Last weekend, I had the chance to speak on behalf of my company at an event honoring our longevity in and contribution to the community. Aside from a mild (but quickly waning) apprehension toward public speaking, I also felt a frisson of delight about being our spokesperson.

I carefully crafted my speech, trying to find just the right mix of appreciation for the past and promise for the future. I felt really good about it and hoped it would go over well. Even knowing I was part of a larger event, I stayed pretty focused on the part that centered on me.

Of course, it wasn’t about me. It took all of thirty seconds after the doors opened to realize that I was just a tiny cog in that wheel. Former employees from all decades of the company’s existence poured through the doors, exchanging grins of delight as they took in all the once-familiar faces. The speeches became secondary–like polite pauses in conversation while a newcomer interjects a loosely related observation–conversational inconveniences affably accommodated for the sake of propriety.

The “real” program took place all around me in the form of reminiscent conversations. As I heard memories awakened and stories retold, I began to see inside my company to its bones. I saw its heart and soul, its hands and feet in the people and their stories. I breathed their excitement as they relived the early years full of inventions and patents and hope. I felt the warm mantle of their sense of common purpose, of family.

Yes, I know a lot about my company. I know the facts and figures and plans and strategies. I’ve even been here long enough to have experienced a few of the old stories myself. Still, I never expected the welling sense of pride those people gave me about the place where I work. It’s my heritage, too, after all.

The lessons I learned that day are these. Know where you come from. Understanding your past is a foundation for your future, whether you build on successes or learn from mistakes. Neither underestimate nor overlook the lessons others have learned. More importantly, companies are built on people, and people build companies. Honor them, learn from them, remember them. They brought you to where you are today; give them credit.