What’s the Name of the Person Who Cleans Your Office?

“There was this space, like ice separating us,” said Oneil Batchelor, an immigrant from Jamaica. The janitor worked around the students — many of them in their 20s like him, many with entrepreneurial ambitions like him — for nearly a decade before one of them finally broke that ice last year.

A nod one night. A hello the next.

When I came across this article the other day, it caused me to stop my news scan because I knew this was a keeper. My kind of article aptly titled: “The janitor felt invisible to Georgetown students — until one changed his life.”

It is my kind of article because I feel that we do not pay enough attention to the bottoms of our org chart. Amazing to me that your memory of names gets better the higher up they are.

Workers as wallpaper

I was in Singapore a few weeks back and during one of our breaks I noticed one of the executives of this hotel coming through. He walked straight through his workers — the coffee ladies, the sweeper — and with laser focus headed to one of his peers. Even after that ended, he stood there with a lost look and eventually moved back up the hotel escalator.

Not a peep to the other workers; it was as if they were the wallpaper. I glanced over at the workers; they looked down as Mr. Big Shot waded through. So clueless, so disconnected a leader. Maybe at Georgetown he could learn something from those college students. The lesson about respect will do the students there more good than any strategy class.

Learning to connect

Building relationships is one of the strongest competencies that will be a must-have going forward. That includes connecting to the levels below you. Going all the way to the bottom and working your way back up is the ideal strategy. The reason is that we do not seem to have a problem moving in the other direction.

My role model for leadership

I had the honor to work for a CEO who I admired so much that I made a promise to myself that as I moved up the corporate ladder, I would try in every way to emulate her.. Her name was Sharon Patrick, founding CEO of Martha Stewart. Sharon was beloved by all. You could just as well find her in the mail room or sitting talking with one of the coordinators. Sharon talked to everybody and she knew everybody. She spent as much time just talking with those at the bottom of the organization chart as she did with the top end.

When she left the company people literally had tears in their eyes as the news got around. No one wanted to see her leave, the workforce was devastated.

These kinds of connections should permeate an organization not just from the executive suite. Everyone has the power to reach out and connect. Those Georgetown college students learned such a valuable lesson.

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They taught us all a lesson

Georgetown University business major Febin Bellamy started it all just by saying hello. It snowballed after Bellamy created an “Unsung Heroes” page on Facebook to introduce his fellow students to the workers around them on campus. Students began to wave at the people they met on the page; saying hello became common. And they got personally involved. It’s a touching story.

My hope is that this type of effort becomes an effort in all of our institutions and corporate entities.

We spend so much time griping about millennials and the new entrants into the workforce, but here is a lesson that they are learning that maybe a lot of us did not learn.

Who are the unsung heroes in your organization? Get to know them you may learn a valuable lesson.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


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