Former U.S. Ambassador Lisa Gable joins the program to discuss how her family background prepared her for political life. She shares why she enjoys unstructured vacations and having adventures in foreign countries. She also reveals the guiding principles that she lives by and the key questions that she is asking herself about her professional career.
Speaker 1: Welcome to Hidden Human, the podcast where we explore the stories behind the business leader. Get ready to hear insights from business leaders speaking candidly about how they became who they are today and the lessons they learned along the way. And now here’s your host, leadership coach and speaker, Kelly Meerbott.
Kelly Meerbott: Welcome to the space where we reveal our personal humanity to reconnect with our shared humanity. It is my pleasure and honor to introduce you to Lisa Gable, former U.S. ambassador. Lisa, thank you so much for coming on and talking to us today, we really, really appreciate it. How are you?
Lisa Gable: I am doing fine and I am very honored to be asked to join your podcast. You’ve had an amazing group of guests to date and so it’s a pleasure to be part of the group.
Kelly Meerbott: Thank you. So, if I were a six-year-old child, would you explain to me in a way I can understand what a U.S. ambassador does.
Lisa Gable: A U.S. ambassador goes and works with people from other countries and helps them understand what the nature is of the U.S., what’s unique about us. We focus on hope, optimism, enterprise and freedom within our conversations and talk to other people about what’s important to them.
Kelly Meerbott: When was the first time that you sort of bridge the gap and built bridges between you and other humans? And I’m thinking about childhood, go back to ages between like 8 and 14, was there a moment when you were a liaison between your school mates or … How did that first present itself in your life?
Lisa Gable: Well, my father was very involved in politics and I was the child who thought that was wonderful, and so I had many opportunities to be his date to a number of different events to meet with senators and congressmen and political figures. And as a child, I had to learn how to behave properly in those scenarios and of course they would ask me questions about myself and there’s that evolution of conversation that you have from being a small child to be a tween to later when I went for my own internships and worked on Capitol Hill. And so it’s fun to think back as to things I may have said to them at different points in times but how that really did train me for where I am today.
Kelly Meerbott: So, as a child, how young were you when your dad started taking you to these dinners?
Lisa Gable: I think I was about eight years old when we started going to the dinners. 1976 was the bicentennial of the United States and so that was a big moment. I was about 12 years old then and so that was really the opportunity to have even more conversations.
Kelly Meerbott: Tell me about that. Take me back in your mind’s eye. Set the scene. What was it like? You’re at the bicentennial, you’re 12 years old-
Lisa Gable: And we’re picking up people from the airport like Strom Thurmond who is the senator from South Carolina. And again, people are asking you questions as a small child but you also know that they’re there to meet with your father and so your ability to demonstrate discipline and sit politely and listen even when things seem to start getting a little boring was always a critical factor.
Kelly Meerbott: And that was something that you and I bonded over because my childhood, the first four and a half years of my life were spent on the PGA Tour in the same situation with my dad interfacing was with sponsors and different officials from the PGA Tour where you do have to answer but you still have … Like, I love how you said, you have to have the discipline to sit quietly because … I mean, for us, the majority of our childhoods were lived in the public eye. Whether it was in restaurants or events or things like that, do you agree?
Lisa Gable: I do. It’s interesting, that’s how actually my husband and I really bonded when we first met each other before we started dating. His father had run for governor and run for senator in the state of Kentucky and so they spent their childhood in this Winnebago van with his father’s name in his office that he was seeking on the outside of the van going around, speaking to people and it’s a nice memory. But it’s a unique memory and one that my husband and I were able to laugh about together.
Kelly Meerbott: How did you make the switch between going to meet Strom Thurmond at the airport to going and sitting in say English class with your classmates that are your same age. How did you make that switch from relating to adults to relating to peers?
