Barry Shannon: Take time to say thanks to those who pack our 'work parachutes'

Who is packing your work parachute?
Who is packing your work parachute? Who is packing your work parachute?

IMAGINE the scene: you are a US Navy fighter pilot, engaged in the Vietnam war. You’ve flown over 70 combat missions from which you have come home safely. Then: boom. Your plane is hit, destroyed by a surface-to-air missile.

You eject in time, your parachute opens, and you float down to land in enemy territory. They detect and capture you. For the next six years you are held as a prisoner of war. Charles Plumb was that pilot.

Years later he was having dinner with his wife and a man approached his table, asking if he was Plumb, the Navy pilot, who had flown jets from aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and who had been shot down? Plumb didn’t know who this guy was in the slightest, just some random dude, but wondered how in the world he knew all that detail. Then the guy he introduced himself. He told Plumb that he was, in fact, the man who had packed Plumb’s parachute the day he was shot down over Vietnam.

‘I guess it worked’ the guy said. Plumb replied ‘It sure did. If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today’

Plumb was both amazed and, moreover, grateful. Here was the man who had essentially saved his life. A (previously) anonymous sailor who packed parachutes for numerous pilots and who Plumb would have walked past on a regular basis without giving a second thought to the man’s name, his background, who he was or what he was all about. Plumb acknowledged that he might have seen him and not even said good morning, because ‘I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor’. Yet on that day Plumb’s life was directly in this fellow’s hands.

Plumb went on to tell the story over many years on the speaking circuit, pointing out that he had needed physical, mental, spiritual and emotional parachutes to survive his ordeal through from being shot down, to being kept in a POW camp for so many years. He then challenged the audience: who packs your parachute(s)?

It’s an easy story to get the meaning out of. How often, every day, are we helped in some way by other people who we fail to acknowledge or thank. We only think about the payroll team whenever there is an issue with our salary, the cleaners when something is dirty, HR when we have a problem and so on. Everyone, from sales, to marketing, to software and leadership teams help pack our work parachutes. Do we ever take time to acknowledge them? Maybe only when things go wrong?

How difficult would it be to stop for a minute and say thanks once in a while? You would be amazed how a few kind words, sincerely meant, can brighten up a person’s day. Roy Keane may argue that you don’t thank the postman for delivering the mail, but how good would that postman feel if you did, even once in a while?

What a spring in their step that would create. You could even go a step beyond that and tell that person’s boss they have done a great job for you.

Taking this a step further: is the reason we maybe take people for granted because they are good at what they do, so it all seems effortless?

There is an old story about an engineer called out to fix a machine. He arrives, studies it for a few minutes and draws an ‘x’ on the side. ‘Hit that as hard as you can’ he tells the customer. Bingo, it starts working again.

When the bill arrives, the customer is outraged and phones the engineer. ‘You’ve charged me a fortune for effectively taking a few minutes to draw a cross’ he says. The engineer acknowledges this is true, but goes on to make the point that while the cross did just take a few seconds to draw, it took years of study, training and learned experience to know exactly where to draw it.

With all this in mind, perhaps we should take some time to reflect on the ecosystem in our own business and the hundreds of contributions to our working lives that help us get through the day. They may look simple but often this is due to the skill of the person executing them.

Take a little time to say thanks.

:: Barry Shannon is head of HR at STATSports