I met James in DC. I had come to the ballroom early to run through my book presentation, and there he was sitting at one of the tables, looking down at his cellphone. A man, alone. I immediately assigned him a box. He was elderly with graying hair, and African American. I thought he was one of the banquet servers. I was way off. He was to be my AV technical expert.

And expert he was. He smoothly trouble-shot many issues around the file, and supported me to perfection. He was patient, with kind eyes that gave me the confidence to do what I always do: stand up and speak. Every time I begin I’m sure something technical will blow up. Nothing did. James guided us home.

When I talk about the book, I open with the unconscious bias in the workplace today. I describe how women are still not in all the leadership positions we’re qualified for, because the decision-makers still box us into rigid gender roles, as if our work and life choices are black and white, either/or propositions. As if two things can’t be true at the same time. We know we can be leaders, and mothers or other kinds of caregivers. We know we can play support roles, and leadership roles, sometimes in the same hour! So here I was doing the same to James, putting him in a generational and racial box that wasn’t the least bit true.

How sobering. How enlightening that morning was. At first I felt like a cheap suit, but I’ve learned that living in that place of shame does me no good anymore. Now it’s about the learning.

James and I had built a good rapport during rehearsal, and I saw him watching me, reading the slides as we rehearsed. After I went live and concluded, I exited the stage and he met me halfway to take my lav mic and mic pack. He shook my hand, smiled, and whispered in my ear: “Thanks for being accountable.” He might have been the first AV person to actually listen to what my talk was about. Tears welled up, and I gave him a quick hug.

I’ve been on the receiving end of more learning these past many months than I could have imagined. And it may be James, the man with the kind eyes, taught me the most.

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