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  • John Chambers, PhD

Making a Living, or Making a Mark?

"I never thought I'd live to be a million." The Moody Blues, To our Children's Children's Children

Business owners, whether of grand corporations or Mom and Pop stopovers, take pride in their legacy. They will look upon the balance sheet, or the web page, or gaze across the parking lot toward the bricks and mortar. In the beginning those places were constructed on pillars of disciplined savings, the stress of mortgages, bank notes and promises, cornerstones of a dream. When the notes are paid, they wondered, Would we seek new notes for expansion? Would the customers be ten-fold what they are today? Will the town know our name? Will the region? Will cyberspace? Will our legacy be another warehouse, or fleet, or factory?”

Those questions crisscross the mind of many entrepreneurs, small or large. But for the multitude of professionals who signed up to earn a week’s pay, do they see their time and focus and concentration as supporting the dream as well? Are they sensing the legacy as part of their own? Or are their eyes seeing only a means to the paycheck?

Many executives are rightly criticized for their perception of employees, living laborer widgets that help build output widgets. If the employee isn’t delivering, then replace “it”, they might believe. Besides, the employee’s dream is nothing but a check that will pay a bill – a house mortgage, a college education, a retirement fund or a trip to a resort. Do some executives see those dreams as less worthy than the CEO’s or the investor’s, who see the company as their own brain child, or their design, or empire in the making? If they do, then they fail to see that legacies are not built by one. Successful executives, the great ones, do not uncomfortably, or arrogantly, spit out the populist concept like a stringy, bad piece of beef marring the plate, but instead they welcome the reality of legacies – they are built on the backs of many. Everyone is entitled to embrace the legacy as part of their own if they contributed with goodwill, serving the firm’s customers.

Looking to our older age, when our days become slower, life’s memories can be a merciless canvas of regret, as the mind and body are no longer accelerating, but are sadly reversing. In those moments of hazy reflection, was the multi-decade, weekly ritual nothing more than “making a living”? If we “lived for the weekend,” were we not living the other 5/7 of the week? I wish I could reel in that time again, and remind myself that the days at the desk, in the meeting room, in the cafeteria, were building a legacy. That legacy was one of learning, of sharing successes, and a means to survive on a retirement income, once I can no longer run with the herd. When the time to catch my breath arrives, there will be ample time to serenely graze in private, while a vibrant, younger generation extends the firm’s legacy, as well as their own. The legacy of the company was not a singular dream of some pretentious puppet master. Any executive with integrity, self-awareness, and keen perceptiveness, gratefully sees the legacy as a splendid stew whose perfection was borne of many cooks in the kitchen.

A reminder for every professional, or manager, or executive: you didn’t work for a man, or for a woman, or for a firm, or for a name. You worked with them, whether you are in the boardroom or in the lab, on the factory floor or driving the truck. Because we see the factory floor as demanding fewer sophisticated skills, we misunderstand the value. “If the factory worker is gone, we’ll just get another.” That thought process imagines that we can grab labor as easily as yanking weeds from the ground, swappable hands that are not as critical to the organization’s success. Why then is that same disregarding disrespect not uttered when an executive departs? I’ve heard it often stated that the executive is a rare commodity. But when an executive job requisition opens, there always seems to be a replacement, and it happens pretty quickly too. Certainly, I would never reject the market dynamics that pay executives the salaries that other professionals envy. The demand for some positions is many times the salary of others, and is rational; those executives will mobilize the operation or the strategy in a more impactful way.

The value of the executive is in the machinations of the teams and the individuals who sustain the culture. However, the wise executive will recognize that the blood and sweat that built the enterprise is neither greater among the rank and file nor smaller!

The decisions of the leadership are made not in isolation; they are borne of understanding the capabilities of the teams, the potential of the teams, the capacity of the teams – either those who are already on the payroll or out in the marketplace waiting for an offer. The craftsman on the assembly line, the consultant at the whiteboard, the analyst poring over spreadsheets laden with financial options, the muscled lifters on the loading dock, are all human ingredients for success in the organization. Whether all these players witness it or not, they are part of the firm’s legacy.

So if the firm fails, was the legacy one of shame? Hardly, the minds and muscles collaborated toward a dream, and a failed dream is still valuable. It is still worthwhile knowledge for those who come after and still offers a spark that may turn to flame.

My father's father owned Café 200 in Newport, Rhode Island, probably 70 or 80 years ago, maybe more. Like my other grandfather who owned a New York lounge as well as a Prohibition Speakeasy, he created many memories for families, and many memories for paying customers. A restaurant or two does not make for high finance or high-rises, and small business owners often follow a day of analysis with a day of cleaning or sweeping. But they’re business people nevertheless. They made livings nevertheless. And they created legacies. Sometime the building lived on, for a few years or even decades. Sometimes it did not. But every hand in that restaurant from the bookkeeper to the baker had a part in an operation that added to the market’s mosaic. Every one in the operation was building a legacy.

A couple decades ago I was driving through Rhode Island and I was searching for that building once owned and operated by my grandfather. As I drove, I talked of its history, which I only knew through family conversations. But what I recalled was a place that filled bellies with comfort food, and lined smiles for customers who had a respite from cooking and plating and cleaning at home. Were other legacies being fed in that dining room?

In that venue, how many happy moments were celebrated for families who ate there? How many great ideas were exchanged by business folks who innovated over a meal? What other legacies were being created? The restaurant was but one small thread in the building’s history, one of many tales and toils, a place to sit and drink and talk. And the same model would continue after my grandfather sold it, thanks to other owners, and cooks, and waiters.

My eyes and those of my passenger scoured the landscape. “I think it’s on this street,” I said, as I slowed the car to a crawl. “There!” shouted my passenger. “It’s there!” and he pointed to the side with the faded lettering still visible. With laughter and hugs, as though we found the Holy Grail, we snapped a few photographs of the place, and the street, and the landscape, and we started to head out again.

I turned and said, “You know, I can’t believe it’s still here. But the way I think of it, even if it weren’t, he left his mark.” His small innovations there, his ideas, modest as they were, might have been copied or tested or discarded for someone else in humanity’s journey. Or maybe nothing would be left except a memory.

Whether my passenger -- my son, three generations removed from my grandfather -- knew it or not, he heard me say the words, “Legacies are much greater than just old buildings,” and reaching over to stroke his head, I added, “And they come in many forms.”

He was still looking back at that street as we drove out of the town.

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