This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my first boss, Tom Poole, who died a year ago. A quiet, unassuming Down Maine’r, as a young man Tom left the Pine Tree State first to fight for our country and then to make his mark on the business world. In his retirement, he returned each summer to his cottage in northern Maine.
Tom taught me four lessons — about hiring, making unpopular decisions, buying a cottage (in Maine!), and taking vacations — that have had an immeasurable impact on my life and, by association, the lives of many around me. Each lesson has its own story which, this Thanksgiving, I share.
Cottage First, House Second
We own a cottage on a lake in Maine. This summer will be out 25th there. It is really more ‘home’ to us than our house in Lexington. When we lived in Ireland for four years, the cottage in Maine kept us grounded to the States.
We own the cottage because of Tom. Often when we are there, friends ask, “How did you come to buy this place so long ago?” I answer by telling them about Tom, by telling them about the day I told Tom I was contemplating buying a house and he said, “Des, buying a house is important, but before you do, buy yourself a cottage on a lake. There is a limited supply of lakefront property. And if you buy a cottage first, you’ll still figure out a way to afford a house later. But if you buy your house first, you’ll not likely ever get the cottage.”
Tom was right. Though my boys have heard my telling the story too many times, they never seem to tire of it; rather they smile slightly as they hear, once again, about this guy they never met named Tom and how his advice resulted in their having a cottage that they enjoy so much.
Decisions That Are Right, Not Popular
I was lucky to become a manager at Burroughs at a very young age. The company was growing like crazy in the early computer days and there were plenty of opportunities for young people like me that Burroughs hired right out college.
A key lesson from that time was when Tom told me of some decsion he was going to announce, which, though clearly right, was sure to be unpopular. (I’ve long since forgotten what the decsion was even about.) Sitting in his tiny windowless office in Manchester, New Hampshire I said, “But Tom, people will not like you if you make that decision.” To which Tom replied, “Des, my goal as a manager is not to make decisions because they will make me popular; my goal is to make decisions because they will be considered best for all of us.”
Again, Tom was right. To this day, whenever some young manager – or one of my boys – questions a decsion I’ve made with, “But people will not like you” I tell them about Tom. I tell them about how the people who I thought would not like Tom’s decsion are the ones who came to realize that Tom’s decision was right; the ones who came to respect Tom for making that tough decision; the ones who, over the years, stayed in touch with Tom and who are, I’m sure, thankful for what Tom taught them.
Vacation Time is Sacred Time
One year (long before email and cell phones) Tom was heading off for his annual two-week family vacation at his lakefront home in Greenville, Maine and he put me in charge of the office. I said, “Tom, things are so busy right now, you’d better give me your cottage phone number in case there is something important enough for me to call.” I was flabbergasted when Tom said, “Des you’ll just have to get by on your own without calling me. We have no phone at the cottage.”
When I protested, “But suppose I need to call you for something really important?” Tom said, “Well the only way I can be reached is for the Maine State Police to hike into my cottage from the main road. So you, Des, will have to decide that the situation is important enough that you are willing to call the Maine State Police. Then the Maine State Police will have to decide that the situation is important enough to send a trooper to hike in and get me.” At that moment I thought Tom incredibly irresponsible.
But, once again, Tom was right; and it wasn’t too many years before I matured enough to realize this. To this day, I consider vacation time sacred time. However important my job might be, I am simply not that important; while I might be president of a company, I’m not the president of the United States! While I’m away for a long weekend or for a couple of weeks the people back at the office can make the important decisions without me. So whenever someone – whether a subordinate or a Board member – says, “How can we reach you over your vacation?” I tell them, “You can’t.” And when they protest, I then tell them the story about Tom and the Maine State troopers.
Hire The Very Best
Tom taught me that, if you surround yourself with great people, you’ll succeed. Because Burroughs was the only computer company hiring right out of college, we were able to interview the “cream of the crop” at local universities. My first year as manager, we interviewed dozens of candidates for one opening. When I told Tom that my choice was a kid named Steve Lilly, he said, “Fill out the paperwork and bring it to my office.” Later, as he was about to sign he hesitated and, without looking up, quietly asked, “Is he better than you?”
I was surprised by the question and didn’t immediately answer. He looked up and repeated it a bit louder, “Des, is Steve better than you?” When I said, “Yes” Tom smiled slightly, looked down, and signed the papers. As he handed them to me Tom said, “Good. If the first person you hire is better than you – and if every person you hire after that is better than the last – you’ll succeed. Some people are threatened by surrounding themselves with great people. Don’t be threatened. The great people you surround yourself with are not a threat; rather they are the means by which you will excel.”
Steve turned out to be a star, as did so many of the people we hired right out of college. Many of them eventually ran significant companies. It was enjoyable to read the comments of so many of these guys on Tom’s memorial site.
One man. Four lessons. An immeasurable impact. If only I could be so good.