celebrating a good man in corporate America: Tom Spann

Saturday, February 16, 2013

I've been in this consulting business for a long time now, and I've seen plenty of things. I've seen brilliant leaders be stripped of their influence by the envy of their peers. I've seen power abused, colleagues humiliated, inconsistency masquerade as strategy, a pale hand sweep impetuously across a desk, knocking considered work to the ground. I've seen absolute assurances vanish and ego dressed up in a suit. I've seen grown men and women make grown men and women cry.

But I've seen the good guys (and women), too. I've known them, worked with them, valued them deeply. One of those good guys is a man named Tom Spann, whom I met at a company called Astra Merck. He was an Andersen/Accenture consultant with a full-time desk at the pharma company. I was a sixty-hour a week freelancer who wrote the company's news magazines, launch meeting scripts, best-practice reports, executive speeches, history book, value propositions, and most anything else that required letters, commas, question marks. When I was lucky I got to collaborate with Tom. He was a first-class sort. He asked questions; he listened. I never heard him raise his voice. Like every executive I've truly respected, his breadth of knowledge and his range of curiosity went far beyond the immediate matters at hand. He'd put forth an idea and in his quiet way ask, And if we were to move that idea forward, what would you do?

In the years since Astra Merck, Tom has gone on to build a company with his friend John Rollins. It's called Accolade, its focus is on both reducing health care costs and improving the health care experience for employees of large companies, and it has morphed from an idea discussed over coffee to a thriving mid-size company. The success of this company is no surprise to anyone who knows Tom (or John, which I also luckily do). Also ranking in the no surprise category (except that I had to find this out on my own since Tom Spann is incapable of boasting) is that, for the last two years, Tom has been named a top leader in the Philadelphia region—first in the small workplaces category and then in the midsize workplace company.

The survey asked employees to respond to this simple but overwhelmingly telling prompt: I have confidence in the leader of this organization. Then it gave the employees room to expound. Tom was reported to be accessible, caring, approachable, transparent, a man who doesn't hide in the corner office. He was known by his employees, in other words, as he is known to his friends. Think about how beautiful that is. And how frustratingly rare.

Several books ago I collaborated with Matthew Emmens, another truly decent guy, on a corporate fairytale called Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business (with illustrations by William Sulit). We created a character (named after my first Penn student, Moira) and led her through a maze of broken corporate things. She'd only survive the Alice in Wonderland madness of Zenobia if she could remain uncorrupted—if she could assert her intelligence, morality, curiosity, and perseverance, and, by example, change all that had gone wrong at this lurching, gossip-driven, demoralizing, and unnecessarily complicated company. She had (spoiler alert!) what it takes, in the end. She opened the windows, let in the light.

Tom Spann has been letting the light in his entire career long. His success is an object lesson in all that good can do.


Carol Mathews said...

He's an awesome family member, too. :-)

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