Ken Adelman is the former ambassador to the United Nations and former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. His wife, Carol, commanded a staff of hundreds at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
They are one of those quintessential power couples, Washington wags with a network that cuts across the corporate, political and nonprofit world. They hobnob in Davos and Aspen and rub elbows with the likes of former secretary of state Colin Powell, author Walter Isaacson, and filmmaker Ken Burns.
So imagine my surprise — and envy — upon learning that these networkers moonlight in a profitable little business using Shakespeare to teach leadership, strategy and management to businesses and organizations.
For $28,000 a day!
Movers & Shakespeares had earned them as much as $600,000 in a good year, allowing the two 66-year-olds to share a passion for the dramatist/poet that a) keeps them active, b) is fun and c) allows them to travel.
They both have other lives. Carol is a senior researcher and head of the Center for Global Prosperity at the Hudson Institute, the conservative think tank. Ken is writing a book and producing a film on the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev Reykjavik Summit, where he had a bird’s eye view as an insider. Ken also does a smattering of consulting around Washington and heads the Arts and Ideas program at the Aspen Institute.
They spend seven months a year in Arlington, and the rest of the year in Aspen at “the house Shakespeare built.”
Their client list is impressive; Vanguard Group, the Smithsonian Institution, Wharton School of Business, Overstock.com, Raytheon Missile Systems, Parsons Engineering, Aspen Institute, among others.
The $28,000 daily fee is for new clients. Veterans who sign up for a series of presentations see the fee drop to $25,000 and even down to $20,000, although not much below that.
“We make so much money because we are good,” Ken said. “They don’t pay us to teach Shakespeare. They pay us to teach leadership.”
I asked for some examples, and a litany of Shakespeare’s greatest hits poured forth.
●There’s Henry IV, the story about the king who is on the back nine of life but can’t let go. That play applies to family businesses trying to pass the enterprise on to the next generation, or to the CEO who thinks he will live forever.
●Another Henry, this one the Fifth. That’s the English king with the outnumbered army who beat the French at Agincourt by motivating his troops with the big speech (“We band of brothers . . . ”) and using the terrain to his advantage (not to mention the longbow).
Lesson: Make them fight on your terms, motivate through speeches and, once you’ve won, treat it like a merger and not an acquisition.
●Hamlet’s pondering of suicide with his “to be or not to be” provides a lesson in crisis management.
●Julius Caesar, a story of a conspiracy to kill the king, is a case study in how to execute a takeover and what not to do after you win. Adelman holds out Julius Caesar as something George W. Bush should have read before the Second Iraq War.
The Adelmans are both from Chicago. Ken attended Grinnell College in Iowa and Carol went to the University of Colorado.
He had never taken a Shakespeare course, and Carol — who was active in theater —remembers sleeping through King Lear. They met at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.
Ken, though, has an innate love of Shakespeare plays, and early in their dating took her to one of his favorites at the Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill. When they came out of the theater, Carol asked him to help explain it to her.
Thus began a decades-long mutual love of the Bard. They’ve seen all of Shakespeare’s plays multiple times. At last count, they had seen 27 stage productions of Hamlet.
Movers & Shakespeares grew out of a book Ken wrote with former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norm Augustine called “Shakespeare in Charge,” about the leadership lessons not-so-hidden in the plays.
It made money, but Augustine had to get back to his day job. Ken and Carol teamed up and started giving speeches.
“I said to Carol, ‘This is stupid. We are talking about Shakespeare on leadership, but we should show it to them.’ ”
A 1997 engagement for Northrop Grumman marked the couple’s big breakthrough. The head of the contracting giant’s $8 billion electronic systems arm near Baltimore said he wanted to use the classics as a vehicle for business lessons. Ken presented his Shakespeare lessons before 25 of the division’s top executives.
The next day, the executive in charge of the electronics division called and said he would purchase 11 sessions over the next year. The Adelmans now have a substantial stable of regular clients, who pay travel expenses plus the $28,000 fee.
The fee is the same whether your audience listens for 50 minutes or five hours.
Most sessions include a pre-interview with company executives to search for stress points and find what goals they want to achieve — leadership, motivation, diversity. The Adelmans map out a session plan, which includes parts of films of Shakespeare plays, accordingly.
Carol said the best instruction comes from videos and explanations.
“Shakespeare was not meant to be read; it was meant to be seen on the stage or on the screen,” she said.
I visited a session about a year ago at the Smithsonian, but was asked to leave by a staffer. My guess is that they thought I was going to make fun of it.
Ken said his price is a drop in the bucket if it succeeds in getting managers to think.
“The expensive part is the people in the room,” he said. “They are taking a lot of highly paid, high-performing people and putting them in a room for the day. We better give them something they are going to use and remember, or they aren’t getting their money’s worth.”
I asked if he had ever bombed, and both Adelmans recalled a session a few years ago when a bunch of 30-something Wall Street bankers sat impassively during the entire day, “too cool for school,” as Ken described it.
The Adelmans don’t advertise. They don’t really have to. They get between 15 and 20 gigs a year.
Ken’s international connections helped reel in a Shakespeare session in India, where the biggest English language paper in the country paid them to fly over for a 50-minute session.
“It was a great gig,” Ken said. “We spent four days there.”
Carol complained that I kept harping on the money they made off Shakespeare.
Then I was reminded of a quote from “Hamlet”: “The lady doth protest too much.”