Commentary

When The Best And Brightest Are No More

There is an old saying in the media business (at times attributed to David Ogilvy) that your most important assets go down the elevator each night. This is true only when the person in the elevator produces for the company, its clients and its industry in an honorable, personable, and--yes, passionate way. Everyone likes to think that this description fits all of their employees, but everyone knows that it really can only be worn by a precious few. One of the precious few just left Time Warner.

One of the few good things I took away from my days (they seemed like eons) playing football at the University of North Carolina was the memory of a poem on the locker room wall called something like "The Indispensable Man." It suggested that you observe a bucket and how calm the water stands in it, and then splash your hand in the water. This splash, said the poem, is your contribution around here. Withdraw your hand and see how quickly the water settles back to still and quiet. That, concluded the poem, is how much you will be missed when you are gone.

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Each of us who has bled company colors for years on end, only to be stunned when on our departure, the entire enterprise didn't collapse into immediate bankruptcy, knows how true that poem is. We like to think that we made such an important contribution that the company felt real pain when we left. But somehow it managed to struggle on (not even bothering to call us in a panic, asking our advice.)

Yet it is not always apparent to a company when a superstar walks out the door. Usually when high-profile people leave under unusual circumstances (think Wal-Mart), there are lots of press stories and even more rumors about "what really happened." But by and large, those are not the real company superstars--they are the self-promoters and grandstanders who care more about their public personas than they do about their employers. The superstars are often too busy filling the coffers and building the company's future with their hard work, their integrity and their sure-handedness. They don't freak out when things go wrong, but quietly figure out a way to solve the problem. They do stuff that the rest of us can't be bothered with, like helping younger people navigate their careers or get new jobs. They really listen to clients, and become not just their business partners, but their personal friends. They show up for weddings and funerals--not because they represent the company, but because they really care for their colleagues and clients.

Integrity is at the heart of all superstars. They fight for what is right for clients, and don't cheat on the company or take advantage of their position or power. They don't make up numbers or lie to management and hope to make it up next quarter. They trust those around them to be just as honorable, and often pay a price when they are not. Superstars don't rat out colleague who don't do their jobs; instead, they often extend a hand and say, "Here, let me help you."

It is hard to be a superstar because it means making sacrifices. Doing things the right way always takes more time and effort. While you and I have gone to the gym (or the tavern), superstars have stayed behind to make those last important phone calls, with assurances that everything will turn out the way they say it will.

Companies survive even when superstars go down that elevator for the very last time. After all, there is no "Indispensable Man," is there? But companies are diminished ever so slightly because the honor and integrity and passion that drove the superstars rubbed off on the company and made clients want to do more business with it. And so, by years' end, there will be a Cleary Simpson-shaped hole in the heart of Time Warner--unfilled perhaps forever.

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