I met Steve Mellor in the mid-1980’s when he was a young HR professional and I was a green EAP consultant. We bonded immediately as allies and comrades learning to make a place for ourselves in the corporate world. Along the way, we also took time to compare notes on the joys and challenges of being husbands and dads.
Later Steve moved on to Millipore and then to Waters Corporation (both of which were, coincidentally, my EAP accounts) where we continued what turned out to be a 30 year friendship and collaboration.
Steve died on April 14 at the age of 57. Over the course of his career he developed into a remarkably gifted and accomplished human resources professional.
Steve was also the best friend I ever had at work.
I want to pause and reflect on this relationship: it’s a way to express respect and to hold on a bit longer to a friend that passed away too quickly.
The arc of Steve’s career covered a period of unprecedented changes in corporate life. The emergence of new information technologies, the internet, globalization, email, cell phones, downsizing, and outsourcing (to name just a few) caused profound collateral disruptions for employees as organizations evolved to become lean, global and always connected.
In the midst of this perpetual storm of innovation and change, Steve was a calm presence with the perfect mixture of temperament and skills to help his teams successfully navigate the corporate rapids:
Curiosity: If you are trying to help people deal with the ups and downs of a roller coaster it really helps if you have a genuine intellectual fascination about how the roller coaster operates. Curiosity was one of Steve’s antidotes to stress and anxiety and, with it, he was able to guide others from a place of fear to a place of collaboration and analysis. He is the only HR guy I ever knew who had a poster of Einstein on his wall.
Authenticity: Despite the many technological changes which have occurred over the past 30 years business is still fundamentally about people and relationships. To succeed your colleagues have to trust not only your competence but your character. People sought Steve out for his counsel not just because he was canny and smart, but also because he had the self-confidence and integrity to say what he really believed. Hourly employees and company executives both got the same Steve.
Humor: Most organizations have their fair share of politics, pretension, posturing and absurdity (see Dilbert). Humor is a gentle and effective antidote to the many human frailties you have to contend with in a competitive corporate environment. Steve used his wry humor and sense of irony to neutralize all this distracting noise and direct the focus to the tasks at hand. He was that guy you wanted to have in your meeting to keep things on track.
Balance: Steve loved business but he loved his family more. To be effective in human resources you need to have a meaningful life outside of work to understand and help your employees with their struggle to succeed in both the professional and personal spheres. The enormous security and pride he found in his family’s love was the foundation for the character, motivation and perspective Steve brought to his work.
In our many conversations over the years, Steve and I would move easily back and forth from the personal to the professional, the emotional to the intellectual and the abstract to the specific. One minute we might be talking about how to design a training program to promote problem-solving skills and the next minute the conversation might shift to a personal problem one of us was working on.
I have never subscribed to the notion that a “company is a family”, because you don’t have the option to fire your parents, your children or your siblings. I do believe, however, that work is a deeply personal experience and the relationships we form there can be every bit as significant and intimate as relationships formed in social contexts.
Friendship is measured by the truths spoken, the range of experiences shared, and the pleasure of the time spent together. Over our many years of friendship, Steve and I never even talked about getting together outside of a work context. I think we both appreciated the special character of having a long term friendship that was independent of our family and social networks.
Rest in peace my friend. I am one of many who will keep a place for you in our hearts.