Know Your Employees

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In the last two blogs, we talked about the idea that you know who your customers are. Today, we look at that same concept as it relates to the employees we work with.

In a recent Forbes article, Nancy Ortberg spoke of how her mentor, Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller, engaged his workers. “Max had a rule for his leadership team. Every Wednesday they were to bring a brown-bag lunch and go down to the factory floor, where the furniture was being made, to eat. They were to sit and listen for an hour to get to know the names of the workers on the floor and to learn about the obstacles workers were facing as they did their jobs, as well as to hear about the ideas they had for future designs.”

Nancy Ortberg was at one time an emergency room nurse. One night, she witnessed an astonishing leadership act: “It was about 10:30 p.m. The room was a mess. I was finishing up some work on the chart before going home. The doctor with whom I loved working was debriefing a new doctor, who had done a very respectable, competent job, telling him what he’d done well and what he could have done differently.

“Then he put his hand on the young doctor’s shoulder and said, ‘When you finished, did you notice the young man from housekeeping who came in to clean the room?’ There was a completely blank look on the young doctor’s face.

“The older doctor said, ‘His name is Carlos. He’s been here for three years. He does a fabulous job. When he comes in he gets the room turned around so fast that you and I can get our next patients in quickly. His wife’s name is Maria. They have four children.’ Then he named each of the four children and gave each child’s age.

“The older doctor went on to say, ‘He lives in a rented house about three blocks from here, in Santa Ana. They’ve been up from Mexico for about five years. His name is Carlos,’ he repeated. Then he said, ‘Next week I would like you to tell me something about Carlos that I don’t already know. Okay? Now, let’s go check on the rest of the patients.’”

Nancy Ortberg recalls: “I remember standing there writing my nursing notes–stunned–and thinking, I have just witnessed breathtaking leadership.”

What we do as leaders to really know our employees sets the tone for how our employees should really know our customers. This is more than knowing someone’s name. It’s really understanding where our employees are coming from–their hopes, concerns and joys.

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