Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

A Lesson From School on Understanding Your Employee’s Value

A few days ago, one of my daughters shared an interesting story about a recent event that happened at her school. My daughter and a few of her friends had noticed that Peter*, the school’s custodian, wasn’t out in the hallway greeting the kids like he usually did every morning. They went to their teacher to ask her if she had seen Peter and she told them that he no longer worked at their school. As it turned out, Peter had quit his job following a meeting he had with the school’s administration regarding his work schedule.

Essentially, over the last few months, the school’s administration had been assigning Peter more and more tasks which he was expected to complete before the children arrived at school. Looking at the most recent additions to this work list, Peter realized that this workload was becoming increasing unfeasible and so he went to see the school’s administrator to discuss the situation. Peter pointed out that even though he arrived at school every morning at 6AM, he still wouldn’t have enough time to complete all the tasks that were being assigned to him.

The administrator responded to this by telling Peter that he’d just have to come to the school an hour earlier so that the work would be completed before the children arrived. Giving this perfunctory and rather dismissive response, Peter realized that the school’s administration wasn’t interested in working with him to find a more reasonable solution and so, he quit his position as the school’s custodian.

While the administrator’s handling of this situation deserves some scrutiny, what’s particularly interesting about this story is how Peter’s departure was felt by the children who attend this school. Considering that he was essentially the school’s janitor and not a beloved teacher, one wouldn’t necessarily expect his leaving the school would have mattered.

But this is where the administrator’s treatment of Peter and the reaction of the children to his leaving overlap to provide us with a valuable lesson on how leaders should view the various members of their organization and the unique contributions they make.

In my piece “Encouraging Your Employees to Reach for the Moon” (a piece which ironically also revolved around a janitor’s role in an organization), I mentioned a survey Bob Sutton had conducted which demonstrated that the most successful employees were not found within the organization’s top talent, but instead among those who fostered a positive work environment (individuals Sutton referred to as “energizers”).

What Sutton discovered was that it didn’t matter what their role or function was within the organization as much as how they made others around them feel – that is, their ability to create this infectious, positive energy which they spread to those around them.

Listening to how my girls talked about Peter, it was clear that he was an “energizer”, fostering this feeling of positivity and optimism which helped to make the school environment a more enjoyable place to learn and socialize within.

Peter also served as an example to the children of how all employees have the ability to move beyond their base function and provide a larger contribution to their organization, a concept the school administrators somehow failed to appreciate.

After all, when people see that their ideas or contributions are not only respected but valued by those in charge, it increases their sense of dedication and engagement to helping the organization reach its shared goals. Under such conditions, employees are not simply content to limit themselves to completing only those tasks listed in their job descriptions. Instead, they’re driven to contribute their talents/support wherever they can because they feel a sense of ownership and consequently, are driven to see the organization succeed.

In Peter’s case, he didn’t have to interact with the school children to do his job.  And yet, he recognized that by taking the time to do such, he could contribute to the school’s goal of creating a welcoming and open atmosphere under which the children could learn, socialize, and grow.

Unfortunately, the school administration failed to appreciate that Peter added value to the children’s school experience, as evidenced by the fact that so many of them noticed his replacement with another custodian.  While his efforts might not have been a part of his job function, it was clearly a part of what made him unique and valued by the children at this school.

In writing this piece, I asked my daughter why she and so many of her classmates had noticed Peter’s departure. She told me that they had enjoyed how he always greeted them with a smile, asking them about how their day was going, and how he was always willing to lend them a hand when they needed some help.

But what especially caught my attention was when she mentioned how happy he was with his job at their school. When I asked my daughter how did she know he was happy with his job, she replied “because he was always smiling and spoke kindly with everyone. You could just tell he enjoyed being a part of our school”.

This is perhaps the most ironic part of the whole story – that it was the children who were most aware of Peter’s sense of purpose and the value he provided as an employee of this school.  In their own way, they’ve already learned to appreciate how important this is to fostering an organization’s sense of community and culture.  Here’s hoping that those who lead and direct their organizations today will also be able to understand and embrace the value of this lesson in how they treat those they are meant to serve.

*Name changed

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19 Comments
  1. On March 21st, 2011 at 7:24 PM Laura Hunter said:

    Over the years I have rented space for our programs in many different facilities – churches, schools, recreations centres. I learned a long time ago that the people I should form relationships with were not the administrators but the custodians, the caretakers, the site managers. They were the people in the organization who got things done and went the extra distance to help provide us with a good customer experience. They were always much more important to me than the guys in the suits!

  2. On March 22nd, 2011 at 3:08 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Laura,

    I think this story helps to show that unfortunately we’re still hung up on titles and positions defining not only what we can and can’t do, but the level of value we might bring to an organization. If you look at some of the most talked about business success stories – Zappos, Southwest Airlines, and Apple – their success is not a product solely of those in the upper echelons of the organization. Instead, it’s because of how they empower and enable their front-line workers to contribute beyond their roles to serving their customers to the best of their abilities.

    The reason why these employees are allowed to do such is because their leaders recognize the value these employees give on behalf of their organizations, of how these individuals are the real heart and spirit of their organizations.

    Sadly, the reason why those organizations stand out and are talked about so much is because they’re still the exception, rather than the rule.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts on this, Laura.

  3. On March 21st, 2011 at 11:07 PM Earl Genty said:

    Heh, that couldn’t be more true. If you don’t treat people like people you can’t maintain good employees.

    On another note, what a dorky administration, you going to post a follow up?

  4. On March 22nd, 2011 at 3:16 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Earl, I'm not sure when we're going to shed this Industrial Age notion that people are synonymous with machines and should be treated as such. There are examples out there already of how treating your employees with respect and appreciation elevates your organization, both internally and in the public eye, so there's little reason for organizations and their leaders to not start changing how they view and treat those they're supposed to serve.

    As for a follow-up, there's not much need since Peter has moved on. But hopefully his story will remind leaders about the importance of valuing each and every one of their employees.

  5. On March 22nd, 2011 at 12:05 PM Jim Matorin said:

    I am amazed how many myopic leaders there are in this world that lead from behind their dests. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” – John le Carré (English Novelist)

  6. On March 22nd, 2011 at 3:22 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Jim,

    It's a sad reality that there are more of these types of leaders at the helm of most organizations these days, no doubt why organizations like Zappos and Southwest get so much attention. Hopefully, in continuing to draw attention to such stories we can encourage the change that's truly needed in organizational workplace interactions.

    Thanks again Jim for sharing your thoughts.

  7. On March 22nd, 2011 at 10:53 PM Kelly Ketelboeter said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    I love this post and I am sad to hear that Peter has left the school too!! You bring up a fantastic point that is often overlooked, the value that individuals bring to the team. Most leaders get caught up in correcting the problems and spend all their time putting out fires. Like you pointed out employee engagement and motivation is dramatically impacted when we talk to employees about the value they bring to their job.

    When we begin our leadership and coaching sessions with our clients, this is the first exercise we have them complete. They list each employee and at least 3 areas of value they bring to their work, those they serve and/or the team. You begin to lead and coach based on people's strengths and build from there in order to leverage their potential.

    I will be sharing this piece with our clients to reinforce the importance of this on-going dialog.

    Cheers!
    Kelly

  8. On March 23rd, 2011 at 1:13 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Kelly,

    First off, it's nice to see you here on my blog again. Missed the contributions you brought to past discussions and I'm glad to have you sharing your thoughts here again.

    I agree with you that it's very easy for leaders to get caught up in the putting out fires perspective. But I think this is also where leaders can appreciate their employees' value because they can recognize how their employees can help resolve these problems by tapping into their innate talents and strengths, as opposed to simply viewing them in terms of roles and responsiblities.

    That's a great approach you use with your clients in getting them to start with focusing on their employee's strengths, as opposed to 'these are the problems I am having with some of the members in my team'. By getting them to see their employees in a positive light, it's easier to see how their employees can help their organization address existing problems, if not also considering new routes because of what they can bring to the table.

    Thanks again Kelly for adding your thoughts to the discussion. It's great to see you again here on my blog.

  9. On March 24th, 2011 at 8:17 AM David Garcia-Gonzalez said:

    I really like your post and I am very feeling quite bad to hear that Peter has left the school too. However, you brought a good point that is often ignored. This is the real value that individuals bring to the team. You have done a good job.

  10. On March 24th, 2011 at 1:13 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks David; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. Unfortunately, this seems like a lesson that bears repeating. Hopefully, stories like Peter's here might help this lesson become a message that sticks with those who lead.

    Thanks again, David for your comment.

  11. On March 24th, 2011 at 3:14 PM Wez Bailey said:

    It's such a shameful thing to see how people with 'titles and status' ignore the efforts that those at the lowest level of the hierarchy put in to make the work of those at the top easier. I remember where I used to work there was a really nice lady who always made our tea, coffee, cleaned out desks, well she basically did everything to keep the place clean and tidy and I feel ashamed to say that not even once I said thank you to her. It's just that I've been too busy doing my own work that I never actually realized how much she contributed in making our work easier. Thanks a lot for this post

  12. On March 25th, 2011 at 11:31 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Wez for sharing your story. It's easy to overlook how the contributions others make impact us and our ability to do our jobs, especially as we're now expected to accomplish more in less time. However, the key to creating a successful and thriving organization is understanding that we need to make that time to reflect on how interconnected our roles have become and demonstrating our appreciation for how others have helped us to accomplish our goals.

    Thanks again, Wez, for sharing your thoughts.

  13. On March 26th, 2011 at 6:39 AM Delena said:

    This is sad and enraging all at the same time. It's probably preaching to the choir to say that people are not meaningless and expendable cogs in the great corporate machine, yet so many are still treated as such. What's sad is that because so many people are hurting for money, they permit this abuse.

    Way to go, Peter, for not standing by and letting everyone on the school Administration walk all over him!

    Delena

  14. On March 26th, 2011 at 2:58 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Delena,

    Unfortunately thanks to current economic conditions, there are many others who are trapped or feeling they have no choice but to accept being treated as nothing more than a cog in the wheel. But hopefully in highlighting the courage and determination shown by Peter to be treated with respect and appreciation others will see that there are indeed choices – not easy ones, mind you, but certainly choices that would lead to better opportunities and the ability to be valued for their contributions.

    There are already rumblings out there as talk of economic recovery continues, so leaders would be best served by paying attention to how they value those who keep their organizations going.

    Thanks again, Delena, for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  15. On September 9th, 2011 at 3:45 PM Jae said:

    I can only hope that my employees see me as an "energizer" and that I can inspire them to be as well.

    Thanks for a well written piece.

  16. On September 10th, 2011 at 12:40 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    You're welcome, Jae. Glad to hear this story has inspired you in how you work with your employees.

  17. On March 11th, 2012 at 11:32 AM Janice Tomich said:

    Our school energizer was our school crossing guard Mac. A short and stout grizzled war veteran with gnarled hands that looked like baseball mitts. Some forty five years later I can clearly see his weathered face and sparkly light blue eyes; and remember the warmth of his hugs (yes, back in the days when random hugs from others were allowed). He welcomed us in the morning and ushered us back home at day's end while encouraging us to do our best work when doing our homework. When I moved on to high school I would often take the long route home to check in with Mac. To echo you Tanveer, leaders who don't understand the true worth of Peter's and Mac's need to reconsider. These silent heroes are the true pillars and linchpins of robust and viable organizations.

  18. On September 22nd, 2013 at 8:02 PM Kyle said:

    Sounds like the janitor at the elementary school I attended. He was an extremely caring, humble, hardworking, and God fearing man who was beloved by both the students and school staff. Everyone looked forward to him leading the Christmas carols every year, especially his rendition of little drummer boy. The school implemented a rule where the janitors were forced to change elementary schools within the district every 2 years because the principal at one of the schools did not like their janitor, so rather than resolve the conflict this was their solution. I was told there was not a dry eye in the building during his last day.

  19. On February 17th, 2014 at 2:58 AM Joseph Tramontana said:

    I feel bad that Peter had to leave because of a problem in workload and schedule that could have been easily fixed had they met halfway. He is an inspiring man, for "moving beyond his base function and for providing a larger contribution to their organization." Another lesson I got from this is that when you leave a positive mark behind, no matter how small your role was in that organization, you will be remembered.

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