Ode to the ‘Rag Kickers’

Over the past year, many of our client companies have experienced relatively smooth, steady success, while others have been on a rollercoaster ride of wins, losses, and frequent unexpected drops and turns. This contrast has reminded me of the wisdom of an old saying: “No one thanks the person who kicks the rag away from the furnace.”

In our client companies that have dealt with crises, the staff members who stepped up to get their company over and past the crisis are thanked, often rewarded, and (in some settings) publicly lauded as heroes. And deservedly so.

What gives me pause is to consider those companies that have not been dealing with crises. They may well have been lucky, but in most instances they have also been smart. Actually, it is usually a specific person (or a small team) who has been smart.

The ability to anticipate significant problems – and the foresight to take proactive steps to avoid those potential challenges – is an often-underappreciated talent. In fact, proactive risk mitigation or conflict avoidance efforts are often not even noticed, let alone lauded or rewarded.

The building never caught on fire – so no heroics were needed – and no one even knew that someone kicked the rag away from the furnace. So, unlike the heroes mentioned above, these valuable employees often make their noteworthy contribution to company success in obscurity – and often without thanks. Such is the plight of the underappreciated ‘rag kickers’ of this world.

The reason for this pattern is obvious: we never actually see the implications of what these proactive, problem-avoiders do. Perhaps someday in the far distant future if we find “multiverses” to actually exist, we will be able to see what would have played out had our unsung hero not taken action. But as of now, with us constrained to live in the single universe we currently know to exist, there is no hero to applaud when there is no crisis to solve.

So here is a suggestion: reflect a bit on who it is in your company, division, or workgroup that kicks the rag away from the furnace. Think about some of the major problems your company has avoided, and then consider who has been instrumental in taking proactive steps to avoid that problem.

What could have gone wrong? What would have been the impact? Who was it who took steps to make sure that problem never occurred? What major problems have your competitors experienced that you did not? Why not? Who took steps to make sure you were on a better path?

So, while we continue to celebrate and thank the brave firefighters who come to our aide in a time of crisis, don’t forget to make time to at least drop a note to that observant custodian who took the time to kick the rag away from the furnace before quietly going home to no applause.