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Creating Value and Sweeping Streets

By October 29, 2014 6 Comments

I’m just old enough to remember the days when well-meaning adults gave high school seniors the advice that they should go to college and major in anything that interested them, because “really, it’s the degree that counts. Employers aren’t as concerned about what the degree is in.” History? Theology? Philosophy? Why not?

Over a decade later (closer to two, but who’s counting?) I have a Bachelor’s in Theological Studies, and a Master of Divinity…also a theology degree. As you might guess, such choices led to a rather circuitous career path, especially after I decided that full-time pastoral work wasn’t for me.

I’m a millennial, sort of; I was born in the first year of the generation bearing that name, so I guess my date of birth represents the generational transition I’ve witnessed. It is no great insight to note that the official documents conferring formal degrees are abundant, and rather easily attained; and therefore they no longer carry as significant weight as they once did. It’s a lesson I, and many like me, learned the hard way: You’re not getting the interview, let alone the job, just because you’ve got letters behind your name.

It really is no secret that the nature of the workplace has changed significantly, and an employee’s worth is tied to the value they create; value for the client and, ultimately, the employer. Obviously, in the hyper-sensitive politically correct world we find ourselves in, we’re treated to high-minded corporate jargon that might obscure this truth. In their mission statements, companies say all sorts of things about “inspiring the spirit of their team members” or “partners;” and doubtless there is a burgeoning awareness that partners create more value than worker bees. But behind the gloss and façade is the hard truth: those of us who work for others are paid to create value for the guys that sign our paychecks.

I happened to be thinking about this last week when I stopped into a friend’s office. We were having a conversation about the importance of social media marketing when he said: “Well, no one is really doing anything about that here. I guess I could do something, but it’s really not my job.” I cringed for several reasons. First, I had helped this guy get his job, and I therefore feel slightly responsible for his performance. Second, because he’s a friend, I worry about the consequences of such an attitude. There are no shortage of jobs wherein one can perform adequately while only taking care of their specific tasks. They bear titles like “fry cook.” Unfortunately, jobs with rigidly demarcated roles and narrow spheres of responsibility tend to be the kind for which politicians are always wrangling about mandatory raises.

And yet, even in minimum wage environment, perhaps especially in such an environment, outstanding work ethic is generally recognized and rewarded. For those of us blessed to be part of a higher economic echelon, outperformance isn’t rewarded so much as expected. That’s what creating value is all about. This isn’t new, it’s certainly not groundbreaking. I'm proud to say I belong to an organization with a culture of going out of our way to serve clients. But I've been in offices where that accursed phrase: “It’s not my job" is prevalent and accepted, along with the attitude it represents. If you're there, then change that culture, or get out of dodge. You have a million competitors ready and able to do their job; and take yours. We’re not distinguished by adequacy, but by our willingness to do whatever it takes to serve our clients.

Martin Luther King said something similar, and while it might not make it as a corporate mission statement, it makes a fantastic personal one:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

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