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6/6/2002
11:41 AM
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Secret CIO: A Death In The Family, A Pause, And Life Moves On

Sometimes, we don't appreciate that the people we work with are more than just personnel.

Eric was a quiet sort of a guy. He did his job as a telecommunications analyst and kept things operating without making a big production out of it. Until I needed the information, I didn't realize that he'd been working for us for more than 15 years. I knew that he was married and had two sons--the pictures were prominently displayed in his otherwise Spartan cubicle.

I remember that whenever I would walk past, Eric would look up and smile, and, if I lingered, he would remove some gear from his visitor's chair. Frequently, I would sit and chat for a few minutes, but I couldn't tell you today what we ever said.

His funeral was well-attended. Eric had been active in his church and was a leader in its Boy Scout troop. His wife, whom I met for the first time, thanked me profusely for taking the time from "my busy day" to pay my respects. She insisted on introducing me to his mother and the boys. I said all the appropriate things and then picked out a pew about halfway up the aisle. After the service, I went to the cemetery and then to their house. I stood there feeling out of place, chatting with some of Eric's friends from work. I left after a decent interval. Rather than return to the office, I figured that my stuffed briefcase would buy me a legitimate excuse to go directly home.

I never opened the briefcase that night. Instead, I pondered why our day-to-day problems are so important to us that we often forget the human side of our work life. It has annoyed me for years that I would sit in meetings and hear high-level managers talk about how many resources they had on their staff, as if people were nothing more than droids or clones, fresh out of a Star Wars movie.

Of course, who am I to criticize? Eric was, in my eyes, a telecommunications analyst, several levels removed from me on the organization chart. I didn't exactly go out of my way to think of him as a father, husband, son, or in any significant way beyond what he could do for our shop.

When Eric got sick, I made sure that Lisa sent a basket of fruit from the department. I even had her send another one from me. Took me all of two minutes. I couldn't tell you what either basket looked liked, just that, given Lisa's good taste, both were most appropriate. Until I heard that he had died, I don't suppose that I had spent much time at all thinking about him, beyond asking his boss if the hole from his temporary absence (now made permanent) was being filled.

Will what happened to Eric and his family make me and the others in the company more sensitive people? Sadly, I don't think so. We'll all say, "Makes you stop and think, doesn't it?" But, in fact, we won't stop very long, and our thinking will last just to the point where we're hit with the next crisis or affront to our personal dignity by a customer or co-worker.

The day after the funeral, I was back at my desk. Eric was the topic of conversation. "Nice guy. Real shame," was the consensus. That afternoon, attention was diverted back to business when part of the server farm went down and people began to scramble. True to form, the problem was handled quickly and efficiently.

Within a month, we'd hired a replacement for Eric. We now have a number of people in the department who never knew him. Over time, he'll become a distant memory to most of the staff.

The cubicle where he spent so much time no longer has a photo of two young boys and a beaming wife. I seem to remember that its present occupant has a picture of the Ferrari or Lamborghini of his dreams plastered on the wall. Life moves on.

Sometimes I think of Eric. Usually it happens when I come across an old report or when I have to make a decision that may impact a person's future, such as implementing a change in the organization. I could say that I wish that I'd known Eric better, but that wouldn't be true. I never had the burning urge to develop a closer relationship, and I doubt that he did, either. Certainly, the difference in positions would have been a stumbling block.

From hard experience, I've found that being the boss does, indeed, stifle some potential friendships. It's not always easy to run a large group. Treat the people in it like a set of puppets to be manipulated and you aren't worth anything more than contempt. Get too involved with the joys and sorrows of personal lives and you're not capable of leadership.

What I wish, though, is that I, and everyone in our department, wouldn't forget that our little triumphs and tribulations at work pale into insignificance when you see the pain in the eyes of a family that has just had its dreams destroyed.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as the former CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net. He'll provide real, and sometimes whimsical, answers to your questions.

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