Lisa Gable: As a child, it’s really not a big deal. You go back to the classroom and you’re a kid, you want to be going out to the playground and then you want to be selected to be on the kickball team. And I was always scrawny little kid so I might have been at the back of the line when they were doing those selections but I was pretty gregarious and had lots of friends. So ultimately I got to be on the kickball team. But life as a child is life as a child and even as we have a very close friend who recently ran for statewide office and are close to her small children that are ages 4 to 18. It was fun for us to be able to talk to those kids and for them to be able to relate to that dynamic of wanting to be a kid, wanting to run around and at the same time when they had to hold it together and be good.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah. Did you have a sibling in your life? Do you have any siblings?
Lisa Gable: I do. I have an older sister and she had absolutely no interest in this category whatsoever. Now, ironically, she went on to banking and she was comptroller at the bank, she was an accountant. She actually passed her accounting test at the age of 19, one of the youngest people in the United States and so she was always in the business arena. However, when I got a call from the George W. Bush administration saying that they needed somebody to be the CFO of one of the larger government agencies, I immediately thought of my sister who was known for fiduciary management and she actually ended up with the presidential appointment in that area.
Kelly Meerbott: So, even though she didn’t start off with the intention of being in politics, she kind of inadvertently ended up there.
Lisa Gable: She did. It’s not a field that she stayed in but it’s a field that she’s popped in and out of. She is still ultimately a business person and still enjoys being around business people more than politicians.
Kelly Meerbott: And do you mind sharing your sisters name so we can say hello to her?
Lisa Gable: My sister’s name is Michelle.
Kelly Meerbott: Hi Michelle, thank you for all your service to the country. So, growing up with Michelle, has no interest in politics and then you’re off with dad, were there moments in time where you two sat down and just kind of giggled about the unusual things that were going on in your lives?
Lisa Gable: It’s funny, my sister and I always laugh because we had enough of an age gap that we weren’t terribly close as children. Once we grew out of that phase where we were going camping together and climbing around on rocks together. But when we were in our early 20s, I had just graduated from graduate school and she had been working for a few years and we went on a trip to Europe. And we spent three weeks together and I think my parents thought we would kill each other and the reality is we bonded. And we did have at that point in time the opportunity to really laugh about how different we were as children and the different things that we would look at.
Ultimately, my sister and I would go on adventure travel trips together around the world until I got married. In fact, we forced my husband to go on one with the two of us, I didn’t think he was going to survive but he did. He’s not necessarily signing up for them in the future but it is something that we really bonded over.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. You have to tell us about that adventure trip with your husband and how that came about.
Lisa Gable: Well, my sister and I had this habit of choosing the country that we wanted to go to, having a loose concept as to what we wanted to do in that country but we didn’t necessarily book our hotels in advance. In a large part, it was pre 9/11 and so you could show up in Singapore and look at a map and go, well, let’s go to this country tomorrow because they’re having good weather and I really wanted to see X, Y & Z. And so we took my husband on a trip that was the beginning actually of a sabbatical that my husband and I had together. Where we went to Vietnam, it had just opened up, there was really no detail related to what were the best places to visit or how the hotel system work there.
And so we mentioned to him that this had been how we had approached developing countries. And he made us promise that when we landed in Hanoi, we would at least have a hotel reservation. So we had a hotel reservation in Hanoi but basically what we did for the rest of the trip is that we would ask the concierge or people we met about where we should go next. And we randomly planned our travel that way.
Kelly Meerbott: And he survived.
Lisa Gable: He barely survived. Trust me, he’s someone whose father always traveled with a set agenda, they stayed at 5-star hotels and let’s just say that when we were doing that trip in Vietnam, we were staying in a former marine headquarters that had been kind of transitioned into a hotel. We found ourselves on a raft with pigs and goats in our taxi trying to get from one location to the other. We had a wonderful time but he would prefer to travel with an agenda.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s amazing. I’m just wondering where this contrast is because I’m imagining in my mind’s eye Lisa as a child, walking hand in hand with her father at the bicentennial, following an agenda, and then Lisa as an adult just kind of footloose and fancy-free and just traveling across Singapore. So where does this sort of zest for adventure come from?
