Sally’s World, June 2003
By SALLY DUROS
There’s a book I have to read. It’s called The Organization Man. It was written in 1956 by William Whyte, and it’s about time that I learned what the book says.
When I was a girl, I held a secret deep and true, and that was that somehow even though I was female I would grow up to be an “Organization Man.” My dad was an Organization Man, and my best friend’s dad was an Organization Man, and the kids’ next door, their dad was an Organization Man.
I wasn’t sure what it meant exactly – It was just a book laying around our house – but I knew my dad was one, in my simplistic view because he wore a hat, and a suit, and he went to work downtown every day. My dad would leave the house at the same time every morning. When the weather was warm he would walk to the train. You could hear the screen door slam. I would sometimes watch him exit, impressed by how fast he walked. It was a mile-and-a-half to the commuter train that took him to downtown Chicago where the train belched him out with thousands of other people, and they all walked with great intention and urgency to the gleaming revolving-glass doors of the skyscrapers where they worked, engaged in their important missions of commerce and building things and selling stuff. I knew about that because he would bring me downtown with him a couple of times a year to show me off to the other civil engineers he worked with.
His route home led him like clockwork every day, up the side streets of our north side Chicago neighborhood, until he hit the end of the alley on an adjacent street. Which is when I would spy him coming around the corner, and I would run fast up the alley and jump into his arms, the dependable arms of an Organization Man dad, and he would carry me back to my mom, and siblings and the house, and it was nice and cozy like a TV sitcom.
My dad brought home the scent of ink, paper and concrete, and his face felt rough at the end of the day, and I liked that. He carried a briefcase, and he often had work to do in the evening.
Although I couldn’t read the book The Organization Man, I knew my dad was one. Nearly all the dads I knew were Organization Men, except Mr. McHenry, and he owned his own business, and that seemed very strange and mysterious, and he was around during the day and even had a small disassembled airplane in his back yard, which was very exotic and alien.
I was reminded of these childhood memories when I was chatting with Penny Pickett, Business Director for the Telecommunications Development Fund, at Springboard 2003-Midwest, the women’s venture capital forum. Penny was talking about the changes she has seen in the way businesses are viewed since she had started her own business first in 1980.
She started her business in 1980. When it was initially based in her home, it might solicit a condescending comment and a pat on the head. But when men headed to their garages and their basements after businesses embedding the culture of “The Organization Man” had mass layoffs during the 1980s, the conversation rose to another level. That’s when the descriptive word “entrepreneur” emerged.
A basic tenet of The Organization Man was the idea that an employee gave the corporation loyalty and, in turn, the corporation took care of you. Some folks referred to that disparagingly as corporate welfare. The book proposed that employees would have 20-, 30-, and 40-year careers with one corporation.
When my dad started working for the organization, it had about 60 employees based in Chicago. When he left, the company had about 700 working worldwide. When the company merged with another two years ago, it had about 1200, still a small-to-medium sized business by most measures.
My dad retired from the organization nearly two decades ago, with 35 years under his belt. His company merged with another one two years ago, but still the company sticks with its tradition of inviting every one who ever worked for the company to the holiday party. My dad still sees many of his colleagues from the old organization. He can thank the organization for financial stability for his family, a lifetime of friends, and work that challenged him and he enjoyed. My dad says that it was a pretty good deal.
The downside to being an Organization Man
If there was a downside to being an Organization Man, it was the spiritual demand the organization made on the individual.
“This book is about the organization man. If the term is vague, it is because I can think of no other way to describe the people I am talking about. They are not the workers, nor are they the white-collar people in the usual, clerk sense of the word. These people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions.”
– From the book The Organization Man, William Whyte
As painful as the evolution has been, today we are seeking a spiritual anchor in work, and this has been especially liberating for dads. Today it is as common to see dads who are self employed as dads who are working for organizations. Dads and men, in general, once a rarity after school at playgrounds, are becoming increasingly common. Whether there by choice or because of a lay-off -most of them look pretty happy to be refereeing the basketball games, manning the tube swings, testing the jungle gym and toting the backpacks of their kids. That’s an experience that the organization never granted my Dad and other Dads of his generation.
If the organization doesn’t seem to have room for “The Organization Man” anymore, some of us have learned a new way to be in the world that means creating our own organization – even if it is only in our heads. This way of being isn’t easier. But Pickett says, we are nonetheless learning new behaviors.
“People today are more flexible and more entrepreneurial, even if they do go to big companies,” she says. “More people are biting the bullet and learning the characteristics of entrepreneurs.”
This brought to mind a friend of mine who has adapted the mindset of a contract employee, even though she is a full-time employee. Pickett believes that given the choice people like my friend would elect for a more comfortable work lifestyle.
One also shouldn’t confuse the heart-sets of a small-business owner and that of an entrepreneur, Pickett says.
“A capable business owner is the person who’s been pink-slipped and is desperate; they need an income,” she says.” They haven’t been able to find a job, so they start a company.”
“Small-business owners, we couldn’t survive without them,” she says. “They build good companies. They provide services that we all use. They’re important to their communities. They pay their taxes. They’re good people. They’re just not driven the way entrepreneurs are.”
“The entrepreneur is somebody who tends to be pretty bright, but tends to get fairly bored,” she says. “They like to learn new situations, but once they’ve done that they will get bored fairly quickly if it becomes routine. An entrepreneur has a real need to fix things, to improve things, to really change the world. Now money may be the thing that you keep score with, but in many ways, I don’t think money is the real goal.”
“An entrepreneur is a do-gooder who has a strong conviction that there’s something that they can do that’s going to make the world better or make people’s lives better or solve something that really is hurting a lot of people,” Pickett says. “They’d like to make money. That’s great, because in many ways, making a lot of money just gives them the cushion where they can flush out other ideas. It’s a vision thing.”
I look at it this way, if the small-business owner is the eagle on the U.S. seal, and the entrepreneur is the cowboy on the frontier, then The Organization Man should be honored on the face of our dollar bills.
Today, Dads are just as likely to be one as another, and Father’s Day is the time to honor all of them. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
Recommended reading for this Father’s Day: The Organization Man, by William Whyte; Not Just A Living by Mark Henricks; Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by David Whyte; and Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson.