[Life Back West] January 2011 – “Most Likely to Succeed?”

Anthracite coal, a high value rock from easter...

West Virginia Coal

David Brailer does not have  a background that causes you automatically to pick him as most likely to succeed.

And that’s why his success story is interesting for me as an executive coach, and why it holds at least two insights helpful for you.

Brailer grew up in the coal mining town of Kingwood, West Virginia; his father was a coal miner and later a maintenance supervisor, and his mother a surgical nurse. Kingwood is the county seat of Preston county, and has a population of around 3,000 people with a median household income of $29,155. The “big” city is Morgantown, West Virginia some 50 minutes away; Pittsburgh is 2 hours by car, and Washington, DC is around a 4 hour drive. Kingwood is what folks from my home state of Oregon refer to as “in the sticks.”

Like  Chiron Corporation co-founder Bill Rutter [Disclosure: I worked with Chiron and Rutter from 1996-1999] who is from Malad, Idaho, stereotypically most people with bright minds and high ambitions who grow up in places like Kingwood (or Malad, or Uvalde, Texas for that matter) leave if and when they can. The world of possibilities – even with the greatest of families – can seem limited by virtue of a smaller world of exposure. And while they might do well by local standards, they are not always the types of folks who are seen as a success on a larger stage by those who are obsessed with elite schools, elite backgrounds, and surefire success pedigrees.

He attended West Virginia University, and afterwards went to WVU Medical School. Probably both decent schools, but neither are schools that are at the head of class from something like the US News and World Report college rankings.

David did his medical residency at the University of Pennsylvania. In the world of US east coast one-upsmanship, Penn overall is a good school with some good programs – the medical school and business school are some of the best in the nation –  but its undergraduate programs are not commonly viewed as the top of the Ivy League heap. Students that graduate from Harvard frequently mention that they “schooled in Boston” – an inside joke (and bait) for the unknowing to ask where in Boston they went to school. No one says they schooled in Philadelphia.

David is also  partnered with kids [Disclosure: We are nodding acquaintances because our kids went to the same preschool, The Little School, in San Francisco], gay and politically a Republican. None of that is unusual per se except being gay could be deterrent to political appointments by Republicans given the party’s social values stance.

So what’s unusual about David Brailer?

Brailer’s story has two elements that make him stand-out; two characteristics that frequently separate people who achieve from people who don’t. While David is clearly bright – my friend Kay Yun (one of the sharper and harder working tacks I know) who works with David has said he one is the smartest people she knows – there are lots of smart people.

First, David had people who coached, mentored and supported him.

At WVU medical school that Brailer met David Z. Morgan, dean of the medical school, and someone as chance would have it was also from Kingwood, West Virginia and had gone to school as a kid with Brailer’s father. Morgan encouraged Brailer to dream bigger and broader. If David had (and has) drive and ambition, Morgan stoked the fire. He helped with Brailer’s move to take a residency at the University of Pennsylvania. David might have gone somewhere else without his support.

Abraham Lincoln once said “I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” David’s brother Dan noted that ” he (David) attracted mentors the way Elvis Presley drew girls.”

While it helps to be smart, it helps to have people who can coach you through the ways of getting things done, particularly if you come from a small town in a state better known for coal mines than brilliant minds. It is these mentors and coaches who can frequently provide the wisdom and experience people lack. While it is experience that may come in due time, that coaching/mentoring support accelerates and frequently jump starts careers.

The second trait that stands out for somebody like David Brailer is sustained hard work and perseverance. While finishing his medical residency at Penn, Brailer earned a Ph.D. in economics, impressive work (think of all the the stories you’ve heard about medical residents working long, unceasing hours) and high achievement by any standard. The thesis he wrote for his dissertation became the basis for starting his own company, CareScience, Inc., which he took public and later sold. David taught at the Penn’s business school known as Wharton, and also founded Wharton’s health information technology program.

As performance researcher Angela Lee Duckworth (also from Penn) notes in this radio interview here, perseverance – the ability to stick with something and to keep focused for an extended problem – is what often separates high achievers from everyone else.

After the sale of of CareScience, Brailer was hired as a consultant to the George Bush White House and was – overcoming a potential barrier of being someone appointed by a Republican who was gay – subsequently appointed the nation’s first National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in May 2004. The common title for the role – Health Care Tsar – speaks volumes to the type of role Brailer played.

David subsequently founded and now heads Health Evolution Partners, a San Francisco-headquartered private equity fund with an estimated $700,000M+ in asset funding. While still a younger man, David Brailer has had a career that is a success by any standard, and yet he still has decades of productive work ahead of him.

Looking back, the David Brailers of the world are not the most obvious candidates as people most likely to succeed; small town background, OK but not particularly prestigious schools, and a political appointee carrying a potentially downside quality.

There are a number of roads to success. While smarts help, smarts plus hard work and perseverance, and the coaching and mentorship of wise hands are the attributes – like coal  transformed under pressure to diamonds – that make up people like David Brailer; people who are most likely to succeed.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.