What’s Your Professional DNA?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the family tree.

Why do you do what you do and how did you get so passionate about it? Could it be that your path in life was mapped by your DNA?

U.K. speaker Sean Weafer talks about his earliest ancestor of record Peter de Waffre who was listed as a ‘king’s enemy’. (In Ireland, that’s considered a good thing!)

Another ancestor Lionel Weafer was a buccaneer surgeon on a pirate ship in the Caribbean in the 1600’s. His grandfather Patrick Weafer rose up in revolt against the British Crown forces in Dublin, Easter Week 1916. That began the process of Ireland separating from the UK.

Maybe that’s why Sean likes to shake things up. He says his mission in life is to bring out the hidden revolutionary in all of us – to help business out-smart, out-flank and out-think their competitors.

The title of his keynote speech is ‘Rebel in a Business Suit.’

Figures.

Manny Medrano’s personal journey has taken him from a gang-infested barrio in Texas to the pinnacle of journalism as an Emmy-award winning network correspondent.

Prior to becoming a broadcast journalist, Manuel was a federal criminal prosecutor who never lost a jury trial. He braved death threats to successfully prosecute the drug cartel leaders that kidnapped, tortured and murdered DEA federal drug agent Enrique Camarena.

Manuel is the recipient of numerous awards and honors for his trial lawyer achievements. But ask him where his journey started, and he’ll begin with the story of his grandfather, a police officer in a small Mexican town.

Manny’s grandfather was gunned down in broad daylight by the local thug, and died in his teenage daughter’s arms. That young girl became Manny’s mother. The murderer was never convicted, but the pain of the event which happened even before Manny was born provided the fuel for his relentless drive to become a top lawyer, TV broadcaster and speaker.

Adrian Davis is a consultant for whom I have tremendous admiration. In his presentations, he sometimes tells a powerful story about one of his last conversations with his grandmother.

He went to see her when she was on her deathbed. Sitting beside her and sharing a treasured moment, he began to have the kind of conversation that would enable him to understand her at a deeper level and learn from her obvious wisdom. He asked what she was proudest of in her life. In a frail, trembling voice, Adrian’s grandmother talked about seeing her children and grandchildren develop into strong-willed, principled and successful adults. Then she said something that Adrian had never heard before. She told him about a little restaurant that she had in Jamaica, behind a police station, and how she had poured her heart and soul into this business.

Although it never grew into a big business, it was very successful and she had a strong and loyal client base. Adrian’s grandmother was a very spiritual lady. Adrian only knew her as a devout Christian. He was surprised to learn of her passion for business.

By the way she spoke about her business, it was clear to Adrian where he derived his work ethic, and why he feels so strongly that one’s profession should be inexorably linked to one’s life purpose.

It’s part of his professional DNA.

In my case, I am profoundly influenced by the experiences of my parents during World War II.

Neray family photo, Iran 1930
Isfahan, Iran, circa 1930. My grandfather, center, was headmaster of the school, where my father began his studies in linguistics. Click the photo for the hi-rez image.

With a degree in linguistics, my father had a facility with words and a gift for language. So when he joined the French Foreign Legion during the Second World War, he was put in charge of translating messages for the French, British and American troops — and sometimes delivering them in person under enemy fire. After the war, he became a professional translator, and worked his way up to become head of the translation department at McGill University.

My mother is a survivor of the Holocaust. Deported on March 7, 1944, she spent almost a year at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, the largest killing grounds of the Nazis. Surviving beatings, interrogations and the selections by the infamous Dr. Mengele, she was then forced on a three-day death march through the mountains in the bitter cold of January 1945.

From Wroclaw on the Polish-German border, she was transported to Ravensbruck and then to Neustadt. When the camp was liberated by the Russian army on May 3, 1945, she was taken for dead as she lay motionless on the ground, too weak to move.

Some people would be shattered by an experience like that; others may experience every breath as a gift. The latter describes my mother. If you met her today, you’d find someone in love with the world. She doesn’t need a reason — or even music — to dance around my back yard.

I always knew where I got my facility with words and my gift for language. But I never fully understood how and why I inspire audiences until I saw that my mother’s ability to survive is also my ability to survive — and her passion for life as much a part of me as it is hers. So perhaps my ability to inspire from the platform was ingrained in me by events that occurred long before I was born – and maybe that’s the reason event planners call me when they are looking for a motivational speaker, even though it was never a term I used to describe myself.

As a writer, speaker and consultant, why am I so focused on branding? Why do I care so passionately much about helping my clients discover their true differentiation; their authentic competitive advantage?

For that, the entire cultural history of where I grew up may be to blame. A brief timeline of Montreal goes like this: In the sixteenth century France claims the area now known as the Province of Quebec as her own.

Being a Catholic nation, thousands of French Catholic citizens cross the Atlantic to populate the new world. In 1760, the war between France and Britain finally ends with Britain defeating France. It wasn’t a decisive victory, however, so France cedes the territory on condition that Britain allow the people to retain their language and religion. Britain agrees, and French Canada continues to flourish, growing from barely 70,000 people to over 7 million today.

That’s explains why the school system in Quebec is divided along language and religious lines. The Catholic school board is primarily French. The Protestant school board is English. Though we lived in a Jewish neighborhood, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to Hebrew School — because it was classified as a private school. So their choice was either to send me to the French Catholic school run by nuns, or teach me to speak English so I could go to the Protestant school.

The kids who lived in the other half of our semi-detached home went to the Catholic school. My parents chose to send me to the English Protestant school. It was bizarre — though undoubtedly less so than had the nuns got hold of me.

I grew up pledging allegiance to the Queen of England, reciting the Lord’s Prayer every morning, and on Jewish Holidays we played in the schoolyard while the two protestant kids who were stuck inside watched.

So here I was, at the height of French Canadian nationalism and separatism. To the French Canadians I was the ‘maudit anglais’. (Think ‘F’ word.) To my classmates I was the French frog. And given the undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Quebec (and elsewhere), I was constantly reminded that being Jewish meant being different.

Even as a little Jewish kid, I was different. All my friends had grandparents who spoke with Eastern European accents like in the movies, but I was half French and half Persian!

It didn’t matter what community I was in, I didn’t even try to fit in. On the contrary, I wrapped myself up in the flag of personal and professional differentiation.

So did I choose differentiation or did differentiation choose me? Who really knows… but it sure makes for a good story.

What’s yours?


This article was adapted for the speaking profession in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Speaker Magazine. Click here to view it in a new tab or window.

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