Of all the stories Russ Branzell, President and CEO of CHIME, has shared about his longtime friend Tim Stettheimer, perhaps the most powerful is one that happened just months before his passing. During Stettheimer’s final CHIME trip, he could have easily used his free time to rest. But, true to form, he planned one excursion after another, forcing Branzell to (once again) leave his comfort zone and create memories.
“He’s a person who brought people great joy and helped them focus on the right things in life,” Branzell said during a recent conversation with Kate Gamble, managing editor at healthsystemCIO. In it, he talked about how he and Stettheimer bonded as young CIOs with similar values; the qualities that helped make him such a great mentor, teacher and friend; the enormous task CHIME faces in replacing him as VP of Education; and most importantly, how much he will be missed. “He lived a life worth of recognition, but I also want people to remember him for who he was: an amazing human being.”
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- He was one of those people where the second you met him, you knew how intelligent he was, but that he knew how to use that intelligence in a way that was meaningful.
- There aren’t many people on this earth who, in a moment’s notice, would drop everything and come and help us if we ever need it.
- He was just as authentic in front of a bunch of students he had never met before as he was with friends he’d known for 25 years.
- When you’re looking for someone who has real-world experience, teaching experience, a great personality, the ability to speak in a public forum, you’re basically looking for a unicorn… something that doesn’t exist. Even today, we’re having a hard time replacing that position.
- I hope we never stop recognizing him because I think he lived a life worth recognition, but I also want people to remember him for who he was — just an amazing human being.
Q&A with Russ Branzell, CEO & President, CHIME
Gamble: I wanted to get your thoughts on Tim Stettheimer. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that the best way to honor people is by sharing their stories. I think that’s so important.
Branzell: Without a doubt. Tim and I had been doing this together for almost 27 years. We’ve had some crazy adventures, some laughs, and a few tears along the way. We’ve gone through life together, supporting each other as friends since the mid-90s. It’s been a long journey.
Gamble: Can you tell me about when and how you first met him?
Branzell: CHIME used to have this program called the IME (Information Management Executive) Series, which was the predecessor to Boot Camp. It was taught by people like Adrienne Edens, Ed Kopetsky, Tim Zoph, John Glaser, Stephanie Reel, and so many other icons in our industry.
This program brought all kinds of different people together over three different series of classes. Tim and I met at the very first class. I don’t know if we went through all three classes together, but I know we both attended IT Strategy, which was taught mostly by John Glaser at a little Marriott in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Once you were there, you basically didn’t leave for a few days, and so Tim and I got to know each other well. We were the young kids there. When we realized we were both in CIO jobs at a young age, we connected. We had gone through parallel journeys in our careers and our family lives with our kids being about the same age.
Gamble: What was your first impression of him?
Branzell: It wasn’t anything that really stood out. I think both of us were in a really strange place in the fact that we were in our early 30s, already in CIO jobs. We looked at each other like, ‘What the heck are we doing here?’ We were kindred spirits.
On my best day ever and his worst day ever, I’ll never be as smart as Tim was, both intellectually and as a realist who understood the world around him. He was one of those people where the second you met him, you knew how intelligent he was, but also that he knew how to use it in a way that was meaningful. You don’t meet too many people in your life where you think, ‘Wow, that person is really smart.’ That was Tim. He was book smart but also pragmatic.
Gamble: It’s interesting; you’ve met so many people over the course of your career, but clearly there was something special about Tim that led to you guys being such good friends.
Branzell: You talk about people being cut from the same stone; there are so many parallels between Tim and me, even in terms of our philosophies. We’re both grounded in our faith, first and foremost, our families, and in our friends. We both always believed that family and friends are often one and the same, even when not related by blood.
There aren’t many people on this earth who, in a moment’s notice, would drop everything and come and help us if we ever need it. Tim is one of those people. We became such deep friends that it wasn’t just a professional relationship; it was a personal relationship as well. We traveled the world together. We went to Israel, which for us meant something more than just an international trip. It was a pilgrimage that we were able to share with our families.
Gamble: With the tribute piece we put together on Tim, there were a few common themes. One was just how genuine he was; that’s something you don’t always see because I think a lot of us are taught that you have to be professional. It’s not easy to walk that line.
Branzell: Well, I don’t think Tim could help not being real. He was who he was — a goofy, weird, charismatic, interesting human being who was just all out there. He couldn’t not be that. He and I did hundreds of programs together over the years, and I would say things like, ‘Tim, keep this next answer short.’ To him, that meant cutting three seconds off of a way-too-long answer. He just couldn’t help being himself, whether you bonded with that or it drove you crazy, which probably was a little of both for all of us.
He was just Tim. And he was the same way with his family, with his deepest friends, and with his church. Even with his wife, Carole, there were things that drove her crazy because he couldn’t help being himself which, in the end, was the greatest blessing he provided us.
Gamble: Sure. Another common theme was teaching at Boot Camp. Several people talked about how he really opened up, which helped put them at ease. By sharing his own stories, he was about to build their trust.
Branzell: Very true. I took over as program director for the Boot Camp in 2004; soon after we had a few faculty members step down, and we talked about who to bring in. Without a doubt, it was Tim. He was the missing link with any group in how he approached things, because he was wired so differently than everybody else. Keith [Fraidenburg] and I always joked about it. We were both in Phoenix when we found out he had passed, we said to each other, ‘you know those things that drove us crazy? How much would we give to hear that one more time?’
Because it was never crazy in a negative way, it was crazy always in a positive way. That was just him. He was as authentic in front of a bunch of students he had never met before, as he was with friends he’d known for 25 years.
