By Dean Nelson on Oct 21, 2007
March 8, 1945 - October 17, 2007
On October 17, 2007 Sean Connellan passed away after bravely battling cancer for almost two years. Sean was the Senior Vice President of Workplace Resources at Sun Microsystems, my boss, my mentor, and my friend. I knew Sean for only 25 months, and worked directly for him for 12 months, but it felt like I knew him much longer. I was blessed to have spent such valuable & precious time with him, and absorb so much. He was a tough, old school leader that really cared about his job, his people and the mark that he left. His character and values resonated with me.
I attended Sean's wake and funeral 10/19-20 in Rochester, New York. I live in Northern California, but made sure to be there to see Sean off to his next journey. I wasn't sure how this was going to go, and if I was going to hold my composure through this. It was hard to believe that he was gone. Just two weeks before, I had called him for our regular on one one and he shared with me that he had 90 days to live. I was floored. I didn't know how to feel, how to respond, what to do. I felt helpless. Like the true professional that he was, he wanted his house clean and to leave on his terms. Over the next few weeks I tried to grapple with the enormity of this. I must have started and modified a letter to him fifty times. It was very difficult to put into words what someone like that meant to you. I finally finished the letter on Monday, October 16, 2007, printed it and planned to overnight it to him in the morning. As I was drivig to work, I got the call that Sean had passed away at 1am Eastern Time. Almost exactly when I had finished the letter. I was saddened that he would not get to read this letter, but I knew that he already knew. I had been very open with him over the time I worked for him, and told him how much I valued his insight and straight forward honesty. He took it upon himself to mentor me. I decided to bring the letter to share with his family at the funeral.
At the wake on Friday, I met a number of Sean's family members from Ireland and around the US. Although I had never met Sean's wife, son and daughter, I had heard about them over the two years that I knew him. And, as expected they were just as accommodating, caring and rock solid as Sean. It was difficult to get the words out, but they helped me through it. As I talked with different friends and family at the funeral home, I realized something. Sean was blessed at the end of his life to have time. He had said to his kids not to be sad, because he could have been hit by a bus or had a heart attack and not had the chance to say goodbye. He spent the last two weeks of his life surrounded by his family and friends. He received many letters from people throughout his life, telling him what he meant to them. Two of these letters made him extremly proud. Our CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, and CFO, Mike Lehman, took the time to write to Sean. Sean beamed with pride when those letters were read. It meant so much to him to achieve operational excellence. His work mantra was to leave the job better than it was when he came, make a difference in who he worked with, leave his mark, hope he'd be missed, and make a little money along the way. And boy, did he accomplish that.
A number of my colleagues and management also attended Sean's funeral. This included Bill MacGowan, the Executive Vice President of Sun's People and Places division. He was Sean's boss. Bill shared how Sean had turned Workplace Resources around. In less than two years, it became one of the highest performing business units at Sun. The Recommend Sun Index (RSI) had risen from the lowest in the company to the highest. This was all due to Sean's leadership. He built an incredible team that, as he put it, gets along, likes each other and exemplifies the characteristics of operational excellence. This team was able to execute projects in excess of $250M to consolidate real estate including people space, lab space and datacenter space in 12 months. These efforts helped Sun beat their FY07 4% operating margin target. They achieved 8.4%.
My personal experience with Sean was very similar. He was a true mentor that was not shy about telling me what I did wrong and what I did right. He was tough, very tough...a curmudgeon at times, but always fair and supportive. His approach to leadership was to build loyalty to the cause and to the team. He treated everyone in his team as family and drove them for excellence. He expected you to deliver and held you to your promises. If you could not do that, then he said you should find a job that drives you to do it. He wanted everyone to have a real job, and feel good about their work and their contributions to the the company. These basic principals have been lost to many companies. Hand shakes have become a thing of the past. Everyone worries about covering their butts and looking out for number one. Leaders such as Sean have taught me a number of things throughout my career. The relationships you build are what last. So, treat others as you would want to be treated. Never look or talk down to someone, because you never know where they will come back into your life. Remember where you came from and strive for humility. Never take yourself too seriously, and always put family first.
As I end this trip to the east coast, I reflect on a few things. What will people say at my funeral? What difference will I have made? What mark will I have left? Will the people who have worked for me compliment or curse me? I have and will continue to strive for excellence in business and in life. I hope to live up to the example that Sean has set.
May the roads rise with you,
May the wind always be at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again,
May God keep you in the hollow of His hand.
Thank you for your insight and mentoring. You will be missed Sean.