Day 23: On flipping over the desk

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I was driving home from Sausalito. Saturday morning. I was just pulling onto Hwy 1 when SVP & Russillo got into the Jim Calhoun story that was circulating (I was listening to the previous day’s podcast and, if you’re a sports fan, their podcast is can’t miss).

If you’re unfamiliar – and you absolutely shouldn’t be – Calhoun is the legendary former coach of the University of Connecticut Men’s Basketball team. He brought the program from irrelevance, into the Big East Conference, to competitor, to three-time National Champion.

And he did it his way.

The story of discussion was that Coach Calhoun was interested in the open Boston College job. Calhoun refuted it. Who knows. I’ve always thought the man would die on the basketball court. He brought a fiery energy, an angry passion, a violent, powerful demeanor to the game.

How long could one person continue to run at such an intense level? As long as it would take.

Scott Van Pelt nailed it in one line.

“Jim Calhoun is a man who wakes up every morning of his adult life looking for a fight.”

Calhoun is a Braintree kid. Boston. Hard-nosed, mean, intense. He coached the same way.

He got into kids’ faces when they did something wrong. He let them have it. At practice. In exhibition games. In tournaments. In front of their families.

I heard that he was so vulgar and obscene on the sideline that the parents of one player, who went to every home game to see their son play, asked to be sat further from the bench so they didn’t have to hear Calhoun tear into their son. This player went on to win a National Championship and had a lengthy NBA career.

Miss an assignment? You’re out of the game and you’re getting an earful.

Make a bad pass? On the bench at the next whistle. No question.

Turn the ball over AGAIN? End of the bench. I can’t even look at you.

And he got results.

He wasn’t their mother. He wasn’t their father. He was their coach, and he was going to push them to their absolute limit. And he was going to get the absolute best out of them.

No way he would ever change. Full speed at all times.

He orchestrated a charity bike ride every year in Connecticut to raise money for autism research. He rode it in every year and one of those years (at age 67), he crashed.

He broke five ribs. And he finished the race.

He’s fought numerous illnesses. He’s a cancer survivor.

He barely ever missed a game in more than 20 years.

He’s a Hall of Famer. And he’s one mean son of a bitch.

Players love him. Fans love him.

He went to battle for his players, his team, his program, his university.

He was UConn. He was Connecticut.

He knew that. He accepted that badge of honor and burden with a South Boston smile. You could rely on him 100% of the time to give you 110% of himself no matter how he felt.

You wanted to mess with his players, you had to go through him. You wanted to mess with his team, program, university, or state? You had to go through him. It was Jimmy C. And in Jimmy C we grew accustomed to trust. Fearless.

As he has readily admitted and continues to admit, he is one tough mahther fahker to work with, work for and work around. That’s no surprise to anyone with eyes or ears.

Even after victories – National Championships for fahk’s sake – he would scowl. Angry. Steaming. Still churning on a missed defensive assignment, a botched inbounds play, on missed free throws down the stretch.

He demanded the absolute best out of you. He demanded the absolute best of himself, and if he was going to give it day in and day out, you sure as hell would or you’re out – star player or not.

Perfection. Nothing less was acceptable.

__

I’ve sat across from every manager, editor, publisher, supervisor, teacher I’ve ever had and had the exact same conversation.

“Alex, we need to talk about how you interact with the staff.”

I’m abrasive. Aggressive. Argumentative. Combative. Unapologetic.

I move forward quickly and have little sentiment for the past.

I didn’t realize I was this way until I was allowed a position to let it flow. And I let it flow.

I was 22 years old and knew everything.

In December 2012 I was hired by a family-owned newspaper in Meriden, CT. My job description, boiled down, was to manage digital and social media initiatives for the newsroom and advertising department.

I didn’t see it quite that way. As far as I was concerned, I was brought in to lead a revolution.

The woman who hired me (Carolyn – my mentor, the ying to my very yangy yang, who took an enormous gamble on a ripe, raw, fiery kid) must have seen something in me. Either the day she hired me or at some point during my two years there that made her believe I was the right person for this task.

And I believe, because of that, she allowed me to lead in the way I felt necessary:

Brashly, quickly, roughly, unapologeticly, grandly.

With her guidance and consult, typically after I started a fire I couldn’t control, of course.

A longview vision with a bullet-point plan for how we must act and execute day-to-day to reach it. We had all the pieces, all the talent, all the distribution to get there.