Lisa Gable: Part of it is that I am so controlled and I’m so process-oriented in my business life and my academic life, I’m extremely results-oriented. And the really relaxation for me is when I can get on an airplane and go to another country and just wing it because the rest of my life is so orderly, I really enjoy seeing what’s out there. And we’ve traveled a lot through Latin-America that way, I’m also someone that I will taste what’s ever on the menu that I have never tried before. And so even the other day I was ordering something that was the only thing on the menu that I had no clue what it was but when you lead such a focused life, you really need to relax and that’s how I relax.
Kelly Meerbott: Let me put my coaching hat on for a second. I know we’ve had a lot of conversations about structure and process and people and how wonderful you are at that, and obviously working under four presidents I’m not the only one that recognizes your extraordinary talent in that area. If you were to pick in the structured piece versus the relaxed piece, where do you find that you’re most creative and happiest in your life?
Lisa Gable: It’s funny because I do really wear the two different hats and I’ve been fortunate to be also able to separate where I live from where I work. For example, when I worked in Silicon Valley I actually lived in San Francisco and I actually didn’t mind the commute there because it allowed me to make that transition between my work and my personal life. And I even do the same thing here in Washington D.C., we made a choice to live about an hour and a half outside of Washington on a farm. And so it’s not only the separation of geography but it’s also what I wear, how I do my hair, whether or not I wear makeup. In Washington is where I wear my St. John suits and I’m always put together and I’m wearing my pearls. Out in the country is where I’m wearing my boots and I’m hiking in the fields with my dog. And so I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to make those choices about geography but it’s been something that’s kept me sane and motivated through my life.
Kelly Meerbott: And do you find ever those two areas, those areas of separation, have they ever come together and sort of led over into each other at all?
Lisa Gable: They do. Actually, we try to have an annual party that is here at our farm and invite people from Washington and especially invite women that I am very close to and that I have mentored. We have something called the stable tour in the area where I live and so our church actually sponsors it in some of these big horse farms open up and people can bring their children. And so it’s a way for us to bring people from Washington and actually all over the country into our life out here in the farm. They get to go and visit the stables, they see the horses and then they come over to our house and the kids play in the fields.
And so last year my daughter was wearing waders and had a bunch of children out in this long creek digging up crawdads. And it was really a nice way and people look forward to it because I love my friends and I especially love the women I mentor and having that opportunity to get to know them and their kids is really important to us.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s so powerful because you … I mean, as a mentor, you could stop at the business but you’ve really bridged that gap between business and personal and been successful at it. I’ve witnessed it and experienced it a little bit myself and find myself so grateful that you do have that talent to really see the potential in others and lift it up. So thank you for that. The thing that’s been floating in my mind is going back to what you said about being a U.S. ambassador and how we represent hope, optimism, enterprise and freedom. Those are really four strong guiding principles and obviously the country’s built on that. But I was wondering, do you have guiding principles that you live by Lisa, and if so what are they?
Lisa Gable: Well, one is being very transparent and direct. I always try to ensure that what I say is clear and that there’s no secondary motivation behind some instruction that I’m giving or a direction that I’m providing. And so that’s important to me and I think that people throughout my career I happen to know what I would receive reviews at Intel Corporation, they would always say, she’s very direct. But I did that on purpose because I think it’s important for us to be transparent in our motivations.
Secondarily is credibility. I always want to be credible. I worked for a boss, he was the CEO of Intel later in his career and he would always tell me speak with facts. And what that meant is ensure that you aren’t always qualitative in the way you approach things, that you actually based your direction on facts and on true data points. And that I believe has enabled me to work with a wide variety of people because they know I’m an honest broker and they know that I’ve done my research in advance and that whatever recommendation I am making to them, whether they are a CEO or a senior government official or someone who’s working for me, they know that we’ve actually looked into it before we’re moving forward with the direction that we’ve discussed.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. And then, do you have any other guiding principles that you live by?
Lisa Gable: Well, there’s kindness and empathy. I think it’s very important to be empathetic and understand the situation that other people are in. It’s one reason why I like to get to know the people that I mentor on a personal level. Because particularly for women but also for men there are many situations that we face in our life and people can be very judgmental about why someone has done something or let’s say someone has made a mistake but they really don’t take the time to look at what’s going on in that person’s life. And I think that’s a mistake. And it’s important that we treat people as people.
