Honoring Dan Yager On His Stepping Down as CEO of HR Policy Association

4/10/20

For forty years I was responsible for producing the Association’s annual meeting, making sure each element occurred flawlessly and with all the appropriate fanfare.  For forty years my sleep was haunted by dreams in which I had forgotten the meeting’s date, failed to arrive on time, or otherwise screwed up in some unforgiveable and career-ending way.  Each time I awoke, waves of relief washed over me.

But not this day. It was 8:00 a.m. on the opening morning of the 2020 CHRO Summit.  I was standing in the foyer of the Grand Ballroom at The Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, a room that should have been bustling with hundreds of cheerful senior HR executives picking up breakfast and greeting friends, eager to begin the year’s most prestigious event in the field of human resources.  But here I was, standing alone in an empty room.

I texted Tim Bartl and Price Williams asking where everyone was.  I needed my name tag.  I couldn’t believe that after a half century of the Association’s annual meeting being held each year without fail, the 51st CHRO Summit had been struck down by something called coronavirus.

What was most distressing was that during this particular meeting, Dan Yager, the Association’s CEO and my best friend and colleague, would be stepping down after 32 years of selfless devotion to the organization.  I had come to sing his praises during a special ceremony scheduled for that evening.  Well, not sing, Dan does that, but to help put a coda on career in which he and I along with Tim had worked together seamlessly for more than three decades to turn a single-issue working group into the leading institution in its field.  I couldn’t believe that Dan wasn’t going to receive his due.  There would be no ceremony during which the mantle would be passed to our friend Tim, HR Policy’s next CEO.  There would be no recognition of Dan’s achievements in front of an appreciative membership.  There would be no heaping of praise on a person who, during his career, has become one of the nation’s leading authorities on labor and employment policy.  There would be no commemorative gifts, no expressions of the love that we all have for him, no standing ovations.  Not only was this day surreal, it was bitterly disappointing.

As the morning wore on, Tim and I commiserated regarding how the world had turned.  For him, it was no picnic that he was becoming CEO the same week a global crisis had erupted.  He said that I should at least write a blog the Association could publish containing the remarks that I would have made during Dan’s ceremony at the Gala Dinner.  I was delighted to do so, and the following is what I would have said had the show gone on.

One of the luckiest breaks I had in my career and in my life was stumbling across Dan Yager nearly 40 years ago.

The Chinese concept of yin and yang is a familiar one, the idea that seemingly opposite and contrary forces are complementary, interconnected, and interdependent.  That sums up the relationship that Dan and I have had both personally and professionally for four decades.

We were so interconnected and complimentary that the biggest problem we had working together was that when someone told one of us something, there was an assumption the other was hearing it as well.  I would respond wow, that’s amazing, I didn’t know that.  The person would look at me incredulously and say, well, I told Dan.  My reply would be, am I Dan?  The correct answer, of course, was that yes, I was Dan, and Dan was me in the eyes of most everyone.

Let me illustrate that yin and yang.

I am the oldest child in my family, Dan is the youngest in his.

I grew up on the East and West coasts, Dan grew up in the Midwest.

I rise early, raring to go.  Dan wakes up, has breakfast, and takes a nap.

I see danger lurking behind every tree.  Dan tries to see the good in everyone and everything.

If there is a problem, I immediately crash in to fix it.  Dan practices what he calls “creative inaction.”  If you have the wisdom and patience to keep out of the way, you give a problem the opportunity to fix itself.

I never let facts get in the way of a great story.  Dan couldn’t shade the truth if his life depended on it.

I like looking at the big picture, going through life brushing with broad strokes.  Dan cannot be beaten at Trivia.  He has a limitless capacity for storing random bits of disjointed information that he ties together to create things that are formidable.

Dan has a high boiling point.  I’m always boiling.

Dan goes through life on an even keel.  I have no idea how that is possible.

Dan is the star of every show.  I’d rather produce and direct.

And that’s exactly what we did for years, put on all sorts of shows together.  The common refrain after each membership meeting was—how are you two going to top that one?

Behind those shows was a tremendous amount of creative energy, and here is where I was particularly lucky.  We constantly threw ideas at one another, a lot of them truly insane.  Because we always had each other’s back, we could think out loud and work through options saying whatever stupid stuff came into our heads.  Each of us knew the other wouldn’t breach that trust and tell someone, hey, you know the guy is actually a complete nut job.

For me, the most difficult part about stepping down as CEO was that, for a time, I lost that other half of me.  I was so used to our binary relationship that I felt as if I was going through life missing an arm and a leg.

And then while I was struggling to learn how to walk again, Dan took over the Association and did a fantastic job—all on his own.  He didn’t need my help.  Membership continued to climb, better things emerged.  Plus, he was now the star and the director of the show which is indicative of what a special person Dan truly is.

As you can imagine, there are a whole lot of stories about all the crazy things the two of us have done over the years, and I’ll share just two with you.

You all know how mild-mannered Dan is, the consummate nice guy who never loses his composure.

Well, let me tell you about the first time that he and I really started working together.

It was long before Dan left Capitol Hill to join me in the business of this Association.

It was during the 1980s when a construction labor bill came up on the House floor for debate.  At the time, Dan was the lead counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee.  He was the guy that both the staff and Committee members looked to as the final word on any issue dealing with labor and employment.  For people like me who were representing the interests of the Association before the federal government, he was The One To See.

On the day of debate, I was in a House Office Building working on the issue for the Association when I got a call from a prominent member of Congress.

He said that he had just come from the Speaker’s office in the Capitol and had witnessed a shouting match underway between Dan and the House Parliamentarian.  For those not familiar with the way the House works, nothing happens on the floor unless the Parliamentarian permits it.  He was telling Dan that he wouldn’t allow the amendments to the bill Dan had drafted, and Dan was pushing back—hard.

