Lead Left Interview – Chris Ullman (Part 2)

This week we continue our conversation with Chris Ullman, Managing Director and Director of Global Communications at The Carlyle Group. Prior to Carlyle, Chris was Director of Communications at the US Office of Management and Budget, and before that, Director of Public Affairs for the SEC. He is author of the soon-to-be-published memoir and inspirational book, “Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts and Change Lives.” Second of two parts – View part one.

The Lead Left: You have a great story in the book about whistling for President George W. Bush [link].

Chris Ullman: When I was the OMB spokesperson back in 2001 I was invited to whistle at Andy Card’s birthday party. He was the President’s chief of staff. I knew his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, but all the other people I had only seen on TV: Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, and Josh Bolton.

Later the President got wind of my whistling and asked my boss, Mitch Daniels, to “bring him over.” That’s what happened. I walk into the “Oval” – that’s what they call it there – and there’s Bush sitting behind the desk with an unlit cigar, feet on the desk. He gets up, and says “Would you like to stand? Sit? Need some water?” I stayed there for twenty minutes. All sort of people were walking in – Dick Cheney, Andy Card, Alberto Gonzalez. It was pretty cool.

TLL: How do you make giving back part of your 9 to 5 existence?

CU: Whistling is not an addendum to my life. It’s part of my life. I can go into my co-CEO’s office here at Carlyle and whistle happy birthday and he enjoys it. I’m giving a concert for our employees in July and will reprise my TED talk [link]. It can’t be an afterthought. It’s far more satisfying than I ever imagined.

Think of it as a “skeleton key” that allows entry into everyone’s heart. Of course it doesn’t always work. I was in an elevator once with John Kasich and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Kasich was House Budget Committee Chairman at the time. He tells Newt, “Hey, did you know Chris is a champion whistler?” Newt says nothing, no reaction. I completely shrink into the corner of the elevator.

Same thing happened at Carnegie Hall. I was there for the 25th Anniversary of Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week. I’m backstage with Arthur Levitt [former Chair of the SEC], Dick Grasso [head of the NYSE], and Sandy Weill [CEO of Citigroup] waiting to go on. Arthur snaps his finger at me and says, “Whistle for us!” Neither Grasso nor Weill had a reaction. I’m thinking, either my skeleton key is broken, or they don’t have a heart! I guess it’s kind of binary. You either love it, or you hate it.

TLL: Is your dream to whistle at Carnegie Hall?