No, I didn’t have it all figured out on day 1. Nor did I on day 731. Nor do I today.

But I knew we had to move quickly. Abruptly. Violently. Loudly.

Slow motion is better than no motion.

Not to a guy with no patience and zero tolerance for stagnation. Zero tolerance for passiveness. For checking a box. For punching the clock. For doing the bare minimum to get by. For getting comfortable and staying there.

Get the fahk out of my way.

I remember one day. I lost it. I don’t even remember what set me off. I saw red. Deep red. Wall-to-wall. Splattered.

I charged into Carolyn’s office. She was on the phone. I sat in one of the chairs and waited, stewing.

She finished her call.

“Alex, what’s going on?”

“Carolyn, I don’t understand why more people in this place aren’t more upset. I don’t understand how people don’t see the bigger picture, what we need to do, what we need to be. I don’t know what more I can possibly do.”

“What do you think we should do? What do you want us do?”

“I want us to flip over a desk. Just flip it over. In front of everyone. I want everyone to see it. I want to stand over it. Then, I want to put it back on its legs and rearrange everything the way it should be.”

This desk-flipping metaphor became our mantra. It became exactly what we aimed to do every day – in every meeting, on every phone call, in every conversation with any and everyone in our operation.

Carolyn had an incredible amount of tact in executing this. I got better at it, but to this day I’m still rough.

I would daydream. I would envision. I would go through it in my mind day after day.

I would walk right up to the desk. In the middle of the newsroom, surrounded by the entire staff. Hard wood. Oak. It had been sitting in the same spot in the newsroom for 50 years. It was easy to hide behind.

On it is a computer, piles of paper, momentos, awards, all unmoved for decades. Some of these items would still have some value in five minutes. But they needed to be reimagined, repurposed, rethought, reengineered.

Others were just taking up space.

People are comfortable with the desk. It’s familiar, safe, undaunting, unintrusive.

I would shake out each drawer. I would rip the contents on to the floor.

I grab the desk firmly, unapologeticly with both hands.

Everyone in the newsroom has stopped working. Everyone is watching.

Crash.

It would be a spectacle. Everyone would have to see it happen. Everyone would have to know that this is no longer acceptable.

Now you have everyone’s attention. Now everyone knows this isn’t a game. Now everyone know that it’s time to move.

The canvas is blank.

Now you can coach and nurture. Now you can teach and coach. Now you can reimagine workloads, content flow, operations, designs and goals. Now you can reset the vision.

Now you can lead.

I’ll get in your face when you miss something. I’ll let you have it when you make an error.

I’ll demand your best. I’ll demand you fire on all cylinders every minute, every hour, every day. And I’ll be there with you every minute of it.

I’ll argue with you even if I agree with you, just so I know you’re confident you’re right. I want you to be absolutely certain and have the balls to stand up for it.

I’ll shake you from the comfortable. I’ll keep you on edge, I’ll make you nervous, I’ll make you critically think about what you’re doing at every moment.

I’ll demand more from myself than I ever expect from you. I’ll be there any time you need me. I’ll miss sleep. I”ll put my personal life on hold. I’ll give up what I love for the greater vision. I’ll sacrifice more than I expect you to. I’ll battle for you and for what we stand for.

Perfection.

And that doesn’t come from asking politely.

__

DAY 22: STYLE
DAY 21: THE MAZE
DAY 20: HALFWAY
DAY 18 AND 19: ON THE BIRDCAGE
DAY 17: WHEN I SEE THIS BAR
DAY 16: DEAR MOM
DAY 15: IF I WON THE LOTTERY
DAY 14: ON CATS AND DOGS
DAY 13: ANSWERING YOUR QUESTIONS (PART 1)
DAY 12: MAKING MY WAY BACK TO CLEVELAND
DAY 11: ON FIRE
DAY 10: ON CONNOTATION AND DENOTATION
DAY 9: ON THE TIME I BROKE MY RIBS
DAY 8: ON THE FOUR UNDERSTANDINGS FOR A HAPPY LIFE
DAY 7: DEAR ERIC
DAY 6: ON WHY YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE DATING IN YOUR 20′S, LADIES
DAY 5: ON SUNRISES AND SUNSETS
DAY 4: ON PARADISE
DAY 3: ON SMOKE AND WHISKEY
DAY 2: ON HOW CLOSE I WAS TO NOT EVEN GOING TO COLLEGE
DAY 1: WHY I’M WRITING EVERY DAY FOR 40 DAYS
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