Jo Lee Talks To The Inimitable Genius

By Josephina Lee Mascioli-Mansell

It was a hectic day in San Francisco. I had just arrived home from LA and the hum of the city, as it did in those fabulous days. As in Hong Kong, London, New York, people were energized and, unbeknown to me, I was about to engage in a lifelong friendship with one of the most energized, beautiful and brilliant people.

Lunching with a group of women {as fascinating as they may be} has never been a desire of mine. So how, then, does one describe the pull of the universe that finds us mirroring what we had no ambition to embrace?

Sitting across the circular table from me was a woman who, trust me, no one could ever forget! Who she was didn’t matter. Her magnetism did. We walked out of the luncheon arm-in-arm and to this day I’ve never ceased to marvel at feats.

Peggy and Rich in Cambridge after her Harvard Doctoral ceremony

Dr. Margaret R. O’Keeffe Umanzio, {Peggy to all} was born in Boston to Irishparents who met while immigrating to the USA. When Peggy was two, they moved to Cambridge, just two blocks from the entrance to Harvard.

Cambridge, in those days, was a highly diversified community filled with immigrants from all over the world, the majority arriving in exile: fleeing religious, cultural and economic oppression with people getting off the boat with the shirts on their backs and then living in poverty. In marked contrast, there were the wealthiest: Kennedys, Roosevelts, Rockefellers and such innovators as James Watson, co- creator of the double helix (Nobel Prize in Medicine), Dr. John Nash (Nobel Laureate in Economics), Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), B.F. Skinner (the most celebrated psychologist since Freud and creator of operant conditioning), and Julia Child, along with the not always smart and famous: the Boston strangler or, the proponent of LSD as a recreational drug, Timothy Leary.

But Cambridge was noted for something far greater than poverty, wealth and power. It housed an institution called Harvard University that produced a prodigious amount of the wealthy and powerful in the world today. And it is where Peggy, at the entrance into the Harvard grounds, took her very first her step as a tiny child: where the mark of greatness was to mould yet another ingenious Ph.D., Harvard mind.

Peggy, her mother Florence Gilroy O’Keeffe and Rich at their home in Orinda, next to Berkeley, California, 12 miles from San Francisco.

As a young graduate, Peggy was a founder of, and teacher at, the first fully integrated alternative public school in the US: the Cambridge Alternative Public School (CAPS), a group venture by a community of people determined to change and improve the Cambridge school system.

Like a capsule shooting into space – Peggy would now undertake the most defining moments of her life. She married her soul mate, Richard; together they followed their hearts to California; and Peggy began her work as an adviser to many of the cutting-edge Leaders.

Becoming a keynote speaker at COMDEX {now known as Interop} led to working as an advisor to CEOs, executive teams, and boards of companies in Silicon Valley, all faced with the challenges of hyper-growth, selection and integration of mergers and acquisitions and top management succession – her primary role being advisor to CEOs and executive teams.

In addition, Peggy designed a discovery- based learning process that enabled her clients to achieve their strategic, organizational and financial goals 50 percent faster than other consulting processes. Her management consulting practice included corporate entities and such not-for-profits as universities, religious institutions and organizations in the health care industry. She delivered major keynotes, lectured at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University and, as a result of her consulting experiences and research, Peggy developed a new model of leadership which lead to the formation of an international forum for executive women from around the world.

Do you ask – what ever could be her pièce de résistance? I’m guessing you’ve guessed. Yes! A riveting work of creative non-fiction based on her life! Expected to be at the top of the bestseller list.

Peggy teaching young girls to read at the Cambridge Alternative Public School (CAPS), the first fully integrated alternative public school in the US: which she co-founded.

JO LEE: Peggy, can you believe – this is where you and I are today? I’m utterly thrilled that years ago, I was pulled into that luncheon. And today, you are one of my honored interviewees.

