The email pinged around 7:30am. It was addressed to a long distribution list of former colleagues and some unfamiliar names who had been conscripted to the front lines of my former employer since my departure. The subject line read “FWD: re: Very Sad News”.
Initially, I assumed I was in receipt of yet another viral industry opinion piece that would require me to scroll for twelve minutes before reaching the angry manifesto. Instead, the note quickly fell into a tragic telegram sharing that during the previous evening, one of my former friends and colleagues, Mike F, had died of a massive coronary while in his sleep. He was 52 years old.
When a true friend dies, it feels as though there is one less person in the world who can unconditionally vouch for us. With each person’s passing, a tiny piece of land breaks off into the ebony ocean of eternity. Poet John Donne shared that no man is an island and the death of another man diminishes us. The wind can seem a bit more in your face and the sun buries its head behind a slate gray mast of clouds.
Mike was 48 when we first crossed paths. He was a journeyman account executive recently laid off from a major insurance company. I could tell he was still in those early stages of change – – the disbelief that always accompanied an unforeseen layoff from a long-term employer. The implied social contract that always seemed to go hand in hand with tenure was suddenly rendered null and void. Mike never maligned his former employer choosing instead to express his regret over not being a part of their next phase of change. He sounded disappointed that the drumbeat for improved profit margins and fresh ideas had resulted in his ending up on the outside of the conference room window looking in.
He did not make the most dynamic first impression. He was ruddy, overweight and looking his age – a hangover, I presumed, from decades of dinners and entertainment that was typical in an industry that was now hard shifting from “how long have you been here” to” what have you done for me lately?”. Yet, he had an infectious smile and an irrespressible confidence that implied he understood exactly what I needed.
I was in desperate need of an executive and an ambassador who could deal with the phalanx of regulators, consultants and large institutional brokers that our firm had managed to offend over a several year run of rapid growth and profit. As we had succeeded in winning market share, we had also lost our way, forgetting the golden rule. In my brief tenure, I had already been taken to task for our “lack of humility”, “unilateral arrogance” and “severe deficit of EQ”( low EQ was my favorite as lack of emotional awareness seemed to succinctly sum up the range of self-inflicted wounds that we had visited upon ourselves ). I was looking for a VP of broker relations and I had a very specific candidate in mind.
Our recruiters arranged for succession of interviews – delivering to me a complex and heterogenous queue of professionals whose diverse backgrounds and endless Rolodexes of goodwill could help me neutralize years of heartburn. The majority of these candidates were in their thirties with polished resumes, clear eyes and a burning ambition to make their mark. And then there was Mike.
His shirt tail was peeking out from underneath his pinstripe suit when he was escorted in by my assistant. He wore coke bottle glasses and flashed a familiar smile as we shook hands for the first time. I was disappointed and seemed to have already tipped my hand that he was not a “good fit”. I needed the charisma and social dexterity of Tony Robbins coupled with the business acumen of a Harvard MBA. If this person did exist, I had yet to meet them and Mike seemed to be their diametric opposite – a veteran account and service professional who had seemingly risen to the level of his incompetence. This would be as short an interview as I could manage.
Mike immediately endeared himself with a self-effacing remark and went right to work, looking for common ground inventorying those that we knew by one degree of separation. His lengthy career and experience was solid but he seemed on the downward slope of the mountain I was looking to climb. I was looking for “hungry” and this guy seemed to have already devoured the contents of the cupboard.
Without revealing our exact circumstances, I detailed my expectations of this position and tried to scare him off by exaggerating the problems that we were encountering. He took copious notes and asked insightful questions. Occasionally, he laughed sympathetically and commiserated with me citing horror stories of a failed systems conversion at his old firm and the subsequent back-breaking efforts to conserve relationships with angry customers. He stopped and looked beyond me into the tangled woods, “trust is very hard to get and very easy to lose.”
His blue eyes danced as he spoke fondly of a few national firms that I considered to be “pain in the ass” incorrigibles. He actually liked these guys and apparently they liked him. After two hours, my assistant darted her head in my door and pointed to her watch. I rose and shook his firm hand and showed him outside. Within five minutes, he had sent an email thanking me for my time and within a day, I had received a rare handwritten letter reinforcing how he felt he could support my efforts.
