I Was Pat McGovern’s Elf

The IDG chairman’s legendary holiday visits, and how they happened


When you think about Pat McGovern — as so many of us have been doing with the sad news of his passing on March 19—the mind has a way of turning almost instantly to his holiday visits. For years, the founder and chairman of tech-publishing giant IDG traveled to far-flung offices each December, visiting thousands of employees at their desks. He complimented them on recent accomplishments, asked for input on how IDG could be a better place, and left behind a holiday card and (in the U.S., at least) a generous bonus.

The annual rite was so memorable an achievement that it’s the very first thing mentioned in his obituary in IDG’s hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, despite his numerous other memorable achievements, from his pioneering work as a western entrepreneur in China to his founding, with his wife Lore, of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

The fact that he made his visits at all was astonishing. (If you can name any other leaders of billion-dollar enterprises who followed the same practice, I’d like to hear about it.) But he did it for decades, and he did it despite being—as far as I could tell—a fairly reserved person rather than a born glad-hander. At IDG, you didn’t have to wonder whether your work was valued. Once a year, the chairman came to you and made it clear that it was.

I worked for IDG from 1991-2008, and should pause here for a disclaimer: For the first few years, when I toiled for a small and struggling division, we got a card and bonus but no Pat visit, even when he dropped in on others in the same building. I’m not sure why, but others were responsible for scheduling the mammoth annual effort, and I think the least likely explanation of all was any sort of intentional snub on Pat’s part.

In 1994, I joined PC World, and from then on, I got the full Pat experience. When I became editor in chief in 2003, among my new responsibilities was shepherding him around the editorial department as he visited several dozen editors, designers, and test-center analysts every December. If he was Santa, I felt like one of his elves.

Now that the tradition that has come to an end—a fact which is unimaginable to me—I believe it’s worth documenting the process. If you ever worked at IDG and experienced a Pat visit, and would rather not have the magic spoiled by excessive knowledge, stop reading now. Though analyzing the mechanics of it all leaves me only more impressed by what Pat did for us.

Pat, remarkable though he was, was not omniscient. Weeks before his scheduled visit, IDG’s human resources staff coordinated the considerable undertaking of compiling a crib sheet for him—a spreadsheet with a snippet of information worth celebrating about each employee. I compiled this for the PC World editorial department; typical fodder included recent awards won, major stories written, important beats, and, occasionally, personal milestones such as weddings and babies.

Pat received these crib sheets for every department in every division he visited. At some point, he studied them and committed meaningful chunks of them to his prodigious memory. He also signed thousands of holiday cards.

Then there was the bonus. During my time at PC World, it was always exactly $500, with any taxes and any other deductions already accounted for. I find that figure to be significant. It was large enough to be meaningful and small enough to be a treat rather than a major part of your compensation. It was egalitarian, the same whether you were an editorial assistant or a senior vice president. And the nice, round, tax-free number made it feel even more like a present. (Your grandmother, after all, never sent you a check for $27.42.)

In my experience, the bonus came in the form of a standard ADP check, but I’ve heard enough mention of it sometimes being presented in crisp $100 bills that I assume that’s not an urban legend. A wad of actual cash would have only accentuated the gift-like feel.

Which is not to say that the company treated it like a gift. Behind the scenes, each division was required to build sufficient funds to pay the bonuses into its budget—a six-figure commitment in the case of PC World—and find enough revenue to cover the cost. If you’ve ever been involved in running an IDG business, you’ll know that this no-nonsense approach was very much in line with how the company managed money.

The bonus came tucked into your holiday card. The card went into an envelope with your name on it. By the day of Pat’s visit, these envelopes had been dispersed to the correct departments. I was in charge of the stack containing those for the PC World editorial team.

In the days leading up to Pat’s arrival, the staff was reminded, repeatedly, to spiff the joint up. Editors dumped vast amounts of stuff from their work areas into giant trash receptacles we brought in especially for that purpose. The aim may have been to give Pat every reason to think he headed a company comprised of neatniks, but I doubt that he cared, or that he was fooled.

In fact, one year, I found him loitering in the hallway a day before we were expecting him. (He was presumably in the building for some other purpose.) Spying the annual tidying underway in the distance, I stage-whispered to Pat that if he ran into any editors desperately cleaning up in preparation for his visit, he should pretend he didn’t see them. He paused, then laughed loudly.

Here’s Pat’s schedule for his 2006 visit to PC World, which happened on December 18th. (No, I didn’t intentionally preserve it—but there it was in my archived Lotus Notes e-mail, along with other messages documenting multiple Pat visits.)

6th floor
Online
Ad Ops
Circulation
Production
HR
Sales
Editorial/Art
3rd floor
Test Center
1st floor
Accounting/Finance
Technology
5th floor
Central Services

Editorial fell roughly into the middle of that itinerary. We didn’t know exactly when Pat would arrive: he basically chatted with each employee until that person was done talking or someone else (like me) intervened, so the pace of his trip around the company was largely determined by the people he visited. We’d get an alert from HR when he was approaching our department.

