When All Employees Feel Empowered, the Entire Organization Benefits

“I was raised to treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO.”

That quote was from Janelle Monae at the recent BET awards ceremony, in which she thanked her parents — the two of them were cleaning and sanitary workers — for her upbringing and thriving music career. More surprising was that Monae knew the cleaning industry first-hand; before launching her music career, Monae herself had worked as a maid.

This quote gave me pause, and a smile.

It caused me to think of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein:

I speak to everyone the same way whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”

It starts at the bottom and moves up

I recently read an article concerning the hiring process at Zappos. The interview process is unique in that the van driver that picks up interviewee from the airport is part of the hiring process.

The applicants that are not local get a free ride from the airport to Zappos’ Las Vegas headquarters. It sound like a real convenience, but it is a subtle part of the application process.

During the rides, the van driver is instructed to pay attention to how the applicants carry themselves and treat them, regardless of whether their travel was pleasant or not. After a full day that includes a tour and multiple interviews, a recruiter checks in with the driver to get his or her take on the applicant.

A few high powered recruits have stumbled on this process because they were completely rude to this level of worker. No big title so no attention or appreciation for you was probably what they were thinking. I am waiting to suck up to the big shots and no one else.

Hats off to Zappos, because they believe that “Zappos wants employees who treat all co-workers with respect.”

Bottoms up!

This bottom up approach is paramount in getting the self-respect throughout the organization.

In Dubai, the radio station Virgin Radio created a segment where they accidently interviewed the janitor of the premises live.  It was so engaging that he is now a regular part of the The Kris Fade Show. He’s very down to earth and provides wisdom as only one of his stature can provide.

When I first heard this segment, I became hooked. They took the lowest rung of the organiztional chart and elevated it in status that was a win-win all around.  They showed their appreciation and the audience, for the most part, picked up on it.

Fading into oblivion

This past week saw the transition of Martha Stewart Living from a thriving brand worth billions to being sold for a few hundred million to a aggregator of brands. They bought a shell of a company.

On the alumni Facebook page, there was an outpouring of heartfelt thoughts from former employees waxing almost poetically about their time there when employees mattered. It did not matter whether you were the driver, kitchen clean-up crew, or working in the mail room, we were all one big happy family.

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It was normal to see senior executives sitting in the mail room or having a conversation with people they had many degrees of separation with on the org chart in the hallways. Our driver who shuttled us between buildings was the go-to guy because he KNEW everyone and was highly respected.

It was always problematic for me to see a senior level person walk into a room and be treated as if he was royalty. This “throne theory” occupied by the potentate dignitary known as a “senior leader” is such a false pretense. It further drives a wedge between the organization being the us vs. them.

There was a scene in the movie Get Shorty where one of the mobsters said he did not enjoy being a part of his chosen profession because he did not like the fawning that he had to go through when the big shot come into the room. That was part of his motivation to get out and pursue other opportunities.

A bottoms up approach to managing

There is value in this bottoms up approach to managing a company.

When the lowest rung feels empowered and has a clear line of line of site to your strategic goals as an organization, everyone benefits. This “trickle up” theory works and it is infectious throughout. It’s an approach that seeks to develop ideas using the brainpower of the entire workforce. This alignment causes all employees at all levels to assist in developing the mechanisms to reach those goals.

Involving your entire workforce in your organization can build morale and a sense of ownership of your company’s direction among employees at all levels. In the end, your employees will be more actively engaged in the work and strive harder to reach objectives.

So again Ms. Senior Leader, look on your organizational chart and make sure that the concentration works from the bottom up.

It is a simple process, but it produces gigantic dividends.

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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