PEGGY UMANZIO: I am the one who is honored to be with you. I recall so vividly the first event that I helped you with in San Francisco. “A Christmas To Remember” where you brought the rarely visible children of Northern California together – in the grandest ballroom of The Fairmont San Francisco. And remember, you got Richard Swig, founder/owner of Fairmont, to donate all of the monies to produce your dream! I can still hear their screaming and clapping as the cast from Star Wars: Obi-Wan, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2-D2 were carried into the ballroom on people- manned platforms with gifts for the children.

I am truly amazed with what you have accomplished: YES! International, The ADESTE Gold Medal, ADESTE II and JO LEE Magazine. So, I am honored to be here with you.

JO LEE: As a child, did you understand your brilliance? Did you have any idea what you wanted once you grew up?

PEGGY: When I look back now, I can see the connection between what I was doing and how it influenced my professional life. In fact the F.G. Fulfor quote that opens the book I’m writing is, “I read someplace once that if we women wanted to learn more about ourselves, we should think back to when we were 8-year-old girls. In the way we were, there are clues to the way we are today.”

As a child, similar to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I was not simply curious; I was “curiouser and curiouser.” I wanted to know what made people do what they did. I sat on a bench at the international newspaper stand in Harvard Square and watched the people coming and going. I imagined that the pupil of my eye became like the cat’s pupil when it watches a bird: one focused black line. I watched the way the people breathed, walked, carried themselves, what they wore and where they shopped, etc. I became a great observer. I now refer to my activity as being a “Black Belt Sitter.

Then I would play “Put the Person in the Bus.” I would guess what bus they would board. I did not know at that time that people lived in neighborhoods bound by ethnicity and class. I was a tiny little anthropologist in my own training program.

In addition, I had a great imagination. I was very busy seeing the invisible world. For example, I believed that people were transported to work, school and shopping via neon colored tubes. As a child I was carried in the orange d neon tube. Here again I sorted people based on patterns. I remember being thrilled when I read about Louis Pasteur and how he could see microorganisms with a special eye called a microscope. I also admired insects because they had compound eyes which let them see everything through multiple and different lenses. I think that Albert Einstein was correct when he said “logic can take one from point A to point B and imagination can take one everywhere.”

Finally, I had keen instincts and intuition. Consequently, I pulled in data from all around me. And I trusted my conclusions. In Malcolm Gladwell’s blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he describes the quick, sometimes six-second process by which a person makes a decision. He refers to it ” as “rapid cognition” aka “intuition.” This is how I played as a child: it shaped my professional life.

McKinsey – Vevey, Switzerland

JO LEE: Do you remember as vividly as I do, that day we met in the summer of ’81?

PEGGY: I remember! You are very open yet you trust yourself and your worldview. You were a huge breath of fresh air. You embody a sense of freedom and curiosity that I value. We understood each other immediately. We had instant rapport.

JO LEE: So tell me, in ’81 we were both so very young, high on success and youth. How did your early years prepare you for this gutsy role in corporate consultancy?

PEGGY: Since I was a child I relied on myself. My curiosity, observation skills, imagination and intuition led me to trust what I see, think and decide. When I look back to 1983 when I established Asset Development, it was a gutsy move that I just did. I knew that it was right.I think I was possibly the only woman in the USA and maybe the world working ALONE at the CEO and Board level. There were women at McKinsey & Co., Inc. and probably other firms working on teams with men but I’ve never met another woman working at the level that I was working at on a solo basis. I remember flying to Luxembourg to conduct a four-day session with the CEO, executive team and presidents from all of the operating companies of one international corporation. Yes, I was anxious. Yes, my knees knocked. Yes, I prepared and prepared. One of the executives said, “Peggy’s process was like magic, it wove us together in a team with a strategic plan and the right organization, which enabled us to achieve our goals in record time. In my 19 year stint with the company she is the best management consultant that we ever had.” The founder of that company recently donated $350 million to MIT for a brain research center. So, I would say that my childhood prepared me well.

George Goyer, deceased, a huge advocate of JO LEE Magazine, Peggy, Jo Lee at a Jo Lee function. San Francisco.

