I spent last week at a 3-day company-training event in Annapolis, MD. I was energized by the connections that were made there, the enthusiasm for the corporate mission, and the excitement to work together towards a similar cause. On the opening day, employees expressed their desire to build relationships and get to know each other on a deeper level. But as leadership consultants, we knew there were more pressing concerns that needed to be addressed because even in the midst of happy times there is always shit to deal with when you're at work.
When I worked at Whole Foods Market, employees would come together for trainings or store openings pretty frequently. During these times, you’d have the opportunity to meet new people or see old friends and rediscover that passion you have for your job and the culture that you work in. After one particular event, I found myself back at work feeling renewed and ready to bring fresh eyes to the department. On that same day, a customer had different plans in store for me.
While I was crouched down merchandising a display, a middle-aged man came and stood next to me. He was wearing cargo shorts in January- this should have been a red flag. He didn’t speak a word to me as I offered him a friendly greeting and readied myself to assist him. As I turned to get up, I heard a plop/thud noise unlike anything I had ever heard before. I glanced down to see where the sound had come from and there it was- an actual pile of shit.
I froze. I looked at the man and he just stared directly at me with an odd grin on his face. I didn’t know how to react- I mean they certainly had never trained me on how to deal with a situation like this. I tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. So I did what any normal person would do in a situation like that and I ran away.
It’s times like these when you know where you stand on the work totem pole. While there are a few who clean up the proverbial shit at the top of the organization, there are always those who have to clean up the actual shit at the bottom. I had the luxury to run away knowing that I was somewhere on the middle of that totem pole and the guy at the bottom of the pole had just clocked in. While our 18-year-old janitor used a role of paper towels and some sanitizer to clean up what would most likely be the worst task he would ever be assigned, the leadership in the store replayed store security footage of the event as if it were a video entry worthy of being on America’s Funniest Home Videos. What a disconnect leadership had from the actual experiences of our janitor and me. I was highly disturbed, the janitor’s job description had just reached beyond belief territory, and leadership was having the laugh event of their lives.
I tell this story because I think it’s important for leaders to understand the impact that they cause in their organization. All of the effort in the world spent training and renewing the hopes of burnt-out employees won't mean a thing if leadership watches on the sideline as their team faces the impact of business by themselves. Being a leader is more than just a position, a higher salary, or a better office- it’s about supporting your team the best way that you possibly can every chance you get.
Remember: you may have come a long way since you had to clean up the actual shit, but don’t forget that without the work of those at the bottom you would have one dirty workplace.
by Kristen Keyes