I had a brief conversation with my former boss’ widow today.
A few weeks before I was hired, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. By the time I started, he was only working a few hours a week. In February I went on the road to work offsite for a week, and the week after I came back, he died.He had been a Marine Staff Sergeant and an Air Force Major. Out of respect, I will just refer to him as "The Major."
The Major’s accomplishments in the Air Force were the stuff of legend. He had a pattern of coming in and accomplishing superhuman things in mind-boggling periods of time. Doing more with less wasn’t a mantra with him. It was a gift.
I know his secret.
The Major wasn’t able to drive himself for any of the time I knew him, due to the pain medications he was taking. One day The Major needed to run an errand. It was a slow day, so he asked me if I would drive him. I agreed, of course.
I was parked about a half mile away (don’t ask), so I offered to pick him up at the door. He wouldn’t have any of that. He wanted to talk.
So we walked. I walk fast–the result of having too many classes in college back-to-back that were across campus–but he didn’t have to ask me to slow down very many times.
He told me a little about his career. About going into the Marines, working for a tape factory, going back to school, then becoming an officer in the Air Force. Then he stopped.
"What’s your background?"
He knew my resume, so I concentrated on the types of work I’d done, zeroing in on the parts I thought were relevant, based on the work we did.
I don’t remember what we talked about after that. Not much, I don’t think. His mind was turning.
I dropped him off where he needed to go, and waited for him. He wasn’t long. He didn’t get what he needed there.
But he did come back with a question. An exceptionally good question. In fact, I heard the question from our customers several times in the weeks that followed. But he was the first to ask it.
It was a simple question, but the answer wasn’t so simple. It begged for a repeatable process. I gave him the superficial answer that politeness demanded, then added, "but it really needs a documented process." He asked me to do that, and the result was that initial answer got a lot more refinement.
And eventually, the reason he was successful dawned on me.
He’d asked me to do things before. He’d handed me things to read and comment on before. But those were little things, mostly. This was a bigger-picture thing.
I’m sure he had an agenda. Managers always have agendas. But he didn’t let the last phone call he’d taken or the last meeting he’d attended drive his questions.
He set that aside for a minute in favor of another question. "What’s one question I have that this new guy would be able to answer?"
Unfortunately, he never got a chance to ask me a second one.
After he died, I heard some more stories, including stories about things he’d accomplished in the Air Force while stationed overseas. I imagined him having similar conversations with the people who worked for him, dividing up the work ahead into pieces of a puzzle, and determining who he had who could take each piece of it.