What makes us important is a lesson I learned early in my career.
It was a normal day at Air Products and Chemicals. I was in early like usual to get things done before most of my co-workers arrived. As I was tooling away, a good friend, Ravi stopped by. Ravi was an early-bird like me.
He asked me to stand up and come join him at the window. The flag pole was outside and the flag was at half-staff. Ravi asked me if I knew why. I didn’t, so he explained it to me. Leonard Poole, the founder of Air Products had died. In memorium, the company lowered the flag to half-staff.
I never met Mr. Poole, but I knew he had built a multi-billion dollar company from nothing.
By the time I started working for the company he was not involved in the operations. Despite this, his presence was always there. Everybody knew about him and what he had accomplished.
Ravi pointed out to me that despite Mr. Poole’s passing, the company would go on. Everyone would show up to work. They would do what they normally did. We would continue to make air products, chemicals, and the equipment that made and stored them. We would do all this, even though Mr. Poole was no longer around.
Mr. Poole also had an impact on other companies that dealt with ours. They too would continue on. He was also a great supporter of many charitable organizations, societies and such. While he would be missed by all, their work would also go on. In fact, the entire world would continue. It would just be minus one person. One person who made a difference, but was now gone.
Ravi’s point was to impress on me that no matter who we are, what we do, and who we matter to, at some point we will be gone. What makes us important is what we do while we are here and the good that we do for others.
Whether we leave the company for another or leave this world all together, we will be gone. We will be missed by those we work with, socialize with us and love us. But we will be gone. And life will go on without us.
That viewpoint hit home. It has left a tremendous impression on me and how I think and act. I realize that as important I think I am, I am replaceable. I hope I will be missed and be thought of fondly when I am gone. But, life will go on without me, like everyone who has come before me. No matter who that is and how important they were, life goes on without them. What makes us important is the legacy we leave.
Winston Churchill summarized it best after his talks with Roosevelt and Stalin at their summit in Tehran. They had finished developing plans to work together to defeat Germany. Churchill said:
“Stupendous issues are unfolding before our eyes and we are only specks of dust that have settled in the night on the map of the world….”
Someone as important as Churchill felt that in the whole scheme of things that he was in essence a speck of dust. We all play a part, but so do many others. We need to keep that in perspective. That is what makes us important.
Since my conversation with Ravi, I have operated from this premise: Whatever position I take and hold, I am a caretaker of it. It is mine for only a period of time.
Someone held it before me and someone will hold it after I am gone. In the time that I have it, I am to do the best job that I can. That is my charge. And when I am finished, I am to leave it in as good a position as possible for my successor. If I do anything other than that, I have failed. And as a caretaker, the position is what is important and not myself, the caretaker.
As the Director of Quality at Crayola, I had many outside visitors.
They were usually clients who wanted to learn more about our quality processes. The entire Quality staff would be involved. They gave presentations on how they helped to maintain product quality.
Each person introduced him or herself and spoke about what they did. When it was my turn, I said that I worked with the others and supported them and their efforts. Once the visitors were gone, the staff would ask why I hadn’t told them that I was the “Director of Quality”. I told them that it wasn’t important. What was important, was that they saw what we were doing and that we were doing it well. And, if I was doing my job, that showed. That was what was important. My title and position were not.
When a title is important in an introduction or in getting something accomplished, I play that card. Sometimes it is necessary, because certain individuals are impressed by titles. If that is what it takes to get the job done, then I use that. Otherwise, it is not important to me and so I do not.
If you have to tell people who know you, what your title is, then you do not have their respect or confidence.
That should go without saying. If you have to say it, then you probably have neither and that is a problem.
At Crayola, one of the presidents I worked under would send out memos to the employees. On every memo he included his title, president. It struck me that he had to do that. We all knew what position he held. Yet he had to remind us. If people don’t know you are the boss, there is a good chance you are not, no matter what your title is.
Equally important to knowing your importance, is remembering where you came from.
Each of us has a place in this world. What we do matters to others. In that regard, there are many choices we have to make. Two important ones are to:
1. Remember that while we are important, we are placeholders. No matter what we accomplish and the actions we take, they are transitory. We need to do the best we can, but ultimately we are all replaceable. In the time we have we should do good. Not just for ourselves, but for those we interact with. We should leave the places we occupy better for our successors. That is what makes us important.
