The meatball and meaning

Mad @ Mgmt addresses the concerns of middle-market companies, including banking, family and succession issues, turnarounds and performance improvement, and economic life in general. Walter Simson is founder and principal of Ventor Consulting, a firm dedicated to middle market companies.

One of the best commercials I have ever seen was filmed in Wisconsin, and is now being shown nationwide. To me, it perfectly captures this moment in our country. What is great is that, while the message is not claiming great wisdom, it delivers it in great clumps.

I find it satisfying on a personal and professional level, and I also think its producers may have touched on a fundamental truth about who we are as Americans, and what we face.

I am talking about the commercial for GE Healthcare that, along with its sister GE commercials for Power Generation, Aerospace, and Appliances, is about making connections. The GE Healthcare bit starts with a shot of a factory floor and an earnest-looking technician. He is speaking about his role – and it looks like a wrench-level role – in making an MRI machine. He appears to search for his words as he describes his work in diagnostic imaging. He says that it means that “you know that things you do in your life … matter.”

We then cut to a van of recent cancer survivors driving to a corporate park under the GE sign. To those of us who travel the highways of Wisconsin, it is the familiar “meatball” logo that looms over both the Waukesha plant and Interstate 94, the artery between Milwaukee and Madison. The patients arrive at the plant and, in an effort to make the picture of their cancer care complete, meet the people who made the GE machines. The picture is one of quiet celebration and joy. Above all, it speaks to what the technician told us earlier – a search for meaning.

My family lived through this reunion, in a way, when my wife was treated for cancer at UW. Val would always tell our neighbor and good friend, a famously hardworking executive at GE Healthcare, what her efforts meant to us. We came not only to a deep friendship with this lady, but also to repeatedly express our thanks and appreciation for the sacrifice she and her family made for her demanding career. And every morning our wake-up call was her car, accelerating off to another long day of making a difference to a patient.

So we know what emotions a bus-full of grateful survivors would generate.

On another level, as an executive, I admire the motivational genius of the leaders who determined that part of the reward earned in a day’s hard work would be to meet someone whose life is so profoundly affected by the product. Of course, cash bonuses and stock options are motivating, but we know from recent history that they can also be used to distort results and game the system for purely monetary gain. A truer incentive speaks to the effect that our work has on others. The value is when the warmth of fellow-feeling, pride, and determination is internalized to last beyond the pay period. Somehow, I feel confident that the technician will take the pride of his work with him to his retirement and beyond.

And lastly, this message might be a positive salve to the nation as a whole. Because I think a lot of the charged political rhetoric we are seeing speaks to the country’s desire to understand our place in a world where China is growing and Iran seems threatening. If the current crop of political appeals to religiosity and older values are heated, it is because to many people they are missed. I think half of our political dialogue is trying to get at both our country’s desire for meaning and our fear that we may no longer be number one.

I’d point to the GE message as a neutral, yet enduring one that anyone can agree on: we all want to know that what we do in our life matters. And if that is a new insight to those who put a wrench to steel for a living or to those who want to return to daily employment, it appears to bring deep satisfaction – and perhaps even confidence in the future.

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