Funeral for a Friend

On Elton John’s magnificent album, “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”, there lies an 11 minute masterpiece called Funeral for a Friend. The mesmerizing opening marches the mourner along the pathway of grief. It cries in dismay, roars with denial, wails with anger, whimpers with loneliness, and quickens the heart with hope. It is on auto play in my head because I am crushed by the recent loss of two immensely talented friends. Let’s examine how these amazing men used their strengths to impact tens of thousands of lives.

MIKE FEZZEY

Mike Fezzey, regional president of Huntington National Bank, gave me the gift of working with his senior leadership team. I always begin the client journey by defining success, and in this case, success had two faces: a) restore banking to the respectable, “pillar of the community” industry that it once was, and b) help save the great state of Michigan. We crafted a plan to leverage my strengths-based approach to pursue both objectives.

You’d think the president of a bank would have been born and raised on the dollar bill and interest rates, right? Not Mike. He had been born and raised on the radio waves, and in the nearly 20 years as General Manager of WJR, he made it one of the most prestigious and powerful radio stations in America, with a seven state reach. Remember when I lived in Savannah last year? During my drive down, on some empty mountaintop in West Virginia, I heard Mike Fezzey’s voice on WJR. I was six hundred miles away.

A few years ago, Mike wanted a new challenge and a greater ability to “fix Michigan”, so he was hired by Huntington National Bank to run the organization in eastern Michigan. The state was suffering, Huntington Bank was suffering, and the team was suffering. Mike set about to turn things around. When I met him, he’d already accomplished a great deal. Huntington was growing, the team was steady and most importantly, they had bought into Mike’s vision – the “be the pillar of the community” vision. I was impressed with his human approach to business. The bottom line was rarely mentioned. Customer experience. Partnerships. Pride. Community. “Moving Michigan forward one relationship at a time.” That’s what Mike talked about. The more time I spent with him, the more unusual he seemed. I couldn’t wait to learn his strengths.

Mike’s top 5 strengths were Connectedness (we are all one, everything happens for a reason), Empathy (senses how others feel), Belief (strong values), Strategic (connect the dots to a desired outcome), and Context (now we know why he wanted to return banking to the respectable industry it once was, years and years ago). The rest of his top 10 included Positivity, Woo, Developer, Communication – you can see why he had an emphasis on people. Mike innately knew that he was not task oriented so he had an amazing partnership with his chief of staff, Sue Brueckman. Sue’s strengths were focused on “get it done.” They were great together.

We had a multiple meetings and workshops with his senior leadership team. Mike and I laughed about the strengths at the bottom of his profile, which included Significance and Competition. His Belief strength fueled his energy to make a difference, not ego, or a desire to win.

We made plans to roll out the strengths-based success approach to other parts of the business, and agreed to go to lunch to finalize details. But, something funny happened at that lunch. No matter how many times I brought it up, Mike refused to talk about the future. I glanced at Sue, who also knew that this wasn’t quite the agenda we had in mind. She shrugged, I shrugged, and we let it go. It wasn’t uncomfortable at all. In fact, it was amazing, as all conversations with Mike were.

Between bites, Mike exclaimed, “Hey, did I tell you that I found Cricket?”

“No,” said Sue.

I was mystified. Who or what was Cricket?

“Yeah,” he continued, “My wife and I were on our way to a concert, and as we got off the freeway, there was Cricket! So we had a good talk – he’s doing pretty well. The neighborhood he used to be in had gotten worse, so he moved to a new location.”

Cricket was a homeless man that Mike knew from his days at WJR in downtown Detroit. And, because Mike is generous, I am sure that money was involved.

“I was glad to see him and hear he was okay.” Mike spoke about Cricket as if he were an old neighbor that he’d run into at the grocery store.

The rest of the lunch was filled with discussions about people. With Mike, it was all about the people in his life, or the people in your life. He didn’t really care about business except as a means to an end – to do good within the community, and to fix Michigan.

Mike wouldn’t let me buy lunch. He said it made him uncomfortable. I had no idea how to battle that logic, so I relented. As we parted, Sue whispered to me, “Don’t worry, you and I will work the plan.”

We were headed in opposite directions, but for some reason, after I took a few steps, I looked back at them. They were conversing and I could see their profiles. Sue was smiling up at Mike, and Mike’s mouth was going full steam. They both laughed, and I remember thinking what a great partnership they had, because they so clearly adored one another, and valued what the other brought to the table.

I never saw Mike again. He died of a heart attack while on a business trip to Florida. His funeral was a celebration of the man and his many gifts. Articles were written in the paper, describing him as The Great Connector and noting that he brought a human face to business. The Governor of Michigan attended, along with countless other business and community leaders who had been touched by Mike Fezzey. Someone said that Mike didn’t just meet people where they were, he loved them where they were. I miss him, feel for his family and his team, and I am grateful I got to know the man. Somewhere, somehow, I hope someone told Cricket.

CURT LIESVELD

In mid-April, I traveled to Omaha for Strengthsfinder training with Gallup. I had specifically selected that class because it was taught by the guru of strengths, Curt Liesveld. I had met Curt a few years before at a Gallup Great Workplace Summit, had read his many articles, and had attended nearly all of his Strengthsfinder webinars. Curt was not just knowledgeable, he was kind and generous. His goal in life was to support the Strengthsfinder movement, and to build an army of Strengthsfinder coaches. He wasn’t threatened by us; he was thrilled by us.

