The Secret Lives of Your Employees

Do you know the things that matter?

I always enjoyed times spent with my Uncle Joe. But I never understood the depth of his personality, his deep kindness and generosity to so many people, until after his death. He stands here between me and my sister, the picture was taken about seven years ago, but Joe would remember the exact date better than I would.

My uncle died a few weeks ago. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that we were close, but I always respected his intellect and his sense of humor, his love for history, and his incredible recall on anything he ever heard. He remembered everything, it seemed, and forgot nothing. I thought I knew him fairly well. Over the last few years, we had communicated more frequently and with more substance.

However, when I attended the gathering we held in his memory last weekend, I was not prepared for the secret life that he had led.

Secret to me anyhow. Joe had always been a private man. Growing up, there had been years that I hadn’t seen him or heard from him. Occasionally, a random story would surface from another family member after they had talked to him and could report back on what little they knew, which was never much, because he didn’t talk much about himself.

After learning of his death, my sisters and I knew he would not want a traditional memorial service. So we talked to a close friend of his and a cousin about what to do, and we agreed on a gathering at one of his favorite watering holes. His good friend offered to spread the word since none of us live near Joe (but to be more truthful, we didn’t know who to invite).

Daisey came back and said 100 people would likely be there. And they did come.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had no idea of the magnitude of his impact, neither in number of people nor depth of their love and respect for him.

His co-workers were there. His clients were there. Football players from his high school team of more than 50 years ago were there. (Seriously.) Teammates from his Duke football team of ’61 were there. Other friends of his that I didn’t know existed were there.

There was a part of me that felt embarrassed. I tried to comprehend how someone in my family had such a following which had completely eluded me all these years. These friends were like family to him. They expressed such strong feelings of gratitude and appreciation for how my uncle had treated them everyday that they had known him. Person after person introduced himself or herself to me, offering a slight variation of the same story. Joe had been a friend, mentor, teacher, jokester, confidant, gentleman, scholar, a legend they said, who had made a major impact in their life.

His business partner spoke of other memorial gatherings he had attended for Joe in other cities in recent days. Paul summed up their feelings with a sentiment that will always stick in mind. He said that Joe always had time for someone. When he was with someone, he was fully present.

I think back about my experiences with Joe and that was always true. Our conversations were always about what was going on in my life, not his. He was curious and interested and he listened.

Spending the afternoon with Joe’s extended family gave me a deeper insight into a man I thought I already knew. My knowledge was based on limited information and far-too-few experiences. There was so much more to know. It wasn’t that I thought my uncle was unkind. I just had no idea how kind he really was.

As I often do, I see the parallels of an event in our personal lives to situations in our workplaces. I wish I had known more about my uncle. And I believe co-worker relationships can be greatly enhanced with a deeper understanding of each other, too. As you work together with your employees, it is beneficial to learn more about them.

  • Talk to them.
  • Ask them questions.
  • Find ways to learn more.
  • Listen.
  • Remember what they said.
  • Don’t assume you know a lot if you only know a little.

Those are the lessons I learned from my Uncle Joe. I am grateful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all. May you share and learn something you didn’t already know about those you are with this holiday!

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  1. Laurie Bartolo on November 23, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Hi Robin,

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your uncle. He sounds like a wonderful person, and I’m glad you had a chance to learn about his secret life through the many friends that came to his memorial. The lessons you learned from your uncle and shared here are a great tribute to his life. As managers, we have an opportunity to have a great impact on others’ lives and careers, and that is not something that should be squandered. It’s not the type of “power” that is usually associated with being in management, but if you do that part right, it’s the most powerful you can be as a manager.

    I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving (is Grace allowed to enjoy a little Turkey and gravy this time of year?).


  2. Robin Eichert on November 23, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Laurie, you make an excellent point that is so easily overlooked or not realized — the impact we can have on another person’s life as a manager. In fact, it’s funny you mention it (I always love your insight) because several people told me stories of how my uncle shared so much of his time with them early in their career, teaching and sharing information that no one else had done for them. They were so grateful for his generosity and the fairness in which he always treated them. And I bet they in turn have done that for others. Managers would do well to remember that. Thank you so much for commenting!

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