After his friend lost an unspeakably hard battle with cancer, Jeff Friedman wants to share what he learned from his friend and colleague, Mike Connell.
It was the day after Christmas, 2005. The phone rang and it was Mike, my close friend and business partner on the line. I expected typical holiday chitchat, but his tone wasn’t lighthearted. He had unthinkable news. He’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and his aggressive treatment plan would begin in just a matter of days. I hung up and wept. I couldn’t imagine how his wife and two children, or the baby they were expecting, would weather this storm. Never mind Small Army—the ad agency we’d started together just three years earlier.
The day after New Year’s, we sat quietly in the Small Army conference room as Mike shared his news with the team. Everyone cried, except him. He comforted us with the reminder that he’d beaten this disease twice before and this would be just another bout in the ring. Surely, he’d come out on top. He had to. He was our Don Draper—our creative leader, a consummate storyteller and the one person who we all looked to for guidance.
At that moment in the conference room, with tears in my eyes, I couldn’t imagine the agency living on without him. Whatever it was that we’d both been doing up until that point, it had been working. We were landing great clients, winning awards, doing work we were proud of and most of all—we were having fun.
As Mike endured months of brutal chemo and radiation treatments, we struggled at the agency to function without him. But along the way, incredible things started happening. As word of Mike’s illness spread, we were inundated with calls of support from some of the most respected creative professionals in the industry, offering to come in and help—mostly for little to no pay. Our clients not only forgave us for our shortcomings, they sent even more work our way. The phone never stopped ringing.
Mike’s journey made us more than a business, it made us a family. Rather than fleeing to other more stable agencies, our team worked harder than ever to keep us together. The truly important work that Mike had always been doing, the business of always being good to people, was powering us through. He was taking care of us, even as he fought for his life.
After an unspeakably hard two-year battle, Mike passed away on November 21, 2007. I remain grateful for his courage, his spirit, and his example. His approach to life still informs everything I do, and everything I hope for Small Army to accomplish. I will always carry with me countless values that Mike imparted to me, but there are three in particular I consider to be his most important life lessons:
- Life is short. Focus on what truly matters.
Mike was only 45 when he died. I find some comfort in the knowledge that he had a great life while he was here because he focused on what mattered most to him. After his passing, a friend shared Mike’s morning prayer with me. I am not as religious as Mike was—nor of the same faith—but his words now hang in my office as a constant reminder that priorities make the person.
Today, Lord Jesus
Make me a better husband
Make me a better father
Make me a better business partner
Make me a better manager
In all things,
Make me a better man
- At the end of the day, relationships are everything.
It used to irritate me when I’d hear Mike constantly laughing and chatting with co-workers and clients, or see him heading out to yet another lunch with friends or colleagues while I had my head buried in strategy documents, presentations and spreadsheets. But, in retrospect, I realize the importance of all that. Mike knew no strangers, and had an incredible community of friends. He was the original social network. He didn’t just phone it in, he put care and thought into every relationship he had. He’s the only person I’ve ever regularly received personal notes from saying “thank you,” “congratulations,” or just kind words. I keep one of his notes, which happens to be the first-ever note written on our company letterhead, in my office:
- Nothing is more important or more rewarding than helping others.
For all of his creative talents and accomplishments, Mike got the most joy out of helping others. It was the source of his stories and what brought smiles to his face every day. Whether he was helping family, friends, colleagues, members of his church or a homeless man on the street, he was always the first to lend a hand. I recall one day where the attendant in our parking garage came over to thank Mike for the advice he had given him just a few days earlier. I’d never even noticed this person before, yet Mike knew his life story and was guiding him through a difficult family situation.
After Mike’s passing, I wanted to continue his fight, and started a non-profit called Small Army for a Cause in his honor. In 2009, we launched an annual cancer fundraiser called Be Bold, Be Bald! where participants get sponsored to go bald for one day by wearing a bald cap. Since then, we’ve raised close to $1 million for more than 40 cancer charities around the country. But, the most rewarding part of Be Bold Be Bald! are the daily emails from participants and survivors who thank us for the work we do and share their stories with us. I think Mike would have loved the notes and emails from the people we’ve helped more than anything else we’ve accomplished as a company.
Thank you, Mike, for helping me see what’s truly important in business and in life. Your example keeps Small Army marching forward with our eye on what really matters, and your lessons are still teaching us so much. We’ll never stop trying to make you proud. And we’ll never stop telling your story.
Jeff Freedman is Founder and CEO of Small Army, and the Be Bold Be Bald! Movement. The next Be Bold Be Bald! event is on October 16. Learn more and sign up at http://beboldbebald.org.