In the margins on the first page of my course textbook, I’ve written this paragraph, culled from Curt’s introductory remarks:

Curt – worked with tool and Strengths philosophy for 16 years. Believes that thinking about his or other people’s strengths, every day, has made him a better person. Believes it works because relationships are the conduit of human transformation. Top 5: Responsibility, Relator, Maximizer, Learner, Analytical

I love that Curt believed that we cannot grow in isolation – we need others to help us become who we were meant to be, and accomplish what we were born to achieve. That statement speaks to his strengths – the responsibility to help others be successful, a practice founded in relationships, a goal to maximize our selves, and living from a position of knowledge and data. What a remarkable perspective.

The course was all I had hoped for, and more. Curt was assisted by Benjamin Erikson-Farr and Blanca Garcia, and the three of them made a great team. When Curt wasn’t teaching, he was watching his colleagues do a terrific job, and stood ready to deepen everyone’s understanding. Curt could make both the newbie and the expert feel smart, sometimes in the same sentence. My brother, Marty, also attended the workshop with me, and he had the opportunity to lunch with Curt alone. I have to admit, I was jealous. Time with Curt was pretty darn special.

As the class wrapped up, and we learned about the process of certification, Curt explained that if you failed the test, he would personally coach you. I replied, “That might be worth failing for.” I was serious.

Afterwards, I let all three instructors know how wonderful they were by sending an email to their boss. Somehow, that email made it all the way to the CEO’s desk, and I received a note from Jim Clifton, expressing his gratitude for my appreciation of his team’s good work. I was happy that Curt and the team obtained recognition from the man at the top.

On May 1, I appeared on Gallup’s Called to Coach webinar. Here’s a link to the video: http://bit.ly/1KqKs0X and it is also on iTunes. We covered a lot of ground in 45 minutes. I spoke about the marvelous experience of being taught by Curt, Benjamin, and Blanca. I also shared my theory that thinkers are underserved and undervalued in the workplace. Later, I received praise from Curt. He wrote:

Great show Maureen. I’m so happy our audience got exposed to you. I love your words about undervaluing thinkers. It was an honor to make a small contribution to the stories of success you help others to create. You are a rock star.

Thrilled with his remarks, I replied:

Thank you, Curt!  Your words mean so much to me – I’m hatching an egg (an idea) regarding this thinking stuff – I’ll keep you in the loop when it pops. Thank you for being part of my support team!

Shortly thereafter, I received news that Curt had passed away. He had a heart attack while working in his yard. The outpouring of dismay appeared on the web, and it was global. Curt had taught a gazillion Strengths courses, all over the world, during those 16 years. For many, he was the face of Gallup. I reached out to my friends at Gallup, trying to offer a tiny ray of consolation and support.

I can’t help but note the irony of Curt’s last webinar. It was on Context, the history strength. Looking backward. Next up? Futuristic. He didn’t make it to Futuristic. Now, when we speak of Curt, we speak of him in past tense. I hate it.

Mike and Curt had different strengths, but they operated in the same sphere – a sphere focused on the impact and reach they had to do well and do good. Men of deep faith, they found a way to combine their passion with their gifts. They reached people high and low, far and wide, and made Earth a warmer place. My heart is heavy with the loss of these two men who have so generously supported me on my strength journey.

I’m not quite sure what I think of Heaven. But, if Heaven is akin to earth, there will be communities of like-minded people. Bowlers will hang with other bowlers. Gardeners will seek out other gardeners. I’m certain that between Mike’s Connectedness and Curt’s Relator, and their mutual commitment to the greatness of humanity, they’ve already met. Mike is probably connecting Curt to a multitude of angels and saints. I bet Curt has already had God take the Strengthsfinder. Perhaps they’ve even had their first coaching session. I would love to be a fly on the wall for that one.

In the meantime, all I can do is honor Mike and Curt’s investment in me by replicating their goodness in the world, and sharing the power of strengths-based success.

If you’d like to learn more about Mike Fezzey, I like this article from the Detroit News: http://bit.ly/1cboEaK

Here is a great video of Curt Liesveld talking about coaching people with their strengths: http://bit.ly/1FKnZem

By the way, Curt literally co-wrote the book on Living Your Strengths. Click here to learn more about this faith – based manual for life and success: http://amzn.to/1IV6nwX

Please send healing thoughts to their families and colleagues.

Where am I now? I am lost somewhere between dismay and denial, and I’m trying to put Funeral for a Friend away, hopefully for a long, long time.

Maureen (Ideation ~ Strategic ~ Learner ~ Achiever ~ Individualization ~ Maximizer)

4 thoughts on “Funeral for a Friend

    • Oh my goodness, thank you so much for your kind words. Indeed, Curt was amazing, and really, once we’ve been touched by someone like Mike or Curt, we are never the same. That’s good news, and I will try to endeavor to remain connected to that fact.

  1. Maureen, I’m sad for your losses and holding you in my heart. I am sending healing thoughts to all of Mike and Curt’s friends and family. What amazing and inspiring men. As you so eloquently share their magnificence, it strikes me that they have passed those things you admire on to you. You are magnificent, my friend. You live “relationships are the conduit of human transformation” and are always paying attention to what makes others tick and why it’s important. May Elton move you through all the stages you’ll inevitably go through.

    • Hi Vicki, thank you so much for your support, and for sending all your healing energy (you have TONS) to Mike and Curt’s families. I needed to hear that I can be part of that human transformation – and one big reason I’m so glad I shared their stories is this: they never sought the spotlight. The spotlight sought them because of the fine human beings they were. Thank you again –

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