A More Human Short Story – My Path To Leadership Joy
It was early in 2010….
We thought he was indestructible. Our leader Bill Bresnan, our inspiration, the man who entered every room with a smile on his face and a mischievous gleam in his eye, had just passed away after fighting a courageous battle with cancer.
How were we going to deal with this? As SVP of Operations, I approached my first visit to the field after his death with a great deal of trepidation. I had worked with this man for 16 years, and known him for 22.
He had a style of leadership that I would classify as undeniably human, and personal.
I’ll never forget how, in 1994 when I was looking for a job, he found my resume in his stack of papers, and personally picked up the phone and called me, inviting me to come to his office in suburban New York.
He picked me up from the airport himself, and then personally escorted me through a day of staff meetings, a lunch, and a memorable hour in his office. I had absolutely no problem telling him my strengths and my weaknesses, about my family, about the high points and the low points of my life, and my high ambitions.
I wanted to be a leader – something I had promised myself I’d doggedly pursue since I had hit my career bottom two years earlier.
He sensed this passion in me, but couldn’t help but give me a dose of his mischief. At the end of our conversation I finally asked him about the job he had summoned me to New York to talk about, and he replied, “Job? Oh, I just wanted to see what you were up to. There aren’t any jobs to talk about”.
There was a big pause, and then that smile. I got to know that smile a lot better over 16 years, and it was always a signal of something either very funny, memorable, useful, or prophetic.
This time, it was all of those things. He mentioned that there just happened to be a staff manager position in the International division available (as if it had just occurred to him). Would I be interested?
It took all the discretion I could muster not to enthusiastically accept the position on the spot, without even knowing the salary or the responsibilities.
I eventually took the position, and that’s how our 16-year relationship began, and now that it had suddenly ended, as I got on the plane for my trip west to visit the field, I wondered – how should I handle this in front of everyone? Should I be the good soldier, stoic and measured, and keep the focus on the business at hand?
Or should I be “just me” – the person my teammates would expect to be emotional at such a time?
There was a lot of the “just me” in the past 6 ½ years – I finally got my chance to be the leader I wanted to be, and I certainly took advantage of it. I traveled to the field extensively. I had team meetings. I set a goal of at least meeting every one of the 1,100 employees in my department. I sang. I danced (strange, but true).
I also would hit emotional crescendos in a lot of my many speeches, almost getting to the point of tearing up, but never outright crying. I could get loud, I could get quiet. It was all out there for everyone to see.
At first, the field staff didn’t know what to make of it. They were so accustomed to buttoned-down executives, that is, if they ever saw them at all.
Here was this guy, showing up, and not “acting” like an executive. He was putting himself out there, making himself vulnerable because of his lack of pretense or ego, and because he wore many of his emotions on his sleeve.
Indeed, that was me. And it took a few years before we all got it figured out. There was a deep-seeded distrust of “corporate management” that was cultivated and fanned by many years of neglect and false promises by previous owners.
I’ll never forget the early conversations I had with some of the staff – all that frustration, unhappiness, and anger. And for while, it was directed at us. There were union drives, and intense meetings, and some incremental progress, followed by setbacks.
Yet, during this time, I could sense that there was going to be a break in the clouds, as long as I stayed true to myself, and the style of leadership I was practicing – open, honest, passionate, caring, and emotional.
The break came one day as I spoke to a group in Colorado that was going to decide on whether or not they were going to join a union. We sat in a circle, the six of us, in the stock room, and we talked and talked and talked.
I poured my heart out about the bond we wanted to form among all of our teammates, and that the only way to do that was to trust each other. “Trust us”, I implored. ‘Trust me”.
I told them we would take care of them. We would not lie to them. We would keep our promises. And if I was wrong, I’d personally come back, admit my error, and face the music.
I had just put myself way, way out there, but at least I knew someone had my back on what I was promising. It was Bill, that man with the mischievous grin.
He didn’t always like my deeply personal approach – we had a few heated conversations over those 16 years – but in the end, he was always honest, encouraging, demanding (in a good way), and loyal.
That’s why I could put myself on the line with the field staff – that’s why I could put my passion, enthusiasm, and emotion to productive work.
He trusted me. I trusted him. But now he was gone.
And wouldn’t you know it, the very first place I would visit after his death was one of those locations where I had to work the hardest to earn their trust.
These folks in Casper, Wyoming had suffered through a lot of poor management, and they had built a nearly impenetrable wall of corporate mis-trust. But the thing that I liked about them was the fact that they were connected to each other – a team that had rallied around a common cause.
Unfortunately, the “cause” was protecting themselves against “the man”, aka, the corporate office.
As you could imagine, my very first visit there was a little chilly. There wasn’t much said – just a lot of listening, and eye-rolling. You could just see it in their faces – “here we go again”. But I kept coming back, and kept peeling the layers off that wall, once again by putting my feelings out there.
Not long after my “Trust me” cloud breakthrough in Colorado I came back once again, and this time I knew exactly what I needed to do to completely break down the wall.
