The Man Who Would Have Been Great

I met my friend in undergraduate school.  He was a double major psychology and concert piano and I was a double major psychology and theatre.  It was apparent from the beginning that he was brilliant.

After college, we went our separate ways.  I didn’t see him for about five years until I ran into him while I was working at a psychiatric hospital.  I was working in admissions; he was a program director.  Since we had seen each other, he had earned his Master’s in Clinical Psychology.

Over the next 20 years, we would be great friends in many ways.  I was a support to him as he moved up the career ladder and earned an MBA.  I fixed him up with single friends.  He came to our home for dinner frequently and became the Godfather of my daughter when she was born.

Eventually my friend became the CEO of an influential managed care company.  He was now seriously successful.  Unfortunately, he also began to take himself a little too seriously.  He became critical of everyone around him, including me.  It became clear to me that his personality was changing and he was becoming a bit unstable.  I soon found out that he had a serious addiction to prescription pain killers.  Within just a few years of reaching what he considered to be the pinnacle of his career, my friend was fired from his job, escorted out of the building by the police.  He had become so unstable that he made verbal threats to his subordinates.

I tried to talk to him about his addiction, to explain to him that his behavior was becoming a problem.  He said he didn’t have a problem; it was under control.  When I pointed out that he drooled on a professional colleague while talking with him, my friend said that wasn’t true, even though I was sitting in the next chair and saw the whole thing.

I took the final step of putting an end to our relationship when he stole my son’s prescription pain medicine.  I thought ending the relationship would show him how serious his problem was.  I am not sorry about this, but I never dreamed I would never see him again.

You see, my friend died last summer.  He would have turned 47 tomorrow.

It was painful for me to hear that my friend died of a drug overdose.  I had watched a brilliant man spiral downward and lose everything that he ever wanted because he made the fatal mistake of living a life that kept him from being a transparent person and a transparent leader.  He led a double life and the pressure of keeping his two “selves” compartmentalized dealt him a crushing blow.

As leaders, we owe it to ourselves, our families, our customers, and our employees to be people of integrity.  To have nothing about ourselves that keeps us from being transparent.  If we can’t, then we are morally obligated to step away before we implode and take those around us down with us.

Rest in peace, my friend.  I’m sure your advice to me would be not to write this blog, that it would somehow show weakness on my part.  I’m ok with that.  Because I am transparent about this:  I really miss you on your birthday.

Born to Serve

When I was in third grade, our school started a new Girl Scout Troop.  For some reason, the leader decided we should renovate an old building next to the Winnebago plant and use it as our meeting space.   The building had not been used in many years and was filled with filth.  We sweet little Girl Scouts went to the building on a Saturday to clean it up.

The first room I saw was the bathroom.  Without thinking, I began to clean the filthy toilet, sink and floor.  At some point, my mother came in and asked me how I got stuck cleaning the filthiest room in the building.  I didn’t have an answer; I didn’t get stuck with it—I just did it on my own.  I remember feeling a bit embarrassed, like I’d made a bad choice in my mother’s eyes in choosing to clean the bathroom.

I was a very spoiled only child.  I never even made my own bed until I was out on my own.  I can imagine my mother’s horror that her little princess was cleaning a filthy toilet, of all things!

I have thought about this experience a few times over the years and it strikes me as very indicative of what would become my future calling.  Even in third grade, I knew in my heart that I was meant to serve others; whatever role I could play to be a blessing to others was my calling.

I think I bucked this idea somewhat in my 20s—I didn’t want to SERVE others.  Even so, I was working in psychiatric centers, serving children and adults who were mentally ill, sometimes making really tough choices that were right for them, even if they didn’t think so.

In 1994, I graduated with my Master’s Degree in Counseling—talk about a serving profession!  During the course of my study, I became involved in caring for senior adults.  I began working in a private duty agency as a staffing coordinator, then moved on to a small, locally-owned agency, and eventually became Vice President and Administrator.