Gamble: I can see that. It’s probably not surprising how well he took to the role of teacher at CHIME. How did that come about as far as him becoming VP of Education?
Branzell: At one point, it became clear that Keith was already doing quadruple duty, and we needed to find someone else to oversee education. Well, when you’re looking for someone who has real-world experience, teaching experience, a great personality, the ability to speak in a public forum, you’re basically looking for a unicorn, mixed with a purple squirrel. Something that doesn’t exist.
Even today, we’re having a hard time replacing that position, because we’re looking for someone with a unique ability and skillset who at the same time can educate and connect with people. Tim had those qualities, and had the leadership skills to organize big programs. That’s probably why it’s so hard to find someone, because there isn’t another Tim.
Gamble: It’s a textbook example of having big shoes to fill.
Branzell: Yes. He loved education. He was book smart but pragmatic at the same time. Once while we were having a debate during one of our trips, I asked Tim how many books he could read in a month. He read more books in a month than I had probably read in two or three years. He prided himself on constantly learning. But I also think his brain depended on it. He had to feed his brain because that was his personality. He loved to learn, and he loved to educate. Even today, he continues to inspire us all to never stop learning.
Gamble: One of the anecdotes that stood out to me was from Theresa Meadows, who said that Tim was the one who encouraged her to pursue a CIO role that she didn’t initially feel she was ready for. It takes a special kind of person to see someone’s potential and give them the push they didn’t know they needed.
Branzell: It’s funny; we came up with something years ago that we called the Laws of the Revolution. One of those laws was Semper Gumby, which means always be flexible. The theory is that a leader’s job is to stretch somebody — not enough to break them, but enough so that they’re a different person as they moved forward. It’s an art to know how far and how fast to stretch somebody. Tim did an amazing job with that. If you look at some of the leaders who were part of Tim’s development cycle as a CIO and as a mentor, people like Theresa, Donna Roach, and others, it’s amazing. You can see a little piece of him in every one of them. They’re their own unique leaders. But he knew that if we didn’t develop more people, we didn’t develop more staff.
One of my favorite quotes from him was the number one job of a leader is to make more leaders. It didn’t originate from Tim, but he learned to use quotes like that to drive a point home. In the end, our job is just to make more people who can go do great things and lead. He took that really seriously.
Gamble: He seemed to have an uncanny ability to pull people out of their shells. I remember talking with him at the Foreigner concert. He was teasing me because I refused to dance. He started doing this ridiculous dance and it just made me laugh. That was Tim.
Branzell: Exactly. He and I had a lot of one-on-one time as we traveled to different parts of the world. Being a bit of an introvert, my initial reaction would be to immediately head to the hotel and incubate for a period of time. And he would always say, ‘Nope, we have this and this planned.’ Or he’d say to me, ‘Russ, you’re not going to going to sit in this hotel room and mope. We’re going to do something.’ Whether it was finding a castle to walk through in England or going to a zoo in Australia, we never were lacking in adventure. I think that’s something that’s definitely going to stick with me. We only have so many days; Tim reminded us of that during his last six months. Don’t let a day slip by, don’t let a memory or opportunity go to waste when you could be doing something instead of just sitting around. I think that’s one of the greatest lessons he gave to me: enjoy every day. Every day is a gift.
Gamble: When I hear about the trips you took, I think it’s so great that you were able to get the most out of those experiences. And as you said, sometimes it takes someone like Tim to nudge us along and make sure we’re doing that.
Branzell: What we got to experience in June and July together could have been very routine because we had been to England numerous times together; we could have just said, ‘we’ve been there, done that,’ but we didn’t.
On that last trip, we did so many fun and cool things. I remember on that last night talking about how excited he was about the next thing he might get to do. It was a reminder that we could have easily made that trip boring, but we didn’t. There are 10 or 15 crazy memories we created in two weeks’ time that could have been nothing but instead turned out to be so meaningful for me. It was the last time spending that kind of quality time together. Those are memories I’ll never lose, which is a cool thing. The memories you made will last a lifetime and that’s what’s beautiful about Tim.
Gamble: And certainly, the whole CHIME family is feeling this loss. How are you approaching it with the staff and guiding them through the grief process?
Branzell: When I made my last visit with Tim late last year, there was this great quote from the Queen that said something like, ‘the price of love is pain.’ I never really understood what that meant because I’ve never had anyone that close to me pass away until Tim.
I think a lot of people, including myself, are going through a process that is some days joyful, some days tearful. You happened to catch me on a day where I’m really feeling joyful about the memories of Tim. Some of our team members haven’t gone through the process yet either and some are not ready to even talk about it. Because I’ve been going through the process over the last couple of weeks, it’s a little less painful and a lot more joyful in recognition. I hope that’s the lasting memory of Tim — a person who brought people great joy and helped them focus on the right things in life. I think that’s a legacy that we wish we can we leave behind.
Gamble: Absolutely. Are there other ways in which CHIME is going to honor him?
Branzell: There are. We had a nice representation at his family funeral in Birmingham. We’ll have a ceremony at the ViVE event. At the 2022 Fall Forum, we announced CHIME had established a Scholarship Fund in Tim’s name to be able to provide people with life-long learning, which was his passion. We’ll always keep him in our memory and will never lose respect for who he was as both a person and a friend to us, and a dear brother. I hope we never stop recognizing him because I think he lived a life worth recognition, but I also want people to remember him for who he was, just an amazing human being.
Gamble: Well said. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it. As you said, there are times when it is easy to talk about it, and times when it’s not, but it’s such a great way to honor him.
Branzell: Thank you for all you do to make sure we stay connected, and thank you for what you did to honor Tim. He was a great friend. He will always be a great friend.