Algorithm of Sadness

It’s 1996. I’m early in my career as an attorney and working for Sun Microsystems. An opportunity opened up supporting Dave Walker, who was the vice president of sales for the company’s software division. With my manager’s encouragement, I interviewed for the job.

When I returned from the interview, my manager asked me how it went. I had no idea. It was the strangest interview of my career. It took place over lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant. I don’t recall Dave even once asking me a question about my legal or business experience. Instead, we talked about where I grew up, my family, favorite places I had traveled, and books I enjoyed. Mostly, I remember Dave’s voice. He had one of those baritones that shifted frequently in modulation from booming to confidential whisper, but always interspersed with one of the most genuine, heartiest laughs of anyone on the planet. Stranger still, when the waiter came to take our order, Dave spoke to him in fluent Vietnamese. It was something odd to hear coming from a big Irish looking guy with thinning hair.

Somehow I got the job and for the next three years I supported Dave and his global sales team. They turned out to be formative years in my growth as a manager and a leader because I had the opportunity to work with Dave.

A few weeks after I started, Dave held a team planning offsite at a hotel in Laguna Beach, California. I was surprised to be invited, because I was not part of the sales team, but only their attorney. For four full days we were closeted in operational reviews taking only a break each night for dinner. It was an intense, long and tiring few days and after our meal on the last evening, Dave suggested that we all adjourn to the bar for a drink. When I politely declined because I was going to visit a friend who lived in the area, Dave gave me a strange look, and then a grin, but I thought nothing of it.

The next morning, when I reviewed my bill at check out, I noticed that there was a charge for liquor and cigars from the previous night. The amount was for more than the cost of my entire stay. After questioning the clerk, I determined that Dave had somehow obtained my room number and forged my signature on the bill.

I spent the weekend feeling very anxious about explaining this expense to my parsimonious manager, but when I came into work on Monday, I discovered that Dave had let my manager in on the joke. It was a great example of Dave’s sense of humor. It was also his way of teaching me that if you want to be part of the team – be part of the team.

The following year, Dave held an operational review meeting in Paris. He had decided that his team needed to learn to make more effective presentations, so he hired  a coach to provide additional training at the meeting. When I found out that I was expected to participate, my anxiety level peaked. Public speaking was my Kryptonite. The thought of speaking in front of even a handful of people caused me to break into the sweat of a 10,000 meter Olympic runner. I tried every excuse to get out of it, including honesty. “Dave, I hate public speaking and I’m terrible at it.” But, Dave was relentless and made me participate.

After a couple of hours of training, we were given an exercise in extemporaneous speaking. My turn came right before lunch and I was asked to speak about something like my favorite meal or movie. I froze. My throat constricted, my lips felt like parchment, and then I mumbled nonsense for five minutes before we adjourned for lunch.

I walked out of the room feeling complete humiliation. Then I noticed Dave walking besides me. He flung one of his big arms around my shoulders and said: “Wow, you were right. You really sucked.” Then he let out one of his wonderful laughs. To make matters worse, over lunch he made a point of teasing me at every opportunity. Turning to others on his staff he would say things like: “Nice speech by our lawyer” or “Hope we don’t need him to argue a case for us.”

But that evening at dinner he leaned over to me and quietly said: “ Hey, don’t worry about this morning. Public speaking is an acquired skill. I was terrible when I started. Well, not as terrible as you, but just keep at it. You’ll get better.” That’s was pure Dave. He’d tease the hell out of you, but it was in fun and you always knew he cared – cared about you as a professional and as a person.

There are many different types of leaders. Some are removed and aloft; some are only focused on business; and others manage by fear. Dave was none of these. Instead, he had a style that I like to refer to as “professional intimacy”. He had a way of letting you know the pressure he was facing – whether it be in hitting sales targets or navigating internal company politics – in a way that galvanized your support. You wanted to do your best not just for the company or organization, but for Dave.  As a result, Dave’s teams always tended to “punch over their weight.” He always got the most out of us.

From Dave I learned that it was not just acceptable to have fun at work, but that it was an important ingredient of success. No one enjoyed humor or a joke as much as Dave. Yet as I grew to know him, I realized that it was also a deliberate and thoughtful mechanism that he used to help reduce organizational stress. And when it came to this, Dave would stop at nothing including convincing his team to dress at as the band Kiss and perform in front of his entire organization. The vision of Dave channeling his inner Gene Simmons and strutting around the stage in platform heels and black and white makeup still brings a smile to my face even now.

In that same vein, it was at Dave’s prodding that I performed at a sales leadership event on stage at the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria. My part of the performance was to dress in tights and a jester’s costume and juggle clubs before an audience of more than 400 people. I was absolutely terrified, but Dave had a way of getting you to do things you never thought possible. That was one of his greatest attributes as a leader.

Over the last fifteen years, Dave and I lost touch. He called me once or twice to ask a question about one of his business ventures, but slowly we drifted apart. Despite this, several times a year something would bring him to mind and I would imagine us grabbing a beer and me thanking him for all that he had taught me. I knew how he would respond – with self-deprecating humor punctuated with a big laugh; however, it was something I really wanted to tell him. So, I would pledge to drop in to visit the next time my travels took me closer to his home in Atlanta. But they never did.

Sometime, perhaps a few years ago, a product manager at LinkedIn came up with an idea for a new product feature. The thought was to create an algorithm that would provide LinkedIn members with news related to other members who shared similar career experiences, for example, having worked at the same company during the same time. She probably handed this idea off to her programming team and they spent weeks coding and testing the algorithm before releasing it as a new feature that would provide value and happiness to LinkedIn customers.

Last week, the algorithm didn’t work that way for me. Instead, it brought me great sadness because when I logged on to LinkedIn I saw a message from a former colleague.

It said that Dave Walker had passed away.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Algorithm of Sadness

  1. PSH

    Mike,
    Sorry for your loss

  2. Nancy

    What a thoughtful remembrance of someone who clearly was an important mentor in your life.

    Kind regards,
    Nancy

  3. Mike,
    What a nice eulogy for your friend and a lesson for us all regarding leadership.
    Fred

  4. Love this story Mike, it is really good stuff.

  5. I’m so sorry that you didn’t get to tell Dave what you just told us, Mike, but I have a feeling he knew that he was instrumental in shaping your skills and style, and that you were worth his time and energy. Now we, your readers, can be richer for your sharing his strengths and your learnings. Thank you for that. You have a pretty good laugh yourself, you know!

    Irene – on the road again – PNW

  6. Thanks for sharing your beautiful memories with your mentor Dave and sorry that you didn’t get to say a thank you to him over a beer.

  7. Siong Koon

    Mike,
    Thanks for sharing your memories of and learning from Dave. I think that the spirit of Dave lives in you and did bring out the best in us when we were part of your global team at Sun, thanks for guiding us, Cheers

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