This time last year our company blog centered around Steve Jobs’ demise and the effect a co-worker’s death has on the workplace. We talked about how serious illness and death brings up fears, and how to deal with those fears in the workplace by confronting them head on. We ended the column by remarking on the difference Jobs made in our lives—individually, in business and as a society.
Little did we know, then, that our workplace would be grieving one of our own. Robin Scheps Weiner, our colleague for 10 years, lost a courageous fight with cancer this week. And although it is true that serious illness does bring up dark issues, Robin showed us there is an art to dying as well as living with grace, class and dignity.
Robin first joined The Alexander Group, our executive recruiting firm, in 1999, and although we thought Robin’s life began at our firm, it didn’t.
Robin was a native Houstonian – a rarity in this cosmopolitan city— one of the few Jewish families that lived in the upscale Memorial area at that time. Her family owned a women’s clothing store where she worked as a young woman and not surprisingly became a clothes and accessories hound. Robin married Barry Weiner and had a beloved daughter, Alexis. And she had literally hundreds of contacts and friends who loved her as much as we did.
We are a small business but in many ways we are a family. And like every family, we all have our roles. Robin was the cheerleader, the one who was always concerned with how everyone else was doing and feeling.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Robin worked for us in the early 2000's and then left to start her own business and to work for a national public accounting firm. While she was away, she had been diagnosed and treated for kidney cancer of a type so rare that even M.D. Anderson Cancer Center didn’t treat it regularly.
After rejoining The Alexander Group in 2006, Robin went through innumerable chemotherapy and radiation treatments, unimaginable pain and physical challenges, and yet she always returned to work with a smile on her face and her trademark, “How are yewwwww?” Who knew the word “you” was a five syllable word?
Pam Kutner, a former colleague, commented that “even when Robin was at her sickest, she always started the conversation asking how I was. When she told me she was going into hospice, she asked if I was OK.”
When Robin communicated with business contacts, we couldn’t tell if she was on the phone with a friend or a candidate. When I met candidates that Robin identified, there was always the question, “Will Robin Weiner be joining us?”
Robin loved talking to candidates and learning something new every day. Coincidentally, soon after her cancer spread, she worked on a search for a biotech client and the prospective candidates she was contacting all had experience with the drug she was taking, and could share their experiences with her.
We are a small business with many employees who have been with us for more than a decade, so in many ways we are a family. And like every family, we all have our roles. Robin was the cheerleader, the one who was always concerned with how everyone else was doing and feeling. Robin touched every person she met. She was special like that.
Robin would have been totally justified in turning down requests for help given that she felt poorly much of the time. But she didn’t. Robin always said “yes.” She set the bar high for the rest of us.
Robin often told us that our firm saved her life. She was grateful for the flexibility — she knew many employers would never have allowed her to continue to work as her illness progressed to the terminal stage. But while we allowed Robin flexibility, she gave much more. She showed all of us how to be optimistic, cheerful, funny and dignified in the face of unimaginable pain and struggles that a cancer patient knows only too well.
I cried as I told my co-workers Robin had died. I felt like it was important for them to see that I was not embarrassed to show my feelings. It was also important that people not be left to grieve alone in their offices.
We always knew that Robin was special. What we didn’t—perhaps couldn’t—know was the impact she had on each of us. Robin imbued the spirit of a courageous warrior into the tapestry of our firm and our hearts. Robin fought to the end and refused to consider that she might lose the fight against cancer. As she struggled to breathe, she told me "I will be back at work once the doctor fixes this lung issue."
When I learned of her death, I called everyone in the conference room and conferenced in colleagues in our other offices so we could grieve together. I cried as I told my coworkers Robin had died. I felt like it was important for them to see that I was not embarrassed to show my feelings. It was also important that people not be left to grieve alone in their offices.
We talked about that while we were all sad, at the end of the day we want people to miss us and grieve for us when we die. We shared stories about Robin. My business partner suggested that Robin could take on a new role as guardian angel, a role that seemed well suited for her. And as one way to deal with our sadness, everyone in the firm contributed memories of Robin that were used for her funeral service on Sunday.
As we return to work this week, there will be a little less wattage in the office. Small firms are like family and we grieve the loss of our family member — even if she is on guardian angel duty going forward.