Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.
Robert W. Galvin
A gleaming trophy stood in a branch office of Motorola Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona.
It consisted of an elegant block of crystal about a foot tall. Embedded in the crystal was a golden medallion.
This was the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, America’s highest presidential honor for business excellence and innovation, named for the Secretary of Commerce during the Reagan Administration.
The year was 1989. Chris Cavanaugh-Simmons, visiting Motorola as a consultant, stood in the lobby admiring the trophy, given to the telecommunications giant for its commitment to the concept of total quality.
Motorola pioneered the Six Sigma quality concept in the 1980s, seeking dramatic increases in product quality, spending many millions of dollars on employee training in pursuit of that goal. “Motorola,” wrote historian William Aspray, “is different from many companies in that it really takes quality seriously.” Motorola thrived in every way under Six Sigma, including financially. The concept became globally famous when it was adopted and extensively promoted by General Electric. Six Sigma eventually evolved into Lean Six Sigma.
As Cavanaugh-Simmons examined the trophy, the legendary chairman of the Motorola board, Bob Galvin, appeared in the lobby. He was looking for a fax machine.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Bob Galvin!’” Cavanaugh-Simmons recalls. She had tracked his career. She knew quite a lot about him, but this was the first time she had seen him in person.
He walked over to her and the trophy. His shirtsleeves were rolled up. He radiated energy, focus, purpose, passion. In other words, just another routine day for him.
“Pretty nice, isn’t it?” he said. “Hi, I’m Bob. Bob Galvin.”
As if Cavanaugh-Simmons didn’t know. She gave her name; they shook hands. “It’s beautiful,” she said of the trophy. “I’ve never actually seen one before.”
“We’re very proud of it. A lot of people did a lot of good work for us to get it.”
They chatted for a while about Six Sigma and the company’s enormous investment in education. Cavanaugh-Simmons noticed that he invariably spoke about “we” rather than “I.” She also noticed that he had that strange and wonderful quality of making her feel as if she, at that moment, in that lobby, mattered more to him than anyone else in the universe.
Then the encounter was over. They met a couple of times after that. Cavanaugh-Simmons invited Galvin to give a speech in 1999 at a Sandia National Laboratories forum she organized; Sandia folks still talk about the man’s presence, his authenticity, his belief in the American corporation and the American worker.
As head of Motorola for more than 30 years, Bob Galvin led the company from medium-successful (6,000 employees when he assumed command in the 1950s) to extraordinary (100,000-plus). Along the way, he proved the value of believing in people.
“The most important thing that Bob did,” said engineer Martin Cooper, “was create an environment that gave people the freedom and stimulus to do great things.” Cooper and his team did a pretty great thing in the 1970s and early ’80s—they invented the cell phone and brought it to market. Galvin supported Cooper with a healthy budget and steely-eyed belief.
“The leader’s influence,” Galvin wrote, “is almost limitless. He and she can spread hope, lend courage, kindle confidence, impart knowledge, give heart, instill spirit, elevate standards, display vision, set direction, and call for action today and each tomorrow.”
Galvin firmly believed in the power of a good leader to set a positive agenda. “Leaders think otherwise and take us elsewhere,” he said.
Galvin (1922-2011) was born in Wisconsin and raised in Chicago. In 1930, his father and uncle introduced the world’s first commercial car radio, which they dubbed “the Motorola.” The company grew quickly; during World War II it manufactured the hand-held radio that became known as the walkie-talkie (original name: Handie-Talkie). Galvin joined the business in 1940, working in the stockroom, gradually mastered every aspect of the company’s operations, and became president in 1956. During his tenure, Motorola got involved in guided missiles, semiconductors, color television, and many other products. One of Galvin’s proudest moments came in July, 1969, when Neil Armstrong transmitted the first message from the moon on Motorola equipment.
Many of Galvin’s core philosophies are explored in the book “The Corporate Mystic: A Guidebook for Visionaries With Their Feet on the Ground” by Gay Hendricks and Kate Ludeman (1996). He is author of “The Idea of Ideas” published in 1991.
Galvin’s core passion was for improving people’s lives through smart use of technology. He continued pursuing this passion after his retirement from Motorola, launching the Galvin Electricity Initiative, which seeks improvements in the electrical grid. The genesis of this project was an electricity blackout in 2003 that left millions of Americans in the dark. Galvin took on the daunting mission of transforming the sclerotic electricity industry, focusing on microgrids and excellent consumer-centric service. “The imperfect quality of power service today,” says the initiative, “robs each American household of thousands of dollars a year. The transformation of service quality to 21st century digital standards is critical to resolving the serious economic and environmental threats facing our nation.”
Galvin has had a four-part recipe for success in his many endeavors:
- A continuous quest for new ideas.
- Rapid prototyping to learn and refine new ideas.
- The pursuit of perfection using quality methods and tools.
- Policy reforms that enable and attract entrepreneurs, innovation, and investment.
And, of course, picking good people, motivating them (or, rather, helping them motivate themselves), and rewarding them.
“You learn to bet on good folks,” said Galvin in an interview. “I would bet a little stronger on many of our people than sometimes they would bet for themselves, and often enough they would prove their capability. I was an expresser of hope or faith in them.”
One more quote from the great man:
“How do you demonstrate respect? Through the integrity of the message you communicate. It sounds simplistic, but we found that the easiest way of getting things done was by being straight. It’s in our self-interest to be straight and treat people ‘square.’”