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The Legacy of the Red Sweater

February 11, 2011

Once upon a time, Mary joined a new company as the HR Leader.  She was excited to shape some initiatives and leave a legacy for her team and her organization.  She shored up the foundation, wrote policies and job descriptions, handled transactions efficiently, majored in tactical execution and felt confident in her ability to be a forward-thinking HR partner.  Mary ascribed to the belief that HR should be a bit remote; she didn’t let her personality intrude upon the business at hand.  She took pride in the fact that she could remain business-like and official.  She wore pressed suits in somber and muted colors and expected her staff to wear the same.  “HR,” she was fond of saying. “is important business.  And we need to represent the company and ourselves as the serious professionals we are.”

As if often the case, Mary was the lead staff member when it came time for employee terminations or downsizing maneuvers.  Each and every time that a difficult termination meeting was to take place, Mary lost sleep the night before.  Deep down underneath her stern exterior lay a caring person who realized that a person’s life was being affected.  So she tossed and turned and fretted.  Inevitably, when Mary went to work on each fateful day, she reached for her warm red sweater.  The sweater, she believed, projected more of a nurturing image; it was soft and cozy and brought to mind Mr. Rodgers sitting by the fireside.  The color cheered her up on a day when a difficult task lay ahead.

What Mary didn’t realize, however, was that the red sweater had become a flashing red beacon to staff members throughout the company.  On any given day when she was seen to be wearing that vibrant scarlet hue, word quickly spread through the building.  “Mary’s got red on today; I wonder who’s being fired?.” the anxious employees asked each other.

And the years passed.

Mary’s boss praised her for her adept management of the HR function.  Mary felt confident in the performance of her team and content with the direction of the company.  As she neared the end of her tenure with the organization, she reflected on her time and tallied up the accomplishments.  She was proud and secure in her belief that she had left the legacy that had been her goal.  And so she retired.


Mary’s successor started with the company a few short weeks later.   On day 3, she wore a red sweater.

She couldn’t understand why the team members scurried from her path.

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