By Matt Farrell, USA Swimming Chief Marketing Officer | Monday, April 24, 2017
USA Swimming announced on Sunday the sad news of the passing of Chuck Wielgus. He was a friend, mentor and great leader.
I remember vividly the day 10 years ago when a group huddled in his office and he shared that he was diagnosed with cancer. He delivered the news straight, almost like he was sharing what he did that weekend. He didn’t want sympathy and sure as heck didn’t want us to treat him any differently. And we didn’t.
That day wasn’t an anomaly. He treated every day since then in a business-like way in the office, on email and late evening text messages.
The ironic thing is that some people think they know Chuck based on a limited peek inside his life through his role as CEO through media interviews or even soundbites. That’s part of the job. I get that, he got that.
Spending the last 12 years of my career and seeing Chuck almost daily gave me a perspective that goes so much deeper than his public persona and well beyond what people think they know about him. He was a mentor, friend, leader and tough as nails. We should all be so lucky to walk a day in that guy’s shoes to get a full appreciation for what it means to give your all to an organization and the people around you.
So, I just want to share a few random, simple perspectives of the man I know:
- Chuck’s leadership style is remarkable in that he rarely came into any situation or faced a decision while mandating a direction. He didn’t feel the need to exert his power to show he was in charge. He listened first, learned every angle and let us work out so many issues. He didn’t have to make the decision to show he was in charge. We just knew.
- I have never seen a more humble, and even self-deprecating, person in such a leadership role. We talked all the time about “self-awareness” and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. He was comfortable in his own skin, which created the utmost confidence and was still approachable. His humility was such a professional strength in that it made everyone comfortable around him.
- One of his greatest professional attributes was how well he handled disagreement. Most people’s gut reaction is to get defensive when someone disagrees. For Chuck, his body language and interest became more engaged. He saw it is an opportunity to listen, learn and hear another point of view. It’s a skill I will always remember and try to emulate.
- If someone used a cliché or phrase in a conversation, such as the “whole nine yards” or “rule of thumb” or “eat humble pie,” then he would stop the conversation and ask, “What’s the origin of that phrase?” If we didn’t know the answer, one of us would make a note or immediately go to Google before the conversation could go on.
- I remember slipping out to play golf one afternoon with him, and we got an email about a friend and former USA Swimming employee who just landed an incredible job in the sports industry. He stopped right on #17, and I can remember the exact spot, where he told me, “Never underestimate yourself or the influence of USA Swimming in your career.”
- Many people will ask about your family or your weekend to make conversational small talk. He truly cared. When my daughters walk across the stage for graduations or go off to college, I know he will be there.
- He once negotiated my salary for the next year by a game of post-it note chicken. It was during a performance review, and it came time to talk about my salary for the next year. Fortunately, he perceived that I had a good year. He looked around his desk for post-it notes. I could tell by his body language that he made this up on the spot. He took one and handed me one and said, “Write down your number,” for what I thought my salary should be. I wrote down a dollar amount, he wrote down a dollar amount and then he said, “1, 2, 3” and we both slapped our post-it note on the desk. We wrote down the same number. He reached across the desk with his hand extended and said, “We’ve got a deal.” (Many will point out I should have written a higher number!)
- I learned the hard way and repeatedly, to never walk into his office and say, “What’s going on?” He would quickly say, “You gotta do better than that!”
Those who have worked or spent time with Chuck realize there are plenty of gaffes and funny moments where he would do the silliest things. We can tell those stories for hours, always with him being part of the laugh not the brunt of it.
Those stories will never appear in a blog.
I look forward to only sharing those stories over a cold beverage in the many years to come.