Yes, there are professional relationships but there needs to be a bit more empathy and sincerity in the way that we deal with each other and in understanding that we’re all in this world together and that we need to work together and accommodate each other, but also help each other out as we’re facing challenges that we may be going through or that our family might be going through.
Kelly Meerbott: Well, now I can see why you’re such a powerhouse. I mean, between being direct and transparent and marrying that with kindness and empathy. I mean, look out world, here she comes because there’s really nothing you can’t do with those four principles. It’s the perfect combination. Going back to something you said about making a mistake and being judged by it, have you ever been on the receiving end of that and if you can share the details with us, we’d love to hear that. I’m just thinking about the next generation coming up, the millennial generation, they tend to be afraid of making mistakes so I think it would be beneficial if possibly we could hear something about how you made a mistake and recovered from it.
Lisa Gable: Well, there’s something that’s top of mind because I just did it, so it’s easiest to speak to. I’m in a transition period where I was the president of a foundation and I reported to a board of directors. And through that process, obviously, I was extremely hands-on and exploring new ways that we could do something and looking at opportunities to partner with others to accomplish an objective. But recently, I have agreed to be chairman of a board of a foundation that’s about an $80 million a year foundation and it’s a new entity that’s been recently endowed. And as the board chair, I have gone through that maturing process of understanding what’s staff responsibility and what’s board responsibility.
I was in a conversation recently with potential vendor and they were explaining a series of opportunities that they could provide to us that really hit in a category that I was interested in ensuring that we were best of class and our governance structure. But the mistake that I made is that I did not remember that it was actually the staff’s job to identify who the vendors were, to help them fulfill the staff commitments. And so I overstuffed a little bit in that conversation and I started to do what I had done as the president of the organization, which is to begin to set up meetings and things, to review the things that this individual had told me about.
And I found out through the grapevine that one of the key staff member, senior staff members was very unhappy about that and he should have been. I called him up and I said look, I made a mistake, I overstepped, this was actually not my responsibility, it’s yours. So, I’m going to step back, I’ll let the vendor know that I was actually out of line in carrying the conversation forward to the degree that I did and that they would be entering into a formal process with the organization in order to see whether or not their services were the ones that were the right fit for us.
And so I think when you make a mistake in business and I’ve actually tried to do this as being the head of various organizations. I always mess up and I find it easier to go to my staff, if I know they’re unhappy that maybe I stepped into a place that they thought was and it indeed was their area of expertise and I’ll say hey, I screwed up. I actually shouldn’t have done that, I know it, so let’s move on.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s a huge level of self-awareness Lisa and of course that resonates with me because in working with the C-Suite, which I know you’ve interfaced with a lot. One of my coaching directives is mistakes can be forgiven but cover-ups can’t. So, if you are making a mistake, go apologize, clean it up and figure out how to move forward from there. I just love your approach to that. Where does that self-awareness come from?
Lisa Gable: My father was a key leader and executive and I really learned my operational principles from him. And he was always a very direct person and he was always willing to acknowledge something as being perhaps not the right direction and just get everyone to pick themselves up and move forward together. But then I also had the opportunity to work for some really fascinating and interesting CEOs throughout my career. And so I have watched how those CEOs have managed their interpersonal relationships and there are three, the former CEO of Intel Corporation, a former CEO of General Mills and a former CEO of Toyota that were very much like that and whose personal operating style I admired greatly and hope to emulate and learn from.
Kelly Meerbott: Well, you’re doing a fantastic job and I’m grateful to be a witness to your journey because you’re just … Like I said, you’re a powerhouse, Lisa and it’s amazing to have a woman like you doing the world changing work that you’re doing, so thank you for that. We’ve talked a lot about your dad, we’ve talked about your sister, what did your mom do?
Lisa Gable: My mother actually got involved with supporting churches and hospitals and schools after the fall of the Soviet empire. And so she actually spent a great deal of time going out to Albania, Lithuania. She had been involved with what were called the underground churches prior to this time period. She was working for an organization that was an NGO that provided relief and support and as soon as the wall came down, they moved in immediately to help hospitals and schools and orphanages get the resources that they needed, knowing that there was no government structure in place in order to do that. And so she did that for a number of years.
Finally, when she was … I forget. I think she was in her 60s and she came back from Albania and she was so sick they had refuse to allow her to change flights at JFK and took her to some hospital that was near the airport that we all finally convinced her that going to a country where there was no heat in the dead of winter was admirable, but perhaps not the best thing to do. And so she’s always done things like this. When we were children, she took in newborn babies who had been separated from their parents as part of the foster care system due to past abuse of children.
And so we had 13 newborn babies in our house when I was in high school. I would literally look outside the door as I was walking out of my school and my mom would be there to pick me up, normally I took the bus. She was there. I just kind of looked in the backseat, knew there was some baby in the back. She was recognized by the state of Virginia for revamping some of those processes around those really sad situations but I learned a lot about newborns at a young age.
Kelly Meerbott: Lisa, you come from a family of severe underachievers. It’s amazing the more you talk about your family, it’s no wonder you are where you are. We’ve talked about the qualities you got from your dad, what do you think you got from your mom that you leverage in your work today?
Lisa Gable: She always believed in partnerships and she always believed in relationships. And so she was someone that whenever anyone would call and say, do you know someone who can do this or do where I can find this resource? She was always one of the first people to make an introduction. And as you know from my career, one of the things that I’m known for is building very streamlined organizations because we take advantage of the resources that currently exist within other organizations. And so that desire to introduce people to each other, that being a networker on steroids, always having an idea as to where someone could solve a problem. My mother’s helped a lot of people adopt children, she helped me adopt a child. She really is the one who brought that key attribute to my life.
Kelly Meerbott: Tell me about that process of … I’m assuming it was your daughter that you adopted, is that correct or?
Lisa Gable: It is. My daughter, we adopted when she was one month old, we were very fortunate. We had filled out our paperwork for a private agency and since I had been involved in the world of adoption, I knew and was able to tell my husband. He said, “How long does this take?” I said, “Normally, it takes at least two years if you’re lucky.” And a week later, we get a phone call saying we have a baby for you and that was not what we were expecting. My husband was doing a startup, I had my own small company in Silicon Valley, I just signed all these big contracts. And he goes, what do we do? I said we take the baby.
Literally, we had five weeks notice of my daughter’s arrival and because of the fact that my mother had taken in these babies, I already had a checklist of what you needed when you had this random child showing up in your life. And so we went to all the stores with the checklist that I had had for my entire life and bought everything and welcomed her into our home when she was four weeks old.
Kelly Meerbott: And what’s your daughter’s name?
Lisa Gable: Her name is Helen Ann.
Kelly Meerbott: Helen Ann. Okay. Tell me about that moment when they bring Helen Ann to you and your husband for the first time and they’ve put her in your arms and you look down and you realize, I’m a mother now. What was that moment like?
Lisa Gable: It’s an overwhelming situation. I mean, it really is. Because especially in adoption, you’ve gone through various disappointments and you’ve gone through processes of attempting to have a child and recognizing that’s not the path that God set for you. Literally, we were at my parents house in Virginia, we were living in California at the time but the baby was in Virginia and I can still visualize every moment of when the car drove up in the driveway, when they walked in the door, when they handed me the baby, obviously, we were crying. We had someone taking pictures of all of those moments and then we had stayed with my parents, they had a lake house and we stayed with them there for the first week and then took her back to California.
Really the only person that was unhappy was our Maine Coon cat who was about 22 pounds. We walk in the door and we put the baby down while we’re locking up the house and the cat literally steps in front of her and turns his back to her and refuses to acknowledge that she’s there. But they became best friends and he loved her dearly after that. But it’s a blessing.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, it’s amazing. We’ve talked about a lot of really powerful stories and experiences today. Where you stand right now in life on your journey, how do you leverage the collective experience in the work and in your personal life today.
Lisa Gable: Well, I’m at that unique place in life which is that my daughter is now off at college, I’m in my early 50s, I have come off of being the CEO of a foundation that had a lot of public scrutiny as well as a lot of public press and I look at my life journey in a different context, which is where do I have the opportunity to make the biggest difference over the next 10 years, how do I take the collective research that I have done through every aspect of my life, how do I use that to help other women up the career ladder and then how do I use that to help yet another cause.