I remember the first private duty case I opened on my own.  Vern lived in a trailer park in Independence, Missouri and was a Veteran of Vietnam.  When I arrived at his home, I was very worried because he was bed-bound following a surgery and didn’t seem to have much to eat.  I promised Vern that I would get someone in to help him soon, but before I left, I asked him if there was anything I could do for him.  He pulled his bed pan out from under the bed and said he could sure use help emptying it.  Now Vern had been on a self-imposed diet of jalapenos and 2% beer for at least a week, so you can imagine what I faced.  I tried to get out of it by explaining that I would be happy to help him, but I didn’t have any latex gloves with me.  Imagine my surprise when Vern told me there was a whole case of latex gloves up in the front of the trailer.  Oh, I was called to serve and I serve I did!

As I have matured as an Executive, I have come to appreciate more that I serve not only residents and families, but also the employees who work for me.  When I can do something to lighten the load for them, it means that they can do more for residents—some call this the servant-leader model of leadership, but I just call it doing what it takes as a team to give our residents the most that we can.

 A couple of weeks ago, the kitchen was short handed, so I went in and did what I could—preparing condiments, pouring drinks, etc.—and all the while trying to make the employees laugh a little, so they could see the bright side of the situation.

I am old enough now to understand that being born to serve is God’s gift to me and I am happy to share it freely with the world.  If you aren’t called to serve, you won’t relate, but those who are will be shouting “Amen” about now.

What We Owe Our Young People

As an employer, I have always felt that we have a special obligation to the young people we employ.  I have frequently made this a topic of conversation with my management teams.  I’m not talking about state laws that govern how many hours a week young people can work or OSHA regulations about what equipment they can use.  I am talking about what we owe them in regard to their future careers.

Have you ever considered what a big responsibility it is to be someone’s first employer?  You have the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of a young person’s career.  Are you up to the task?

First of all, we need to teach them that they must expect to work in a safe environment-whether they are working for us or for someone else-both physically and emotionally.  There are laws, for example, OSHA, that we must follow as employers, such as equipment that underage workers cannot use, and there are state laws that govern what hours underage workers can work.  We owe it to our young people to explain to them why these laws exist.  We also need to train them in the use of safety equipment (they’ve never done this before, folks) and why we require them to use the safety equipment.  We need to give them positive reinforcement when they follow these rules and coach them when they don’t.

More than physical safety is the emotional safety.   I cannot count the number of times I have worked with managers who allow staff or residents to verbally and/or sexually harass our young people.  It may be uncomfortable to discuss, but we have to intervene on their behalf.  These young workers don’t know that this kind of treatment is not part of their job.  They are scared.  And if we teach them that this behavior is ok, by not intervening for them, they will take it on to their next job.  Eventually they may become the harasser instead of the victim.  We need to be responsible for stopping that cycle before it starts.

There is lots of discussion in the HR literature about working with Generation X, Y and etc.  I say this is managers making excuses for taking the easy way.  If we don’t teach Generation X, Y or whatever that there are rules at work—uniforms, being on time, not using vulgar language—who will?  This doesn’t mean you can’t relate to them on their own level regarding some subjects, but it means someone has to teach them the reality of working.  I have never run into problems with a young person in my job because I made him or her follow the rules.

I remember when my son got his nose pierced.  As a mother, I was a bit mortified, but it is his body and he wasn’t hurting anyone.  One day, he fell and we thought he broke his collar bone.  I took him to the emergency room.  The doctor was a 40-something woman.  As she was examining my son, she asked him how much it hurt.  He said he didn’t know.  Then she said the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard:  “Does it hurt more than it did when you got your nose pierced?”    At that moment, I could have kissed her!  You see most adults, especially professionals, never knew what to say to my son about his nose ring.  But, this doctor brought it right into the conversation, showing she related to my son, but continuing with her professional boundaries.

My  point is this:  You can talk to Johnny about his ears being gauged to an inch or about his new tattoo, but that doesn’t mean he gets to wear his earrings at work or show his tats.  There are still rules that must be followed and you, fellow manager, have the task of making sure we educate these young people that we and every future employer are going to expect them to follow those rules.

