Today begins the Memorial Day Weekend, the traditional start of Summer. This year is very different as I will not be going anywhere over this weekend or for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus health crisis. Moreover, all the days of the week have blended together so that it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a weekday and a weekend day. About the only difference right now is that I do not spend as much time in my office on Saturday and Sunday as I do on Monday through Friday.
I have a somewhat tortured professional relationship with Memorial Day. It comes from my first year practicing as a lawyer when the partner I worked under called me into his office at about 4 PM on the Friday before Memorial Day and informed me that one of the firm’s top individual client’s had an emergency legal situation and the partner needed me to prepare and have ready to file for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) when the courthouse opened on the Tuesday morning after Memorial Day.
At that point in my career I could barely spell TRO and certainly did not know how to prepare one. I had to gather all the facts necessary to support the TRO Application and then draft up all the documents as there would be no secretarial support for the project. It turned out, it was a legal matter for the client’s maid and the firm was going to do the work gratis. I was the low person on the Totem Pole so I got stuck with the non-billable work. That was about typical for that partner; he was a former Marine Officer and expected every associate to stand at Parade Rest when they addressed him (and especially when he was ‘speaking’ with them). This guy was one tough hombre and although he was a former officer, he spoke like an enlisted man. He demanded near perfection and as a first-year associate, I was extraordinarily far from near perfection. When I finished the work and delivered the final TRO and all supporting documentation to the partner at 4:30 PM on Memorial Day, he read it all and the only thing he said was “You did a good job. Enjoy the rest of your holiday.”
I had not thought about that partner for many years but I have thought about him over the past few weeks as I was watching ESPN’s The Last Dance, bio/docu-drama about Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. One of the things that interested me was how tough Jordan was on his teammates and how difficult he appeared to have been as a teammate. Commentators from today’s era have skewered Jordan for his behavior towards his teammates and said it would never be tolerated in the world of today’s Millennial and Gen-Z players who are all too sensitive to face that level of scrutiny. (See, articles in Slate and from the NYT.)
Was Jordan abusive and tough? A big yes to both. Did that make his teammates better? Absolutely. Would John Paxson and Steve Kerr have hit series winning shots if Jordan had not dogged them? We may never know if they would have failed because they both did hit the winning shots, securing championships for the Bulls. Was Jordan so wired that he had to push his teammates to work as hard as he did to win? You bet. Did it make the Bulls the greatest team in NBA history? Six championships in eight years – without a doubt.
While the partner who assigned me the outhouse duty that first Memorial Day weekend of my professional career was a hard driving taskmaster, I learned a ton from him. I worked for two other partners during my associate career who were equally as tough (although without quite the salty language). They had no boundaries about calling anytime day or night and thought about not much more than what they wanted. Yet I also learned quite a bit from them as well.
One of the key points I got from The Last Dance is that working for or with a tough taskmaster who veers into jerk territory can make you a better professional, in my case a much better professional. I still carry lessons today which I learned from each of those incredibly tough taskmasters. In the case of Jordan’s teammates, it does not get much better than their two separate 3-peats. Can you be a tough taskmaster without the full Marine enlisted man language or Jordan’s case calling his teammates “bitch and ho”? Yes, you can.
One of the best examples is a now retired Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) who worked his team to the bone.It was 24/7 all the time if you worked for this CCO. I once was organizing a panel this CCO was scheduled to be on and the CCO started emailing me at 6AM each morning for the week leading up to the presentation checking on the status of our presentation. If I did not respond to the email within about 10 minutes, I received a follow up text asking if I had received the email. After about the third day, I called someone who worked for that CCO, told the person what was going on and asked if that was standard for the compliance team. That person’s response was “Welcome to the team.” Yet anyone who worked for that CCO got a PhD in compliance after about three years. Moreover, if they wanted to move up to another company to become a CCO, they went with their CCO’s full blessing and a hardy recommendation. There are three generations of CCOs who have come out of that company due to the compliance education they received from that CCO who worked them to the bone.
I wish everyone a safe and happy Memorial Day. Also please take a minute to honor the women and men we celebrate each Memorial Day-those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2020