When I interviewed Ellie Montazeri last year about her business importing Tunisian towels, known as foutas, she told me how helpful Rich Tafel had been to her as a life and career coach. Besides being a tremendously helpful coach to Ellie (and his other clients), Rich has had a long and varied career working with government, with non-profits, with businesses, and with religious institutions. Finding this combination of interests intriguing, I asked if I could ask him some questions about his work, and he graciously agreed to spend some time speaking with me on the telephone. Here’s what Rich had to say…
Date: February 5, 2016
Hometown: Churchville, PA
Current town: Washington, DC
Occupation: life, career, and leadership coach, Public Squared; Minister, National Swedenborgian Church
I hardly know where to begin to ask you questions, because you have been involved in such a great many things: working in politics, in the non-profit world, in the business world, and in the religious world. What would you consider your main job or occupation? How would you describe what you do? Is there a common thread that ties it all together?
The unifying thread for me is more spirituality in every sphere. It’s not an unusual idea, but I believe that we’re here to do good in the world. So I ask, where is the most leveraged response to do the most good? It’s brought me into the social entrepreneurial world, the political world, and the church. I’m seeking what is evolving, the future of business, and the future of capitalism.
Well, I can’t argue with trying to do some good in the world. We sure need it!
Going back to your early career in politics, with the Log Cabin Republicans…since you were active in that organization, gay rights have come a long way, with much greater public acceptance than there used to be, especially among the young. And now we have gay marriage in all 50 states, and increasingly, benefits provided to same-sex partners. But the Republican Party still seems very intransigent on the subject. Do you see that changing? Are you still a Republican? And are you still active in party politics?
I still consider myself a Republican. It has changed dramatically in my lifetime. When I started, both parties were hostile to marriage equality, and now even the Republicans don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about their opposition. The opposition to gay rights, however, isn’t always on the right. I was criticized by the gay left in the 1990s for my position on gay marriage; they thought that marriage, as an institution, was patriarchal and traditional. On my support of gays in the military, many people were opposed because they didn’t support the military. So it’s more complex than you might think.
On the Republican side, opposition comes largely from evangelical churches. Much of my role, with my Christian background, was interpreting scripture and arguing from scripture. That viewpoint isn’t going away any time soon; there is and will be a traditional aspect in the culture that wants to hold on to traditional views of marriage and gender. But with Republicans, there’s also a libertarian wing, which I’m more aligned with. There is real tension with the right. I’d like to imagine what a healthy right looks like in the future, and would like to break out of the hyper-partisanship that we’re seeing right now.
Ellie Montazeri thinks you’re just terrific as a coach, and she said you were able to help her as a career coach and as a life coach. Most of us think of coaching in terms of sports or other somewhat specialized skills. Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like coaching people in more of a big-picture fashion?
Exactly, the big picture type of coaching…it’s a role as more of strategist or a navigator. Most of us don’t state our goals; so we need clarity on what it is we’re trying to accomplish. And then it’s also looking at the person holistically. I don’t see people as just business owners, but people as a mother, a sister, a daughter, someone who wants to start a business, someone who has a spiritual life. I look at the whole person. When engaging in strategy with clients, there’s often self-sabotage and blind spots. That’s what a coach is good for, finding those things. It can greatly speed things up for people to achieve their goals. And it’s for social entrepreneurs, who are solving social problems using a business plan. It’s hard work.
So you are trying to help people combine their creative work with more practical business skills?
You’re a great synthesizer. God is both compassion and wisdom, and that metaphor is extremely helpful to me. The non-profit sector (which is trying to effect social changes) is often about love and compassion. But there are not a lot of business plans, not a lot of metrics there. This can lead to great frustration. Capitalism, on the other hand, is very much about metrics. But we’ve almost come to equate income with someone’s worth as a person, which is a poor metric. Bringing the two together–business types are trying to unlock a spiritual side. And bleeding heart do-gooders need some toughness: a business plan, a serious look at the finances. Someone to tell them, you’re putting your family at risk, how are you going to make this sustainable?
Bringing the two worlds together is what I try to help people do.
Do you think everyone can benefit from coaching? I remember reading an article in the New Yorker a few years ago about how all professionals could really use coaching, not just sports stars…surgeons, musicians, teachers, etc. Do you agree?
Anyone who is operating at a high level of efficiency usually has a coach. Having another person to keep you accountable to your own goals, someone who cheers you when you’re doing something right, gives you practical things, like best practices…that’s incredibly time efficient. I see dramatic growth in people who have coaching. Now I work with investors. Some people won’t invest any more with people who don’t have a coach. A question for someone you want to do business with is, are they coachable?
“Coachable”: what kind of quality is that? What makes someone coachable?
When you can give someone help, they’re coachable. Some people want to remain stuck and they aren’t really looking for help or suggestions.
And it’s hard, I know. I suffer from know-it-all syndrome. We’re not trained to take constructive criticisms, and we get defensive. But if you can’t take it, you can’t grow.
That reminds me of a popular psychology book I read a long time ago called Games People Play. It described certain dysfunctional interactions and one of them was what the author called the “Why Don’t You–Yes, But” game. Where a person would complain about a problem, but no solution offered was ever going to work; they were actually getting something out of the drama, and not seriously looking to resolve the problem.
Exactly. A good coach comes up with solutions, and a great coach gets the client to come up with solutions. Sometimes people are wedded to drama. I don’t encounter them too much in my professional life, because those people won’t pay for coaching. No one really likes negative feedback, but is probably the most valuable gift a person can give you.
Can you tell me a bit about the Public Squared and social entrepreneurship? What exactly is social entrepreneurship?