What We Owe Our Young People

As an employer, I have always felt that we have a special obligation to the young people we employ.  I have frequently made this a topic of conversation with my management teams.  I’m not talking about state laws that govern how many hours a week young people can work or OSHA regulations about what equipment they can use.  I am talking about what we owe them in regard to their future careers.

Have you ever considered what a big responsibility it is to be someone’s first employer?  You have the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of a young person’s career.  Are you up to the task?

First of all, we need to teach them that they must expect to work in a safe environment-whether they are working for us or for someone else-both physically and emotionally.  There are laws, such as OSHA, that we must follow as employers, such as equipment that underage workers cannot use, and there are state laws that govern what hours underage workers can work.  We owe it to our young people to explain to them why these laws exist.  We also need to train them in the use of safety equipment (they’ve never done this before, folks) and why we require them to use the safety equipment.  We need to give them positive reinforcement when they follow these rules and coach them when they don’t.

More than physical safety is the emotional safety.   I cannot count the number of times I have worked with managers who allow staff or residents to verbally and/or sexually harass our young people.  It may be uncomfortable to discuss, but we have to intervene on their behalf.  They don’t know that this kind of treatment is not part of their job.  They are scared.  And if we teach them that this behavior is ok, by not intervening for them, they will take it on to their next job.  Eventually they may become the harasser instead of the victim.  We need to be responsible for stopping that cycle before it starts.

There is lots of discussion in the HR literature about working with Generation X, Y and etc.  I say this is managers making excuses for taking the easy way.  If we don’t teach Generation X, Y or whatever that there are rules at work—uniforms, being on time, not using vulgar language—who will?  This doesn’t mean you can’t relate to them on their own level regarding some subjects, but it means someone has to teach them the reality of working.  I have never run into problems with a young person in my job because I made him or her follow the rules.

I remember when my son got his nose pierced.  As a mother, I was a bit mortified, but it is his body and he wasn’t hurting anyone.  One day, he fell and we thought he broke his collar bone.  I took him to the emergency room.  The doctor was a 40-something woman.  As she was examining my son, she asked him how much it hurt.  He said he didn’t know.  Then she said the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard:  “Does it hurt more than it did when you got your nose pierced?”    At that moment, I could have kissed her!  You see most adults, especially professionals, never knew what to say to my son about his nose ring.  But, this doctor brought it right into the conversation, showing she related to my son, but continuing with her professional boundaries.

My  point is this:  You can talk to Johnny about his ears being gauged to an inch or about his new tattoo, but that doesn’t mean he gets to wear his earrings at work or show his tats.  There are still rules that must be followed and you, fellow manager, have the task of making sure we educate these young people that we and every future employer are going to expect them to follow those rules.

The Saga of Toilet Paper

Because I live in retirement communities as a Pro Tem Executive Director, I experience first hand what our residents experience.  This gives me a unique perspective on all the services we provide, from dining to housekeeping.  These experiences have led me to a conclusion:  we have a toilet paper issue.

Every other week, the housekeepers clean my apartment.  They are wonderful, dedicated, and dynamic women (there are few men).  Their hearts are in their work.  They love our residents and they love their jobs.  However, consistently I have experienced in most of my communities that I can’t get them to leave me more than one roll of toilet paper to last for a two-week period of time.

If this had happened in only one community, I wouldn’t have noticed, but about the fourth or fifth community, I started to notice this pattern.  And that got me to thinking.  How is it that we have caring, dedicated individuals who would leave out this detail?  Then I realized:  we have trained some of the good common sense right out of them.

No matter the industry, we spend a lot of time and money training our staff.  For housekeepers, we concentrate not only on the process they use to clean, but how much product they use to complete the task.  If they are using more cleaning or paper products than their peers, the department manager will be having a discussion with them.  But, if you asked these ladies if it is realistic that one roll of toilet paper should last someone for two weeks, they would answer emphatically:  “No.”

What are we doing, as managers, when we focus so much on efficiency and cost-effectiveness?  We risk making our employees scared to do the right thing when it comes to serving our customers.  And not having enough toilet paper is just the tip of that iceberg.