Pick Your CEO Wisely


They laid Senator Edward W. Brooke to rest this past week in Arlington National Cemetery. For those under the age of thirty-five, or those who do not follow American politics, neither the name nor the place of burial will probably mean much. But for those of us who worked for him, the opportunity to pay our final respects at the National Cathedral and then march in a light rain behind the horse-drawn cassion bearing his casket to his final hilltop resting place was deeply moving, yet also joyous. Deeply moving, because it was a reminder of the finite nature of the time apportioned to us all. Joyous, because Ed Brooke reminded us of how far one determined individual can go during the course of that journey. And he was truly a unique individual - or, in the words of District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a man who "invented himself". Born in 1919 in a segregated Washington, D.C., he had little choice but to invent both himself and his future - because there were no prototypes then for a black man seeking by popular vote to enter an all white club called the U.S. Senate. If you'd like a sense of his journey and accomplishments, read on here.


From time to time I am called upon to speak to students, professional groups or other gatherings. Often during the question and answer period I am asked if I have any career advice. Invariably I say "pick your CEO wisely". The students, especially, find that a strange and even humorous response. But I am only half kidding. I have been fortunate enough to have had some extraordinary bosses over the course of my career, starting with Massachusetts newspaper publisher Bill Wasserman and ending with Moya Greene, CEO of Canada Post. In between were individuals like Sandi Close at Pacific News Service; Senator Bob Dole; Jerry terHorst at Ford Motor Company; Ralph Pfeiffer, John Thompson and Bill Etherington at IBM; John Caldwell and Derek Burney at CAE; and John Hunkin at CIBC. None were perfect; but all made me better (or at least less imperfect.) Losing a boss is a strange phenomenon. To some degree, at the height of their powers, they appear from a distance to be almost immortal, (even if, up close, they often are just as human and frail as the rest of us.) When they die, our anchor drags a bit. I have been fortunate thus far - I have only lost two former bosses, IBM World Trade CEO Ralph Pfeiffer and Senator Brooke. But the void created is profound. Much as with parents that you never got around to thanking for all they did for you, you realise you never quite expressed fully the gratitude you felt for them having given you an opportunity.


Four years ago I stepped away from the corporate realm and began my own company. Drawing on my experience working with government leaders and CEOs, I work with Board Chairs, CEOs and soon-to-be CEOs. Some of the work involves communications, including major speeches, board presentations and the like. But a significant portion relates to coaching incoming CEOs and transition planning and execution. One of the challenges in that line of work is getting the individuals to look beyond the immediate job ahead of them - making the numbers quarter by quarter, year by year - to take in the longer horizon. I ask them questions like "What do you want to be remembered for?" or even "What would you like them to say about you in your obituary?" Questions like these have probably cost me a few clients... but most, after being initially taken aback, begin to reflect. The truth is, most of us want to be well regarded...if not by the general public...at least by family and friends. And not just for record earnings... or raising a dividend. So important do I view this ability to project oneself into the future for a new or incoming CEO that I sometimes partner with a former IBM colleague, Jim Dryburgh, head of a company called Balanced Worklife, to put the individual through an intense two-day session to help them delve into these bigger questions. While many initially view this opportunity as the equivalent of a dental appointment, virtually all are appreciative afterwards.


Senator Brooke left towering legacies in several areas. He paved the way for the election of subsequent African-Americans, including Barack Obama. He was a strong advocate for women's rights, including a woman's right to choose. He was a towering figure in the housing sector. And, less well known perhaps, he was influential in getting enough bipartisan Republican votes lined up to get the Panama Canal treaty passed in 1978... and instrumental (thanks to quiet a visit to Salt Lake City) in getting the Church of Latter Day Saints to change their position regarding racial equality. Bob Dole without a doubt will leave a legacy for his tireless advocacy for the disabled; for his efforts (with Senator George McGovern) to address nutritional issues on behalf of the poor and children; and for his ability to place social security on a firmer footing. But you need not be a politician to leave a legacy. Derek Burney was a good CEO... but he will likely be more remembered for his tireless advocacy for a strong and vibrant Canada. Moya Greene revolutionized both Canada Post and the Royal Mail... but may well be ultimately remembered for bringing the issue of mental health to public attention... well before anyone else did. Nor, for that matter, do you need to be a CEO. Each of us can ask ourselves the legacy question. Each can draft up our obituary... and upon doing so, decide if that, indeed, is how we'd like to be remembered.


One of the first speakers at Brooke's service was Secretary of State John Kerry, himself a former Massachusetts Senator. He began his remarks by saying, "Cast your mind back fifty years. Imagine a room... and in it are the leading Massachusetts political figures of the day... Kennedy; O'Neill; McCormick; Volpe; Brooke. One figure stands out - the courageous representative of an embattled minority. Alone; undaunted... Ed Brooke... the only Episcopalian." The nearly packed cathedral laughed as one.

Barack Obama, Edward Brooke
Barack Obama, Edward Brooke

Oct. 28, 2009, President Barack Obama greeting former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke in the Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a ceremony where Brooke received the Congressional Gold Medal. Brooke, the first black to win popular election to the Senate, has died. He was 95. Ralph Neas, a former aide, said Brooke died Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, of natural causes at his Coral Gables, Fla, home. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)