Yes…Public Squared works with social entrepreneurs: we do training and coaching. And social entrepreneurship is people seeking to solve a social problem, like education, health care, poverty, hunger, and so on, but using business knowledge and techniques. I want to make this kind of work sustainable, and also to get a return on investment. Social entrepreneurship is a relatively new field. But we are working with social impact investors, who want to make a difference.
So things like microcredit, then?
Yes. And that idea was really criticized. A business deal? Charging interest to poor women? But it became a sustainable business. Unlike philanthropy, in which you’re continually begging to donors, and you may or may not get chosen, this is more of a sustainable solution to a social problem. The weakness of the social sector is that it’s not sustainable. Social problems subsist. We are seeking more sustainable solutions and more creativity. The social change and the business worlds often don’t know each other, but we’d like to bring them together.
So do you have any success stories yet? What has been proven to work? Sadly, you haven’t yet solved the problem of hunger and poverty…
The field is very nascent. It takes years to make change. I have worked with College Summit, helping students get money for college; they changed federal law to provide for helping students, along with a sustainable business. We haven’t solved the problem of high school drop-outs, but we have reduced the problem.
Micro examples: providing a competition for the State of Michigan with a focus on Detroit. What won was a really creative idea. What if we took graffiti and turned it into beautiful jewelry? We trained women in jewelry and life skills, but we made something outstanding and beautiful: Rebel Nell. It’s gotten quite a bit of publicity. It costs a little more than it would otherwise, but people are usually glad to pay.
One of our big questions for this kind of project is how do we scale up?
One thing that’s happening is that larger businesses are taking aspects of their company, and taking them into a social entrepreneurial direction.
That’s really interesting. And hopeful.
Ellie also tells me that you are active in the Swedenborgian Church. I don’t know a lot about Emanuel Swedenborg, but I do know that he was an 18th century mystic and that his beliefs influenced many very well known people: Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Helen Keller, Balzac. Was this the religious tradition that you grew up in, or did you come to Swedenborg and his teachings later in life?
Well, yes and no. In my ancestry, my grandfather was a minister in the Swedenborgian Church, and so was his father and his father before him, going back to Germany. So I have that gene. But there was no such church nearby where I grew up in suburbia, outside of Philadelphia. My family went to a Baptist church. But Swedenborgian teachings always resonated with me. I was ordained as an American Baptist at Harvard Divinity School, and about ten years ago, I had it transferred to the Swedenborgian Church. I’m much more invested in the theology.
It’s a small denomination. Now I’m the minister of a church in Washington DC, that is, Church of the Holy City. It’s been around since 1893. It has come on hard times, and I’ve just taken over as their pastor in December. So I’m asking myself, how can we make this a place for spiritual entrepreneurs? We have a market problem. People are spiritually hungry, but aren’t looking for traditional church. So how do we deliver, to meet these spiritual needs, and break out of a traditional model of church? How can we use this incredible building in Dupont Circle to serve?
Well, it seems that many well known people have been attracted to these ideas, artists and writers, transcendentalists. Maybe it will be a growing denomination.
The church has always been small, but has had an out-sized influence.
Maybe it will again.
One of the things that concerns me lately with political rhetoric is how anti-government so many people are in the United States; of course, I understand there are failures of government, but I also know that government can be a force for good. Some people think that government should be as small as possible, and would look to the non-profit sector, charities and churches, to do social good instead of government. Having been involved closely in both of those arenas, what are your thoughts? Are you pessimistic about the state of our government now?
It’s a complex answer. My philosophy is that government that is smaller is better; government that stays out of people’s lives. It should do fewer things but do them better. Things for the common good that it must do it should do well: have a police force, keep the roads clean. It’s now gotten bigger, and dominates most parts of our lives. I don’t see government as the innovator of culture…I think businesses and start-ups innovate and change for the better, not government.
But the ironic part is my liberal clients are the most opposed to working with government. I coach millennials who call themselves progressive and liberal. But they refuse to work with government. They want to do systems change, and I encourage them to work with government! I’m the libertarian free-market guy, but I encourage liberals to work in government. Across the board, people have lost faith in what government can do. They love Uber and Air B&B…which have gotten around governmental regulation. I do see a role for government. I am an expert in navigating public policy, but people have great resistance to it. I tell someone that they can try and get one line in legislation changed and that will help them, and they don’t want to. They don’t want to go to Washington, even people on the left.
That’s why I’m focused on the future right and the future left. A vacuum creates an opportunity for radicalism and hyper-partisanship. When government breaks down, we look for simplistic answers and that is very dangerous.
That’s a very bold agenda. A bit of a heavy schedule. I think I need to wish you good luck! On a more personal note, what’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Be true to yourself. Be honest. Everything else will work out.
Like Polonius in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Yes, just like Shakespeare!
Do you have a book recommendation for our readers?
In the coaching area, I’m reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown. She’s tapped into some real wisdom.
How about a movie? What should everyone see?
I’m anxious to watch all the nominated movies.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
I would have kept some real estate…I didn’t realize how much the market would increase.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I spend hours doing family videos of summers at the beach. One of my hobbies, I love doing it.
Do you have any kids?
I don’t but, I’m one of six kids, there are about 36 of us now, so there are lots of kids around.
What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?
I’m not very superstitious. I’m more mystical. I believe we have free will and are guided.
What’s the best or worst thing that happened to you this week?
The best thing is that (this is a classic business guy thing) I’ve got a major new client, which is very exciting. The worst thing: well, there’s not a lot of negativity. It has been a very good week. I’m pretty blessed.
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Hmmm…my only pitch is for people to cross boundaries. Keep an open mind about boundaries, whatever they are, and the people on the other side of those boundaries. It will make you more successful with networking, but also it’s important not to write people off, to try and see their complexity.
We are no doubt all more complicated than labels would lead us to believe, and every one of us, I think, is worth more than our worst qualities.