The road to immortality

One of the best definitions of immortality I’ve ever heard was told to me by Bill Mulholland, CEO of Bank of Montreal in the 1980s. “The question is, can you mass-produce? Do you want to achieve a self-perpetuating process, one that goes on after you walk out? The ultimate accolade is when they say, ‘Mulholland, we don’t need you anymore.’ Like man’s earliest effort, you have created a tool that can be used over and over again. In fact, there’s no way of knowing how you did until after you’ve left.”

Mulholland rescued the bank from oblivion, launched ATMs in Canada and was the first Canadian banker to successfully expand into the U.S. He also had a machine-gun management style. Matt Barrett, the only senior officer left standing, was appointed to succeed him. Today, few people remember Mulholland. Immortality of the sort he sought is not easy.

A better legacy was demonstrated at a recent retirement party for another officer of the same bank, Michael Cooksey. Cooksey started out in the branches and rose to become vice president and regional director at BMO Harris Private Banking. I first met him maybe 15 years ago when he was manager of the main branch at King and Bay. His door was not only always open, but if you walked in, he was happy to see you and had time to chat. Any previous manager I’d ever dealt with at any of the banks always was a sourpuss who required an appointment.

But Cooksey, who retired after 43 years with BMO, was more than just a successful individual in his own right. He truly left a mark. At his farewell reception, I happened to talk to three people I’d never met before, all bank employees. A woman who had worked with him in Ottawa 40 years ago couldn’t say enough good things about him. The second was a young Asian man who’d been with the bank for five years. He said Cooksey had been a mentor to him. When I asked one memorable thing Cooksey had told him, he replied, “Loyalty goes a long way.”

The third was another employee mentored by Cooksey, a young woman of colour. I asked about her hopes, dreams and aspirations in the bank and she replied, “I want to help people.” Not get a big promotion. Not earn top dollar. Help people. That’s what she learned from Cooksey. Cooksey’s style couldn’t have been more different than Mulholland’s. But he certainly achieved immortality as defined by that former CEO. In Cooksey’s case, he put his own positive stamp on countless people who will carry on with a piece of him within.

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