Spetner: On work and legacy

We will be remembered more for the kind of people we are than for our professional accomplishments.

Last November, I was given a copy of Michael Ovitz’s autobiography for my birthday. I wasn’t really that interested in the book, but over the winter holidays I began reading and found that I couldn’t put it down.

It wasn’t just a juicy, compelling read. For me, it was also a trip down memory lane. Ovitz reached the pinnacle of his power just as I was beginning my own modest career ascension, and I was overcome by memories of observing his exploits with great envy and awe. I remembered that he was considered the most powerful man in Hollywood, and perhaps one of the most powerful in business, period.

He founded and built Creative Artists Agency (CAA) into much more than a talent agency: It became an entertainment powerhouse. He brokered the sale of Columbia Pictures to Sony, and of MCA to Matsushita. He melded the worlds of entertainment and business, and even convinced Coca-Cola to hire CAA to create a massive brand advertising campaign. It felt like CAA was becoming a global investment bank, advertising agency and entertainment conglomerate.

While reading the book, I remembered the ambition I had as a young professional, and the desire that maybe I could somehow become as powerful, rich and famous as Ovitz one day. He had a world-renowned art collection, a mansion in Beverly Hills and moved casually among the business elite.

Interestingly, however, the greatest insight I gained from the book came after I finished it. I was having a conversation with my son and some of his friends at a birthday gathering.

They are each in their late 20s and all work in different capacities within Hollywood. Some are in production, some are in development, and some work for the studios. I asked if any of them had read Ovitz’s book and received a round of blank stares.

As I probed further, I discovered that not a single one of them knew who Ovitz was, or what he had accomplished. I was dumbfounded. How could they not know who Ovitz was?

I later learned that I shouldn’t have been so shocked. In a New York Times review of the book, the author relates that he polled a recent class of 75 MBA students at Columbia University, and only three had ever heard of Ovitz.

I thought of all the leading business figures in the 80s and 90s whom I read about and envied. Jack Welch, Sandy Weil, Hank Greenberg, Andy Grove, and on and on. I would read Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek and hope that one day I could either be like one of these guys (and almost all were guys) or that at least I could work for one of them. But now I wonder how many young people even know who they are.

Which leads me to the concept of legacy and what we will be known for after we’ve stepped down. When I left my last corporate job, where I had worked for more than 12 years in a senior management role, I received many touching and warm farewell notes. But the one that stands out was from a colleague in IT, who said that the single thing she will always remember about me was that I was kind.

That simple statement touched me deeply and made me feel better about my legacy, despite the fact that I never created a global powerhouse or cavorted with the world’s rich and famous.

It also made me think about the title of Ovitz’s book, which I found deeply ironic. It’s called Who is Michael Ovitz?

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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