Wednesday, January 4, 2006

and then there were none

my old boss left reuters the other day -- and just like that there was nobody left from the original gang who put reuters on the internet map.

in officially announcing bob's departure to all staff his last boss, very new to the company, was refreshingly sincere, generous and accurate, not only capturing bob's legendary zeal for the internet but his personal style. "I have benefited greatly from Bob's flawless news judgment and his guidance in the ways of Reuters," the memo says. "And this was always delivered with grace, charm and a sense of humor."

this is bob in a nutshell.

the kind note made no mention, of course, of the reasons and trigger behind the move, which i frankly do not completely know. but one of bob's many talents was a keen insight into the reality of company politics and i'm sure he knew for quite some time that the end was not only coming, but was inevitable and perhaps even necessary.

my career was intertwined with bob's to a greater extent than anyone else at reuters, and i was fortunate to have more than one influential rabbi during my 26-year stint. he joined the company only a year before i did, already a seasoned newspaper reporter while i was an entry-level punk with no skills, education or experience in the field -- who could barely type to boot. but he was one of the first to encourage me and was later in a position to see to it that i moved into positions of some authority and responsibility, where i personally thrived and, if modesty allows, justified my existence.

bob is an extremely talented writer -- who else could get away with such leads as "Dolly Parton's best features closely resemble the rolling hills of her native Tennessee"-- who moved up the food chain with some remorse. he once told me that journalism was one of those odd professions that rewards success by moving you further from what drew you to it. in the end, the only writing bob did for reuters was in emails, and if you made the mistake of getting in his sights it was like being painted by a sniper: don't bother to run, you will just die tired.

he kept his personal writing fairly secret, but since nobody reads this drivel i don't think i risk his ire by saying that bob (with collaborator and wife barbara) has written screenplays, and poetry that has been published and set to music. i hope his agitation to keep "busy" is directed this way now rather than as a paycheck-cashing drone for another incarnation of "the man."

while i always implicitly trusted bob i must confess with great embarrassment that there were fleeting moments when i resented him, when i thought _he_ was the only impediment to my further advancement -- as if a) i had his array of skills and experience and b) we actually could ever be in competition for the same job anywhere other than on the bizarro planet. and he paid this price because over and over again he did the right thing, by keeping me very close to his decision-making process on many, many things of common interest where a lesser manager would resort to asking "yes or no" questions when they hardly even mattered anymore.

the truth is much different, and even in my deepest state of obliviousness or denial i know that my temperament, my ability to deal with the caste another senior manager once described to me as "the important idiots", was limited, and that it was bob alone -- risking god only knows how much credibility -- who managed to keep me within earshot of the muckety mucks at the dias long enough to for me to soothe fears that i listened to no one and breathed fire.

he is also the guy -- the only person i would trust -- who helped me with job applications. It was always the same: he would savage my cover letters like a romanian gynamistics coach. needless to say, he was always right.

for all the energy expended on positioning oneself for career advancement the irony is that there was no future for any of us -- for the man who secretly hatched and implemented reuters' first internet strategy, who was shown the door years ago; for a string of prescient journalists who moved from editorial to the media division to bravely advance a strategy the company had not yet fully embraced; for my direct reports, a nimble team the company allowed me to hand pick and in whom it invested untold resources only to decide that off-the-shelf widgets in a cheaper country would do.

reuters will go on just fine without any vestige of the old guard, chiefs or indians. many left on their own terms to seek, and often make, fortunes in the internet dodge at other companies, and many more were simply handed their hats. i went through the same process as bob when i was reorganized out a few months ago, and nobody has died. business is business and you can't blame those with the most to lose for taking the risks they want to take. as a shareholder, i am rooting for reuters on a daily basis to continue to improve in the space it now calls its consumer business, which remains a small p&l but is regarded as one of its few growth engines.

even though no one is indispensable, some people are irreplaceable. we are now playing out the clock to the moment when nobody with institutional knowledge of reuters' fascinating internet history will be in the building. the last guy standing isn't just anyone but one of the pioneers, a person who was a witness to history when he wasn't making it, who knows all the mistakes made, all the lessons learned and, dare i say it, where all the bodies are buried.

bob helped a grateful new team find its footing and remains at its disposal for a time as a consultant. but when he turns the lights out for the last time, things could get interesting.

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