Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Something Special

Five years ago, I was a lowly analyst in a going-nowhere job, working for a slightly psychotic boss and going about my day wondering how to turn things around. I had no substantial work experience, I didn't know what I wanted to "do," and I had just moved out of my parents house and in with my fiance.

Every morning, the Chief Development Officer at our company, Al, would walk by my cube with his cup of coffee and say "hello." He had a towering presence and his footsteps could be heard long before he was seen. He was in his late fifties, with grey hair and a stern countenance about him. Frankly, he scared the pants off of me, yet I said hello in return......every morning, for six months.

In my sixth month of misery, my current boss pulled me into his office one day with a strange look on his face. To my surprise, Al had approached him regarding me. He found out I had my MBA, and was wondering if I could do some work for him while his analyst was out on maternity leave and he sent her replacement to another office in Boston. This prospect terrified me, as I didn't know anything outside of Corporate Research. But my boss insisted, saying that working for one of the "Top 5" in our company was going to be good for the both of us!

So I walked into Al's office, his computer and head facing away from me as he summoned me in. My first memories of working for him mainly involve the back of his head. "Find me the basis on the Orange County project!" The basis? What the hell is a basis?

I frantically walked from cube to cube in my office, asking people if they knew what a "basis" was. Come to find out, it's what Accounting has on the Books as the total cost of a project. I was like, "why didn't he just say total cost?" So eventually, I returned to him with the basis on the project. To which he responded with, "did you find out what the GMAX was?"


Well, you get the point. I was thrown into a world of things I didn't know, and I was expected to know them, so I got really good at finding my allies and getting the things I needed in order to keep him satisfied. I did my best to up-manage him, keeping him reminded of important dates on deals, taking good notes so I could have him check up on items with his direct reports across the country.....I even shuttled him around Denver to pick up and hide his Harley. Things were crazy.

At one point, he was given an additional title --"President" -- and was asked to relocate to Washington, DC to rule the roost from the Arlington office. My then-fiance and I were petrified of what this meant. Would he want me to move with him? It was exciting, yet at the same time, we didn't want to leave Colorado!

Sure enough, one morning at the Egg & I, Al put it out on the table. Would I be his analyst and move to Washington with him? He emphasized that I had a steep learning curve and that I wasn't perfect, but that he enjoyed working with me and thought it would be a good experience for me. I was so torn at this point, because DH loved his flight instructor job in Colorado and desperately wanted to stay.

So Al proposed 3 things. The first was a massive pay raise, effective immediately. The second was an all-expense paid trip to DC, staying in Reston, Foggy Bottom, and Pentagon City to decide if we wanted to live there. And the third was dinner at his house with his wife and daughter, so we could all get to know each other better.

The first was hugely tempting. We had student loans, there wasn't much leftover after paying rent, and we didn't have much in savings at all.

The second was a blast --- we stayed in Ritz Carlton's, ate fabulous dinners, and looked at tons of places to live. While we didn't love it, we decided that we could survive.

And the third was the best part. We met his wife and daughter, had a wonderful dinner, and DH decided that Al was the type of person worth changing your life for. He said that he had a "presence" about him. So hard to describe, but he was just a special person who you KNEW was much greater than anybody else. It would be silly to turn him down.

Of course, we didn't. We followed him, I became his analyst, and an insane 2 years followed as I learned more than I ever thought possible. Not only did I learn the technical stuff by digging around and begging from people, but Al taught me how to manage people. He proclaimed himself to be a bad manager, but this could not be farther from the truth. He led by example, and he set the very best. He was dedicated to his work, not because he had to be, but because he loved it. He was passionate about deals and negotiations. We'd get into a conference room, sit around a spider phone, and he would just light up as he expertly guided the conversations. His enthusiasm was contagious.

He kept a sense of humor about everything, shot straight from the hip, tolerated no bullshit, and expected your very best. He valued and trusted your opinion, empowered you to make decisions on his behalf, and genuinely cared about each and every person he worked with. Once you gained his trust, you were "family."

I left Al a little earlier than I should have, but it enabled me to spend time in California, where I met so many amazing people. But Al never left my life......on trips back to DC, I'd do dinner with him and his family. He'd come out for lunch and dinner in California, and sometimes, DH could even come along and enjoy his company. When the economy started to slow, he was my sounding board when I told him I was thinking of transferring back to Denver. And when I was back in Denver, he continued to keep in touch with me and listen to what I had to say.

3 weeks ago, Al came out to Denver and invited me to lunch. We went to his old haunt from the Denver days, J Alexander's, and he told me he wanted to see my hubby and Derek. So DH and the baby showed up at lunchtime and we had an amazing time catching up. He was so happy, and looked great, too. Things were picking up at work, he was coming off a relaxing vacation, and it seemed his wife and daughter were doing really well, too. Al gave me some amazing career advice and really boosted my confidence when he told me I was too bright to be where I am right now; leave it to Al to throw me a bone when I desperately needed it.

I'm just devastated to report that on Friday night, Al passed away suddenly. Several of my coworkers from VA called me on Saturday morning to relay the news, and it really took a while for it to sink in. I'd always imagined him retiring. This was never something I'd considered -- he was invincible! Made of steel! Al was a presence that you always thought was going to be there.

Yet his body decided to leave life the same way Al lived it.....fast and on his own terms. In the mountains of Montana, at sunset, surrounded by friends after a relaxing week of riding his motorcycle. He was laughing, and then he just closed his eyes and was gone.

I never told Al how much he meant to me. I never told him that he saved me from that first job. That he influenced the way I think about our industry. That his leadership style inspires me to this day to treat my direct reports the same way he treated me. That his sharing his family with me in DC while DH was still in CO really helped keep me sane. That the support he continued to give me, emotionally and professionally, after I left him made me feel strong, self assured, and capable. That I loved him like a father. And I'd give anything to be able to give him another bear hug and tell him this to his face. Because he was THAT extraordinary of a person. And he touched me, and my husband....so very much.

Driving home tonight, I still felt in denial that he was gone. And the ache in my heart returned, knowing that I'd never be able to talk to him again, or see that trouble making smirk, or hear his silly "at the usual and customary tone" voicemail message. But I looked at where I was, and realized, "Al developed this entire business park." And he did. So crazy, but back in the 70's, he'd put together the land development plan for the very road and area I was driving through. So in a way, I see him every day, in the work that he did.....and I can just imagine the excitement he felt when he inked that deal, got approval from the City, and watched it grow.

The funny thing about all this? There are dozens of people who could write a similar story about Al. About how he changed their life for the better. I cannot even begin to say what an extraordinary man he was, or what an impact he made. But this girl misses him terribly, and just hopes that if he's up there looking down on her, he knows how special he was.

Al, I love you. Tim loves you. And I hope one day Derek will look back on the photos you took together and know that this was the man who made his parents who they are today.

1 comment:

Leah said...

Wow. This is beautifully written. I can tell Al meant a lot to you. What a lovely tribute.