It was the spring of my sophomore year in college ... a long, long time ago. I was married and living off campus. We survived on about $35 a week, including $80 a month for rent and utilities. A dollar bought more back then, but things were still very tight. Then a letter arrived from my college. I needed to send a $100 deposit to hold my place in next year’s class. My wife and I didn’t know what to do.
After a little thought and discussion we decided I would go see the head of the financial aid office. Because I lived off campus and qualified for a certain level of financial aid, when the new school year started the college would be giving me money for room and board. Why did I have to pay the college $100 now when it would have to refund me that money – and a whole lot more – in a matter of a few months? Under the circumstances, I was hopeful the financial aid chief could be persuaded to waive the $100 deposit.
It was not a fruitful meeting. “If I do it for you, I’ll have to do it for everybody,” he declared. Everybody? At the time, the only way you could live off campus was if you were a military vet, at least 23 years old or married. The categories included no more than 5% of the student body. But he could not be moved. “Rules are rules,” he said. Period.
The guy had a sardonic sense of humor, so at first I thought he was joking. When it finally became clear that he was being deadly serious, my tone changed. I was desperate. I got intense. “If rule are rules and that’s the end of it, what do we need administrators for?” I asked rhetorically. “You earn your salary when you step in and make sensible exceptions to rules that can’t anticipate every circumstance. If you’re never going to do anything more than just follow rules, you’re not serving any purpose here, and the college could save a lot of money by firing you.”
He didn’t bend. But I remembered that incident years later when I had a choice to make. I was the CEO of a newspaper publishing chain. We had just hired Bill to take over as editor of a paper we had purchased recently. We felt lucky to get him. He had grown up in a nearby town. He wanted to stay in the area. He had a little experience and showed some talent. He was willing to cover sports on Friday and Saturday nights – he loved sports and looked forward to doing it. We couldn’t wait for him to come on board.
He was slated to start on a Monday. But on Friday we got a call. He had been admitted to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. He would be out of commission, unable to drive, for several weeks. Staff peppered me with urgent questions. Who else could we hire? How could we fill in until we found someone else? Meanwhile, I soon learned that he faced some desperate questions of his own. He had quit his old job. Without this new one how could he pay the rent on his apartment or cover car payments, not to speak of paying his hospital bills?
Everyone on the staff seemed to assume that just because Bill couldn’t show up for work on his first day we were going to have to let him go and find someone else for the job. I thought that was a bad idea. It had taken us some time to find him. I doubted we would find someone quickly – certainly not someone with his attitude and skill set. I wanted Bill before he got sick and I still wanted him. If my only choice was to wait a few weeks more, that’s what we would do. Moreover, the situation seemed like an opportunity to forge a strong relationship of mutual trust and respect.
I called Bill and told him he still had his job – and that we would start him on the payroll the very next week as planned if he could be a little flexible too. Since he hadn’t earned any vacation or sick leave, I needed him to agree to commit whatever sick leave he had at the end of each year to paying back the days he owed us. As for vacation, I wanted him to have some each year, but I wanted him to commit half his vacation days to paying back what he owed. If he left us before it was all worked off, we’d deduct the difference from his last check.
I wasn’t sure this was legal and I knew darn well it was outside the scope of our personnel policies. But it solved big problems for both of us. So I did it, made a note of what I did, took full responsibility and happily welcomed Bill on board when he was finally cleared to drive. He did a great job for us from the first day, and he continued to do that for a few years.
Eventually, contemplating marriage as I recall, he accepted a hefty pay hike to work full-time at a metro daily. He gave us plenty of notice to find his replacement. As his tenure came to an end, we thanked him for his excellent work, wished him well and had a great time at his going away party.
I tracked him down on Facebook the other day. He’s still plying his craft and people are still benefitting from that time, 40 years ago, when we broke some rules to get what everyone wanted and needed -- despite challenging circumstances.
Rules are essential. The world wouldn’t work without them. But sometimes you have to toss out the rule book, listen your heart and do what makes sense. We did it then. I’d do it again. And I suppose I should be thankful to that deficient financial aid director for teaching me a leadership lesson I could never forget.