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Jul 28, 2014

As I looked into his eyes, I could see them welling with tears. As he began to speak, his voice cracked, “Mr. Ron we’ll will miss you so much. It has been my honor to know you.”

As I listened, my eyes teared up in synch. These guys had no idea what they have meant to me over this past year.

As I walked from department to department, the reaction was mostly the same — we were saying our goodbyes. Having spent close to 15 months in a new environment with a workforce that could rival the United Nations — including multiple languages and customs — I was proud of myself for having connected with them.

Every unique experience must come to an end

As I walked out for the last time, the security guard who manned the front gate came out and gave me a big hug. Through broken English he said “picture,” and pointed at his cell phone. We embraced and took our photo. By this time, the gate was full with everyone wishing me congratulations, and one of my co-workers offering to give me a ride home as opposed to having to catch a taxi.

That ended a unique experience that started over two years ago when I received an email inquiring about whether I would be interested in a role as Chief HR Officer in Saudi Arabia. After the five-month mating ritual, I said “I do.” What happened next was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life — and one I could not have even imagined.

But now, a new role was on the horizon, and this was my last day.

That evening I came across an article about a CEO who was fired by his Board, which is a normal occurrence, but what struck me was that the employees went on strike. Over the last week, however, thousands of employees at Market Basket, a supermarket chain with 71 stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, have put their jobs on the line in support of “Arthur T” as he was affectionately called. Arthur T. Demoulas, who was the company CEO, was fired in June.

This is remarkable, and equally outstanding on so many levels since CEO’s today have become branded as clueless, aloof and out of touch with their workers.

A going away party – and nobody comes

As I read through this article, I thought of a former head of HR that I worked for that was leaving the company. She planned a going away cake and coffee at the end of her last week for her “peers.”

Problem was, nobody showed up. Only her direct reports came around, and we sat there trying to make small talk and looking into our cups out of embarrassment. The few peers that did stop by came up with lame excuses as to why they could only stay for a minute or two. What I found out later was that this departing HR leader was despised by her peers and they were collectively overjoyed that she was leaving.

She not only did not connect with her peers, but she didn’t even connect with her own department. Sadly, she believed that she was really held in high-esteem by both of these constituencies. As I watched her sitting there realizing this, I felt sorry for her, but more importantly, it reinforced to me the need to connect with your people as well as your peers.

You have to connect

When I arrived at my new job in Saudi Arabia, I spent a lot of time working from the ground up. That meant that I spent time with the guard, the gardeners, the maintenance staff, and others at that level. I used an inverted pyramid of connecting and talked with this core constituency as much as I possibly could.

Sure, I spent time with the suits, but to get the real 411, but I had to connect with the ground troops. As I gained credibility, I moved up the food chain. This is the opposite modus operandi approach for new leadership, and my bottom up strategy has always served me well. In HR you have to connect, otherwise you can’t build trust.

As the ousted CEO situation at Market Basket shows, when you connect from the ground up, you have people that will go the extra mile for you. Arthur T. was known for connecting and treating his employees well. One worker described his as “just a good guy.”

At one of the rallies the employees spoke about his caring attitudes: having time for his workers, even attending weddings and funerals. Think about that for a moment — how many senior leaders would attend these type of events outside those of their direct reports or peers?

This takes me back to my favorite TV show that I often watch in reruns, The Honeymooners, where Norton, the “philosopher” would always remind Ralph to never forget the “small things. Yes, kudos to “Arthur T” for not forgetting the small things at Market Basket.

Don’t get caught up in the minutia

As leaders, we sometime get caught up in the minutia of work. It can be a breath of fresh air to talk to someone who is not sucking up and does not really want anything — but is honored that you took the time out of your day to stop by and say hello to them.

These are the people who get the job done.

There is a saying that you do not build organizations, you build people and THEY build the organization. So, as I wind down my stay here in Saudi Arabia and move into my new role as CEO of  Great Place to Work Institute-United Arab Emirates, I had my beliefs in people reinforced by these above events.

So the big question for any leader is this: “If you left tomorrow would anyone really care?

If you think not, then you have flunked one of the most important lessons of being a true leader. You must connect with your people throughout the organization, and not just those at the top.