20/20 Visionary

If you are looking for the pro forma, here’s-a-neat-idea-to-improve-resume-processing article all packaged up with a bow ó sorry, not today. Not because that stuff is not important. Of course it is. But for today the question I pose is not one of day-to-day processing, improved response time (3.5 days vs. 4.5 days) or an opportunity to make a 3.7% increase in the effectiveness of your prescreening process. Do all those things and be proud of each incremental gain. But are these the sole and exclusive goals by which you calculate the sum total of your career impact? Are these the only benchmarks by which you have chosen to be measured? Today I would like to spend some time discussing vision (or the lack thereof) beyond the immediate and easy to see. I want to talk about visionaries and their importance in your professional life. What is a visionary?

  • Thousands of years ago some unknown person mixed flour, water, and eventually yeast, then added a little fire and created bread, the staple of life. They were an inventor. They created something new.
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  • A few hundred years ago a member of the noble class of England threw a slab of meat between two pieces of bread and the Earl of Sandwich was thereafter known as an innovator (I can only assume his son was the Duke of Hoagie). He combined two things that had never been combined before and created something new.
  • But others saw a potential industry ó sandwich shops and fast food ó and the way people ate changed. This group may well be labeled entrepreneurs, but they were in fact visionaries, that rare and essential group of people who look at the way things are, and the tools that are available or the inevitable extension of those tools, and see the future. The critical and compelling changes to come as the result of great change and innovation that has already occurred. Some people make compasses while other people create direction. These people know that after the earthquake comes the after shock. They look beyond the immediate and the easy.

