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Do You Know Your Wrecking Crew?

It’s time to celebrate those butt-kicking, get-it-done teams who work out of the spotlight.

I recently saw the documentary The Wrecking Crew. It tells the story of a group of studio musicians in Los Angeles who played behind an extraordinary number of the hit records of the 1960s and 1970s. You can hear them on recordings by Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis Presley, the Mamas & the Papas, and many other musical A-listers. They were so good that some producers wouldn’t book a recording session unless the Wrecking Crew was available — they could knock out four hits in three hours. But they didn’t just play extraordinarily well, they also brought with them the expertise to improve the songs. For example, the unforgettable beat on Sonny & Cher’s monster hit, The Beat Goes On, was not in the original music. It was added by Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye in the studio.

As talented as they were, almost no one outside of a small circle of professionals knew of them. They received no credit and achieved no fame (with the exception of Glen Campbell, who moved from the studio to country music stardom).

I have always had a long-standing appreciation for work that goes on behind the scenes. Perhaps that is because I worked my way through college as a roadie for a local sound company and spent most of the early years of my career toiling away in public relations and event production roles. Everyone oohed and ahhed at the glittering black-tie promotion galas at Bloomingdale’s that were a regular occurrence under legendary CEO Marvin Traub. But few seemed to notice that their hours of glamour and fun were the result of months of work by a small army of talented event planners, caterers, decorators, merchandise buyers, display artists, publicity agents, cleaners, carpenters, electricians, security professionals, and many others. I was lucky enough to attend these events — generally as a harried “VIP wrangler,” the corporate version of a roadie, you might say — but many others who contributed were only able to hear about the affair afterward.

The important lesson is that if you dig inside any successful organization, you will find its wrecking crew:  the go-to people and teams who quietly get things done no matter the deadline or daunting adversity, be they coders, writers, editors, designers, logisticians, warehouse managers, or administrative assistants. They are skilled professionals who take great pride in their work. Sometimes they are recognized; many times they are not. Why? Sometimes, it’s simply because their role naturally fits into the background. Studio musicians are a perfect example. Their job, of course, is not to stand out. In my experience, however, it’s often because these individuals are a little quiet, a little quirky, or have little tolerance (or aptitude) for the politics of getting ahead. They simply want to do a great job.

Leaders take these people for granted at their own risk. They accomplish a lot. And, with a little recognition, they can achieve even more. And it’s not that hard to acknowledge them — it can be as simple as making eye contact, smiling, and remembering people’s names. My colleague Barry Dorn, the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, is a master at this. When we visit the main campus of the Harvard School of Public Health together, he knows everyone from the parking attendant to the security guards to the cashiers in the cafeteria — not to mention faculty and administrative staff. He always has time for a brief exchange and people are invariably delighted to see him. He increases his impact with each encounter. “I learned this when I was interim CEO of a community hospital,” Dorn told me. “I discovered so much about how the hospital functioned, who was making a real difference, and where we could improve simply by taking time to talk to people as I walked around the facility.” Former Campbell Soup CEO Doug Conant chronicled the leadership potential of seemingly mundane interactions in his book, TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments.

Sometimes you need to make the conversation about implicit rewards more explicit. Several years ago I was the head of an internal communications group. Morale was flagging because the team felt that our in-house clients got all of the glory for the results of the work we did. I took two steps to remedy this: First, I started a conversation about character actors. It gave me a way to explain that great careers could be built without star billing. Satisfaction and pride could come from inside. The group identified Brian Dennehy as someone they all appreciated in one role or another. He became the team’s unofficial mascot, and when we found out he was taking a star turn on Broadway, we took a self-funded day trip to New York to see him. I wrote to him ahead of time and, after a masterful performance on stage as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Dennehy graciously greeted us backstage and talked to us about the craft of acting. It was a defining moment for the team and they returned with a rejuvenated positive attitude.

Sometimes you need to make the conversation about implicit rewards more explicit.

Second, I allocated a small budget to enter industry awards competitions. This provided a chance for peer endorsement of the quality of our work. Receiving an award can also be important to career advancement. The team won several, which led to more internal appreciation and respect.

In both of these cases, recognition and reward did not require an elaborate incentive program. It comes down to understanding that satisfaction and engagement at work comes through finding meaning and purpose. Simple gestures can demonstrate that you understand and appreciate the value your company’s character actors deliver. This validates their purpose.

Get to know your wrecking crews. They may be hidden in your organization or, as with the musicians, a valuable outside resource. Pay them well and, if they are external, promptly. Find ways to recognize their efforts. A screening of The Wrecking Crew could be a great first step.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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