I had just gotten home from another long, exhausting, but exhilarating day as a White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. I don't think I had even taken off my shoes when I decided to check the messages on my answering machine. The very first message came from a very familiar voice.
"Michel, this is Bruce Morton. I know you've been offered a job at CBS News but unless you really, really want to be in television — I mean you really want to be in television — that's not a good job for you. Not a good job. OK. Bruce Morton. Goodbye."
Just like that.
I was shocked. Bruce Morton was a CBS legend — he'd covered Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and too many political campaigns to name. He'd won every award that matters, and he was giving me advice? Although we had been on a couple of campaign planes together, I had been way too shy to introduce myself and I didn't even realize he knew my name. I still don't know how he had gotten my home number, and I never thought to ask.
But for all these years I have been profoundly grateful for that phone call — because he was absolutely right — that wasn't the right job for me and he saved me from what could have been a career-killing mistake.
Can I just tell you? I never told anyone about that phone call until after I read in The Washington Post that the veteran newsman had died Sept. 5. And since I never thanked Morton personally, for reasons I will explain, I thought it was important to thank him now. And not just to thank him, but all those like him who have stood up for and reached out to people who look and sound nothing like them and whom they may not even know very well.
This is all the more important now as we hear new sometimes troubling stories about our country's bumpy efforts to embrace both diversity and success. I've reported on the importance of mentors and sponsors to the work-life success of women and minorities, and how few women and minorities ever actually get them. There's also recent research from the University of Colorado revealing that women and nonwhite executives who advocate for diverse hires and promotions seem to pay a price for it; they are actually rated more negatively. But white males who promoted these candidates were applauded.
That's a complicated issue, but it remains the case that the leadership roles in this country — in politics, business and sports, certainly in the executive ranks — are still filled overwhelmingly by white males. Meanwhile, the work force, the school-aged population, are increasingly nonwhite. That is all the more reason why it is important for everyone's success that leaders look beyond the man — or woman — in the mirror when they look for people to groom for the future.
I don't know what made Bruce Morton call me that day. On paper, the job offer was a dream come true, with more money and more visibility. I was getting the full-court press from my would-be colleagues, which was flattering. But something made me hesitate, and I couldn't put my finger on it. Maybe it was the fact that so many people I approached for advice about it seemed to be speaking to me in a code I couldn't decipher, and they'd insist that I tell no one we had spoken. I sensed it was risky to tell me the truth, that the particular assignment could turn into a black hole from which it would be hard to escape.
But Bruce Morton took that risk. Maybe he identified with me as another Harvard grad; maybe he saw that I loved to write as much as he did. I don't know. But it pleases me no end to think that he could look at me — younger, darker, female — and see a reflection of himself.