I told them we would not only make their jobs better, but that we’d make them happy. Smiley face happy. I actually drew that on the whiteboard in the meeting room, right before I sang a little karaoke for them.
“Oh man, he’s going crazy now”, they must have thought. But I could sense that in that thought was more than a glimmer of “Hey, this guy’s a real human, and I think I am ready to trust him”.
I also added some real goals and objectives to the mix – the things that I believed would get them to happiness. I called them “The 5 Things You Need To Know”. Before long, every person in my department knew those 5 things, and why they were important. And, slowly but surely, the tide turned.
It wasn’t long before my visits there became like family reunions, where they could almost make my speeches for me (I love the value of repetition), and the biggest question was the karaoke song I would attempt on that occasion.
Through all of this I never changed my approach – if we had screwed up on some corporate initiative, I’d tell them, and apologize. If we had a victory to celebrate, we’d do it up right. My smiles only got bigger, and my passion and enthusiasm only got stronger.
These folks had become a family to me, and now I needed to stand in front of them and talk about our late CEO, his legacy, and address the “what happens now?” questions.
The Smiley Face And The Legacy Of A Good Man
It was a long plane ride. I started thinking about all the things that man had done for me, the company, and all the other people who worked for it. I thought about his generosity, his bad jokes, and the way he would never let me off the hook when it came to continuous improvement.
(I will not soon forget the time I was crowing about achieving a 95% success rate on a certain metric, and he turned to me and said “Terry, I don’t understand – why not 100%? Why can’t you get 100%?)
I didn’t need to wonder how, over those 16 years, I was able to become a more human leader, one that cared for those he led, and tried to lead with passion, integrity, and more than just a little bit of fun. I had experienced the joy of leadership, and it was (darn) good.
It was because of him.
I arrived at our office in Casper and found the atmosphere to be as welcoming as ever – these folks knew that I had lost one of my most important mentors, and they were very gracious and supportive.
After one of their scheduled weekly meetings, it was my turn to speak. The room got really quiet. I’d never had such riveted attention in the 7 years I had been doing this very thing.
I had my usual prepared spontaneous thoughts ready to go, but it didn’t seem right. A zillion thoughts cruised through my head, and then my emotions took over, and I could feel myself nearly tearing up. I pulled it back in, and then, before I started talking, I walked back to the whiteboard, picked up a marker, and drew a big smiley face.
They had seen this face before.
“I’m sure you remember this – this is our business plan, in a nutshell”
I reminded them of the “5 Things You Need To Know”. “We serve our customers & support each other, keep focused on our key metrics of NPS, CFR, and basic customers, and we get here”
I pointed at the smiley face.
“You know that this isn’t what we present to our investors – oh yes, we have all of our financial statements and charts and graphs for them – but Bill got this. He got it. Bill knew, like I know, and now you know, that a when a team is truly happy, the profits take care of itself”
“Bill was a great man who left an incredible legacy. It is a legacy representing something truly unique and special. He was committed to service, to teamwork, to integrity, to being good corporate citizens, and to acting like…a family. His legacy is still alive and well in our company today.
We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and Bill knew that. He knew what mattered. He knew the value of hard work. He certainly cared about the financial results, because he had an obligation to fulfill, but what he cared about most of all were the people – and that’s an example he set for all of us. Caring about each other is the basic foundation of a good life – a happy and fulfilling life. THAT’s what he wanted for us, and THAT’s the legacy we must uphold.
We simply need to care. That’s how we can best honor him, and keep this company great”
I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I cried, right in front of everyone. I looked around the room, and many other people were crying too.
We had built a family here, and it was time to grieve together, but in the process I had taken my leadership to a level I could have never conceived during the first part of my career.
What I was really talking about in Casper, although the exact word didn’t come out, was love.
The late great basketball coach John Wooden (UCLA) would have been proud; I was a great admirer of his, because he was a rarity – someone who actually cited love as one of his keys to leadership success. He called it “the most powerful thing there is”.
I knew love wasn’t a concept well suited to the typically rough and tumble world of business. It’s a point of view that usually doesn’t dare to speak its name in the halls and in the boardrooms. It can seem “soft” – too “wishy-washy“, as if speaking about loving our teammates would be the ultimate weakness, a major flaw that could be regularly exploited by the more ruthless, manipulative and cynical people in the workplace.
But what I learned directly from Bill, from my own experience, and from people like John Wooden, was that love is NOT “soft” – it is NOT incompatible. It is essential.
We just can’t take this human side out if it – we all function better in environments where we know in our hearts that our caretakers, our mentors, and our leaders, really care about us, and are doing their best to guide and teach us. That’s “the most powerful thing” at work – it binds, it inspires, and makes success possible beyond our wildest Quixotic dreams. And it brings joy.
Even through the tears, it felt good to have arrived in this deeper, more meaningful place. We had created something special over these 7 years, and its foundation was now exposed for all to see.
I turned and looked back at the smiley face.
Maybe it was the lingering haze in my eyes from the tears, but I could have sworn it winked at me.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Bill Bresnan, the founder of Bresnan Communications and one of the pioneers of the cable television industry, who passed away in November of 2009.