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  • John Chambers, PhD

What's in a Name

The Director of Client Relations had a name -- Nick. He spoke often of his "company’s greatest asset" – the people. Notwithstanding the unsavory association of human beings to the upper portion of a corporate balance sheet, I still understood what he was trying to say. But actions speak louder than words.

Nick was proud of the enormous factory floor, with rows of desks, microscopes and rubber-gloved employees who painstakingly tested and built blade components for computing power, moving them along the noisy, mini conveyor belt and ensuring “the top notch quality” of the product. In a corner section was a man who was recalibrating some test equipment. Critical to the end state quality, that part of the process was the director Nick's opportunity to pause and impress.

It was then that we met “he.”

“He” was the fellow who smiled at us industry client 'tourists,' customers who were sold the firm's ostensible credibility, because of its big factory floors and artwork in headquarter lobbies -- evidence that our supplier was a giant.

“He” was wearing his blue lab coat among other employees who wore blue uniforms, earning far less than most of the customer-tourists. He, according to Nick, was one of the people who refined and built the hardware products. They were the company's greatest asset, invaluable to the corporation; we were reminded of that again, by Nick the client director.

As the lab technician walked toward our group, the director explained more about the process, and the technician smiled and turned toward his keyboard to enter additional data. As he turned I couldn’t see his badge clearly, but on the wall in his space was his name: Eduardo.

We were then carted off in our modern day surrey – like golfers whose advanced age prevented walking the 18-hole course. We moved into the shipping yard. Inside were the most impressive arrays of polished trucks, dollies and freight movers. Coordinating this was an office the size of your average high school gymnasium with dashboards as large as theater screens, tracking data for third party carriers, logistical analysis and inventory boards.

It was there that we met “she,” as Nick characterized.

“What she has to do is orchestrate our response to any anomalies, dropped shipment, downstream delays and ensure the feedback loop to our customer service teams is operating 24x7.” “She” also had to run a bunch of other stuff too, but his words escaped me as I puzzled over the evidence of his non-personalized reference to the "company’s greatest asset."

René Magritte, who painted the famous Son of Man bowler-hatted portrait, described his work as the contrast between the seen and unseen. The green apple in the portrait did not hide the man’s face entirely but obscured his overall identity. He was quoted to say, “Everything we see hides another thing.” Similarly, we often see each other in terms of roles or job descriptions, rather than versatile and diverse human beings. When I remember that client director, I was more startled at his inability to see the “greatest” asset in his company as individuals who brought diverse sets of skills and experiences and analytical views, which all enhanced the enterprise.

But “he” and "she" had no name.

If the client director exuded a modicum of empathy, one of the greatest skills in a customer service profession, how appreciative would the technician have been, how committed would the inventory analyst have been, and wouldn’t that have enhanced the valuation of the company more than the parroted line that people are our greatest asset? Small actions speak louder than pithy phrases.

The flesh and blood and gray matter of our fellow employees elevates the miracle of humanity. From various backgrounds and geographies, from inner city origins to green hilled suburbs, the enterprise is a village of versatility and variation, all weaving in motions of distinct skills to create progress. The division of labor is miraculous not because each group is a mindless drone delivering a piece of the collective with rote behavior but, rather, because each group innovates in its contribution, adding value through creativity and orchestration. Every human being driving the enterprise’s capability has a unique perspective, assuring that others in the department can learn, collaborating and advancing and improving the deliverable. There’s one catch; the management must not simply recognize, but adapt the department’s process to innovative ideas that the employees imagine.

When we can’t even acknowledge that someone has a name, how do we see that person as different, unique and innovatively valuable?

Remembering a name is hard work. And I can soundly attest that forgetting a name is as embarrassing as it is frustrating. But we have a common language, even if only by hand gestures and motions; so we can ask what someone’s name is, or apologize for not remembering. As the late, guitar-strumming Jim Croce reminded us, we carry that name with us, along with capabilities and passions and greatness that are as unseen as what’s behind Magritte’s apple.

Every fellow traveler deserves our respect as the initial state. Each of them has a name. We respect them because they are human beings. Nothing irks me more than hearing the quasi macho nonsense, “You must earn my respect” with the bravado-laden accent on the “earn.” Respect can be lost, but the starting point is already “respect.” They are fellow human beings.

The CEO of a company, the purchaser of the company’s goods, the gatekeeper at the door, the manager at the desktop are breathing a life’s worth of experience, to help us.

They are not just “she.” Especially considering she had a badge with her name etched on it.

During the tour, in a quiet moment, I spoke to the Client Relations Director, respectfully, not didactically. As a customer, I trusted that my words would be thoughtfully received. I stated them with as much courtesy and goodwill as possible. I mentioned how impressive the employees were and, “just as constructive feedback, it would be good to call them by name... Several of the team seemed very engaged as we watched their skill. It’s certainly hard to know who’s who among the multiple team members but... just my two cents.”

“Good point; they’re our most valuable asset…” Nick replied, his voice trailing off as he turned to see the next phase of the walkabout. In the last section, our supplier gifted us tchotchkes and leather-bound notepads, with shakes of hands all around. Then the client director hailed the golf carts and we stepped into our open air buggies ready to move to the departure area.

Nick gestured once more, “Nice to meet you all,” and pointed to the anonymous driver. “He’s gonna take you back to the entry gate.”

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