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Paper Clips

November 26, 2009

Who saves the paper clips in your office?

I remember my first management job well. The year was 1972. I was 25 at the time and had just finished a 5 year tour in the Marine Corps. I was in training to become one of the assistant general managers in a small manufacturing company. As part of the training process, I was to spend a certain amount of time with the managers of each of the company’s various departments. I learned about paper clips in the purchasing department.

The purchasing manager had been employed by the company for a number of years. He had been an excellent, dedicated employee. He indoctrinated me on the ins and outs of purchase orders, receiving reports, and invoices.

One morning he shared with me the importance of saving paper clips. We were in the mail room going through the days invoices. As he opened the mail, some of the documents inside were bound by paper clips. He carefully removed the paper clips, tossed them into the box and made a special point of telling me how it was important to save each paper clip so that they could be recycled. It seemed as though he dwelled on the importance of saving paper clips as much as we had talked about saving ten cents per hundred weight on steel purchases the day before.

I must confess that I was a little surprised at the emphasis that the purchasing manager made on saving a few paper clips from the morning mail. At the time I probably thought to myself, “Heck, this is 1972. What’s this guy doing wasting both of our time talking about saving a half a dozen paper clips each morning?”

Any good manager will tell you a manager’s most precious resource is time. Time is the currency of management. How you prioritize and utilize your time will determine your ultimate effectiveness. Effectiveness for a manager eventually translates into dollars and cents. That being the case, can a manager, any manager, spend any time talking about saving paper clips? Never mind, actually spending time removing and recycling paper clips?

I’ve thought a lot about paper clips during the years since those early training sessions. The use of time is important to the effectiveness of a manager, but so too is the attitude of the manager. For me, paper clips have come to symbolize care and attention to detail.

I’m certain that you probably could do a complex, MBA-driven, computer analyzed evaluation of an executive’s time, and, over the course of a year, if you took all the moments that a paper clip-saving executive saved paper clips you’d find that it wasn’t cost effective by itself. However, whether it be paper clips, paper, pencils, or some other every day commodity that passes through the office, you’ll find that someone who respects the economic value of those everyday items takes that same frugal attitude to the bigger and more important decisions they have to make.

Time is important for certain, but so too is the attitude of the manager spending the time. You don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish, but you don’t want to lose the common touch either.

In this era, when government officials and corporate executives have been known to abuse the perks and privileges of their positions at the costs of many thousands of dollars to taxpayers and shareholders, I can’t help but think, if they had been tutored in the art of saving paper clips early in their careers, things might have been different.

I doubt that anyone ever got rich saving paper clips, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a large number of very successful people out there who just happen to spend a few seconds each day saving paper clips. It’s not the paper clips they save, but the attitude that caused them to save them that makes the difference.

I laughed at that old purchasing manager in 1972, but guess who saves the paper clips in this office?

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