Larry L. Lewis, Jr.
Dr. Russell Smith
Submitted: August 13, 2005
Dr. Russell Smith
By: Larry L. Lewis, Jr. (Now Founder of Flying Blind, LLC)
LEARNING OF RUSSELL'S DEATH, MONDAY, AUGUST 8, 2005, 9:45 AM, EASTERN STANDARD TIME
I'll never forget the moment when I learned that a man who did so much for my career, and who I learned such a great deal from both by working for him as well as spending time with him had been taken from this world far too soon.
It had been a moderately busy Monday morning, and I had been mildly troubled by a voice-mail that I had received earlier that morning from Michiel Van Schaik, CEO of Optelec Holding, wishing to speak to me about some sort of tragic news. I had been trying to reach him for a couple of hours, but to no avail. It wasn't until I spoke to another one of my colleagues in Holland that I learned that Russell and his partner Marian had died in a tragic plane crash in his own personal plane.
The best comparison that I can make as to how I felt when I heard this awful news might be to liken it to being hit with a sledge hammer. At first, I didn't believe it, and told my colleague that he must be mistaken. I've actually had the pleasure of flying with Russell, and have pictures of me standing in front of his plane while he was inspecting the plane prior to taking a spin around New Zealand's South Island a few years ago.
He was an avid pilot and so very meticulous about maintaining his aircraft. So how could this have happened? My disbelief soon turned to overwhelming sadness and despair. I had just seen Russell a few weeks ago at a summer consumer convention, and while I hadn't worked for Russell in over a year and a half, our chats were still spirited and friendly. I can still feel the last time he slapped me on the back, and gave me his signature "Goodday, Larry, my boy! How are we going?"
Now, the reality had begun to sink in that a man who loved to live life to the fullest had involuntarily checked out of the game. There would be no more spirited jousting, no firm handshakes, no thought provoking discussions, no more chats about the latest technological trends, no more talk of flying, no more flying, no more lamentations of exhilaration regarding his favorite Rugby team, no more anything, for the man that knew so many had died.
I spent the day stunned, and spent a great deal of time on the phone with other friends of mine who knew Russell quite well, many of them being my former co-workers at HumanWare. That day, so much didn't matter, and so much had become insignificant. On August 8, business didn't matter, spirited competition with other companies didn't matter, and strife, be it personal disagreements or strife between competitors didn't matter. All that mattered was that this industry had lost a true pioneer, a technological father to many of us who underneath the tough facade of a highly driven and focused CEO was also a true gentleman who cared about his company, the many persons who contributed to his success, and his friends and family.
On that day, so many of us were able to reconnect and draw strength and comfort from one another as well as being grateful for our own lives, appreciation of the fragility of life, and recognizing the significance that Russell played in all of our lives, a significance which will not lessen, even with the passage of time.
A FEW THINGS THAT I LEARNED FROM RUSSELL
I've never worked for or worked with a more focused and driven person in my life than Russell Smith. Russell came into my life in early 1999 when I joined HumanWare and served for over five years in both product management and sales capacities.
I still remember CSUN 1999, and how Russell's hotel room was adjacent to mine. Over the duration of the conference, Russell could often be heard by me and others in the middle of the night making phone calls, receiving faxes, and finally, turning in for a few hours of sleep when most individuals were waking up for breakfast. Russell was always in constant motion, constantly thinking, constantly progressing, and never stagnating. I remember quite well when Russell made a move to purchase HumanWare from the Tieman Group back in 2001 how focused he could remain throughout this arduous process. Russell could spend two to three weeks straight on the road and still remain as fresh and as focused as when he started the trip. I've seen him hit 3 or four continents within two weeks, and remain steadfast, goal-oriented, and committed to succeeding. Russell was 25 years my senior, and he was a true "iron man" in every sense of the word. He expected focus and results out of his entire team, and led by example.
Lessons I learned from Russell, the CEO:
Lessons I Learned From Russell, The Person:
- Being a good leader doesn't always mean winning a popularity contest: many of Russell's business decisions were not always popular, and I would not be entirely honest if, in fact, I were to suggest that he and I didn't have our go-arounds from time to time. But Russell was definitely decisive, and always based his decisions as being steps for his company to achieve its development, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and financial goals.
- There's no shame in altering a decision if the decision you have made is not giving you the intended result: Wile I can never recall Russell admitting that he might have "gotten something wrong", I do recall him altering a given plan, scenario, or decision to either achieve a given result or to optimize a current result. Again, winning a popularity contest was not the issue here, but achieving a specific goal, or set of goals was in the cards for Russell.
