Mirror in the Bathroom

Clayton Christensen recently won the 2010 McKinsey Award for his HBR article “How Will You Measure Your Life?” In this terrific piece, originally an address to Harvard Business School’s 2010 graduates, he talks about  bringing a core set of values to both one’s personal and business life. He writes:

 In my mind’s eye I saw one of my managers leave for work one morning with a relatively strong level of self-esteem. Then I pictured her driving home to her family 10 hours later, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. I imagined how profoundly her lowered self-esteem affected the way she interacted with her children. The vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to another day, when she drove home with greater self-esteem—feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives. I then imagined how positively that affected her as a spouse and a parent. My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was at the head office of one of the major retailers. I’d been observing a group of employees who’d been identified as being “high-potential.” They were engaged and eager to learn new skills to apply to their work. While this was nice to see, it was hardly surprising as high potential employees who have been recognized as such at any company usually act this way.

More surprising was what I observed in the Ladies’ Room. The washroom is where you can really see corporate culture at work. It’s a little like the customs department at the airport where, within a certain defined area, you leave one country and temporarily enter into another. While the bathrooms are at work, they are also not at work and people let down their guard. It’s where you see people crying after being chewed out in a meeting or passed over for promotion. It’s where you hear people gossiping about other employees. It’s where you see people spending a long time putting on makeup instead of getting back to work.

In this particular Ladies’ Room, there were two women talking at the sinks. It was clear that they were young and held relatively junior positions. The one was asking the other one for advice. She was working on a costing project and was having trouble keeping the costs below some pre-set cap. The other woman was letting her know that there was some negotiation room around the cap and not to worry too much. The first woman shook her head: she did not want to give up that easily and was looking for some more creative solutions to the problem. They were brainstorming a bit around the issue when I left.

This is a company that is very aware of  its corporate culture. The leaders work hard to let their staff know, at every level, that their contribution matters. The vision is well articulated and every one seems to know their role and the expectations. As a result the employees are engaged.

I was able to see employee involvement at another level when I went into one of this company’s retail stores to buy a keyboard drawer to accommodate the wireless keyboard and mouse for my laptop. I have a glass desk and that eliminates any of the drawer options that require one to drill a hole. I’d seen some clamp-on options online for several hundred dollars, but was hoping this retailer might have a good option at a lower price. As I perused the choices, I was disappointed to see that all of the options they had in stock required that I drill into the desk. One of the retail associates came over to ask me if I needed help and I explained my problem. He pulled out a catalogue and showed me the keyboard drawers I could special order than might accommodate my needs, but he warned me that they are not always very stable. He paused for a few moments to think and then he then took me over to the furniture section. He showed me a  laptop cart made of glass and chrome that just  happened to perfectly match my desk. It was adjustable and he told me it could easily slide under my desk to hold my keyboard and mouse, acting effectively as a drawer. He asked me what type of chair I was using and when I told him, he said he was quite certain it would all fit. It was not the item I’d come in to buy but he’d presented me with the perfect solution to suit my needs. The best part was, the item was only $35. With this one transaction, my loyalty was ensured. Even though I can buy my ink and paper at many other — often more convenient —  places, I make a special trip to buy it there.

This company has been working hard to transform itself from a pure retail play into more of a service provider. Without the engagement of every employee from the front line retail associates to junior clerks to high potential managers, it’s hard to make a change like this work. No amount of strategic planning, process improvements, or project management is effective without having employees who want to bring their best selves to the task. Even on the front lines — often the last place for corporate culture to take effect since people are located away from where a vision rolls out — this notion of service is being embraced. Now I ‘m sure there are employees at this same company who hate going to work — there always are — but the vast majority seem happy to be there. Clearly there is something that this company is doing very well.

To me, this company shows evidence of what Christensen deems “noble” management. In the morning, the high potential group always came in early. They were cheerful and talked about their kids and what they’d done with their families the night before. It reminded me of how Christensen described well managed people: happy because they had “learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives.” The beautiful thing is that a happy workforce is an effective workforce. So for good leaders, altruism and productivity go hand in hand.

A noble profession indeed.

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