JO LEE: You have been called a creative, insightful advisor to CEOs, executive teams, boards of directors of organizations in a broad range of sectors at their pivotal organizational and strategic decision points, at a time of significant market, competitive and leadership change. What about your education?

PEGGY: Jo Lee, after I received my Bachelor’s Degree, I taught in the best and the worst public school settings. For example, I taught in a reform school in Roxbury, Massachusetts. And I taught in Cabrini Green in Chicago, Illinois, which is known as the worst ghetto school in America. President Obama worked in an area close to where I worked. Then I taught in Wilmette, Illinois, in the New Trier school district, one of the wealthiest communities. I created an exchange program between the parents and children in Cabrini Green and Wilmette. Running parallel to my teaching, I became involved in community organizing, political campaigns for school board members, district attorneys, mayors, and attorney generals. Plus, I consulted with the Superintendent of Schools in Cambridge on systemic changes within the entire school system.

Moreover, I trained student teachers from Harvard, Tufts University, Boston University, Lesley University and several others. Finally, I did my Master’s work in the area of learning theories and practices now known as cognitive psychology.

Then I entered Harvard University Graduate School of Education, a program on Administration, Planning and Social Policy. My intention was to become a superintendent of schools. After the first semester I identified my area of interest as Organizational Behavior and Labor Relations. My advisor, Dr. Charles V. Willie, advisor to President Jimmy Carter, worked with me on the creation of my own individually designed program which was conducted at three graduate schools: Harvard University School of Business, School of Education and MIT Sloan School. My work focused on studying organizations and how to change them through four Applied Behavioral Sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology and political science. With these four lenses in hand I finally achieved my childhood goal of having the compound eyes of the ant.

A few years after my graduation, a formal multidisciplinary program was established at Harvard.

Paris, France after a day of consulting

JO LEE: Your first post-Harvard job certainly saw you in top company. The authors of In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, wrote the following in your copy of the book: “For Peggy who knows all this stuff, and knew it long before I did. And who both produced and lived their principles. To a real pro – whose commitment and zeal is contagious. With admiration and affection.  Tom” And: “You were part o this; present at the creation and a delight to work with. For one of my favorite – and toughest intellectual critics. Bob Waterman, November 1982”.

PEGGY:  Jo Lee, after I got my doctorate from Harvard, McKinsey & Co., Inc. recruited me to join them for the purpose of setting up a new practice area named Organizational Effectiveness that equaled breaking new ground. While there, as you know, Jo Lee, I was a key contributor to In Search of Excellence.  The book grew out of a research project with Siemens of Germany, a tremendous moment in time in my life at McKinsey.

Then, I founded my own company: Asset Development, a leading consultancy for market driven clients when the stakes are high, advising top management and boards of directors of companies, non- profits and public sector organizations on the design and execution of complex change.

JO LEE: You are credited with being the go-to consultant on the subject of corporate diversity and whole system thinking. Can you explain: “whole system thinking?”

PEGGY: Business organizations are alive, dynamic whole systems made up of many components: people, strategy, structure, operating systems, values, vision, products, customers and competitors. Thriving in today’s chaotic business environment is determined by a company’s ability to seamlessly turn the whole organization on a dime in response to sudden market changes. From the top to the bottom of the company and across all operating units, four fundamental processes ensure a tight fit between the company’s operating practices and policies.

JO LEE: You make it sound so simple. Can you tell me about these four processes?

PEGGY: The four fundamental processes that need to be in sync are decision-making, communication, conflict resolution and problem solving. The levels of productivity, effectiveness and innovation are tangible ways to measure the degree of alignment throughout the whole system. These processes form the DNA of the company. They are birthed from the behavior of the leader and the top team.

JO LEE: And how do you measure success?

