What is a giant? Well, giants are many things. People like you and me may become giants. Giants see opportunity where others see trouble.
Giants see opportunity where others see trouble. One of the giants in Herman Miller's history was a man named Jim Eppinger. Jim was the sales manager of the company through the thirties and forties and, in particular, during our transition from making good-quality, traditional copies of furniture to learning how to sell the revolutionary new designs of Rhode and Nelson and Eames. Those were tough years, really tough years that only a few people still understand.
Once I sat in on a luncheon with my father and Jim Eppinger—these two old cronies who had made the company survive during the Depression. They were talking, with a sense of humor and nostalgia, about some of the difficulties of the early days and, in particular, the Depression.
My father recalled for Jimmy a time they had been together at Jim's home in New Jersey during Christmas-time and mentioned how much he was aware that Jim's family had no Chistmas tree nor any gifts. Dad knew it was because the company did not have enough money to pay the sales commissions that were due.
Dad mentioned that Jim probably didn't remember that time, but it was vary real to my father, because he felt it was his fault that Jim's family would have no Chistmas. But Jim said, "I remember that evening as if it were yesterday, because for Marian and me it was one of the highlights of our lives." And my dad, surprised, said, "How could that possibly be?" Jim said, "Well, don't you remember? That was the night you gave me the Ney York territory. It was the greatest opportunity I've ever had."
Giants give others the gift of space, space in both the personal and the corporate sense, space to be what one can be. One of my favorite giants is George Nelson. In the late 1940s Herman Miller introduced George's marvelous and, to this day, appropriate line of residential furniture. During the weeks when these designs were being readied for introduction to the market, another giant appeared on the scene in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art: Charles Eames.
George worked very hard to persuade both my father and Jim Eppinger to write Charles and arrange to add Charles's designs to the Herman Miller program. My father said something like this to George: "We're just getting ready to introduce your first products to the market. We're not a large company. We'll never pay very much in royalties. Do you really want to share this small opportunity with another designer?" George's response was something like this: "Charles Eames is an unusual talent. He is vary different from me. The company needs us both. I want very much to have Charles Eames share in whatever potential there is."
In the ensuing years, Charles Eames became recognized as the greatest furniture designer since Chippendale.
Giants catch fastballs. One of the giants at Herman Miller is a man named Pep Nagelkirk, who is probably the most talented model maker I have ever heard of. He has served Herman Miller designers for thirty-five years. He has a special gift for translating ideas and sketches into prototypes. He is an indispensable part of every design program we launch. He is a fastball catcher.
Now a fastball may be enough for a pitcher, but it is never enough for a team. Cooperations and people can throw good ideas around as often as they want. Without giant catchers like Pep Nagelkirk, those ideas may eventually disappear. We have hundreds of giant catches like Pep Nagelkirk at Herman Miller. Without giant catchers there can be no giant pitchers.
Giants have special gifts. Another of our giants is a man named Howard Redder, a department supervisor who retired some time ago. Howard never went to high school. He worked in a factory all of his adult life and worked his way up the ladder and became one of the best department supervisors we ever had. But beyond that, Howard has a special gift.
He is most sensitive and most effective enabler of handicapped employees the company has had. This is important, because, as a company, we strongly believe that the diversity of the population must be reflected in our company's population. That special ability, to give a handicapped person the space and support and encouragement to be a productive and to honer the sense of involvement that all of us have, make another kind of giant.
Giants enable others to express their own gifts. The last giant I'd like to mention is my father. During the Depression days, when he and a few others were dealing with the company's day-to-day survival, he was able to accept people like Gilbert Rhode, and later George Nelson, Charles Eames, and Alexander Girard at a time is his life when he knew practically nothing about design, designers, or the design process. But he had the great insight to see the diversity of their gifts, which in turn enabled him to be personally and corporately abandoned to the exercise of their gifts.
There are at least two things we learn about cooporations from these tales of giants. The first is that while productivity is important, giving space to giants is much more important. The second is that giving space to giants lets them and others practice the "roving leadership" I discussed earlier. These two lessons may, from time to time, be hard on the hierarchical leadership. But if you want a cooporation to be truly effective, you will need to help cooporations be open to giants at all levels.