Saturday, October 1, 2011

M.H. Levine: How do you say no to a Teddy Bear?

Recently I went to M.H.’s (he is commonly known by his initials) office to interview him for my blog.  I was greeted enthusiastically by an imposing figure; the former college football player carried his size gracefully and I felt at ease immediately.  He answered my first question (How are you?) with “Old on the outside, but not on the inside,” with a smile.
University of Arkansas
He related a story about a friend of one of his six daughters who needed to “shadow” him and some of his staff for week for a project but was afraid to ask directly.  The friend was afraid of M.H.; he is a large man with a commanding presence and booming voice.  His daughter convinced her friend that her father was a Teddy Bear, a view I came to agree with as our morning together progressed. 
Before our interview I had known M.H. only in a superficial manner; I was pleasantly surprised when he quickly said yes to my request for an interview for my vague, yet to be finalized idea to start a blog on Working Seniors.  M.H. is the Executive Director of Jewish Family Services and his agency provides social services for thousands of clients in San Antonio and his work schedule is full.  But he made time gladly and I got the impression that he had his phone on do not disturb for our session.
When I asked what he loved about working in the non-profit world he changed the question to reflect about his parents, whom he obviously loved.  His story began when his parents visited a local hospital to learn about adoption and went home with a blue-eyed baby.  He described his parents as loving, caring, color-blind people who helped many people when he was growing up, with money, clothes, bail and even funeral help.  In Pinebluff Arkansas in the forties and fifties they were unique.  Their way of life became M.H.’s way of life. 
Many of the management techniques used in the operation of a non-profit agency are different from those used in for-profit companies, but there are many skills that can cross-over.  M.H. crossed-over without hesitation.  He told me that in many businesses the boss’s word is law and that outcomes are usually clear and can be measured easily.  In his current work the outcomes are not so accurately measured and that makes evaluation of success more difficult; more staff involvement in the entire process is necessary.  Ultimately, the agency director has to make the final decisions but staff involvement is required.  M.H.’s style is semi-democratic: he has fifty votes and each staff member has one each, but a vote is never taken.  They discuss the issues and problems until the right path is found, one that is in the best interest of the clients and meets the agency’s goals.
The Beatles’ song “The Long and Winding Road” might describe M.H.’s path to his current position as Executive Director of a non-profit agency.  He served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force for six years; this was followed by a number of business positions in the food and logistics industry until he was 60.  He served several years on a non-profit board which was his introduction to the non-profit world.  When he returned to his hometown to be near his elderly mother an old hometown friend asked him what he was going to do.  That chance meeting led to a position with Neighbor to Neighbor in Pinebluff Arkansas as its director.  M.H. began phase two of his working career, directly helping others.  At 60 years of age he marched down an entirely new career path; he felt instantly comfortable with that decision and with the work.  Years later his wife, Natalie, told him this was what he was destined to do.
I asked him about his plans to stop working. 
“I have no plans to stop,” his answer was straightforward and clear, without any equivocation.  That ended any follow-up questions about what’s next.
We spent a significant of amount time discussing his return to college to obtain a Masters in Business Administration.   He graduated the day before his 70th birthday.  M.H. graduated with a real degree, earned by hard work, not with an honorary degree or a degree based on work experience.  He was excited and proud of this unique accomplishment. 
For many years he wanted to return to school but lacked the confidence to return for an advanced degree.  But years of experience eventually gave M.H. the confidence he needed.  He found a program that suited his needs and enrolled in a Masters in Business Administration program at the Phoenix University.  M.H. elected to take the traditional route of a classroom program, rather than an on-line option.
He took 12 courses over an 18 month period; each course was four hours per week for four weeks.  Each course required 600 pages of reading per week with weekly written assignments.  It was a grueling schedule.  He worked every evening on his homework and often pulled an all night session.  On weekends he spent hours at a local library reading, removed from the distractions of his home.  He says without the support and help of his wife and staff members he could not have earned the degree.  M.H. is modest about his accomplishment, but he was profuse in thanking others for their help.
Phoenix University’s approach to the degree program impressed M.H.  They required the students in each class to form teams.  The teams created a charter of operations; they divided tasks among the members and encouraged each other to succeed.  That process strengthened each member by working on their weak points and utilizing their strong areas for a better team effort.  Each team had to make a group presentation at the end of the class.  M.H. says he learned as much from the team approach as he did from the books and the actual class work.  He thinks he has carried some of this team approach to his role as a director of a busy agency. 
His goal when he started the degree program was to “to do a better job.”  He was not promised an increase in salary or a better job if he obtained the degree, nor did he expect it.  M.H. was entirely motivated to do a better job and that he has accomplished. 
At the beginning of this blog I mentioned M.H. is what most people commonly call him.  We spoke briefly about his name.  During his degree program one professor called him Levine, while his classmates called him M.H.  The professor told him that M.H. is not a name, it is just initials.  Many of his Air Force fellow officers called him Moe, a form of his first name.  As a child many children transformed the letters M and H into a word, Maych.  I never really delved into how he became known as M.H.; perhaps if I knew the reason it would change my impression of the man.  So while I know his name, I prefer to call him M.H.  Both the name and the man are unique.
Natalie produced a video tribute of his life for his 70th Birthday and Graduation celebration.  It was grouped into ten year segments, highlighting significant events and milestones in his life.  Natalie titled the video “The best is yet to come.”  Friends and family at the celebration would probably agree that, judging by the long winding trail he has taken so far in life and his accomplishments, the best is yet to come.
When we finished our meeting he fell back onto to an old habit of a salesman.  He asked for an order.  The order was a request to help his agency with a project he felt would improve the agency. 
So how do you say no to a Teddy Bear?  You don’t and I agreed to help.

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1 comment:

  1. Just starting to access your blog which I find interesting.