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  • John Chambers, PhD

Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls

When George Bailey told his Dad that he wanted to do “something big and something important” his father answered, “You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It's deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we're helping him get those.

And the rest is cinematic history.

What does your company sell? What product or service is making life better for your customers, friends, families? If you’re a sub-supplier of materials, what is the value of your product across a myriad of sectors and supply chains? If your primary customers are other companies, then what in turn are they creating, thanks to your own firm and your own hands that makes life better for their final consumer?

Decades ago McDonald’s ran a magazine ad, showing the brands that the fast food company used for its ingredients. There was an image of flour companies, large-scale food providers, which included Quaker Oats, Kraft, Heinz and many others. Of course, now on their web site McDonald’s showcases farmers with whom they’ve partnered, and ranchers whose livelihoods result in our beef sandwiches. Every company serves value-seeking customers, pursuing tangible and intangible means to make their own lives or their own companies better. So a farmer who sells potatoes that ultimately reaches McDonald’s should perceive and embrace his role, and should find value in that final deliverable. Say what you want about McDonald’s, I know a side order of their fries put a gratified smile on my stomach over many decades.

Products and services we deliver offer a value, that might be proximate or distant. That value elevates society’s needs and the individual souls who comprise them. As the miraculous market responds to that value, so too must we, as stewards of a company, demand that our products are valuable in our own eyes and our teams’.

In one life sciences firm, internal quarterly reviews, delivered to countless employees worldwide, often focused on the financial results, almost purely and solely. There were celebrations surrounding the increased demand of our services from Abbott, or Johnson and Johnson. Major successes with contracts and partnerships with big pharma were touted. But it wasn’t just us and our big pharma clients who gained. It was the patient whose life was improved (or even saved!) thanks to those increased sales and partnerships. Sure, the quarter, year on year, looked good, and that means survival. But what else, beyond that? What does that success really mean to those who are relieved of pain. Who are the buyers, and the buyers of buyers who benefit?

If we manage a call center for a support hub, do we believe in the product or are we there just to make a buck? No kidding, making a buck is survival, but is our career choice, our day to day service, recognized as our connection to other lives?

In the movie Cedar Rapids, Ed Helm’s character references the flood of 2008:

People talk about the firemen and policemen and that. But think about all the claims in a disaster like that-- how hard those agents worked to make sure people's lives weren't left in the lurch…. And claim by claim, dream by dream, those agents helped rebuild this city. I'm telling you, it's a noble calling. I really believe that.

As Ann Heche’s character listens intently, she responds with a sense of uplifted surprise, yet profound truth -- heroism can be found in the seemingly stodgy suit of an unassuming insurance agent.

You know the anecdote about JFK’s tour of NASA; whether true or not is irrelevant. After being asked what he does there, a janitor responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” Whether we were employed by a space agency or a winery, a hospital or a tire factory, we are interconnected.

Perceive your value and your company’s value, not just in the immediate leg of the chain but all the way to the person on the street, the family at dinner, the school that is heated with your supplies. Every operation and process, supporting role, or design role is a part of the output. That output may well be cherished by someone who depends on it for their very livelihood.

The firm is the sum of the unique parts, thanks to the unique personalities. Delivering the dinner chardonnay, the launch of an Apollo rocket, the relief of a disaster victim, the privacy of a living room, your firm is touching your neighbor. Humanity’s miracle is the billions of lives that are happier because of the products you deliver and the contributions from your supply chain.

If our teams can’t perceive the value of the company in its mission, and if we can't imagine the happiness and satisfaction of those customers who are better off because of what we delivered, then our value as human beings is diminished.

Throughout my career I’ve heard some colleagues pejoratively and crudely refer to their presence in a company as prostitution. “...I don't like it here. I need the buck..” So they suffer the day, to return to their homes at night, pay the rent and put food on the table. Is this as far as we’ve evolved with our institutional frameworks, our mutual respect, our trade, our individuality, the freedom we enjoy? Is this sad perspective still the paradigm in the 21st century?

For executives and professionals alike, find and celebrate the shared value in what your company creates. Feel the value in your own heart and soul. See the impact it has on customers and even other firms. If we are sub-suppliers, recognize the value in the downstream products that are created, the value it derives for your customers and theirs – the customers that depended on you!

You are not just a cog in a wheel.

You are a light in the market's mosaic.

And you are doing "something big and something important."

Deep inside, you really are a hero.

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