 650 times a year, I sent a personalized note to so who knows how many of them will buy it, but hopefully some. Then there is what’s called earned media where I get articles written in newspapers or I get on NPR or something like that. Then it’s podcasts. Podcasts are a powerful tool for getting the word out and then events. So, we’ll have book parties. And then another big area is just speaking gigs, I call them, where you a company hires you to come and give a talk to their associate class of lawyers or if I go to Ernst and Young, they have their class of new accountants and they bring in speakers to inspire them.
Roger Ream [00:31:39] As we did this summer when you spoke at our kickoff.
Chris Ullman [00:31:41] Yeah. Which was a great, great honor. Yeah. So, what’s fascinating. You write a book and you’re in your own head for a long time, and then you have to then go market it and you have to try to pluck out things that will be relevant for a particular audience. So, that’s a whole another set of challenges, which I’m embarking on now because the book is out in October. So, we’re gearing up for that.
Roger Ream [00:32:09] I’m interested in how you wrote this. Did you set aside a few hours every day over a long period of time? Did you take a month and focus hundred percent on it, or was it a multi-year? Well, you gather these stories throughout your career.
Chris Ullman [00:32:33] So, really, it took around two years of like heavy thinking writing and then kind of sprinkled with talking. What I mean by talking is that when I’m at any kind of event, people say: “What’s going on?” I say: “Oh, I’m writing a book.” “Oh, you’re writing a book.” And I would tell people, and you just run some of the lessons by them. Especially in the early stages, I was curious about the structure, like how do you structure a book like this? And that is a big challenge. And my publisher was very helpful in coming up with the structure and then it’s early in the morning, late at night. Any time I’m on a plane or taking the Acela up to New York, you know, I would purposely take the 5 a.m. Acela so I could write for 3 hours and just put on my headphones, listen to great classical music and write, write, write. And then things really start to take shape. At first you just coming up with what is the actual thing I learned. So, you write that down, but then you have to tell a story because each lesson is an anecdote. So, it’s not just “you should be humble.” Well, let me tell you a story about a billionaire who served me on his jet, who, I would have expected he would want me to serve him. And I was like: “Oh, wow, I didn’t expect that.” So, humility can come from different ways. And then then then you put them in groups and then you give it to a lot of people, and they read it and give you feedback. What’s really challenging is when people have diametrically opposed reactions to certain things, and then you must see what patterns emerge from your edit, your readers, and then you just had to make judgments about what you keep and what you change and, and all that. So, it was an amazing journey to go through.
Roger Ream [00:34:32] The outcomes, I think a big success. Your first book was “Find Your Whistle,” and it was about finding a simple gift to touch people’s hearts and change their lives. You also did a TED Talk that was on the theme of race and race relations. And again, that TED Talk, I think was very popular and got a lot of attention. I think probably it very much influenced in a positive way the people listen to it. Can you touch on the lessons from that TED talk?
Chris Ullman [00:35:02] Yes. So, there have and I think anyone who’s been paying attention has seen that there have been several tragic killings of, you know, black people for the most part. Now, there are a lot of white people who are killed as well. But there’s been a ton of attention like Trayvon Martin and George Floyd and many others. Each one is unique, but some patterns emerge. Just as a citizen who’s reading the newspaper and hearing chatter about it at work or online or whatever, you know, and I say to myself: “Well, what can I do about it?” Like, literally, what can I do about it? I was just growing frustrated that I feel like there was nothing I could do. So, I sat down and thought through what the steps or the mindset are you should have for healing Division among races. And then I was reminded of this incredible anecdote from 20 plus years ago where I was mentoring a young black boy in that tough part of D.C., a place called Anacostia. And he and I were out to dinner one night at a McDonald’s, and it was just the young black boy in the middle-aged white guy and a black woman just walks up to us and says: “Hey, what’s going on with you in the boy?” Clearly with a tone of concern. And at that moment, I realized I could either say: “Take a hike, lady, you got a problem with me being white? Or I could stand up, extend my hand and say: “Hi, I’m Chris Ullman, this is Monty, and we’re in this Christian mentoring program and we’re just out getting a bite to eat.” So, I did the latter praise God, and like just the scales fall from her eyes and she goes from skepticism to: “We need more people like you,” so then I kind of I tried to deconstruct that event. So, among the attributes are benefit of the doubt, de-escalation. Those are just fundamental. And ultimately, it’s just love. If you love your fellow human just because they’re human and child of God, that in itself, at least in a laboratory, can heal some of the division. I saw it work in a McDonald’s. So, I proposed this TEDx talk because I was tired of being on the sidelines. And at first, they said: Well, you’re just some Wall Street older white guy. What can people learn from you?” And I said: “Well, I got this great story and I think an important message.” I told them and they said: “Wow, it’s a great story, an important message. You can do your TEDx talk” It was an amazing experience. That’s what we need more of. Less Gotcha and less “I’m right, you’re wrong,” which is a core problem with public discourse today. It’s this notion of literally, “I’m 100% right and you’re 100% wrong.” And that is some weird planet that I’m unfamiliar with.
Roger Ream [00:38:10] Well, through your mentoring, which you do a lot of it with TFAS and our students, what kind of general conclusions have you reached about the rising generation? What are your impressions of the students at TFAS that you encounter?