PEGGY: Organizations are mirror reflections of the people within them. Flexible, consistent, top performing people produce flexible, consistent and top performing companies. Organizations change when people change. The basic unit of change is the face-to-face interaction between people and the power of the relationships that develop from the ways in which they work together toward the same goal while being guided by a shared set of values; designing a learning environment that serves as a catalyst for individuals to operate at their full potential while accelerating the capability of groups to collaboratively co-create. Our approach has consistently enabled clients to achieve their business goals while changing their ways of working together.

JO LEE: Some say you are a masterful communications catalyst when you work with clients on highly charged, critical issues and can “artfully” evolve a singular position despite divergent viewpoints. So Peggy, what is your secret ingredient?

PEGGY: My beliefs about human beings are based on my experiences of working with people from preschool to retirement. People have different mental models of how the world works and when people come together to make a decision the first step is to make explicit, on a cognitive level, how the person thinks, what they believe, in sum, their mental models.

My second ingredient is that I have come to understand that we humans are predominantly VISUAL; consequently we need to communicate visually. So I always bring graphic recorders to all of my client sessions. Imagine this: the walls of the conference room are covered with paper, all of the furniture has been removed, clients are seated in a circle in chairs facing the walls and as they talk, the graphic recorder records their ideas via pictures and words. This approach allows the participants to see: fully witness how their colleagues think. In quick order their attention is taken off personalities and onto ideas, concepts and beliefs.

My third belief is that my clients have the answers inside of them and it is my responsibility to create the conditions within which they trust the process and share what they know while being open to competing perspectives.

JO LEE: I also know, Peggy, that you have this keen ability, within chaos, ambiguity and conflict, to identify market and business trends and to bui client capabilities to capture profit opportunities. How do you manage to keep ahead of the global ebb and flow?

PEGGY: Jo Lee, I jokingly say that my market niche is: CHAOS, AMBIGUITY AND CONFLCIT. And that it is finally here. The truth is that I grew up in chaos, ambiguity and conflict, and I skilled at seeing the opportunities t exist within it. I also believe that and its resolution is the key to progress. So I embrace what I call constructive conflict.

In my process, my clients are team members with me. I bring my process. They bring their experience and knowledge. Secondly, I focus my clients on learning how to identify PATTERNS in their team, in their organization, their market, industry, etc. Patterns rooted in beliefs about cause and effect. Beliefs change, thus patterns change. Patterns produce distinctive skills a competence, which help or hinder a company. There must be a match between the needs and dynamics in the market and the corporate competences. When the market demands change the competencies thus the patterns must change and consequently the beliefs must be examined. It is how people learn and grow. I want my clients to learn how to learn and I provide the tools that will enable them to do so.

JO LEE: Amazing! And along with your ingenuity, you’ve enabled clients to achieve their goals 50 percent faster than any other consulting process. And this is only the tip of the iceberg!

Tell me about your book…

PEGGY: Delivering on The Promise is a story, a universal story, of the indomitable power of the human spirit. Specifically, it is the story of an innocent, fully awake and astutely aware child (Catherine) who realizes at the age of eight that she is on her own and will not make it without help. Although her severely war traumatized parents love her, she understands on a deep and profound level that they don’t have the emotional resources to protect and guide her.

In a state of desperation she wills the powers of the universe to come to her aid: she makes a deal with God.

She asks for eyes to see the world clearly and for the ability to know how to respond. In return she promises God she will write a book and tell the whole world what was shown to her and what she learned. At a tender age she begins to lead a double life: a very private life masked by a public personae, which was not without cost. As she learns to cope with the painful challenges of her world she ends up discovering a profound truth about human existence.

JO LEE: Wow! The Inimitable Genius! Imagine the on-flow of people at bookstores scrambling for that near to last copy. Can you wager a guess as to when this will hit the market?

PEGGY: We’re aiming for next year at this time, Jo Lee.

JO LEE: Thank you for being my friend.

PEGGY: Jo Lee, my soul is soaring after working with you.

One Response to “Jo Lee Talks To The Inimitable Genius”

  1. Nick Mason | 02.24.12 at 6:36 AM said…

    Great interview.