Friday, February 4, 2011

Unsung Heros

I spent some time in Newark airport over the Christmas holidays. It was a desolate place. A snowstorm rearranged a lot of travel plans, and the people that would normally have been bustling about were still at home or in hotels waiting for the days to pass until they could board their rescheduled flights. Most of the people in the airport had nowhere else to go. A few people were hoping that their regularly scheduled flight would actually be able to take off, and some of us thought we might get lucky with standby.

Of course I’ve managed to leave out an unseen army of other people who were also at the airport. That is one of the points I hope to make with this post. I just spent a lot of time talking about the travelers, but said little the other people. The airport was also full of people helping stranded travelers, feeding people, keeping shops open. The TSA folks were there. So were the gate agents and the ground crew and who knows who else. It is easy to overlook all of those people. At the airport, we usually focus on our destination, and all of the people along the way fade into easily forgotten scenery, and we take them for granted.

We shouldn’t.

Organizations spend a lot of time and money trying to come up with ideas for new products or better ways of doing things. A lot of times they create special teams of senior staff or managers. However, ideas about how to run faster or jump higher in an organization can come from anywhere. There is no rule that says the best ideas come from management or from employees that have been around a while. Sometimes the best ideas come from the newest employees, and sometimes ideas come from people well removed from the executive suite. Ideas can come from all over the organization. I thought about this while I was wandering around Newark airport.

I don’t know how many have seen the TV show Undercover Boss. It is a reality show in which the CEO of a company goes undercover and takes entry level jobs. It is an attitude adjusting experience. I watched an episode where the CEO of Frontier Airlines worked all sorts of jobs. (He was not very good at any of them.) He made a few changes after listening to people on the front lines who sell tickets, clean airplanes, and pump out toilets.

If this seems surprising, we might need to think about things differently. It should make sense that the people closest to the customer or the people doing the heavy lifting will be the ones that think about new ways to do things. The CEOs on Undercover CEO are frequently surprised how little they know about the daily work of the people on the front lines of their business.

I think many of us have a tendency to assign people to categories. It is easy and convenient, and it lets us ignore them. If you want an interesting example of this, look up Bill Crawford. He was a janitor at the Air Force Academy. He was just a janitor.

I got a stern reminder of this tendency at Newark. With nothing better to do, I decided to get my shoes shined. We’ve all seen shoeshine people. We walk past them in airports or on the streets of large cities. As I settled into the chair and put my feet up, I remarked that I had not had my shoes shined since the Marine Corps sent me to the Army jump school at Fort Benning years ago. It turns out that the man doing my shine learned about shoe polish in the Navy. He retired after twenty plus years as a Chief and went to work handling logistics for a well known firm. When the recession hit, he lost his job. He started shining shoes because he just could not tolerate being idle. His son is stationed at Coronado Bay. That is three proud generations of Navy men. Except for the snow storm, I would have wandered past the shoeshine man, and I never would have heard his story or been reminded that everyone has something to contribute. I wonder how many executives struggling with supply chains or facilities issues sat in that shoeshine man’s chair and had no idea that the man shining their shoes probably had the solution to their logistics problems.

The simple message that I received loud and clear while getting my shoes shined in Newark is this, “Everybody has value, and everybody has something to contribute.” If you want to be a successful business, then every single employee of your company needs to know this simple message and understand it. It is not enough for the management team to know the words. The employees have to know that you know the words and mean them when you say them. You can’t fake it.

By the way, that janitor from the Air Force Academy earned the nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

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