I was standing with throngs of people inside a large hall on the Bowdoin College campus last week, listening to person after person talking about their friend Lois. The building could thankfully accommodate the hundreds of people, but it was not big enough for the love in that room. An additional room was needed at the other end of the building, with a livestream of the speeches that were happening in the presentation room. I was in the lobby area between the presentation room and the livestream room, along with at least four dozen others, listening intently.
Each person shared a story or a favorite phrase that Lois used. Each speech finished the exact same way, with a cacophony of applause, a few tears and Lois giving a hug or a handshake to each of the speakers telling them what a nice job they did. All of the speakers were humbled to have been asked to speak and grateful to have been a part of Lois’ journey. Lois was humbled that so many people would say such nice things. I suppose a great leader is never aware of how many people they have inspired. Everyone at this event had a deep appreciation for Lois and some sort of personal or professional connection with her — and usually both.
The Lois I’m speaking of is Lois Skillings, retiring CEO of Mid Coast-Parkview Health, but you likely already knew that. The fact that most of the readers knew who I meant is in itself the point. Great leaders transcend just being the head person at an organization; their influence is felt well beyond the borders of the buildings they work in every day.
Lois is part of the dozen or so leaders who are either moving into retirement or moving on to new challenges after decades of leadership. We know the baby boomers are retiring, and yet when it happens, it’s still a bit of a shock. It has happened recently at MRRA, United Way of Mid Coast Maine, Sebasco Harbor Resort and will be happening soon at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Bowdoin College and more.
What can we learn from these departing leaders and take with us on our own paths? Many of them have fostered relationships that are so wholesome that the people at their retirement parties are choking up because they don’t have the joy of working with them any longer. Here are three things I have learned from recent retirements.
First off, none of them — as in none at all — built their relationships over Zoom. Now, I understand that times change, and we have new technology to help “connect” us, but the rise of video conferencing and in particular Zooming during the pandemic was much more about maintaining relationships than establishing them. These leaders check in with their people unexpectedly — and not to check on the status of the task but rather the status of the person. They drop by for a face-to-face chat or ask someone to lunch or over to their house.
We need to disavow ourselves of the notion that any business can establish the same type of meaningful relationships with colleagues and employees over Zoom as we do in person. Any team that can find cohesion, trust and loyalty over screens is an outlier — they are the exception not the rule. Why? Because relationships are messy and raw and truthful and constant. You rarely get that on a video chat. Over Zoom, you get someone’s manufactured background and their best branded self. It’s not that different from a Facebook or LinkedIn profile.
Relationships and trust are built during adversity. When someone is vulnerable. When someone just lost someone or had a fight with their spouse that morning or heard a song that reminds them of their deceased dad during their lunch break so they’re “a little off.” The overwhelming majority of the meaningful conversations examining those types of truths don’t happen on a screen; they happen in person, and they usually end with a much-needed hug.
Secondly, these leaders didn’t care only about their own success in their own business. They typically cared about their industry and their communities as well. Too often, I’m seeing people looking out for themselves, for their own bottom line, for their own successes. What does all of the personal success in the world mean if the community you live in is crumbling around you? How important are your sales numbers if your children are struggling to get what they need at school? These are just examples mind you, and I’m not saying our communities are crumbling or that there are problems at our schools (quite the opposite actually — in many ways, I think our region’s schools and communities both thrive and are constantly improving). Yet the point is all of the great leaders cared as much about the success of their communities as they did about the success of their own organization. More than that, they actively engaged in the matters of their community by giving their time and expertise.
Finally, no great leader takes a bow by themselves. They always mention those who support them. They make a point to deflect any successes to those around them and take absolute ownership of the failures. A great leader knows their responsibility is to care, champion and protect those in their care. Nobody wants to follow anyone who is only touting themselves. The best leaders- the iconic ones- lift up everyone around them and let them shine.
That’s how Lois Skillings, Barb Reinertsen, the late Bob Smith, the soon-to-be-retired Dana Connors and so many others lived their careers. It’s also how they built a legacy that will last beyond their tenure. They led with vision, empathy and genuine caring for those around them. They elevated the people who, in turn, elevated the work of the organization. There is a lesson in that for all of us.
Cory King is executive director of the Bath-Brunswick Regional Chamber of Commerce.