I lost a very important person in my life this week. His name is Mark Agnew, a former giving circle and board member of The Clarence Foundation, and my longtime Executive Coach.
Mark was the CEO of a company called United Green Mark, which achieved great success in the irrigation industry. Upon selling the company, Mark devoted much of his retirement to supporting local and global causes. I’m proud to have been one of many who were touched by Mark’s generosity.
Mark and I were a bit of an odd couple. He was a businessman and former CEO. I was a Social Worker by training and had spent my entire life in the nonprofit sector. Mark was a stereotypically big burly guy, a hunter, who would drive up to our lunch meetings in his larger-than-life pickup truck. I drove a Prius! We likely had very different politics, though we didn’t dwell on that much.
We also had different faith backgrounds. Yet, Mark had a very deep sense of spirituality that touched his heart and enabled him to be an extremely effective coach.
On the surface it would seem that Mark and I had little in common. But he taught me the most profound lessons about leadership. His enduring message to me is that people matter. You need to remember them. And they need to remember you.
Mark told it as he saw it. No sugar coating whatsoever. He always prefaced his comments by saying that “my advice is worth .02 and a cup of coffee.” It was often hard to hear, and I didn’t always agree or follow every piece of advice. But it didn’t matter. Mark was my confidant - a complete neutral. Though he served on the board of The Clarence Foundation for a short time, he realized that he could make a greater impact by coaching me outside of the organizational system, meeting periodically over lunch and picking up the tab.
Confidants, as discussed by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their book Leadership on the Line, are incredibly valuable because they don’t have a personal stake in organizational decisions. They don’t have to face the losses that necessary change requires. They don’t have organizational loyalties that can color their views or decisions. They have an opinion, but their guiding light is caring about you and your success above all else. Mark was that person to me.
Mark was a strong personality one-on-one, but he never sought out the limelight. He always kept a low profile at giving circle meetings and Clarence Foundation events, standing as the literal and figurative giant he was at the back of the room. Yet, I always felt his presence. I knew he was back there taking it all in, trying to gain insights that would help me be a better Executive Director, and a better person.
Mark and I fell out of touch in recent years after I went back to grad school and subsequently pursued new endeavors. I didn’t tap his wisdom as much as I should have. At one point, I became so overwhelmed in my day-to-day work that I kept saying to myself “I need to get back in touch with Mark. I need his guidance on this one.” But other supposedly more important things took precedence that really weren’t important at all. I failed to honor one of Mark’s greatest teachings, even though he sent me a birthday card in the mail every year - a physical reminder that he was always there.
Last night, I came back from a long stretch of travel and an upcoming period of more relative calm. There was a list of people in my life written in my notebook that I had neglected over the past years and with whom I wanted to get back in touch. Mark was one of them.
When I came through the door, luggage in hand after a weary week, my wife Kelly had a candle lit and said “there’s something I need to tell you.” She shared the letter from Mark's wife Katie that he had unexpectedly passed away.
It was too late. I never got the opportunity to get that last piece of advice, or to say thank you for being there for me through all those years, through all those hardships.
Keep your confidants. Remember that they’re there for you when you need them. You may not fully realize how much they’ve meant until after they’re gone.