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The man may run the world's largest company, but the boy within still runs the man.

Professional Paradox

It's an overflow crowd in the VCU Commons ballroom: a collegial mix of sleepy students and graying professorial types in suits. They've gathered to listen to G. Richard Wagoner, president and CEO-apparent of General Motors Corp., the world's largest company, talk about the importance of global positioning and e-commerce.

It's a case of hometown boy makes good. Really, really good.

As the 9:30 a.m. start time looms, the quiet buzz is punctuated by the sounds of students reluctantly pulling out pens and paper, opening notebooks, getting ready to write down what corporate pearls VCU's 1999-2000 C.G. Thalhimer Executive-in-Residence lecturer may drop. I catch a glimpse of the corporate scion and the Annie Lennox refrain "feels like 17 again" plays in my head.

As VCU President Eugene Trani finishes his introduction and Wagoner takes to the podium in a single stride, I am struck with such a feeling of deja vu: Wagoner is advancing toward another podium, about to make another speech, running for yet another school or class office.

My reaction to seeing him again is much like his description of what he feels every time he returns to Richmond.

"It's not any one feeling," he tells me as we catch-up on a brisk walk across campus. "I always drive down Monument and think how nothing has changed. Then I come over a few blocks to here, to VCU, and I think how nothing's the same. How very different it all is."

In 1970, we were high-school buddies, running in the same competitive, bent-on-excelling crowd. He may be GM's "Golden Boy," but he was our golden boy first. Nearly 30 years ago at J. R. Tucker, he was a tall, blondish, lanky athlete and student leader. That he was awarded the senior superlative of Best All Around was no surprise; he earned it every day of his high-school career. While others in our crowd were handsomer than he, and few more intelligent, no one was nicer. Affable and approachable, that was Rick.

Listening to him field questions from the audience or make eye contact with those waiting to shake his hand and tentatively push their business card into his palm, I see that innate niceness. "Here's my card," one odd-looking, non-suited gentleman tells him. Boldly the man adds, "I know how to help you sell more cars." Without missing a beat, without a moment's hesitation, Wagoner says, "Great, that's always what we're looking for," politely taking the next extended hand in line.

I quiz him, "How can you run the largest company in the world and still be so nice?" He laughs.

"No, really, how can that be? I don't remember you as confrontational, even on the basketball court, you were working past opponents, thinking ahead of them. I remember you as a mediator," I say.

"I can be confrontational when I have to be," he responds abruptly, without volunteering examples. And for a moment, I catch a glint of steel, a hint of something other than this hearty returning homeboy. Something that says he earns that nearly $2 million-a-year salary and bonus check.

A cynic by nature, I congratulate him on his masterly use of relative pronouns. "What?" he asks.

"Three out of four times when you prefaced an anecdote or business example about GM and its engineers, you made the engineer a 'she,' a woman," I say. He takes a sip of his coffee. "In the next 10 years or so, most of the best and brightest engineers at GM will be women. My comments reflect the population and the trend in the work force."

"Yeah, right," I say, responding to the studied, corporate-speak.

"Hmmm," he smiles, "Am I sounding too much like someone who's been beaten up over this before?"

Earlier in the morning, someone in the audience flustered Wagoner with words of praise and the mention of his mother. He blushed. Actually, he turned beet-red. Despite the custom-made suit, despite his impressive title, despite his corporate responsibilities.

Who says nice guys finish

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