Over the years, Adan Gutierrez has put together a career most people only dream of. But what might be his most prestigious title isn’t found anywhere on his résumé.
“I’m an honorary chief of the Embeera tribe in Panama,” Adan reveals with a twinkle in his eye.
I look up from my notes, not sure I heard him right. You’re what? I ask.
“Oh it’s not a paying position,” Adan chuckles. “But I am an honorary chief.”
“I was the Naval Attaché in Panama,” Adan says leaning back in his chair. “The first Naval Attaché, as all our forces were departing, and we were turning over the canal. I was an integral part of turning over the canal from the U.S. to the Panamanian side. I was part of that history.”
Adan and I are sitting at a sidewalk café on a sunny Washington, D.C. morning. It’s early and Adan’s attention is divided between me and the paper he’s been reading.
“I was in Panama and developed a strong relationship with the Embeera tribe, so it was quite an honor.”
So did you have to go through an initiation? I ask.
Adan sets his paper down on the table and smiles.
“There was a ritual,” he nods leaning over the arm of his chair so a neighboring table can’t hear. “I had to undress all the way down to my trousers, then they used this plant to paint my entire body – even my face. I did my rites, so I became an honorary chief. Then, when I went back to my hotel, I realized the paint didn’t wash off. It didn’t come off for about two months!” Adan laughs and shakes his head.
“I was attending formal receptions at the U.S. Embassy wearing a suit and tie or, sometimes, a tuxedo – there I am with my face painted!”
That is some story, I laugh. So other than overseeing a tribe, what were you doing in Panama?
“Oh, I was the Naval Attaché in Panama,” Adan says leaning back in his chair. “The first Naval Attaché, as all our forces were departing, and we were turning over the canal. I was an integral part of turning over the canal from the U.S. to the Panamanian side. I was part of that history.”
That had to be an awesome responsibility, I suggest.
Adan nods. “It was. Lots of planning involved. When I showed up and the Navy called me and said, ‘What is your plan for the transition of the Panama Canal?’ I said, ‘What do you mean my plan!?!’ I assumed there was a plan from 20 years ago, but no, it was up to me. I had to come up with a plan.”
Interviewing Adan, it doesn’t take long to realize that even the world’s fastest note-taker wouldn’t be able to keep up with his amazing and often hilarious stories. So after hearing about the time he was almost robbed while surrounded by heavily armed Marines, about the time he was attacked by a monkey and taken to a witch doctor… I switch things up a little by asking him about his role today at Mission Essential.
“You know,” he said “I feel like, with my experiences over the past 30 years, I’m only now able to truly represent a company doing business in Latin America. It’s taken a lifetime.”
The answer is not what I was expecting. But you’ve held some very important positions all over the region, I say. You didn’t think you were ready then?
Adan shakes his head. “A four-star admiral once told me, ’Your best weapon is your Rolodex.’ And it’s true. Relationships are the key. That’s what helps you succeed. When I need to find out what’s happening in Mexico, Chile, Peru, or anywhere in Latin America, I don’t need to track those countries on a daily basis if I have someone that I can reach out to … Someone who can make an impact to me. That’s the key to success.”
Adan checks his watch and realizes he has to return to the office. He folds his paper, stands up and I thank him for taking time to meet with me. He tells me with a smile that he has more stories if I need them. I laugh and tell him I don’t doubt it.
As he walks off, I attempt to make heads or tails of my hastily scribbled notes and can’t help but think what good taste that tribe in Panama has in honorary chiefs.