Pat Harrison on failure: ‘There are no shortcuts down the road to success’

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Pat Harrison

In her new book The Dirty F-Word: Lessons From Our Failures, PBS Charlotte GM Amy Burkett talks with a dozen friends from around the globe who share the lessons they’ve learned from their greatest failures. Burkett says that though we often fear failure, it’s often a setup for success. In this excerpt, Burkett speaks with CPB President Pat Harrison about her experiences with failure.

Before I introduce you to an extraordinary woman who has had tremendous success, even though she’s experienced failure, I have to confess how hard it was to find the courage to get this interview. 

I spent 11 months interviewing people for this book and thought I was done. During a conversation with my friend Rich Homberg, CEO of Detroit Public Television, he encouraged me to reach out to Patricia Harrison, the president of CPB. 

I never thought she’d agree to discuss the lessons she’s learned from her failures. She’s had an extraordinary career and has spent time with celebrities and politicians. I didn’t think I deserved her time. Have you ever disqualified yourself before you ever tried? That’s what I was doing. I was accepting “no” before ever asking the question. It’s something I do less and less these days, but it still gets the best of me occasionally. Chances are you’ve disqualified yourself before trying too, haven’t you? The answer is always no unless you ask.

Even though I’m a pretty bold, assertive person who has learned how to handle rejection, I confess I still get scared sometimes. Don’t you? It’s OK, we’re in good company. What added to my fear was that many people over the course of the year turned down my request to be interviewed because they didn’t want to talk about their failures. Others completely ignored my request and didn’t respond. One even said he had never failed. It’s completely irrational why I was so afraid to ask, but sometimes it’s tough to be human. We all have insecurities. The best thing we can do is push through them. 

My key to overcoming that fear was asking myself: What do I have to lose?  She’s never going to do it if I don’t ask, which is where I am now, so heck, I’ll give it a try. I’m so glad I did. 

She couldn’t have been more gracious, responding yes right away, and we had the most wonderful conversation even after the interview was over. Her warmth and genuine desire to help others with her failure lessons meant the world to me, and I know our conversation can help you, too.

As the General Manager of PBS Charlotte, I have heard Patricia Harrison speak many times, but she was on stage and I was in a sea of people in the audience. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she has a passionate style of speaking from her heart, and she has always been willing to share valuable information to help leaders be more successful. I have always admired her. 

Before leading CPB, she worked at the State Department under then–Secretary of State Colin Powell. She was the Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs. She was co-chair of the Republican National Committee and co-founded the public relations agency The E. Bruce Harrison Company with her late husband. 

She’s also authored two books: America’s New Women Entrepreneurs; Tips, Tactics and Techniques of Women Achievers in Business and Seat at the Table: An Insider’s Guide for America’s New Women Leaders.

Let’s hear her story. 

We’re talking about the dirty F-word — lessons we learn from our failures. When you shared a few with me, I was so excited. Everybody loves the late Colin Powell and we lost him too soon, but you actually worked with him.

I was appointed by the president of the United States as the Assistant Secretary of State of Educational Cultural Affairs. Secretary of State Colin Powell held meetings every morning with his team, and you could not be one minute late because the door would be locked. 

I so very much wanted to contribute to this group in a positive way. Secretary Powell would go around the table, getting updates from team members, and all the while, he was observing his team. If someone didn’t speak for a long period of time, he knew something was wrong. 

In an extraordinary zeal to be noticed and be productive, I said, “We’re dealing with this issue.” He had a shocked look on his face. The reason he did was because what I was referring to as an issue was actually a rumor, and I presented it as a fact because I thought it was factual. He knew it wasn’t. 

Afterwards, he said to me, “That is mark number one on you.”  

I left thinking, “Oh my god, I’m never coming back from this,” because at that meeting you have the leaders of America’s Foreign Service at the table, who are looking at you like you’re an idiot. I made up my mind to never ever make that kind of mistake again.  

I gave myself one year. I promised myself I would be a trusted member of his team, and within that year he appointed me as Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in addition to the job I already had. Secretary Powell and I developed a wonderful working relationship.

I knew we had a great working relationship because any time I would take a risk he would always joke, “All right, go ahead and do it, but if you fail, I never met you.”

When I left the State Department he said, “Pat, you’re going to want to ask me to do something when you go off into public broadcasting. Don’t ask me. I’m not doing it.“

The first week I was at CPB, I called him and said, “We’re doing some things with education. Will you come?”  

He said, “Of course, I’ll be there,” again pointing to our great relationship and beginning a long relationship with him and public broadcasting. 

He taught me if you just lead with integrity, people will follow. He taught me that without enthusiasm, you will fail. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you can’t attract people to the cause. I was very fortunate to work with him. Over time, I came back from my early failure and earned his trust.

Were there any specific steps that you took to help you come back from that original failure? 

Yes, one of the lessons I learned is don’t act on rumors. I found that if I got up just 30 minutes early, devoted some time to reading the data, listening to National Public Radio and just doing my homework, I was better prepared. My deal with myself is if I prepare, whether it’s for a speech or an initiative, as much as I can and it doesn’t work out, you have to let it go. I found that works for me all the time. But if I try to shortcut that process, disaster happens. There are no shortcuts down the road to success.

This interview has been filled with golden advice. Can you tell me about the time when you were at the State Department and you wanted to bring the Iraqi National Orchestra to the United States, even though the Iraq War was going on? 

It was a very volatile time. The Iraqi National Orchestra had not played for years. Many of the musicians were in hiding. I worked with the head of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and we talked about whether it would be possible to bring what was left of the Iraqi National Orchestra to Washington, D.C. I created an initiative called “Culture Connect.” 

I told Secretary Powell, “Here’s the idea. We’re going to go over to Baghdad, and then we’re going to meet with the members of the orchestra, and then we’re going to fly them back here and they’ll perform at the Kennedy Center. We’re also going to set up this training plan with Yo-Yo Ma.”  

Secretary Powell said, “Fine, go ahead. If you fail, I never knew you.” That was pretty much his answer all the time. 

We were able to make it happen, and we met these incredible people. Some of them had been in prison, others had left the country and returned, and some were practicing with plastic instruments. We met at an undisclosed location. Things were very bad there at that time, and we stayed in the Green Zone, which was bombed once before I got there. 

We were successful and we brought the musicians back to the U.S. When they came over, the American people welcomed them. Americans would see them in Starbucks or somewhere else and want to buy them coffee.

The day they left Iraq was the day U.S. forces found Saddam Hussein. It was very emotional for them. When they walked into the Kennedy Center for their first rehearsal, Yo-Yo Ma was just sitting there, very unassuming. He got up to embrace all of them. They couldn’t believe it.

That was a wonderful performance with the president, the secretary and so many others from the Washington community and beyond who came to the Kennedy Center to hear them play. They played the Iraqi National anthem for the first time in many, many, many years. 

Amy Burkett has led PBS Charlotte as GM since 2013 and has her own leadership training and consulting business.

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