December 14, 2021

Note: Benjamin Wagner is an alumnus of the Media Transformation Challenge at Poynter, formerly known as the Sulzberger Program at Columbia. Karen Baum Gordon continues to be a coach for the program. This is an excerpt from Wagner’s podcast, “Friends & Neighbors,” in which he continues a discussion he began with children’s television icon, Fred Rogers, in his film, “Mister Rogers & Me.”

By the fall of 2013, it became apparent to me that regime change was imminent at MTV News. One morning I told my wife, Abbigail, that I’d done three things to catalyze career change: I’d hired a resume coach to sharpen my CV, enrolled in the Sulzberger fellowship at Columbia University, and hired an executive coach to hold me accountable to my goal of having a new job by Q3. I accepted a role at Facebook later that summer. 

Central to that transition — and many, many since — is Karen Baum Gordon, who in her role as faculty at Sulzberger, now the Media Transformation Challenge at Poynter Institute, coached me through the transformation of MTV News from TV-first to digital-first newsroom, and coached me through my ongoing transformation from a frazzled, unfocused, impatient media executive, to a better balanced, strengths-oriented coach, consultant, author and musician.

Karen was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, before attending Harvard. She co-founded Strategic Horizons, Inc, an executive coaching and management consulting firm, after working as a consultant at the fabled McKinsey & Company, managing New York City restaurants and training as a chef in France. Karen lives with her husband, Bob, and black lab, Ollie, in Brooklyn, New York. 

In her brand new book, “The Last Letter: A Father’s struggle, a Daughter’s Quest and the Long Shadow of the Holocaust,” Karen explores the stories and events that shaped the lives of her grandparents, two Holocaust victims that her father tried in vain to save in the early years of World War II. The book is a painstakingly researched, heartbreaking page-turner where we are reminded that sometimes we can never go home and we often need to let go to move on.

Listen to the rest of the podcast to hear about the role of empathy in transitions, the importance of “breaking bread” together and family legacy. 

“Evil,” Fred Rogers once said, “would like nothing better than to have us feel awful about who we are.” As my coach, Karen spent a fair amount of time doing precisely the opposite. In order to be a better leader at work, but moreover, better for myself. 

Karen encouraged me to lean into my family, my time in nature, and with a guitar in my hands. She helped me take the long view and address individual challenges with time-tested, well-reasoned approaches to incremental problem solving. She reminded me to stay humble and patient and proactive, but also responsive to the ebb and flow of real life. 

In “The Last Letter,” Karen models this on every page. She shows us step-by-step, how to stay curious and vigilant, to look for the helpers and mention the unmentionable in order to be the change we want to see in the world. 

“There is no life free of pain,” Fred Rogers said. “It is the very wrestling with our problems that is the impetus for growth.”


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Benjamin Wagner is a consultant and coach, author, speaker, filmmaker and musician with 30 years of experience as a technology and media executive, award-winning journalist…
Benjamin Wagner

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