I was conflicted. I was looking for a carnivore and this journeyman account executive was at best a herbivore. My left brain told me to hire the Wharton MBA who spoke as if he would rip out the trachea of anyone who stood in between our firm and our goals. My right brain kept returning to Mike and his intangibles. For an organization that valued pedigree, appearance and IQ, his hire would raise eyebrows – a late forties relic from a golden age of handshakes and cocktail napkin relationships. Yet, his integrity did not show on paper. It beamed from him and suggested a man of patience and selflessness. He had been the only candidate that actually mentioned the word, “trust”.
When I called Mike to tell him he had won the job, he was ecstatic. Yet, I worried he was not tough enough to navigate our impossibly large and complex corporate body. I feared he would immediately be attacked by those I had come to label “the white blood cells” – those bureaucrats and home office types who seemed to go out of their way to destroy new people and new ideas as if they were infections. Would Mike even survive his first month?
Over the next several weeks, Mike travelled the country and would report back me. He often showed up with the corporate equivalent of a black eye, missing tooth or ripped shirt. He was clearly getting roughed up but he had a knack for finding a way through a problem. He was not as mercurial or prone to pick a fight as I was but instead “killed them with kindness”. Mike set about building fragile footbridges and reestablishing precious goodwill for us – always putting his reputation at stake as a personal promissory note.
“Chief” he barked one day across a broken cell phone, “ I think I found a workaround to that issue we had with ABC Consultants.”. “Where are you,” I asked. “You sound like you are halfway around the globe.” Well, I am in St Paul and I found a team that can help me process that project we need resolved.” It was January and it had to be -20 F in Minnesota.
True to his word, he fixed this problem and spent the next several years untangling a cat’s cradle of other difficult issues that were presented to us by our partners. When I resigned my position as regional CEO, Mike was visibly disappointed. “It won’t be the same without you, chief,” he confided with sincerity. “Thanks for giving me a chance.”
“The pleasure’s been all mine, Michael”, I told him.” You are a very safe, trustworthy pair of hands.”
In time, my former employer shuffled management and rediscovered its social compass. With new leadership and a greater appreciation for those who displayed humility and humanity, Mike’s stock rose within the organization. Yet, people like Mike never seem to find the spotlight. It is very hard for large corporations to quantify the value of people who prevent or mitigate problems. Their quiet contributions are often noted when there is no other noise. They are quiet strings and soft clarinets whose music is normally drowned out by the clanging gongs and self promoting percussion of other more self-interested executives.
We were first to arrive at the funeral home. I walked into a foyer filled with men, women and children with crystal blue eyes bracketed by the laugh lines of a hundred family gatherings. Mike’s twin daughter and son bravely received guests – two 14 year olds that had just suffered one of life’s gravest injustices.
Mike’s wife and I spoke briefly and she reiterated his appreciation for our few years of work together. She smiled and looked at me searching my eyes. “I did not want a coffin or an urn full of ashes.” She shared bravely. “I just want pictures.” She swept her hand to a series of poster boards filled with photos of Mike’s life.
I surveyed a half century of life events – – childhood, marriage and the sacred journey through the enchanted woods of raising children. Mike loved every minute of it. In each photo, he was surrounded by friends and family. This was not a man who would be caught in deep private introspection. He was living life and sailing over life’s bumps and landmines on the updrafts of trust and persistence.
By 3pm, the funeral home could no longer accommodate the masses of admirers spilling individuals into the parking lot. I was amazed and proud to see the impressive roster of family and industry dignitaries who had flown in on a moments notice to attend his service. We stood in small groups, swapping stories and moving to take one last glance at the photo journal of his life.
I moved off on my own to pay one last respect to Mike. As I leaned in to consider a series of photos, I was drawn to one picture of Mike. He appeared to be fixing an appliance or attending to some prosaic household task. He was signaling “thumbs up” to indicate that the problem had been resolved. It was the quintessential photo of the quiet trouble-shooter who understood that trust and servant leadership were the only currencies that counted.
At that moment, the adhesive on the picture loosened and the photo slipped ever so slightly to one side. I felt a strange sense of inner peace begin to massage my grieving. The handyman was giving me the “a-ok”.
“Hey, Chief, don’t worry about me. Mission accomplished.”