How Does Your CEO Treat The Janitors?

Feb 28 2014, 10:48am CST | by

“Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man. His character determines the character of the organization.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Character is destiny.” —Heraclitus

I had the chance a few years ago to work with an organization that employed two very different but very talented senior managers: One would go on to become spectacularly successful at a national level–and the other would be a flop. I suspect that common decency, rather than talent or knowledge or expertise, is what separated the two managers.

Both were brilliant. Both were driven. Both were well-connected in their profession. And both could be very charming and charismatic. But at that point, they separated in a key way.

The Parable of the Jerk Manager

Both managers and their teams tended to work late into the evening, late enough for the cleaning crews to come around, needing to move furniture and mop floors.

Colleagues recall that the first manager was kind and decent to the janitors. “Hold on a second, we’ll get out of your way,” he’d say. “Do you need me to help you move that desk? So how’s your family been doing?”

The second manager, by contrast, sulked like a child whenever his team was interrupted by the crews. “For God’s sake,” he’d fume, “we’re in the middle of something important here! Can’t this wait? Come back later.”

Both managers had rough stretches during their tenure. But only the first one was kept around long enough to ride out those stretches. He had built up a broad and deep reservoir of good will at all levels of the organization. The second one was tolerated during good stretches; but during bad stretches, too many people within the organization wanted to exact revenge and help dispense karma.

Let’s be clear and unsentimental for a moment: Plenty of effective, powerful and wealthy bosses and managers have treated the little people with indifference at best and contempt at worst. If Heraclitus was right that character is destiny, we have to admit that the arc of destiny can be insufferably long. But if you believe there’s a difference between being an effective boss and being a good leader of a good organization, the human element needs to rise to the top.

Now let’s clean up Emerson’s 19th century quote a little for 21st century eyes and ears. An organization is the lengthened shadow of a woman or man, or a group of senior women and men. The more years they’ve been in charge, the more completely the institution becomes their lengthened shadow.

That means that, unless your senior managers are brand new, the manner in which they treat the janitor has become a part of the DNA of your organization. It permeates everything:

  • Who gets hired and fired and promoted and passed over.
  • Who can be trusted and who can’t.
  • And who wants the organization to succeed and who’s willing to let it fall on its face.

Have Your Bosses Built a Strong Human Foundation?

One way in which effective but nasty bosses eventually fail is by building an organizational structure that looks good on paper but bad in human terms. Its human foundation and framework are weak or soft or brittle. The whole thing stands, but it almost seems to want to fall—and it will fall, given the chance, if only to crush its arrogant builder.

Now here’s a question: Does your CEO even know any janitors? That answer alone may speak volumes. But if you can cut your CEO some slack for not running into the cleaning crews on a regular basis, you can at least ponder how they treat receptionists, entry-level workers, interns and so forth.

Lastly, don’t be fooled by how the CEO is portrayed by the company’s spin machine or by adoring media. No one got more worshipful press than Enron’s Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling right before their spectacular implosion.

Think of what John Wooden said: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

And make your decisions on where to invest your own talents based on where you find good character.

[Please share your own insights and experiences with our Forbes.com community in the comments section. And hit "Follow" at the top of the page to receive notification of more career and management advice from Rob Asghar.]/>/>

 

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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