Mike Sweeney: Dealing with Personal Illness

Michael Sweeney
Courtesy: Drew Altizer Photography

Mike Sweeney, former CEO of piano maker Steinway, was only 28 when he discovered he had testicular cancer. “That was the first time I realized I wasn’t immortal,” he says. “In some ways I’d recommend it to everyone. If you’re going to get cancer, testicular cancer is the one to get because it is usually curable. Cancer caused me to think differently about my life.”

Mike described an experience he had after all the treatments were done:

I woke up one morning and literally couldn’t get up off the sofa. I got hit by a wave of depression I had never experienced before. It wasn’t a matter of will; I just could not get up. While I was fighting cancer, my work was to heal. When that stopped, the room got really quiet, and all of a sudden I realized, holy cow, I could die. At that age the thought of death never occurs to you.

The experience changed the way Mike thought and propelled him on a path of understanding himself and rethinking his life and career.

The shock of not being able to get off that sofa scared me. I spent time thinking about what I want to do, what is meaningful in my life, and who do I want to do it with. I saw a psychiatrist and talked about having cancer not as a physical matter, but an emotional one. Cancer gave me clarity about those things.

His father told him that now that his cancer problem was solved, he should shake it off and get back to work. “I thought there was more involved than that,” Mike says. “I started asking myself what is important to me in business and in life. I wasn’t less ambitious; I just wanted different things out of life. I wanted to build businesses where everyone involved did as well as I did.” Mike used this crucible to transform his life.

Mike had a second awakening when he turned 50. After a highly successful decade as managing partner of a midsized private equity firm, he notes, “Fifty was the first birthday that actually mattered.”

I realized I only want to work for companies whose products or services make a difference. Unlike private equity where we were always one step removed from the action, I’d rather be on the front lines. I became chair of the Star Tribune newspapers because I believe dissemination of news and information is essential in the life of the community. Restoring the newspaper to profitability required a new business model and new content that rebuilt subscription sales. We also found a new owner committed to the community in Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. In retrospect, working with a team of talented people on a mission we pursued with passion was one of the best experiences of my career.

After retiring from the Star Tribune, Mike became CEO of Steinway. He observes, “Here was a jewel of a company being managed for cash that was at risk of losing the essence of what made it great.” Before he could rebuild Steinway, Mike had to restructure its dysfunctional board of directors, whose members had conflicting purposes. To do so, he gained agreement to sell the company to hedge fund investor John Paulson.

Paulson recognized that Steinway is an essential part of the cultural community as well as an important financial asset, so I agreed to stay as CEO. We grew Steinway as a global business, while retaining the great craftspeople who are so committed to making the highest-quality pianos. For me it was a unique opportunity to make a contribution.

As a young man facing his own mortality, Mike’s True North became clear. He continued to hold on to that thread in his life and had the wisdom to make other career changes that kept him aligned with his True North as his career continued.