Yesterday, a friend in NY reached out to me. One of the people we used to work with passed away. Not from COVID – from cancer. The painful lingering kind that brings tough people to their knees, draining their energy before taking their life.
Way back in 2004, I was offered a job in a different group at the company where I worked. It was a good opportunity and I knew I would learn something working on big ideas. I had just come off another monster project and I was a bit worn out while preparing for Jeff’s and my wedding that summer. I’d landed in a group that was very tight knit. They didn’t like outsiders, and I was an outsider.
The biggest voice on the team was a woman named Clara. And right from the first moment we met it was war. Honestly, I wasn’t sure why. I had worked on strong teams before, with big egos and personalities. It had never been a problem. Sure, there is always an adjustment period when new people join existing projects but it had never been anything compared to this situation.
It was like being frozen out. No matter what I contributed it was wrong. In meetings. In writing. Everything. But she didn’t do it in front of leadership so there was no one to talk to about it. It was just in front of the team. And they all loved her. I was confused but undaunted. I knew my stuff and I had encountered difficult people before. I held my own and got through it. By the end of that year I had moved on to a new team and a new challenge. I barely looked back.
Fast forward to 2010. I had left that company in 2008, but two years later, was lured back in a bigger leadership role. And who was one of the people now reporting to me? Clara. I remember sitting at my desk when she walked into the office and taking a deep breath. But Clara was an interesting, complicated person. She knew our history as well as I did and she confronted it that first day, coming into my office and shutting the door. She sat down and went through what had gone on before and said she wanted a fresh start with me. I admired that approach, and told her so. She’d gained a lot of experience in the seven years since we’d worked together and I recognized that.
Over the next four years, we build some pretty cool stuff. And Clara’s teams were high functioning and did good work. But more than that, she and I learned a lot from each other. Mostly, we learned that we had a lot to learn from each other.
So often, when we meet people and they get under our skin it’s because we see much of ourselves in the other person. It’s like a mirror being held up, and it’s not pretty. Clara’s and my view of life was very different. We both had big personalities but we were not similar in our approach to getting things done. Yet during those years we spent a significant amount of time late in the evening working on decks, or project and budget issues. And after I got to know her I found out we were not so different, after all.
Clara was born in Italy and came to the US when she was a small child, knowing no English. She bore no accent so I had no idea she was a naturalized American citizen. Not that it mattered to me. US Immigration changed her name from Chiara to Clara and she felt like she lost a part of herself when the government renamed her. Her family settled in Pittsburgh and it was a hard scrabble, working-class upbringing with immigrant parents who were not interested in the problems of a struggling child. Clara had to find her own way while learning a new language and culture. She developed a thick skin and learned to be a fighter. While we worked together, she took care of her Mom when she was old and ill, flying back to spend significant amounts of time with her, even though they had a very complicated strained relationship. Clara did her duty knowing there would be no credit or love coming her way in the end. But she didn’t let that stop her.
All of this helped me understand, as I could see that little girl in the person I knew in her 50’s and 60’s . A single mom who raised two strong daughters and learned to take care of herself. Did Clara piss a lot of people off? Oh yes! And she pissed me off, plenty of times. She was a bull in a china shop. No subtlety, and she never took ‘No!’ for an answer. Crazy making. Head shaking. ‘You did what?!’ came out of my mouth many times. But you could give her anything, hard stuff, and she would get it across the finish line. Might there be blood in the water afterwards? Invariably. That was the fighter in her. But she never let anyone push her around and she always kept the goal in sight.
What I learned about her is that Clara just wanted to be appreciated and cared for. Like we all do. It was that little immigrant girl back in Pittsburgh. But if she knew you cared about her as a person she would do anything for you. She kept gluten free bars in her desk and if she saw me rushing to a meeting in the morning she would pop in and hand me a bar. ‘You need to eat something.’ The consummate Italian mother.
People either loved or hated Clara. There seemed to be no in between. She could cut deep but she was always apologetic. Sometimes she would come to me afterwards and ask for advice on how she could fix it. But more importantly, how she could approach things differently next time so she would avoid making the same mistake again in the future. I’m a work in progress myself, so I understood. I admired her willingness to improve.
By 2014 we were no longer working together. I had moved on to leading innovation and Clara was winding down her career. One day while I was in a meeting with some execs, Clara’s head peeked in the cracked door and she motioned for me to come outside. I knew it had to be important because she would have never done that unless she had no choice. I went outside and she cried and hugged me, telling me it was her last day. She would be retiring and leaving behind the company she had given so much to for 30 years. I was touched to think she would come to say goodbye, considering where we had started the decade before.
Clara reminded me that people are not all good or all bad. Darkness or light. They are many layers, and while some of those layers are scary, the good stuff can make it worthwhile with someone who is interested in growing and changing . And Clara was. Taking the time to learn someone’s origin story will tell you all you need to know about why they do the things they do, understanding the scars from way back that drive them in the here and now. She challenged my ideas about broken trust and rebuilding back afterwards. That we all deserve a second chance, and that it can be worth it in the end.
I won’t make her memorial. It’s in these moments when being so far away from the US hits home. And I couldn’t head out to a church to light a candle for Clara today – a good Italian Catholic girl. So I lit one here in el Comparimento and said a little poem and a prayer. I wish her understanding, and the kindness she so desperately deserved. Where she is now there are no more issues on the issues log. No more problems to solve. Time for little Chiara to rest. I’m glad she is out of pain and hope her soul is finally at peace.