I hadn’t seen Dick McCullough, who was my most-fun-to-work-with client of all time and the best leader I ever met in the corporate world, for at least a few years when I got a phone call from him at 7pm last New Year’s Eve.
He was calling to tell me that he had just had a second brain tumor operation within the past three weeks. His prognosis wasn’t good. He wanted to let me know. We talked it through; he answered all my questions. Then he said “what’s up with you?”
And he really wanted to know. That was Dick.
As it happens, I’d rearranged my life a few months before. I was no longer working in an office every day with two very smart people. When the narrative got to this, I told Dick, “Here’s something that you will understand better than anybody else in the world. I’m not in the same room with Jess Johns and Pete McCarthy all day anymore so I’m not as smart as I used to be.”
Dick embodied a host of admirable traits: his integrity, compassion, fairness, courage, and selflessness were all nonpareil. But what characterized him most of all was his ability to recognize great intellect and capability and to “own” it, not in any selfish or self-aggrandizing way, but in the most mutually beneficial way. He used to say “nobody’s smarter than everybody”. He had enormous respect for the talents of the amazing group he put together to work with him when he was my client at Wiley, and he fostered mutual respect among us that we’ve always maintained. And we all had a love for him and for working with him that we’ve been recalling by email and phone and Facebook since we first learned he was sick and especially since the sad news of his passing last Thursday.
In fact, whenever any of us got together over the past two decades, a piece of wisdom from Dick was almost certain to enter the conversation.
I met Dick McCullough’s older brother Harry before I met Dick. Harry was in the sales management team at Scribners in the early 1980s when I brought in a distribution client. When Harry and I met, he said “Shatzkin? I think your father made my father the first regional manager at Doubleday.”
When I asked Dad whether he remembered McCullough, he said, “yeah, HELL of a salesman.” A few years later, Dick hosted a big breakfast at an ABA Convention in Washington where his dad and mine were the honored guests.
I met Dick not long after I met Harry. Dick had become the trade sales manager for John Wiley, who, at that time, had a very small trade presence. Scribners distributed its books in Canada through Wiley Canada, and Dick and I met at a sales conference north of the border. We hit it off immediately — I didn’t know then that everybody felt like they hit it off when they met Dick — and stayed in touch.
At that time, my consulting practice largely consisted of helping small companies get the most from their distribution relationships. A friend named Dan McNamee, who really pioneered “McKinsey-type” consulting for the media business, told me, “you’ve got to get some corporate experience”. Fortunately, at about that time, Dick had a way to use me at Wiley. They had started an audiobook line (“Wiley Sound Business Cassettebooks”) under a young journalist named Stewart Wolpin, who, among other idiosyncracies, wore his hair in a ponytail. (This was very unusual for a man in the corporate world of 1985. This was the middle of the Reagan administration and a time characterized by conservatism in just about every way.) I was probably less presentable and more out-of-time than Stewart, with wild curly locks and a totally uncool habit of wearing moccasins instead of regular shoes.
But Dick thought I was smart and could help with a new business. And because I had worked with a rock band, I had some knowledge of the audio production process, which wasn’t really useful but created some “cover” to explain to the corporate powers why he engaged me.
Then the world we were in realigned in a major way. Wiley embarked on a big growth initiative for trade books and their VP of Sales, Warren Sullivan (whom my Dad had worked with two decades before at Crowell-Collier Macmillan), retired. The new management appointed Dick to the VP slot. And since trade publishing was what I knew best, help from me was suddenly of value to a lot of other people in the company.
Dick rapidly put together what is still the best team I ever worked with. He brought in a former colleague of his from Doubleday, Rich Freese, to take his place as trade sales manager. He managed to rescue Teresa Hartnett, an extremely talented young woman who was selling subsidiary rights, from a ridiculous corporate structure that had her not connected to the sales and marketing people but instead operating within the legal department. (Because to Wiley, with no trade program before, “subsidiary rights” meant “rights and permissions”. And “rights and permissions” were the purview of the company lawyer.) He got a seasoned book sales executive, George Stanley, to make a lateral or even step-back move to take on Special Sales. Michael Bennett came aboard to manage Wiley’s pretty extensive direct sales program. (Bennett rapidly picked up the nickname “the Razor”. Because he was “so sharp”.)
