Life lessons can come to us from unexpected places. The thing is we have to be awake and aware in order to take advantage of the learning. And I must admit that I have not always been those things – especially in my early years as a leader.
I spent 25 years working for a $2.5b company, with most of those years in a leadership position in the Product Development group. I was so focused on producing results and getting things done that many times I didn’t notice things (or the people) that were right in front of me.
So many nights, I remember sitting in my office working late. Projects to complete. Emails to be answered. Budgets to oversee. The price of leadership, I told myself. And each night, like clockwork, silently and unobtrusively he came. Tidying up the area, emptying the trash. The janitor.
I have to admit that most nights I really didn’t see him. I was too busy to pay attention to this other human being working in my space – even if it was only for a few moments. And other times I managed a simple “Hello,” or “How are you today?” all while not truly paying attention to any reply that came my way.
“The whole concept of treating people with dignity and respect is a concept that isn’t a business concept, it’s a life concept. It’s who you are at the end of the day.” – Greg Brenneman
One evening, I happened to look up and directly into the face of this heretofore invisible person in my office and I noticed his name on his shirt. Gary. So, being the wonderful human being I thought I was, I said, “Hi, Gary. How are you tonight?” And it happened. He told me. In fact, not only did he begin to tell me how he was, he sat down in one of my office chairs to do so.
I’m not proud to say this, but my initial thought was something along the lines of, “What the heck? I didn’t expect him to really tell me how he is! Now I have to sit here and pay attention to his story. Doesn’t he know I have all this work to do?”
And as this man began telling me more about himself and his life, I noticed something breaking open inside of me. My own humanity was being called forward. I was witnessing him, and probably giving him something he rarely experienced – someone truly noticing and listening to him.
The whole thing took maybe 2-3 minutes. And yet, in that short time I received one of the most valuable life lessons I’ve ever had. It’s still with me today. We all need to be seen, heard, and acknowledged.
“Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying, ‘Make me feel important.’ Never forget this message when working with people.” – Mary Kay Ash
From that night on, Gary and I would spend a few minutes talking each night as he came into my office to tidy up and take out the trash. He was a good man. A kind man. A man who had many troubles in life and wound up doing work he never expected to be doing. And yet, he did all that without any sense of regret or resentment.
I felt at times as if I was giving him a gift. And maybe I was. But in my mind, he was the one who gave me something I can never repay. He taught me to see people, not see through them. He taught me that everyone has a story, and we can honor them by simply listening. He taught me that it’s okay to slow down for a few moments and connect with another human being – especially when it’s someone who may be marginalized or taken for granted.
Most of us know what it feels like to feel invisible, unnoticed, unappreciated. And that can be one of the reasons we can feel so uncomfortable around others who we perceive to be those things. But how often do we look around us and take the time to see the people around us? And not only see them, but engage them, talk to them, and make them feel appreciated. I don’t know where Gary is today. I haven’t seen him in more than ten years. But the lesson I learned from him is still with me today. It’s one that I do my best to teach to the people I work with.
“We wildly underestimate the power of the tiniest personal touch.” – Tom Peters
Take the time to look around you. What or who do you see? Who are the marginalized or invisible people in your office? Take the opportunity to say hello and ask someone how they’re doing and then WAIT and LISTEN when they answer. You never know how that just might change someone’s life.