The Congressman said that to calm things down, he had told the Parliamentarian he was sending over the nation’s leading expert on construction labor law who would be able to solve the problem.  That’s great, I said.  Good thinking.  Who’s that?  The Congressman replied, You.  You’ve got to be kidding, I said.  He told me to get my butt over there.

So, here I am walking over to the Capitol trying to figure out how I’m going to keep from making a complete fool out of myself.  Dan is the one with every nuance from every case stored in his head.  Because few of our Association’s members are in the construction industry, I was working the issue with what I thought were a clever set of talking points and hadn’t dug much deeper.  I was going to look like a dope.  More than that, Dan had no idea I would be the “industry expert” who would walk into the room.  He was not going to be happy to see me.  Things were bad.

When I arrived at the Speaker’s office, the two were still going at it.  By then, they must have been arguing for more than a half-hour.

I walked up and said in my best authoritative voice brimming with cheery faux self-confidence, what seems to be the problem here.  The two turned to me, their eyes telling me to screw off.  Particularly Dan’s which couldn’t believe the Congressman had sent a complete imposter.

The Parliamentarian then used the opportunity to say something condescending to Dan, a dis to the effect that Dan’s amendment would allow the following to happen, something that of course no sensible person would even suggest, let alone assert.  I said, well of course, that’s what the whole bill is about, specifying what should happen and what shouldn’t.  It’s all symmetrical.  Isn’t that obvious?  Why do we have legislation if not to delineate the permissible from the impermissible.

Profound.

The Parliamentarian paused for a moment, then flicked his wrist, and said—the amendments can be offered.

Relief swept over me. I  couldn’t believe my fortune.  Maybe I was a smart guy after all.

Dan and I left the Speaker’s Office and walked into the hallway, more me following Dan who was looking straight ahead, fuming, while walking at his characteristic breakneck speed.  I said, hey Dan, that went awfully well.  He came to a full stop, turned to me and said, hey [a……], I didn’t need your [f……..] help.  With that he walked onto the House floor to tell his Committee members to put his amendments into play.

That, folks, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.  For pure entertainment, I’ve spent the past three decades living for those moments when Dan loses his cool and blows up, when for a brief moment in time I am the calm, rational and reasonable one.  I’ve known Dan since 1984, and I think there have been three, maybe four times that has happened.  Each time the wait has been worth it.

Last story.

Over the years, Dorie and I have taken several trips with Dan and his wife, Linda, and we hope to be doing so again this summer with our children and grandchildren on a six-day raft trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

A few years ago, Dan said, you and Dorie want to do the National Geographic tour of Turkey with Lin and me?  I said sure, but I’d want to continue on to eastern Turkey after its over to see the area my Armenian grandfather had emigrated from before the Genocide.

Kind of a roots thing, Dan said.  Sounds cool.  We’ll go with you.

Really?  That’s not tourist Turkey.  I’m not sure anyone actually goes to that part of Turkey.

No problem.  Should be fun.

So, at the end of the National G trip in Bodrum on the Mediterranean, the Monaco of Turkey where everything was sweetness and light, we flew to the other end of the country, to a town called Kars high in the mountains in the Kurdish area.  As you can see from this picture, we are not in Monaco.

At the airport, my luggage and Dorie’s came off the plane, but not Dan and Linda’s.  Oh boy, not a good start.  Trying to solve the problem, I quickly discovered that no one in the terminal spoke English nor seemed to know anything.

I walked outside security to find our Armenian guide who had driven from Yerevan to meet us and would be our escort for the next ten days.  Turned out he didn’t speak Turkish either.

So here we were about to start a thousand-kilometer trip through a remote, desolate, unforgiving part of the world with the five of us not speaking the language.  We also discovered that Kurdish separatists were in a shooting war with the Turkish Army near where we would be traveling and that a few days earlier 12 soldiers had been killed and 60 wounded in a roadside attack.

Dan said, let’s go, it’ll work out.  I’m thinking, how could I do this to my good buddy.  Once again, one of my crazy ideas has landed us in a pickle.  I told Dorie that if we got out of this alive, I was sure Dan would never speak to me again.

Here we are the next day five miles from the Iranian border with Mount Ararat in the back.  You wouldn’t know anything is amiss with Mr. Even Keel.

For three days we drove through a country in which no one spoke English and most everyone was Kurdish.  A cloud hung over us the whole time, a feeling that the luggage was probably gone for good.

The third day, we stopped at the airport in Mus.  Lo and behold, there they were, two suitcases that had traveled to Istanbul and back all that time trying to figure out where we were.

This picture tells you what an incredible friend I have had all these years.  Dan has been willing to go along on every crazy ride while taking everything in stride, someone who has never told me nor anyone else what a dufus I am no matter how convoluted the situation.

In the end, it all worked out fine.  Dan and I had a tremendously satisfying career together, one that was better than either of us dreamed possible.  This Association is doing very well today, and it did fantastically well under Dan’s leadership.  Most importantly, few of the marvelous things that happened in my life would have happened without this terrific guy, Danny Vee Yager.

Those remarks, of course, were never made at the dinner that never was.  Instead, Dan, Linda, Dorie, and I went to one of the restaurants in the ghost hotel that evening for a supper with just ourselves.  On the way back, we walked through the foyer of the ballroom at the exact time the evening’s festivities should have been underway.  We tried opening the ballroom’s doors, but they were locked.  Looking through the gap between them, we saw a dark, empty room.  We were completely bummed.  Then Linda slid onto the piano in the lobby, and I was able to take what will go down in Association history as the official commemorative photograph of the retirement of Dan Yager as CEO of HR Policy.