|John McArthur, 1934-2019|
I met him at the World Bank, where he was a trusted advisor to the president, Jim Wolfensohn, with whom he had been business school classmates in the late 1950s. John was later Dean of the Harvard Business School from 1980 to 1995.
For some reason, I was appointed head of the new products group of the World Bank in 1997. I tried various initiatives that went nowhere. One day I met John for the first time, and he asked how things were going. I explained all the various plans I had. John was kind of like a Canadian Sam Ervin; he gave the impression of being slow-witted but was usually the smartest guy in the room. He replied "Those things sound kind of bureaucratic to me. I thought you were in charge of doing things different?" I smiled weakly, explained I had to go to a meeting, and left immediately. But his question kept nagging at me.
The first time I went to lunch with John, I had three burning questions on my mind. I had even written them down so I would make sure to cover them all. Alas, as soon as I sat down John launched into a long yarn about his early days at Harvard when the town council refused to give him a zoning variance he needed for a campus construction project. The story had many twists and turns, and it lasted 45 minutes as we ate our cheeseburger and fries (he always wanted to eat a cheeseburger.) When the check came, John said "Well, it was great talking to you. Keep it up and don't let the bastards get you down." The only problem was that I didn't get to ask him about any of the three issues on my mind.
Subsequent lunches followed the same pattern. I would have some type of crisis or tough decision and call John. He would take me to lunch and tell me some long story - about convincing older tenured faculty to retire to make way for younger faculty, or about some convoluted legal issue he had been dealing with. Each time I would leave scratching my head and kicking myself for not getting my questions answered.
Over time, it dawned on me that his stories were in fact about the questions on my mind. John had an uncanny ability to anticipate the issues I was facing and to come up with a story that provided insights. When I look back, many of the decisions I made were guided by what happened in his stories.
John died, aged 85, on August 20. There will not be another mentor like him. But his legacy lives on. To the extent I have achieved anything in the last twenty years of my entrepreneurial life, John's influence is plain to see. And when people come to me to ask for advice, I often tell them long, seemingly pointless stories. They are not as good as John's, but I hope they provide some insights.
As I contemplate my own next steps, I wish I could call up John and have a cheeseburger with him. Right now, I really could use one of those long pointless stories of his. But since he's not around anymore to tell them, I will have to return to what he said the first time we met and ask myself "Am I doing things different?"