Last month, I attended NAHB’s midyear meeting in Miami and had the pleasure of sitting in on a presentation by Daniel Swift, president and CEO of Des Moines-based architecture group BSB Design.
We Don't Need Another Hero
Recognizing the unsung heroes of the building industry.
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Following some eye surgery I had this summer, I was forced to stay put (or drive) for over four months, severely limiting the scope of my travels. It had been over 20 years since I had gone two weeks without flying. When I finally got back in the air three weeks ago, the adrenaline rush was fantastic. As I went through those first few days on the road again, I thought it was the thrill of traveling, just moving, that got me so pumped up. But after about my third stop, I realized that in wasn’t the exciting airline food, the stale, smoky hotel rooms or that rich scent of "Jet A" that that I enjoyed—it was the people.
Before I focused exclusively on home building 12 years ago, I had consulted in a wide variety of industries—manufacturing, chemicals, banking, retailing, etc—just about every one there is, I think. On that journey I discovered an unexpected thing: I just like the people in this business better. I think it has something to do with the entrepreneurial nature of home building, the essential worth and practicality of the product and the unavoidable necessity of staying close to the customers. Home building just seems to attract what I would call "the real people."
Who’s a Hero?
So who are the real people? Publications covering the home building industry, this one included, have the annoying habit of taking people—usually men—at the top of organizations and writing glowing testimonials to their business and organizational prowess. The effect often makes it seem as if one individual has personally made this company what it is, changed the industry single-handedly, led us to the promised land—whatever.
You’ve seen the glossy, full-page, touched up photos of such kings of industry lording over their beautiful offices and thought, wow... this is the man!
Some years ago, one publication—not this one—did such a story on me. I must confess that I sent it to my parents, my in-laws, my grandmother, etc. It was gratifying, but the amount of grief I ultimately received from my then co-workers was not worth it. Nice picture, though.
It’s not so much that this is wrong, but that it is overdone—and distracting. There are indeed those who fully fit the mold, people like Bill Leavitt, Eli Broad, Bill Pulte and Del Web, to name just a few. But if we overdo this, their legacies become trivialized. The distraction comes because as we single out the top person, we tend to overlook the incredible team of men and women that toil behind every single industry player who has reached that level of success. They labor long and hard, often sacrificing family time, to do all of the day-to-day details, without which no company has ever made it. That is a shame.
This column is about those people. To cop an over-used phrase, they are truly the unsung heroes of this industry. You know them. They are sitting right down the hall from you—often underpaid and underappreciated, but never underutilized. More often than not, their reward for good work is, surprisingly, more work. People like:
I could go on, but you get the picture. I hope that right now you are thinking of two or three people in your own shop that fit this mold. They are there every day, doing what has to be done to make the place run.
Imagine if the readers of this magazine made a point of recognizing and thanking just three of these people throughout the next week. That would be about half a million workers who felt appreciated—some, perhaps, for the first time in a very long time. It’s a kind of "pay it forward thing," I know, and maybe too corny for some. But just go do it anyway.
Paying It Forward
I’ve always been a risk-taker. Through no choice of my own (and sometimes to my family’s chagrin), I was born without the job-security gene and have never been one to hold back my thoughts. But this was a pretty risky column for me. Why? Because by singling out a dozen people by name and recognizing them, I have left out a couple of hundred more I could have—and should have—mentioned. It’s like when someone you’ve influenced is giving an acceptance speech for an award and they mention all of these people who helped them along the way—except, of course, you. And later, even if they remember, it’s not the same. So to those I left out, I’m sorry, but I wanted to make the point of why this business is so special. It’s because of all of you.
So next time, when a magazine takes a cover shot for a feature story on one of the captains of industry, maybe they’ll write a little more about the organization’s privates and corporals and sergeants that make it go. Often times, the NCO’s story is much more interesting than the CEO’s.
In the meantime, you know who these people are in your own company. Go out and make them feel like the heroes they are.
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