Mike Jordan died yesterday. Or maybe it was the night before, I don’t know. I do know that I woke up yesterday morning and my BlackBerry had a little note from the fellow who had been handling his public relations stuff for the last 10 years or so. It told me Mike had passed away. And I felt sad.
I worked for Mike for a few years in the 1990s. He had just come to Westinghouse from Pepsi, or from some limbo that people go to when they leave a monster corporation and are waiting for their next gig. I believe he had an investment firm. He brought with him to poor old Westinghouse a cadre of capos that he had assembled when he was at his former corporate post. Where he was soft-spoken, shy and difficult to read, they were not. They were some of the scariest bunch of dudes I had ever seen, all sharp edges and swagger. A couple of years went by and I got to know these gunslingers a little bit better, worked with them a little bit more. This made them about 6% less scary.
Mike himself was horrifically imposing at first. He was very tall, one of those men whose height seems so extreme that they have to stoop when they enter a conference room, and hunch over slightly to maintain eye contact with less elevated individuals. I won’t say he seemed cordial and nice, because that would be an overstatement. Cool, more like it. Willing to listen more than to talk, maybe. But always evaluating. Looking you over from a very great distance. Reserving his thoughts. Willing to do what was necessary to fix things, in a clinical way, nothing personal. He did get his start at McKinsey.
There’s a quality of executive hauteur that some people have and some don’t, no matter what their title might be. Mike had it. He was Chairmanly. He presided. Behind the sangfroid, you always had the feeling that there was a tough guy in there that you really didn’t want to piss off.
One time, a sleek little barracuda came in from a west coast competitor to straighten out our strategic planning function. He came to his first meeting with the executive team. Ran his mouth off. Said we didn’t know our butts from a hole in the ground. Mike listened. After the meeting, the President, who had hired this person, said to Mike, “What do you think of Larry?”
“Oh, he’s fine,” said Mike. “I’m sure he’s very smart. I just never want to see him again. If he’s in a meeting, I won’t be there.”
“But Mike,” said the President. “We just hired the guy. He’s here to work with all of us.”
“That’s fine,” said Mike. “But I won’t be there.” And that was that about that. We had a new strategic planner about a month later. Came from McKinsey, I recall. Mike had a little soft spot for tall, skinny analysts in blue pinstripe, for some reason.
During his time with us, Mike quietly engineered a complete overhaul of our company. And in the end, as so often happens, it’s the architect of these kinds of things who is the last casualty of the transformation. I won’t talk a lot about that, except to say that he strode out of the place pretty much as he had come in. Quietly. No fuss. Doing what it was obvious needed to be done. If you had to sum it up, I’d say it had something to do with a willingness to accept the inevitable and map out a strategy appropriate to that knowledge. I hear that faculty failed him only at the end, when he fought like a cornered wolf for a very long time to beat the illness that finally laid him low.
There were legends about Mike after he left our company, stories that surfaced. Turns out that he had a photographic memory, that at Princeton, during drinking games, his pals would give him the page of a phone book and watch him memorize entire columns of numbers. That he translated poetry from medieval Italian. This always made me think just how little we really know about each other, we who work together in hermetically sealed offices every day.
I ran into him a couple of times over the years, when he was no longer our chairman. One time, I was in Soho, and I realized that the Lincolnesque figure walking towards me in jeans and a backpack was Michael H. Jordan, who had just left EDS, where he had basically done the same there as he did with us. I sort of couldn’t believe it. This guy in front of me looked more like somebody’s cool dad than the captain of industry who pushed billions of dollars of assets around a balance sheet. We talked for a while. One thing was clear. He was a lot happier than I had ever seen him. A certain level of under-employment can do that for you.
I saw him again in an airport a few years later. This time, he was more Mike than before, even though he was now in cords and a button-down shirt and blazer rather than a $2,500 navy blue three-piece. He was on the board of a digital media company and bent my ear about some boring business stuff for a while. I liked the entrepreneurial gleam in his eye. Some players never lose that.
But my most vivid memory — heavy with appreciation — is more personal. Back in 1995, I had just moved from Esquire Magazine to FORTUNE, and my true name, my corporate name, as it were, was still a pretty well-kept secret, as was the fact that Stanley Bing is a pen name, like George Orwell or Mark Twain, though on a much less elevated level, to be sure.
A foolish twerp of an editor at Esquire, while having a drink with a guy from the New York Times, thought he’d trade a little gossip and revealed my little secret to him. The reporter, whose job it was to be a dick, I guess, decided he would bust me in the newspaper. He called around to everybody he could think of that could cause me trouble, and the biggest one of those was Mike.
In those days, before the journalism game became commoditized, everybody thought they were Carl Bernstein, so this reporter, assuming that tone, said to Mike, “Mr. Jordan, I’m calling to tell you that on Monday morning The New York Times will be reporting that your Senior Vice President…” and he gave my title, “… is the business columnist Stanley Bing. Do you have a comment on this?”
And Mike said, very blandly, as was his style when annoyed, “That’s very interesting.” And then he referred to call to me. “He can give you an appropriate comment, I think,” said Mike, and hung up. This was well before I saw the chairman and chief executive officer in jeans, mind you. But there, for the first time, at least for me, he lifted just a corner of the veil, and gave me a peek at his kindness, his sense of humor, his toughness, and just a little bit of what was clearly a bone-dry %!#@-you attitude.
And they don’t teach you that in business school.