BUILDING A LEGACY: ARCHITECT OF CORPORATE CHARACTER
November 23, 2013
By Andrea Morisette Grazzini
My Grandfather began building his life legacy when he set aside his individualistic dream to support the family construction company his immigrant father started. Over time he would become a servant-leader to colleagues, community and the common interests they shared.
His model provides powerful lessons for latter-day leaders. Like me.
Grandpa worked hard, yes. More than that, he valued his co-workers beyond the way his peers would have advised – and far better than what many businesses today dare.
For starters: Grandpa was the president of an international trade association and also the co-founder a national labor union. Imagine that.
These days, individual achievement is considered the God- and Country-given right of all. But from his start as a young man, Grandpa eschewed such frivolity. Instead, he accepted (and, in time, achieved) a public purpose bigger than his private aspirations. The Company he nurtured through decades still remains in operation.
When he died a few years ago, hundreds of people from all walks of life came to pay their respects. To a person, each spoke not of the business he’d built, but of what a great man he was.
Grandpa’s admirable character emerged early, at the very beginning of his career. “It was my intention to go to College, hopefully to study architecture,” Grandpa wrote in his journal, which I pored over after he died. He went on to explain big-picture realities that informed his choice. “However after a discussion with Dad on the financial situation at the moment, I decided it would be better if I worked. On January 2, 1933, Dad offered me the opportunity to work for the Company.”
Maybe his self-deprecating ways helped dilute any disappointment. “I could answer the phone and do any other things as a flunky there,” he recalled of his first job. “I was given the tremendous wage of $5.00 per week." In any case, Grandpa redirected his focus to the support and successes of others. Without favoritism or fanfare, even as he climbed the Company ladder to become CEO.
This equalizing ethic of his started during the Great Depression, notorious for its vast income divide between wealthy and poor—a gap only a little less dramatic than we have now. Though Grandpa obtained wealth, he wasn’t one to leave others who didn't have the opportunity to run their family businesses or who pursued less prominent professions, behind.
Bad times or good, his sense of responsibility persisted for seventy-some years, until he finally stopped going to the office well into his 90s. His longevity matched only by his integrity. Both rare feats few achieve.
As head of the Company, Grandpa helped build as many careers as buildings the Company helped construct. Make no mistake, though, Grandpa was not the ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ quid pro quo type. He didn’t withhold his geniality or generosity from anyone. If a colleague or other needed a favor or a loan, Grandpa gave it. If they never paid him back, he'd never complain.
Like the architect he’d once hoped to be, Grandpa understood the dimensional, dynamic perspectives of place, people, and common purpose. Figuratively drawing all together around a common good—namely through shared work. Instead of leading from a traditional position of top-down power, Grandpa’s leadership positioned him more like partner. He knew each colleague’s personal story. Whether they were a ‘lowly’ laborer or high-flying executive.
He naturally tapped into people’s authentic humanity with clear respect for their unique identities and without a hint of judgment for their various idiosyncrasies. As he did here, writing with typical equanimity about two early employees, both ‘Franks’:
“Frank Choipini (…) did a good job and was a foreman on many jobs for all the Terrazzo companies. He worked and saved his money and lived well with his wife in this country, ignoring the one in Italy. I did tax work for Frank and knew his manner of living and his attitude (…)
Frank Mascaro was a very rough individual, crude and addicted to strong Italian food with much garlic, so much (…) he usually ate alone. He was married to a very rough woman who weighed possibly 350 pounds, and had complete control over poor Frankie. He was a very simple man, with no education, but he did work well.”
Grandpa stood on principals that put people first, sometimes against formidable counter-forces. Even when everyone else was angry or otherwise upset (always passionately so). Grandpa kept the bigger picture in perspective, navigating and smoothing the tensions.
Including around issues he himself cared deeply about, such as insuring that the Company made meaningful investments in their staff’s long-term wellbeing. “In 1970, my long time desire for a Profit Sharing Plan for employees was to reach fruition. I had prepared figures showing the benefits and reduced taxes if such a plan had been installed earlier, (when) the plan had been tabled consistently (…) since 1954.”
Grandpa stayed the steady course. His rare reference to any challenge was usually understated: “It’s not ideal,” might be all he’d say.
This stabilizing ‘form’ was matched by a pragmatic ‘function’ that he established to construct a corporate foundation based on humane values and business integrity—something like a profits and people balance sheet balancing act. He saw himself and his Company as not above or in control of anything much, but rather interdependent within the context of colleagues, community, company, country and industry.
Here's the thing: Grandpa lived a good, more than comfortable, life. With means befitting a smart and successful CEO, but not with the 'win at any costs' or 'take-all' excesses we see in so many predecessors of his generation of leaders.
He was a citizen professional—my Grandpa. If only there were more like him today.
Which leaves me wondering:
Why wouldn’t we all aspire to the same? Do any of us really want to be eulogized for our ability to stand separate above all for the wealth and power we monopolized through so many years? Or do we want to stand out for having lifted many others up equally as much as ourselves?
It seems to me that unselfishly empowering others, as my Grandfather did, is the most powerful legacy any individual leader can leave.
Andrea Morisette Grazzini is Founder & CEO of WetheP, Inc.