Bob Hoffman R.I.P

Recently, I learned of the death of Bob Hoffman, a 95-year-old Pitney Bowes retiree who served with the company for 56 years, the second longest tenure in the Company’s history (from 1939 to 1995).  Bob probably would have stayed longer at the Company, except that his wife Barbara, who was considerably younger, became an ordained minister and secured an assignment at a ministry in upstate New York.

 What saddened me, aside from Bob’s death, is that he represented the kind of employee that seems to be an endangered species in large organizations of all kinds.  Bob was the kind of employee who was totally focused on what was good for the Company, its employees, its customers and its shareholders.  He gave generously of his time to the community.  He was indifferent to titles and accepted compensation that was far less than what he could have gotten in the open market.

 Bob came to Pitney Bowes right out of high school.  He was an amazingly good writer and he was efficient and clear in his communications.  He steered clear of the jargon that clutters too much dialogue in business, government and the non-profit sector.  He said what he meant, and meant what he said.  His moral compass was clear and unchanging.  In fact, he was such a good, clear, efficient writer that he easily composed messages correctly on a manual typewriter without having to re-edit them.

 He delivered valuable results every day by his personal efforts and by working collaboratively with people inside and outside the organization.  He was deeply respected and trusted by U.S. Postal Service officials at all levels, because, although he clearly was an advocate for Pitney Bowes’ interests, he was focused on doing what was right for the mailing industry and the Postal Service.

 Perhaps Bob’s most important contribution during the 16 years in which our service at the Company overlapped was his service as the Company’s designated witness in a major antitrust trial in San Francisco, Pacific Mailing Equipment vs. Pitney Bowes, which was resolved with a jury verdict in Pitney Bowes’ favor in 1981, after two-week mistrials, each of which occurred after 10 weeks of trial in the previous two years.  My supervisor, David O’Hearne and our lead outside counsel Brock Gowdy made the brilliant decision that Bob, rather than a more credentialed senior executive, would be the key witness for the Company defending and justifying the decisions that were being challenged as predatory and unlawful in the litigation.

 The essence of the plaintiff’s strategy was to position it as an honorable small business, which was being crushed by a big, arrogant monopolistic company.  Because of Bob’s obvious goodness, humility, and businesslike presentation of the Company’s position, the tables were turned.  The jury swung in our favor because its members could not bring themselves to do anything to a Company that Bob represented.  They considered him the “good guy” and were irate that this rich small businessperson was trying to “take advantage of Bob.”

 We were under investigation by the Justice Department at the time as well, as we would be again in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but, because of Bob and the way he helped us explain our decisions, we never got into a life-threatening situation.  Antitrust cases, including those in which the defendant wins, end up causing companies to get excessively cautious and distracted.

 Alumni of IBM have told me that, even though IBM prevailed in the major antitrust cases brought against it in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was so scarred by the way it felt it had to conduct business to avoid antitrust liability that it was badly hurt in the marketplace.  Pitney Bowes never had that experience, and Bob was a major reason why.

 Bob had the nondescript title of Assistant to the Vice President for Customer Service during the 16 years in which my tenure and his overlapped, but he was far more important to the Company than the executives to whom he reported, even beyond his work in the antitrust cases.  He was the unofficial Company historian.  He was a mentor to me, and I had every new executive I recruited meet with him and get an understanding of how the Company really worked, as opposed to what was shown on organization charts.

 As I embarked on being a key player in industry-wide postal reform efforts in 1995, I freely consulted with Bob on the underpinnings of how the Postal system was designed to operate, as a result of the 1969 Postal Reorganization Act.  In fact, Bob retained documents in his files from the early part of the Company’s history that explained the fundamental principles governing the creation of the metered mail system, and had been a vital link between Walter Wheeler, the Company’s most important CEO, and the late 20th century Company I was privileged to lead.

 In his own subtle way, he shaped how the Postal system operated by the meticulous way in which he proposed and sold Postal procedures relative to metered mail revenue management.  He operated under the radar screen, and was most effective because he imbedded important operational strategies in mundane procedure and process guides.

 Sadly, too many large organization employees are most focused on promoting themselves, maximizing their compensation and avoiding doing anything that could put their future employment at risk.  Too many relatively senior executives and professionals, many of whom are far better educated and, in some senses, more visibly impressive than Bob, have only one pronounced skill: managing upward, that is, looking good without actually accomplishing anything.  They are the anti-Bob Hoffmans and there are too many of them in too many organizations in America today.

 America is struggling today, in part, because we educate young people and reinforce the wrong behaviors.  William Deresiewicz wrote an insightful book about this entitled Excellent Sheep: The Mis-education of the American Elite.  Today, we increasingly demand higher educational credentials, including MBAs for many higher-level positions, and we tend to discriminate against the less slick, less educated employees. Moreover, we reward people for the tasks they perform and the complexity and intellectual acumen on which they draw to perform those tasks, as opposed to the value they deliver and the results they achieve.  We reward conformity, as opposed to independent thinking.

 Many of these well-educated individuals do not speak or write clearly, and are unable to articulate what they stand for, other than what benefits them.  When somebody asked me in 2008, at the time of my retirenment, about the difference between the average employee in 1979 and in 2008, I said that the 2008 employees were better at one thing: superiority in explaining why someone else was responsible for failures for which they should have taken accountability.

 As we mourn and reflect on his long and productive life, we should celebrate what he did and who he was.  However, I hope we will keep alive the values he lived and represented: