This week, whilst I was in a shop browsing, I overheard an employee tell a customer how much they enjoyed working at that particular organisation, because he felt appreciated and recognised by his colleagues.
This got me reflecting on the story of Charles Plumb, a US navy pilot who after 75 successful combat missions in Vietnam had his plane shot down by a surface-to-air missile. He ejected and parachuted into enemy hands and spent six years in a Vietnamese communist prison and now lectures on lessons learnt from his experience. Plumb recalls a humbling account of meeting the man who packed his parachute and invariably saved his life.
Many years after being repatriated, Charles and his wife were sitting in a little restaurant in Kansas City before going to the theatre. Two tables away from them, was a man who kept looking at him. Charles looked back but did not recognize the man, but he kept catching the stranger staring at him. Finally the stranger stood up and walked over to Charles’ table and pointed at him and said, “You’re Captain Plumb.” Charles looked up at him and said, “Yes, I am Captain Plumb.” The stranger said, “You’re that guy. You flew jet fighters in Vietnam. You’re a fighter pilot, part of that ‘Top Gun’ outfit. You launched from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, you parachuted into enemy territory and you spent six years as a prisoner of war.”
Somewhat dumbfounded Charles looked up at the stranger and asked, “How in the world did you know all that?” The man chuckled, smiled and said, “Because I packed your parachute.” Charles was speechless. The stranger grabbed Charles hand, pumped his arm and said, “I guess it worked” and walked off.
Charles lay awake that night thinking about all the times he had walked through the long narrow room, below sea level on the aircraft carrier, with the tables where the men packed the parachutes. How many times he must have walked past this man without even acknowledging him with a “hi,” “good morning” or “thank you, I appreciate what you do.” “How many times did I pass the man whose job would eventually save my life… because I was a jet jockey, a Top Gun racing around the sky at twice the speed of sound. Because I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor.”
Plumb’s story is a powerful lesson – especially for those of us who manage teams of employees. How often do we forget to appreciate and recognise those individuals who help us out the most? I am referring to the individuals who go that extra mile to get the job done, the people who do not seek kudos– these are the people who pack our parachutes every day.
The challenge is recognizing the Parachute Packers in our teams and distinguishing them from the Top Guns. The people who support the system that enables the Top Guns to fly and really appreciating just how important they are for the things they do and achieve for the organization. Recognising that without them packing our parachutes, the system does not work.