Teresa had a recollection that was “so Dick”.
“What I remember most was how every single job evaluation meeting started with Dick asking me to review him. He said his job was to be sure I had everything I needed to succeed at my job — and be sure to have fun. He expected honesty about it, too. The first time this happened, I was stunned, so he started to list what other people had criticized and commended in him. By the time I left the evaluation, in fact any time I left his office, I felt certain I could do anything. What an amazing leader to know in life.”
(Note to self: how did I get this far in a piece about Dick McCullough without using the word “empowerment”? And I don’t think we knew that word in the 1980s…)
But the boldest move of all was to put Peter Clifton, who had been working in the audiobook program that had been determined to be an unproductive experiment, in charge of publicity.
In an ironic coincidence, Clifton — who left New York for Nashville years ago to run a number of businesses for Ingram and who has stayed in Music City working on some interesting startups since then — was in the city last week with his three sons for his daughter’s wedding. At about the same time that Dick was passing, Peter and his sons were having lunch with Martha and me. We spent some time telling them about the big risk Dick took putting Peter, who had just about zero relevant experience at the time, in charge of publicity. I recalled clearly, and said at lunch, that I had supported the idea because of what I saw as Peter’s natural gifts for PR and for management. When we got the word a few hours later that Dick had died, I was really glad we’d spent some time at lunch singing his praises to Peter’s sons.
Later I was recounting this notion that putting Peter in that job was Dick’s gutsiest move to one of our other colleagues from Wiley and it suddenly occurred to me that I might even have suggested Peter for PR in the first place. We’ll never know because I can’t remember for sure and Dick is no longer here to ask. But one thing we do know for sure is that he would have been delighted to give me credit. What Dick wanted credit for was being smart enough to have talented people around him and respectful enough to hear them out, take them seriously, and make decisions based on more information and insight than he had before the conversation.
Over the past few months, since we’ve known how sick Dick was, a number of us have been staying in touch and talking about him. I had really hoped to see him again, or at least talk to him again, but he had daily radiation and then only a few days after it was completed he ended up back in the hospital. He came out a short time ago with no hope. I knew from friends who were in closer touch that it wouldn’t benefit him for me to try to connect. But I picked up one story from George Stanley that had me in it but which summed up Dick, and the point about what he did and didn’t want credit for, very well.
It happened that the Sales Department had delivered a report to management that management was very pleased with. Charles Ellis, the CEO, called Dick up to his office to tell him: “this is the best report I’ve ever seen”.
Dick said, “I didn’t write a word of it.”
That was so Dick! Charles asked who did.
“Mike Shatzkin wrote it,” Dick said. “That’s part of why we have him on the team. He helps us think things through, but he also puts things down better than any of the rest of us.”
Dick didn’t want credit for writing a report. He wanted credit for being smart enough to have a team that could do anything and would deliver a great result. “Nobody’s smarter than everybody.” I don’t remember the report, but I can tell you for sure that the ideas in it weren’t mostly mine, or even largely mine. I just had the responsibility to put the group’s intelligence in writing. So it really was Dick’s work. But Dick himself wouldn’t ever have said that. I really don’t know if he even thought it.
Dick was not an unconventional person, but he loved eccentricity in other people. He wasn’t a brilliant thinker, but he gravitated to people who were. He learned from everybody. He respected everybody. He was relentlessly fair. If you went into his office and went off on somebody else, Dick was almost certain to say, “OK, now I want you to spend five minutes telling me what you LIKE about them”. Everybody has pluses and minuses. Dick refused to allow a singleminded focus on the negative.
Clifton said to me yesterday that “there have been a boatload of books about ‘leadership’, but none of them ever really captured what Dick did”.
He inspired us all to be better people. He inspired us all to have a generous spirit. He valued hard work, but he also valued a good time. I have never had a real job or a real boss, but I think most of the people who worked for Dick will tell you they never had a better boss. I never had a more enjoyable client relationship. What a fabulous person he was. A lot of us will miss him forever.