2. Never forget who we are and what defines our role. We do so by remembering where we came from. By doing so, we apply the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us”. Such a simple concept, yet so misused and abused. If you want to truly be important and remembered well, make sure you act this way. That is the difference between being famous and infamous.
Knowing where you came from is not about the physical, like I was born and raised in New York or New Jersey. It is about the environment in which you were raised and the positions you held before becoming a leader. Keeping those experiences in the forefront of how you think, act and treat others is critical.
During your development, you see and experience many things. You see how you and others around you are treated. You understand that everyone is not treated equally. Favors and kudos are not always given on merit. They are sometimes based on who you know and how you are liked, as my vice president once told me.
As you climb the corporate ladder, you need to keep these things in mind. Chances are good you worked hard to get to where you are. There were struggles along the way. Not everything went smoothly. Yet you made it.
You are now in a position to make a difference. You don’t have to perpetuate some of the injustices you experienced along the way. You can help to change them.
It might not be a popular position, but your sense of right and wrong needs to come into play. To now ignore the things you saw, experienced and hated is to think that they were and are acceptable. And by going along you will somehow be rewarded.
Allowing those in your charge to have to deal with the same things you had to is the way it has to be. Someone has to be the first to point out that the system is wrong and needs to be fixed. If not you then who?
I have had the pleasure to work with students on business projects. These were not student projects, but paid intern work. In many instances the students and I spoke about some of the crazy things people in the companies they were working with were doing. The students didn’t agree with what they saw. They asked me why people did such goofy or even harmful things.
That part is hard to explain.
I still don’t know why.
I told the students that they should remember what they experienced. I knew someday they would each earn a leadership role. I told them when they did they should repeat what they had experienced. Instead, they should act how they thought things should have occurred and not how they did occur. In that way they were making a difference for the good. To do otherwise was to go along and perpetuate the bad,
I saw many actions by “leaders” that I didn’t agree with.
Two that stick in my mind are:
1. The company head who berated my United Way colleague. He was an employee of the company who had raved about it. He was so proud when we visited them. And when we did, the head for no clear reason came right up to our group. He began haranguing and belittling my colleague. From that day forward the young man never talked about his company to any of us. And within a short time after the United Way campaign ended and he went back to work, he left the company.
2. The person I followed into the Director of Quality position at Crayola. He was a quality person by education and experience. Yet when he became Plant Manager, quality went out the window. He focused on getting product out the door, whether it was acceptable or deficient. And he defended his actions regardless of the consequences.
Eventually he was removed from the Plant Manager’s job. And, he was put back in charge of Quality Control. His demeanor changed back to quality being number one. Amazing.
I cannot fathom either of these behaviors. Yet, they happen more times than not. And the people doing these things act as though they are natural and acceptable. Even though they would not want them to happen to themselves.
I believe in the Golden Rule. It states that you should “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Makes sense to me. Many talk it, but don’t live it. They do unto others differently than how they want to be treated.
That is not how I want to live or act. It is not how I was raised and what I experienced and did not like. And so I treat people well, even when they don’t deserve it. I try my best to respect everyone and to understand why they do the things they do. There is some good in all of us. Unfortunately it doesn’t always shine through.
That is why it is important to never forget where we come from. In every experience there are lessons to be learned. Some of them are good and we should emulate them. Some are bad. While we want to block these out, we need to remember them and how we felt when going through them. We should vow to not let them happen on our watch, if we can prevent it. Sometimes we cannot. Higher authorities can overrule us.
When that happens, we need to make sure that we are not in agreement. We should try to mitigate the circumstances, making the most of a bad situation. And we should try our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
I never forget that morning with Ravi. I tell that story often, both to inform others and to remind myself. Yes I am important. I matter to others. But the world does not revolve around me, nor should it. It hasn’t for others more notable than I. They have come and gone and we still go on. The same will happen when I depart. If I can leave things a little better than I found them I have done pretty well. And I never forget where I came from. I do my best to treat others with respect, even when they don’t deserve it. I try to impart this to those I teach and mentor. They can make a difference. We all can. It is how we take our experiences and apply them. In that way we can make a difference, both for ourselves and others, both now and for the future. Because, that is what makes us important.