How one executive used his instincts to shape his career.
March 26, 2020 8 min read
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Looking to get ahead in today’s über-competitive workplace?
Try being more primitive.
That’s right, primitive.
Primitiveness is a quality inherent in all of us, no matter our gender, race, ethnicity or job status — from employees in large corporations to entrepreneurs putting out a shingle. Our primitive qualities allow us to be creative, intuitive, courageous and relentless in pursuit of our goals.
Most of our education and job training, however, inculcates us to repress our primitive drives in favor of more civilized behaviors. We learn to worship process and best practices, do careful analysis and adopt a measured approach. But as AI, automation, big data, globalization and outsourcing become our daily realities, it actually becomes more important than ever to trust and honor our most human, primal instincts in the workplace.
I’ve spent years advising and interviewing “Primitives,” from visionary startup founders to established CEOs, in industries as varied as sports to business to tech to medicine. The connective tissue between the most successful experts and leaders at the tops of their respective fields is their ability to follow their primal instincts.
One type of Primitive is the Agnostic Primitive. Just as religious agnostics don’t believe in any specific creation theory, primitive agnostics don’t believe in following any specific career path. They roam from position to position, field to field, rejecting the dogma of the day, guided by opportunity and curiosity. They shun specialization, adapt to happenstance and embrace uncertainty. Agnostic primitives succeed and they fail, and they do it all over again. They experiment constantly. They fall in and out of love with their jobs. They start and fold companies. They get bit by bugs and follow their whimsy. They are allergic to routine and challenge the notion that you must have a singular focus.
Love Whelchel III, the head of human resources at Vera Wang, is the embodiment of the Agnostic Primitive.
Several years back, Love was on his way to Los Angeles International Airport when the driver turned to him and said: “I’ve got Sean on the line. He wants to talk to you.” The driver thrust a cellphone at Love, who took it hesitantly.
“Love. It’s Sean. I want you to take the job.”
“Can I think about it first? This is a big decision for me.”
“I’m not going to enjoy my weekend unless I know you took this job, Love. You need to give me an answer right now.”
In the span of a second, Love considered the pros and cons of the new role. He was making a very good salary as global chief talent officer at Young & Rubicam, one of the largest advertising firms in the world. After scratching and clawing his way up the corporate ladder, he had finally arrived in the C-suite. He could coast for the next few decades and retire a very wealthy man. Now a guy he had met 30 minutes ago was telling him to upend his life and begin a new career in the entertainment industry.
“Fine. I’ll do it,” Love said confidently.
And like that, as he had countless times in his life, Love reinvented himself. Except this time his boss wouldn’t be some empty suit. “Sean” was Sean John Combs — also known at various points in his life as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Puffy and Diddy — and the job wasn’t at a sleepy record label but at Bad Boy Entertainment, one of the most hard-charging entertainment groups in the business. Love had no idea what he had gotten himself into — and that was exactly how he wanted it.
For many people, this would be a career-defining move. But for Love, it was just another pivot in a lifetime of twists and turns. Born in 1969 in Birmingham, Ala., Love was the youngest of four siblings. He grew up attending the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where his father was a pastor. Love adapted to a life on the move as his father accepted positions at churches in North Carolina, Ohio and then Los Angeles. During his final semester at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, he had no good job prospects or even unpaid internships. One day he was aimlessly riding the MARTA when he spied a guy trying to decipher the subway map.
“Do you need help?” Love asked him. The man had about a dozen lanyards draped around his neck — VIP passes for some sort of event.
“Do you know how to get to the Atlanta University Center?” he asked Love. “I need to get to this concert ASAP.”
Love gave him directions and the man thanked him. The two struck up a conversation, and Love mentioned that he was graduating soon and looking for work.
“Ever heard of the group N.W.A?” the man asked.
“Of course,” Love replied. “I love Straight Outta Compton.”
“I work for them,” the man said, pointing to his VIP passes. “We need some roadies for the upcoming tour. You interested?”
Love didn’t even think before he responded: “Sure, why not?” And just like that, he was working with one of the biggest groups in hip-hop. That summer, he toured with N.W.A, learning the ins and outs of the music industry as he crisscrossed the country. But soon after the tour ended, Love quit the job that most kids his age would have killed for. Deciding that music wasn’t his thing—at least at that point in his life—he veered from the bleeding edge of rap to the mellow world of New Age book publishing. Instead of working sold-out concerts with Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, Love was selling tarot cards and books about spirituality. Working at a small publisher, Love learned to wear many hats and soon found himself in charge of the entire shipping department.
One day, Love was approached by a friend with a new opportunity. The Summer Olympics was coming to Atlanta, and the city was hiring logistics personnel. Love took one of the open jobs. A week later, the executive who ran the department summoned him to his office: “Your boss no longer works here,” he said. “I want you to take over his job. You’ll be in charge of sending and receiving all mail associated with the Atlanta Olympic Games, and you’ll need to hire 40 people to work under you. Can you handle that?”
Love, who was barely out of college and had never hired, let alone managed, anyone in his life, said: “Sure, why not?” The 24-year-old was in charge of receiving and placing metal detectors, bomb scanners and other highly technical equipment in preparation for one of the biggest events in the history of the city. Recognizing that he had an eye for spotting talent, Love then pivoted away from shipping to tech, where he recruited programmers to prepare computer systems for the Y2K computer bug. Not long after, Love upended his life once more and moved across country to be a director at a nonprofit. Then he shifted back to IT recruiting, and then to executive recruiting for an advertising firm before he changed gears — and coasts — to become chief talent officer at Young & Rubicam in New York City, where we met.
And after all of that, Love found himself chief of human resources at Sean Combs’s Bad Boy Entertainment. There he managed more than 300 employees, overseeing restaurants, the Sean John clothing and accessory line, the Bad Boy record label and the Blue Flame Agency, which handled marketing agency and consulting. The work was thrilling but tiring, and after a few years Love was ready to reinvent himself once again as a talent executive at a PR firm. A few years after that, following a dozen career 180s, pivots, promotions, layoffs, steps forward and steps back, Love decided it was time to start his own company. Binkable was a new platform that enabled creative talent to connect and work with other agencies, brands and startups. But before long he sold it, and today he is the head of human resources at Vera Wang.
Love has had perhaps the most varied career of anyone I’ve met. Most of his moves were made on a whim, often to positions in which he had zero experience. “I feel like when I take a new position, I’m dropped in the middle of the jungle with a penknife and a loincloth,” Love told me. “I’m looking for the adventure, and I’m trying to survive.”
Excerpted from Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive That Powers the World’s Most Successful People by Marco Greenberg. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Preorder on Amazon here.