This thought came to me as most do, by accident. If they occurred more often by design, I would be writing from my villa in Cannes sipping a fine merlot instead of on my back porch sipping a fine Sprite. It all started when I was ordered to go into my home office, by the real “CEO” in my life, with the directive to make it look less like an explosion in a paper factory, next to a toy factory, during a flood. In essence, get rid of the “stuff” that I was saving merely because it had made its way into a cubby hole in my roll top desk. The directive: If it has turned yellow or hasn’t seen the light of day in five years or more, it’s trash. Act accordingly! In an old box full of 1980s vintage “stuff” was a thirteen-inch piece of insulated wire. Exactly 13 inches, the distance light travels in a nanosecond. It is amazing how an inanimate object can turn the key to a forgotten memory and return it to the present with the clarity of glass. Grace Hopper, a true visionary, had given me this piece of wire. She used it in lectures to remind the audience that no matter how staggering a concept or incomprehensible an idea, everything can be broken down to a simple thought and comprehension built upon it. The difficulty in comprehending the speed of light is eased when you look at this thirteen inch piece of wire and remember, thirteen inches is the exact distance light travels in a nanosecond. Now build on the concept from there. Grace looked beyond what others called unfathomable and made it fathomable. In the 1940s, while all the giants in the computer industry today were yet unborn, Grace was working on the first practical effort to make a “computer” at MIT on a project for the U.S. Navy. It was built large enough to have a walkway inside and standing room for technicians, in order to make it easier to replace burnt-out vacuum tubes from among the thousands inside. It weighted tons and could only handle, eventually, a minor fraction of a fraction of the calculations that a ten-dollar solar powered “throw away” pocket calculator can do today in an instant. (As an aside, Grace claimed to have been there the day the system “crashed” because a fly landed on one of the tubes, causing it to crack as a result of the heat transfer. The first time ever in history a computer was brought down by a “bug” in the system. She said it’s true, I believe her.) She spoke of the computer and its parallel development with the automobile, as well as its own history of coming full circle. The first cars were handmade and expensive to maintain and operate. Only the rich and large companies could afford them. Their operation was a mystery to the average person, who, accordingly, regarded them with fear and disdain ó not unlike early computers that only large companies maintained and only a few in those companies understood, the old “green bar paper” of days gone by. Henry Ford came along and created the assembly line and the automobile was made not only affordable, but due to its simplicity, popular. The fear of the automobile was gone. A situation not unlike that was created by the early pioneers of the personal computer, as they became affordable and relatively easy to use by the average person, with the mystique forever gone that they were dangerous and to be feared (well, almost). The change to our culture caused by the automobile from the days of Henry Ford into the 1950s was significant and dramatic, but relatively insignificant and tame when compared to what was to come. Again, a situation not unlike the impact of the creation of the personal computer in the early 1980s as compared to what happened in the mid-1990s and beyond. The real cultural and systematic impact of the automobile on our lives occurred after the development of the interstate highway system begun in post-WWII America. Prior to that, although the automobile had replaced the horse and buggy, it still existed in a similar infrastructure. People had the “vehicle” to go somewhere, but due to the ineffective road network, they really had nowhere to go. The automobile, in and of itself, had not really radically impacted our culture or the way we lived. But with the arrival of the interstate highway, people with cars had access to a system that allowed them relatively unlimited opportunities to travel outside the boundaries that had been accepted as their limitations for centuries. In one day you could travel distances measured in hundreds of miles, not merely ten or fifteen. Going “two towns over” was no longer an “overnight” visit, it was an “A.M.” item on a long checklist of things to do today. With the new pastime came the new infrastructures, manufacturing, and businesses to support that new pastime. This is where the vision came in. Grace spoke of the phenomenal changes the affordable and easy-to-use personal computers had made on the American marketplace as insignificant compared to what was to come. She eluded to the need for an “interstate highway system” for the computer to reach its full potential: the Internet. It was 1982, and most of us in the audience were thinking about how to develop a workflow that would enable master files of paper stored in filing cabinets to reconcile with data stored on floppy disks. Her vision went right over our heads. We were thinking “bologna sandwiches” while she was talking about fast food marketing and “over 1 billion served.” The waste of a perfectly good visionary. It was around 1995 that I realized that I was living in the future that had been hinted to some 13 years earlier by an 80-year-old visionary who had never allowed herself to become so fascinated by the present that she could not find the time to imagine the future beyond the next software upgrade. Grace Hooper predicted the future of the Internet by using a practical extension of a similar phenomenon, the automobile. In retrospect, simple. In fact, brilliant. Oh well, it’s too hot in Cannes this time of year anyway. The point? Good ideas, clever concepts, and fascinating visions do not come labeled as such. Nor do they seek you out. You must go to find them. Otherwise work is merely a daily dull affair with an occasional pat on the back for reducing a cost factor, which is already an infinitely small fraction of the total budget to begin with, fractionally smaller yet again. (Three cheers!) Think beyond the limits of your walls and your cubicles. Do not use the limits of your job title as an excuse not to dare to try new things. Do not assume the cloak of safety by always waiting until an idea is “accepted” before embracing it. Or at the very least, if you choose not to be a visionary, then at least seek them out and listen. It’s fun to discover the future before it happens. It’s even better when you act on that information. Grace finished her lecture with a challenge that I pass a paraphrased version on to all of you: “There are those in business who always seek the safe and secure paths and resist challenge and change. They will always claim that an idea is unacceptable because, ‘We have never done it that way!’ or, ‘No one else does it that way!’ They lack vision and they would deny it to the rest of us. To them I say, “Get out!” You are slowing the rest of us down. If you cannot keep up, have the decency not to slow the rest of us down!” It was fun to watch an 80-year-old woman, 5 feet tall, 85 pounds, yell at an audience of “suits” with the passion of a prophet. Vision is the courage to seek what comes next rather than wait for somebody else to do it for you. It is the passion to make changes and encourage others to assist in making those changes. It is the difference between living life to it’s fullest, or just living. Grace passed on before the Internet explosion, but she already knew it was coming. She has been already gone ten years or more and I swear she still has more vision than most HR/staffing executives I know. God bless you, Grace. (Pssst…what’s next?) Have a great day recruiting.

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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