Note: This was an article from several years ago, but I think it’s still applicable today.
If you have money, recognition comes easy. The Sunday paper contains an ad for the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts. I don’t know Mr. Isenberg, but he sure made enough money to have an MBA school named after him. Take a look around the top business schools of the nation and you’ll find scores named after big contributors. Look deeper into universities and you’ll see the Joe Dokes Professor of Management and other such titles. It takes about a million dollars to endow a chair at a university these days, so you know that these people had lots of money. If a chair costs a million dollars, how much money does it take to have a whole school named after you? The donors hope that, two hundred years from now, people will still be talking about the great person for whom the school was named. Students who attend those schools are more likely to remember the great teachers rather than the large donors. Sure, big endowments build strong faculties, but who should get the recognition for the school’s success?
Whom are we recognizing these days? A site called “thetoptens.com named Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Bo Jackson Wayne Gretsky, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth and Pele. Searching further, you can find lists of the greatest artists, greatest business people, greatest musicians, greatest this and greatest that. While scanning the web and sipping my tea, I began to wonder if there is anyone who would add me to their list of top ten whatever’s. Not likely. I’m just an ordinary guy. I’ve worked in several careers, made lots of friends, worked in big corporations; but never became CEO, became rich, or wrote an enduring scientific paper—never achieved “success” as defined by the “top ten’s” of the world today.
I think about my many colleagues who, over the years, made their respective companies successful. They were people who did their job every day with dedication, competence and enthusiasm, but never made Time or Fortune. They manufactured the computers, helped the customers, taught their fellow workers, and solved the everyday problems of work. No glory, just performance.
In my early career, I was part of a manufacturing team that built IBM’s newest computers. A tough-talking, white-haired fellow named Olin Lilly was the key to our success. Ollie knew how to translate engineering drawings into manufacturing processes and set up the procedures for the rest of us to follow. He was the expert in computer manufacturing. But Ollie had no degree. Rumor had it that he was a high school dropout. Yet, none of us with our BSEE’s could have existed without him. He knew where to find the tools and supplies, he knew where to find the experts, he taught us all how to do our jobs. Sometimes our project manager would thank Ollie in a project meeting. Maybe he got bonuses at the end of the year, but if the company had paid him according to his worth, he could have retired a millionaire. I doubt if that was the case. When I left Endicott, NY to help start a new plant in Colorado, Ollie was at work on the latest new computer–doing his job without fame or fortune.
We all know Olin Lilly’s. Our companies and organizations depend upon them to be there faithfully every day getting the work done. While the CEO is out there giving speeches, raising money, restructuring the company, and smiling on the TV screen, the Ollies are doing the real work. They’re solving your computer problems over the phone, wrapping the gift that you just bought for your husband, cleaning the office while you’re sleeping, repairing the telephone system, driving the bus, designing the new medical device, doing a sonogram of your gall bladder, teaching your children, and entering your insurance policy information into the computer. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an Ollie yourself. Most of us are.
Unfortunately, public recognition flows to the top. CEO’s of big corporations are praised for their vision or their great turn-a-round program. Some get awards for their innovations or new ideas. Sometimes you hear one of them say, “I couldn’t have done it without the effort, loyalty and dedication of the hard working employees. They led the way. I’m just here to serve.” I wish that we’d hear more like that.
So, today, I hope that we all take the time out to celebrate each other’s daily work. Most of us really don’t want to be in a national magazine or on the century’s top-ten list. We just want to think that we’re doing a good job and, once in a while, have someone say, “Thanks, you really helped me.” So to all of you, I say “Thank you, I couldn’t get along without you.”