Why I Couldn’t Fire Harriett

by Russ Hill on August 13, 2012

Wwwwwwrrrraaaaaaaaaaaas!

I can still hear her deep raspy voice calling my name from her small cubby outside my office door.  She would be holding onto her coffee mug as she called for me.  I don’t think I ever saw her without that thing in her hand.

Harriett Hindman was straight out of the Edward R Murrow era.  Her wrinkled skin, big hair, deep voice, and no nonsense attitude made you wonder if she and Murrow ever shared a foxhole during the German attacks over London.  In a world dominated by tweets, blogs, and apps she was the living museum in the KTAR newsroom.  As we all wondered where Facebook, smartphones, and texting would take us, Harriett reminded us of where we had been.

As we transformed the nearly 90-year-old KTAR into two separate radio stations and a digital media destination I spent a good deal of time studying budget sheets and trying to decide where we should allocate our resources.  Innovation meant redirecting money to new positions.  And that meant eliminating some of the old ones.  Leadership demands making tough decisions.  As I stared at those budget sheets year after year Harriett’s name seemed to be in bold.

How could I justify keeping her around when I was spending so much of my time preaching in our staff meetings about innovation?

I spent a good deal of time thinking about that question.  Year after year.

And each year when it came time to email the excel spreadsheet up the chain of command I always ended up leaving Harriett’s name on it.

I did it for one reason: loyalty.

I don’t know how many years Harriett worked at KTAR.  But, I knew she had been there a lot longer than me and far longer than anyone I reported to.  She had seen managers come and go.  She had held virtually every title in the newsroom.  She had helped pack up the boxes each time the station moved further and further away from the city center.

Harriett didn’t see the world the way I did.  She wasn’t as impressed as I was by new gadgets.  She didn’t want to hear about the new way of doing things.

But she always followed the direction that was given to her.  And she did it without complaint.  In fact, she hardly ever said anything.

She showed up before the crack of dawn every day.  For decades.  And she sat at her typewriter, and then her keyboard and typed.  Typed and typed.  She typed the news all day.  Every day. The only breaks she ever took were to go to the coffee pot to refill that mug.

Sadly, that mug now sits on the counter.  Empty.

Harriett Hindman passed away last week.

She died suddenly.

She knew she wasn’t healthy.  But almost no one else did.  She waited to pick up the phone and call her sister back east until the very last moment.  She wanted to leave us as quietly as she lived amongst us.

She saw no value in telling others she was dying of cancer.  The revelation would only burden others with something they could do nothing about.  And so she waited until the very end to pick up the phone and say goodbye.

I’ve never been accused of being a perfect boss.  My mistakes as a leader have been many.

But today as I’ve been reflecting on Harriett Hindman I’m grateful for the decisions I made each year before I sent that spreadsheet up the chain of command.

Rest in peace, Harriett.

And, thanks for teaching me the value of loyalty.

 

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