And so I’m in that process of exploration right now and looking at opportunities. But for me, obviously I met the end of my work journey. I’m sort of at a different place than I’ve ever been before with those dynamics that come naturally with life. And so I’ve always had the philosophy of ending on a high note and so how do I do that and how do I help as many women as possible through whatever it is that I’m doing right now and do next. Because that is, I am passionate about women and girls and I do think it’s important for us to use every opportunity to help each other up the ladder.
Kelly Meerbott: I love that. And then I love how you talk about helping up. From me with you it seems like it’s a hand up to the women behind you, not a hand out. Like it’s an empowerment. You’re really positioning them in a way that they’re going to be successful and it’s just admirable to watch. I love to end our conversations with four rapid-fire questions, are you ready?
Lisa Gable: I’m ready.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay. What books are on your nightstand?
Lisa Gable: All mystery novels and adventure novels and things about spies. Anything that is completely something that makes me just get into the storyline.
Kelly Meerbott: And do you have a favorite author in that genre?
Lisa Gable: I have a number of favorite authors from Vince Flynn who I like to Baldacci to Grisham, to the typical ones.
Kelly Meerbott: Yeah, absolutely. Favorite comfort food?
Lisa Gable: Probably … There’s so many. Like grits.
Kelly Meerbott: I love grits.
Lisa Gable: So grits. There’s a type of Thai soup that whenever I have a migraine seems to be the thing that I like to eat the most. And so it depends on what my mood is, where I need my comfort.
Kelly Meerbott: Gotcha. And what songs are on your playlist?
Lisa Gable: This is embarrassing but Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.
Kelly Meerbott: That is not what I expected from you. I have to ask, this is not part of the rapid-fire question but what was the very first song that you heard that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
Lisa Gable: Well, it would require my actually knowing what the song was, who was playing it. My husband always laughs that he had to actually set up my playlist because I could never remember what song was what. Probably Boston, that was one of my favorite first albums.
Kelly Meerbott: I’m still like smiling about AC/DC and Led Zeppelin because they’re two of my favorites, I just absolutely love it. Last question, what are you most grateful for in this moment right now?
Lisa Gable: I’m grateful for my family. I’m very close to my family, both my parents, my sister, my daughter, my husband but I’m also fortunate to be very close to my in-laws and my husband’s siblings and spouses. And so we’re just extremely fortunate that we have a close family. Many of us have worked together at different points and times and our relationship and our ability to pull each other into our lives through work and pleasure is important to us.
Kelly Meerbott: That’s amazing. Do you have any parting words for maybe the women that are high potentials climbing the ladder in business that you wish you had heard when you first started in business?
Lisa Gable: I think the most important thing is to build your personal team. Those team members will be with you for the rest of your life, you will find out that if you build that strong relationship and team approach that every project in which you engage over the 40-year period of your business career, you will want to work with those same people over and over again. And what’s nice about that is you trust them, you trust them not only as individuals but you also are trusting of the quality of the work that they will do and the fact they won’t let you down and they become some of your closest friends.
Kelly Meerbott: Lisa, even though you’re in transition, you’re still taking speaking engagements and I’m still waiting for you to speak in Philly so I can come actually experience it. But if there were a meeting planner or an organization out there listening that would need you as a speaker, how do they get in touch with you?
Lisa Gable: I have a website, it’s lisagable.com.
Kelly Meerbott: And it’s just spelled exactly the way it sounds, correct? There’s no-
Lisa Gable: It is.
Kelly Meerbott: Okay, good. Well, Lisa, thank you so much for having an authentic conversation with me and for our listeners. It’s our intention for our audience that this conversation inspires you our listeners to go out and get real and have conversations to deepen the connections in your life. Thank you so much for listening and make it a great day.
Speaker 1: You’ve been listening to Hidden Human, the stories behind the business leader. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Kelly and the services she provides, visit youloudandclear.com. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll be back soon with a new episode.