Chris Ullman [00:38:27] I love being affiliated with the program. I think just philosophically in terms of providing important information to the students about government and economics and international affairs, it’s a great mission. The coupling that with this, you know intense professional development and teaching them how to network and kind of the practical side of having a job, which is why they have internships, so that the whole format and the philosophy and approach I think is spot on for what’s necessary. The caliber of the students very, very impressive. At the same time, I have found over the years is that there’s always I’d say 10 to 15% of every group I deal with are the stars. They’re the ones who are like hungry sponges that after a talk, they come right up to you and say: “Can I meet with you? Can I ask you questions? Can I learn about your career?” And I’m always a little disappointed that more people don’t do that. Now, I would just run out of time, if they did, I’d have to figure out a new model. So, even among a more select group of students, you still have the top performers, those who are curious. I’ve helped a number of them get jobs over the years and they are in that small group that are like the super self-starters and those are the ones I like to work with the most because, you know, they go to a mentoring session with a hunger and an open mind and really good questions and effectively they’re doing this benchmarking where they say: “This is a job I’m interested in” and I go find people who do that job and then try to figure out, does that make sense for me? And like that’s a logical way to approach it. So, I love doing it. It’s a great way to give back to the next generation. I am just so grateful for your leadership and what you’ve done for just about 30 years, which is incredible.
Roger Ream [00:40:42] Well, this summer in our in our kickoff program at George Mason, you told the students, you gave them some good advice, but some of it was very much on the topic of don’t be shy, you know, in terms of networking. You are basically they were in a sense saying after I finished this lecture, they come up and talk to me, give me your card, and you told a great story about on your way going to a was it a lacrosse game or something and running into someone along the way in his car.
Chris Ullman [00:41:15] Yeah. Oh, it was an amazing story. It’s all about just being open minded, being curious exactly and the like. You want me to tell the story?
Roger Ream [00:41:28] You can tell the story. It’s a great I think it’s a good story to tell in the context of what the message you were conveying.
Chris Ullman [00:41:33] I told this story, because I often view life like a pinball game that once you press that button and the flipper hits the ball, you don’t know where the ball is going to go, that’s for sure, and that is what life is like. I often equate it to skiing. It is a controlled fall. Well, you hope you’re in control. So, you start at the top, and then if you just stay at the top, the view may be great, but you are not getting nothing done. But once you point those skis downhill, you are falling and you’re experiencing, and you will literally fall. And but you may take air and rejoice as well. So, it’s that spirit of openness and curiosity and not knowing what’s going to happen if I do a certain thing. So, the real quick story is I was at my going to my daughter’s softball game and this guy just parked the car at the field and this guy pulls up in this cool Tesla and he says: “Hey, I saw your bumper sticker. It says High Point University on it, and that’s where my son goes to school.” And I said: “Oh, yeah, my son goes to school there.” And he said: “My son just graduated from there.” And I said: “Wow, that’s great, small world.” And then he said: “And then I saw your other bumper sticker that says, Got Springbok,” and I said: The springbok is a miniature African antelope. Do you know what Springbok is?” He said: “I’m a Springbok.” And I’m like: “What the heck does that mean?” He had a South African accent and turns out the Springbok, this little antelope is the national animal of South Africa, and it’s also the symbol for the sports teams, and he was on the national swimming team, so he was a Springbok and I said: “Well, hey, we’re late for the game. You want to come with us?” He’s like: “Oh, no, no. I just saw you on the highway and followed you here.” And I’m like: “Oh my gosh, that’s freaky.” So, then I said to him: “What do you do for a living?” And he said: “I’m a lung transplant specialist at Fairfax and Nova Hospital.” I’m like: “That is even freakier.” I said: “We have to have lunch.” So, we exchange cards, and we did. We went and had lunch. And he’s a nice guy. And, you know, my mother has lung issues, so if she needs a lung transplant, I know who I’m going to call. So, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that friendship, but it was fun and it’s a great story, but it’s more of a mindset. Are you open or not? And are you being you on the front? You know, the British have this great expression about are you on the front foot or on the back foot, you know, in a front foot? And there’s some there’s a lesson in the book about being on the front foot is your knees are bent, your eyes are twitchy, your hands are ready, you are ready for the rebound. You are you don’t know if it’s coming your way, but if it does, you’re going to grab it. And that is the way people should be, is like to be on the front foot and like engaged in life rather than letting things just kind of passively go by them.
Roger Ream [00:44:40] Let go of that handle that sends that pinball, flying off the bumpers.
Chris Ullman [00:44:46] I love that.
Roger Ream [00:44:47] Well, this has been a real pleasure. Thank you for sharing the lessons in your book, as well as a few others. If you don’t mind, I will hold up the book for those watching on YouTube. It’s “Four Billionaires and a Parking Attendant,” and the subtitle is “Success Strategies of the Wealthy, Powerful and Just Plain Wise.” So, I highly recommend this book. I hope everyone will buy one for themselves as well as for their friends, because it’s got great advice and it’s presented with a great writing style and in a storytelling manner. So, Chris, it’s been a pleasure to be with you, but before we go, I would really love it if you would share with us some of your talents with regard to whistling. Would you whistle a song for us?
Chris Ullman [00:45:32] I would be delighted and thank you for having me today, Roger. I really appreciate it. So, this is a bell from Beauty and the Beast. *Whistling*
Roger Ream [00:45:58] I hear the applause. Woo! That’s wonderful. That’s a great talent you’ve harnessed, and for a lot of good. I know you’ve whistled for my eight-year-old. Well, it’s my niece’s eight-year-old son who’s been battling cancer. You’ve whistled for a lot of people who’ve needed brightening up and in their lives. So, thank you for doing that. And you whistle a ton of happy birthdays to people around the world.
Chris Ullman [00:46:24] Well, it’s a blessing that I am happy to share. Thank you.
Roger Ream [00:46:28] Yeah. My guest today has been Chris Ullman. We’re here at Reason’s Studios. We give thanks to Reason Magazine for letting us use their studios today.
Chris Ullman [00:46:37] I love Reason, and I am a subscriber.
Roger Ream [00:46:40] Wonderful. Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe. Download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership podcast is produced at kglobal studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host, Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.
View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.