- A good leader engages his staff to obtain relevant feedback: Many of Russell's decisions, which led to his success, can be attributed to his thirst for input from his staff. He sought input from all levels of his company, and was quite open to letting one argue or debate a specific point. At times, if one were properly prepared, Russell would allow various decisions, etc., to be shaped by these spirited debates.
- A good leader keeps in touch with the market who his company serves: Russell was not one of these CEOs who was intimidated by persons who were blind. He embraced the interactions with the market who he served, and those of us who are blind appreciate his sincere interest in how we use technology.
- Investing in a process is a great way to redouble your efforts and bring your focus to a whole new level: I'm quite grateful for the opportunity that Russell gave me to invest my own money in Pulse Data, an investment that paid back substantial dividends, for he was right - I worked my ass off to grow the investment that I had made in his company. What a great strategy for securing your key employees' focus.
- Have fun: Russell was always having fun, whether it was creating something, formulating an idea, or simply enjoying himself with others at a conference, Russell loved his work, and this was apparent to all who knew him.
- Fight hard, and win: Russell was a true contender, and losing was never an option for him. His hard charging, "take no prisoners" style propelled him and his company into the spotlight in recent years, and all who have worked for him wanted to fight hard for him. I suspect you'll see HumanWare draw strength from his death, much like Texans draw strength "remembering the Alamo", which they so often turn into a victory chant.
There are a lot of fond memories that I have of Russell and Marian, and many of these memories have been the source of a number of life's lessons that I have learned. I'll share a few of them:
I can write on and on about Russell, and there were those who knew him better than I who probably have a great deal more to say. I'll conclude by thanking Russell for the opportunities that he has given me both professionally and financially, and I'll also thank him for the lessons that I have learned from him which have affected my own personal growth.
- As I said, Russell took me, Jim Halliday, and another colleague up in his airplane a few years ago. The lesson learned? Have a passion beyond the scope of your work. If it involves an element of risk? All the better! Russell was so passionate about flying, and embraced this hobby with the zeal that he embraced his role as CEO of HumanWare. This intensity and focus on something outside of work gave him a tremendous outlet for stress, and gave him much pleasure. It also gave him the ability to come back to work fresh, invigorated, and focused.
- Stand up for yourself and your convictions, even outside of work: Now many people in this industry may not be aware that Russell was a millionaire many times over. They may not be aware of this, for Russell didn't always exactly live like a man who had his amount of money. I can remember going to see the Christ Church Orchestra a few years ago with Russell and Marian. We went to dinner prior to the performance. Russell had one of those entertainment coupon books with him and produced a coupon good for one free meal when one was bought. Well, there were three of us at dinner, and when Russell collected the check, the waitress wouldn't accept the coupon. I'll never forget how much hell Russell raised about this, so much hell that we were almost late for the performance, but he made the establishment honor the coupon! He also gave me a hell of a laugh that evening! I also still laugh when I remember how Russell used to talk his way into Business Class on a flight simply by reminding the airlines that as much as he flew and was a patron of their services, that he deserved it and they owed it to him. Some might call this a bit self-serving and arrogant, but I totally respect and dig his approach. Russell stepped up, and assumed what he felt was rightfully his, even in his personal life.
- Russell "Kept it Real": So many people who have money either have never "kept it real" or have forgotten how. One of the fondest memories I have of Russell and Marian was going to their home and eating take-out fish and chips for dinner off newspapers. I totally dug this because it showed that he was a genuine person who put his pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. There was no pomp nor circumstance with Russell. He was a genuine human being who wasn't afraid to let his guard down and just be a "real" person.
- Enjoy things that might go against your public persona: Many persons knew Russell to be rather conservative and reserved. I'll never forget one evening while sitting in his living room, Russell bellied up to the piano to play us a few numbers. He's not a virtuoso by any means, and this was just a hobby for him. What, pray tell, did Russell start playing? No, it wasn't any of the classical pieces that you might expect, rather, he began to play "Sweet Transvestite", a number that he had been working on out of the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" song-book! Again, he wasn't afraid to have fun, laugh at himself, and do something that defied the public's view of himself.
I still remember the last conversation that I had with him, and still think about that firm, solid handshake that he would always give me. It's the little things like that I think about, and while it doesn't lessen the sadness that I've felt altogether, these sorts of memories keep the spirit of Russell going for me and to those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him.
"You will be missed, Russell, by the industry who you served, by the company who you proactively led, and by those of us whose careers and whose behaviors you have shaped through your unwavering example to us all. May you and Marian rest in Eternal Peace."
- Larry L. Lewis, Jr.