What I Learned from Hal
Last week, I learned that my first real mentor had passed away. It was a shock – Hal was only in his mid-sixties – and a sadness has lingered with me since I received the call. I have not worked with Hal since 2008 when I left BCG. I’ve sent him our holiday e-blast every year since, and while that sparked exchanges at first, at some point I didn’t hear back anymore. I’d think of Hal once and a while, when we saw other friends connected with BCG, but I don’t think I ever really reflected on how much he influenced my career and my life until now of course, when it’s too late to tell him, and to thank him.
I was all of twenty-one or so when Hal asked me to be his airline analyst. I cannot recall if this was pre- or post- the first time I joined one of his client project teams, but that may be because I was on a lot of them. In the two years before I left BCG for business school (for which Hal wrote my recommendation), I worked on several months-long projects where Hal was a senior client officer. Later, post business school and a hiatus from BCG, I worked again with Hal for almost ten more years, this time to support whatever he needed intellectually in his roles in firm management and practice management.
Length suggests affinity, not necessarily mentorship. With Hal, it was both.
Hal’s team meetings were never about seniority – he listened and heard everyone in the room. Accompanying Hal on a flight wasn’t all about productivity – it was also about ice cream sundaes (with just the sauce for him) and discussion about my life, his life and our work. Hal understood the conflicting emotions involved in early parenting, and so he asked me to stay on as an independent consultant after the twins were born, telling me to work zero hours-a-week or forty, but not to separate entirely until I knew what I wanted longer term (I stayed for seven more years). Hal was willing to go out on a limb for his people, so he pushed to promote me to Manager even though BCG didn’t do that outside the consulting track in those days. Hal understood the import of dignity, and so he flew to Atlanta a short time after 9-11, while I was pregnant on bedrest, to help me let go of a valuable employee (a situation forced by the economic turmoil at the time). Hal knew the value of inclusion, and so he consciously pressed me to fly across the ocean every year to participate in the most senior meetings of his team, even after I went part-time, to ensure I would remain positioned as an essential team member. I only ever saw Hal treat everyone with the same respect he expected for himself, and by showing me in every way how much he believed in me as a professional and as a person, even though I reported to him, I felt his equal because he treated me as such.
In these past few days, I have come to realize that Hal exemplified many of the values I try to live by. Hal saw the best in people and sought to help them succeed in their own context, both the context of their life circumstances and of their personal strengths and weaknesses. Hal invested in relationships because he cared about the people he worked with and wanted the best outcomes for them. Hal valued family – he spoke in loving terms about his wife and his children and the way they pursued their own passions. Hal was always himself, and even though that meant constant pacing, shirttail untucked and high-of-high energy, he assumed full acceptance by others because he returned the same. Hal was a man of great character, and the way he treated and cared for his friends, family and colleagues is why I have heard from so many how much he will be missed.
Having a great mentor makes you want to be one yourself because you understand the positive impact you can have on another’s life. I only hope to be as good a mentor for others as Hal was for me. And I only wish I’d had the chance to tell him all I’ve realized about our friendship and his mentorship, as I know he would have smiled wide.