In my nearly thirty year career at FORTUNE magazine, I got to know a host of larger than life characters. But few loom larger in memory than the diminutive dynamo who sadly passed away last night, Andy Grove.
Amid the stream of obits and reminiscences rightly hailing Andy’s extraordinary career as CEO of Intel, his major contributions to management thinking in books such as Only the Paranoid Survive and High Output Management and his moving autobiography Swimming Across, which vividly relates how young Andras Grof escaped war-torn Hungary to reinvent himself in America as Andy Grove, I have two small stories to offer.
Both capture what to me is Andy’s essence, what defined him as a leader and a man – his extraordinary intellectual energy, harnessed to an incessant willingness to challenge bluntly both himself and everyone around him.
In May 1996, when I was deputy editor, Andy wrote a cover story for FORTUNE, “Taking on Prostate Cancer,” in which he clinically examined the choices he had confronted when diagnosed with the disease. One exhibit included a chart he had proudly crafted himself. But in the course of checking the math, a 25-year-old first year Fortune reporter named Bethany McLean, called him out on an error. He exploded in anger – and then quickly backed down once he re-examined the facts and realized she was right. (Bethany would go on to prove she was more than capable of holding her ground and facing down angry older white men when she wrote in 2001, a month after I became managing editor, the first national story to question Ken Lay and Enron’s then high-flying stock.)
When Andy came to visit our offices in New York shortly after the piece appeared, he had little interest in seeing me and or my boss, John Huey, who had commissioned the story. “Never mind you guys,” he roared, “I want to meet this Bethany McLean!” He was quick to challenge but equally ready to admit—and celebrate –if he made a mistake.
Some months earlier, Andy had appeared on stage in San Francisco at the FORTUNE 500 Forum with the other most-prominent CEO of that era, GE’s Jack Welch. In the course of their dialog, Andy suddenly turned to Jack and asked him if he used a computer. Jack admitted he did not. (Yes, kids, 20 years ago it was still possible to run one of the world’s biggest and best companies without personally using either the PC or the Internet!) Andy shook his head and, leaning in towards Welch with a mix of empathy and horror, said in his heavily accented English: “Jack, you really need to get a PC.” Welch must have . . . eventually, because a few years later his company, which had long focused mainly on Six Sigma as its core cross-cutting initiative, announced it was launching a new one — on digital and e-commerce.
Andy Grove: shouter, teacher, mentor, challenger, change-agent—and most important, life-long learner. He broke the mold and set an example for us all.