Sometimes it’s hard to forget that we live in a world driven by the appetite for celebrity. If one considers entertainment or sports, it’s constantly in your face. But the same goes for business. Even when we think of a large corporation, the face of that organization is who we consider the leader of the company. Think Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, Donald Trump. But behind the figureheads of those large enterprises are thousands of individuals who are essentially nameless to the general public and get no glory, yet contribute significantly their success. Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, a recently released book by journalist David Zweig, highlights some of these professionals, including a structural engineer for super-tall skyscrapers, a signage designer who guides people through airports and even the guitar technician for the frontman of rock group Radiohead.
Many individuals at GRS Group read Zweig’s book, and we have decided to highlight some of the firm’s employees who make a major contribution to the commercial real estate transaction world. They don’t receive the same public recognition for their job that well-known brokers and developers enjoy but are passionate about their jobs, and without them, a lot of deals would never get done. In this space we will highlight some of those individuals in a series to come, but first, we thought we would get Zweig’s take on what it means to be an “invisible” game changer and how that applies to commercial real estate.
What do you think about commercial real estate as an industry that’s filled with invisibles?
Real estate in general is quite visible, of course, to whatever degree that people think about the spaces they’re in, which for the most part is probably very limited, but when they do think about it, they’re aware of the physical structure that they’re in. But commercial real estate is not something that the average person is thinking about on a regular basis, yet it’s something that touches our lives every day. For most of us, as long as you’re leaving your house, you’re going to be immersed in an environment of commercial real estate. Our physical space and lives interact with it every time we’re out and about, yet it’s not something we think of on a regular basis.
There are several large companies out there that own hundreds of assets that people are in every day, and there’s no perception by the consumer, or user, who even owns them. Is it an invisible industry even though it’s right in front of everyone?
Almost all industries are invisible industries. I’m looking out my window right now at a car, for example. There’s probably an “x” company that makes the tailpipe for the car, it’s something we use every day; my neighbor has a fence, there’s some company that makes the metal hinge for the gate, another company makes the chemicals that are applied to the treated lumber… Everything in our lives has these invisible industries.
Here’s the key thing though: it’s not so much about invisible industries, but invisible professionals. Whether a field is highly visible, like athletics or movies or a particular company that’s in the public eye, or a more unknown field, they all contain, and thrive on, invisible professionals. You go into Midtown Manhattan and throw a dart at any window of a company, and there are going to be some invisible people that meet this criteria of an invisible professional. And let me be specific here about how I’m defining an Invisible: It’s not about the middling office worker hiding in the corner, or a factory worker toiling anonymously. My book is about people who strive for excellence and whose work is critical to whatever endeavor they are apart of, yet they go largely unnamed or unnoticed by the public, whether that’s a result of the broader industry they’re in or the specific role within the organization. That’s the key that I focused on in the book and find fascinating.
Outside of entertainment, sports and a few other disciplines, isn’t it true that a lot of people who have roles in major companies aren’t very visible at all?
We live in a highly complex economic system. Following the industrial revolution, the division of labor has become more and more granular. A good chunk of people do jobs that they even have trouble describing to anyone else. So anonymity in itself isn’t particularly surprising. What IS surprising however, is that the professionals I profile in the book embrace their relative anonymity, and have profited personally and professionally from this attitude. What I talk about in the book are professionals who, unlike so many of us, are ambivalent about gaining attention, who don’t generally promote themselves yet who’ve become very successful. This attitude is at odds with the broader message in the culture, which is that gaining attention is what is going to bring you fulfillment and is also the most important tool for you to get ahead in what you’re doing. The Invisibles I profile in the book, intriguingly, have reached the top of their fields, and also are quite fulfilled, by having the opposite approach from the broader culture. In the book I explore how, despite or because of this approach, they reached their perches, and what traits they all share.
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