The coach is in
Life lessons from Geri Grossman
Photo by Stephen Gabris
Her current job may be the only one she’s ever actually been qualified to hold.
Geri Grossman is an executive coach. Her years of business experience at various companies—as secretary and human resources director, among other positions—makes her the right person to coax the best out of corporate leaders who are stalled or stymied. “I help them identify the thought process that keeps them stuck and keeps them from truly engaging their teams,” says the New York City native who’s made Buffalo her home for nearly forty years. “To be effective, you need to make meaningful, intimate—in a business way—contact with clients. I get leaders to think outside the box, but first I have to get inside that box.” It is a task eased through empathic listening.
Grossman’s personal life, with its made-for-TV-series drama, distinguishes her as the kind of curious, ambitious, precocious, and personable individual who does well fostering those qualities in others. She started working at thirteen, when she earned cash running cigarettes to bingo players at her neighborhood church and turning on the lights for Orthodox Jews who were forbidden to do so on the Sabbath. Grossman had one older brother, a father bedeviled by alcoholism, and a mother who abandoned the family when Geri was just about a year old. She finally “met” her mom when she was twenty-one, which is what brought her to Buffalo, where her mother had moved, remarried, and started a new family. The two had a relationship until her mother died in 1981, a year after her father died.
Grossman by then had been married and divorced, a brief union that had seemed like the thing to do when choices for women in her Catholic enclave in New York’s Lower East Side were pretty much limited to matrimony or a convent. “Or you could be a barmaid—actually, I was interested in all of that,” she notes. Within a few years of her divorce, she brazened her way into an executive secretary job, answering a New York Times ad with the bold declaration, “if you want to hire someone who’s loyal, hardworking, adaptable, and trustworthy, I am the right person.” Despite lack of skill, chutzpah carried the day, and Grossman soon became indispensable to Dr. Norman Zweibel, the brilliant chemical engineer who founded Polytherm Plastics. She was twenty-five when she finally enrolled in some college courses, from The New School to Montclair State to Rutgers University, and eventually earned a degree from Syracuse University. Thus began a lifetime of perpetual studentship; to this day, Grossman takes online courses that intrigue her.
Grossman Skypes regularly with her own life coach these days, to help her through grief. Grossman’s longtime partner, poet and professor Jimmie Gilliam, died three and a half years ago. The pair were friends for a decade before Grossman accepted the love and life partnership that Gilliam, a divorced mother of two girls, proffered. “Now, I see Jimmie was wooing me for ten years,” she says. And only very recently did Grossman come out publicly, despite the fact that she and Gilliam had long ago established a home together in Williamsville. “We were together thirty-five wonderful, faithful, loving, supportive years.”
Grossman, who is also a published poet, worked in Buffalo at Ingram Micro for thirteen years before becoming a life coach. As a change agent, she traveled extensively, did diversity training and mediation, and generally served as the face of the company until she was downsized.
That job loss must have been difficult.
Oh no, I already had a plan to be an executive coach. Now, I work in many different industries, from health care to manufacturing, service, financial, not-for-profits—anyone in a leadership role. They know they can do better—they just don’t know how; they’re not good at interpersonal skills.
And you are?
I am a happy person—I am very resilient. I am always grateful for an ordinary day. And I am on the side of love, happiness, and pleasure.
Speaking of which, who would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
Katharine Hepburn, Barack Obama, and, I think, Emily Dickinson. And I know what I’d serve: salmon, filet mignon, good vegetables, and a great dessert. And lots of wine.
What do you do that’s just for fun?
Organize my house. That may not sound like fun to others, but it is to me. It’s my space, resonant with meaning for me. Just looking at all my books is fun, and reflecting on this wonderful life I’ve led.
Complete this sentence: I wish people would…
Listen more than they talk. It’s a lost art, and it’s so important.
What’s your favorite drink?
A Maker’s Mark Manhattan with Luxardo cherries.
Who do you most admire?
I really admire Hillary Clinton. I think she has taken the rap for successful intelligent women with such grace, and the stamina not to buckle under.
What do you regret?
I regret all the times I said “no” to Jimmie when she said “let’s go for a walk.” I’d have my head in a book, or work. She was always into just being, and I was so into doing.
Anything people would be surprised to know about you?
I’m shy, extremely shy, much more shy than people see me to be. I have to work myself up. My fondness for people really helps me to overcome me.