A CEO Who Cared

I was quite young in my career and my life when I discovered that our CEO was a special human being. At the time, I was working as an assistant to the Vice President of Discovery Research when his manager asked me if I would plan a trip for several VP’s and the company CEO to take our private corporate plane into the USSR for a meeting with several individuals and groups there, up to and including some high level Soviet government officials.

The Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR was thawing and the USSR was starting to break up. The Soviets continued to be wary of outsiders, particularly Americans. But they were open to considering mutual business interests; our company CEO saw an opportunity to create some alliances. I had no idea what I was getting into when planning this trip, and felt a lot of pressure for a successful outcome.

I worked through an intermediary to the USSR that would slice through Soviet red tape and allow only the second-ever private jet into the USSR (after Armand Hammer’s) since the changes in the country started taking place. Complicating the trip was the fact that our company’s leadership had several meetings to schedule once they arrived, so would want to be able to travel from place to place within the USSR via the corporate jet and the Soviet rail system (I learned later that this was a first).

Planning was painful

Planning this trip was a six-month project because at that time, the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union was beyond compare and the USSR was beginning to unravel. Every time I thought we moved ahead on this a little, something came along to knock the timing of the trip back again.

Close to the scheduled date for takeoff, some of the paperwork to allow the entry of the pilots (who were company employees) had been delayed. Even though we had a date for the flight, the Soviet bureaucrats told us not to worry, the paperwork would come through before takeoff.

The morning that our executives were scheduled to fly, the paperwork for the pilots was still not cleared.  So off I went to get the CEO out of a meeting to tell him the bad news (you can imagine how much I wanted to do that!). The corporate executives were cleared for entry into the USSR, but the pilots would have to remain behind at the Moscow airport for the entire ten days of the trip.

Care for “The Team”

Upon learning this news, the CEO said to me, “Those damn Russians!” (I still chuckle about his comment today) and said he wouldn’t leave the pilots behind for ten days to languish at the airport. He considered them part of the team. So, I started the trip planning all over again (another six months!). The second time around was a charm and the trip went off without a hitch.

I’ll remember this CEO as a person who thought it was important to treat the pilots as part of the “team”. Several years later, I flew on the corporate jet with the CEO through a harrowing thunderstorm. I observed firsthand the respect he extended to the pilots as we bounced and dipped, and his concern over my own nausea.

For what it’s worth, the CEO enjoyed a long career at our company, and passed away a few years later while still officially in the CEO position. He was so beloved that there were very few employees who didn’t mourn openly the day his death from cancer was announced.

Me too.

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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.


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