“It’s a people business,” a salesperson said to me once, to describe the way he viewed his market. He sold a specialized product related to manufacturing. What that product was doesn’t matter, because I think a salesperson in any field might express the same sentiment. His point was that his work is not about the product—not about the lathe, cutting tool, indexer or whatever—but instead it’s about the people who might be able to use that product to realize their aims and ambitions.
In fact, anyone involved in creating the product might express this sentiment also. People who manufacture aircraft parts or auto components do not, in the end, do their work for the sake of the vehicles. They produce for the benefit of the people whose journey might be helped along by the use of those planes or cars. By the same token, the point of my writing is not the articles, but the people who might be informed by the contents of this magazine.
How easy is it to forget this essential point?
For many companies, 2009 was tough. Business was down. Responding to the decline involved difficult choices. The experience is still fresh in many minds, in part because 2011 is so different. This year has been challenging, too, but in a different way. Activity in and around manufacturing has been high, sometimes frantic. Slow business at least has this silver lining: There is more room for nuance in all the routine business interactions we engage in, room to notice how different people’s hopes, needs and perspectives figure into what we do. By contrast, in times like those we have seen more recently, the danger is that the multiplying deadlines and commitments can start to tower bigger than the people.
I have caught myself acting callously in recent weeks. In wedges of time between closely-spaced travels and other events on my calendar, I have been trying to barrel ahead with projects for the sake of getting them “done.” In the process, I know there have been multiple cases in which I have failed to sufficiently appreciate the outlook of the person on the other end of an email I’ve sent, or some other move I’ve made to quickly cross something off my list. The slights involved might have been seen as minor, but still—a selfish distortion of priorities on my part.
In professional life, it is commonly said that we all serve many masters. It’s true—we often have “customers” of various forms, including people both outside and inside our organizations. Yet at the same time, we also have no masters at all. That is, there is no client or employer whom we do not serve by choice. Recognizing this, sometimes it’s worthwhile to step back and renew that service by choosing it all over again.
My to-do list, however crowded it may be, needs to be a means to an end, not an idol I raise up as the most important focus of my day. To be sure, there are important things that do need to be done. But in the midst of being busy, we can also take breathers. We can look around to see who seems to be seeking assistance and who among our various customers we might reasonably serve in ways we weren’t expecting that day. This is the way good work really happens, here in the people business.