Pat arrived at PC World each year by himself; unlike some tycoons, he didn’t travel with handlers. As he made his way through editorial, his entourage typically grew to include me, our VP of human resources, and our division president—plus, in some cases, other managers. My job as his consigliere was to facilitate the encounters with each staffer, while also making sure that he didn’t run too far behind schedule, since he generally had many, many more people to visit after he was done with us.

Timing was everything. As we approached a cubicle or office, I’d quietly tell Pat who sat in it and what that person did; he didn’t always need that cue, but it never hurt. My goal was to enable him to dive into conversation the moment we arrived, which he often did with a hearty “There he is!” or “There she is!” The employee in question was generally well aware of his imminent appearance, having heard and possibly seen us work our way down the hall talking to other staffers. (Pat’s voice tended to boom, and at 6 foot 4, he was impossible to overlook.)

In conversation, Pat oftentimes referred to items he’d memorized from his crib sheet (which he was never gauche enough to brandish in anyone’s presence—he kept it folded up in his pocket). If necessary, I fed him material. With key, long-serving staffers, he didn’t need any help, and he frequently mentioned articles which he knew about because he actually read and enjoyed PC World. (It just this moment occurred to me that Pat most likely consumed more of the products produced by his company, over more years, than any other person who ever lived—yet another atypical achievement for the founder of a gigantic corporation.)

For years, IDG threw holiday parties—the epic ones in Boston deserve an article of their own—but eventually, like many media companies, it responded to challenging times by discontinuing the pricey practice. I felt sorry for Pat more than for myself; when the bashes were still being held, he asked at least half the staffers if they were attending, and seemed genuinely disappointed whenever the answer was negative.

He had an astounding supply of factoids about virtually every aspect of IDG at his command. If the conversation wasn’t going anywhere, he’d pluck one from his brain, asking an administrative assistant, for instance, how it felt to work for the IDG division with the highest year-over-year increase in profits. As far as I know, nobody ever said that it felt anything but great.

It’s true that the chatter could be stilted, even strange. Some staffers were overly formal; some seemed to be terrified of saying the wrong thing and being fired on the spot; some, understandably, simply had their brains seize up in the presence of the chairman. As several people have written, Pat often asked an employee how his or her manager could do a better job—while the manager in question was standing there.

Any time I might flirt with thinking that the whole exercise was staged, Pat did something to remind me that it wasn’t. One year, we turned a corner and ran into Rex Farrance—a long-time editor and the best-dressed man at PC World—as he grabbed something off the printer. “There’s Rex Farrance, the best-dressed man at PC World,” Pat shouted, without any prompting. How he knew that Rex, unlike the rest of us, wore a jacket and tie every day—not just on Pat Day—I’m still not sure.

The most successful, natural encounters were usually those which involved staffers who treated Pat pretty much like a normal human being. He preferred “Pat” to “Mr. McGovern,” clearly enjoyed it when people asked him questions, and was not the least bit offended by jokes. One year, the Test Center staff greeted him in white lab coats and presented him with one of his own, which he cheerfully donned; they also had a fake Christmas tree festively decorated with Pat-themed ornaments. This seemed to tickle him in exactly the way the labfolk hoped it would.

Logistically, one of the biggest challenges stemmed from one of Pat’s most admirable traits: He wouldn’t break off the conversation if he thought a staffer wasn’t finished. And many talked quite a bit, either because they enjoyed the experience or because they thought that doing otherwise would be rude.

It fell on me to keep us from running too far behind schedule without Pat having to cut anyone off. When I sensed that it was probably time to wind things up, I gingerly held out the employee’s envelope within Pat’s reach, giving him the opportunity to take it from me and present it to the staffer along with a final thank-you. And then we were off to the next person.

The process could be repetitive—PC World’s president tended to look as if he was daydreaming about it being over— but Pat was indefatigable. I didn’t see him take breaks of more than a couple of minutes, except for a quick sushi lunch in the president’s office. At cubicle after cubicle and office after office, he just kept on being Pat. And he did it not just at PC World but also at CIO, Computerworld, GamePro, IDC, InfoWorld, Macworld, Network World, and other divisions, and on multiple continents. Every year.

I never heard him complain about the burden, or, in fact, suggest that it was in any way a burden. His emotional and intellectual investment in the company he founded was boundless. Why would he not love traveling to IDG offices to talk with IDG employees about their work at IDG?

My favorite encounter between Pat and an editor was always when he stopped to visit Karl Koessel, PC World’s longest-serving editor and our last link to the origins of the magazine, which Pat had funded in 1982. Karl, who was utterly comfortable talking to anybody about anything, treated the occasion as a visit from an old colleague rather than a ceremony. His ease put Pat at ease.

As we stood in Karl’s tiny office, I remember him telling Pat about his health. He’d ask about Lore. Every year, Pat would invite Karl to visit him at his home—an invitation which I’m sure was sincere, since I never heard him offer it to anybody else.

Me, I mostly hovered nearby and marveled. I didn’t want to do anything that suggested that the time the two of them were spending together wasn’t the most important thing in the world just then—because to Pat, it was.