How a Cleaning Lady Taught Me a Management Lesson I Never Forgot

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Feb 22, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Do you know Dottie?

I had spent many hours studying and memorizing formulas to do calculations for the case studies,” he recalls. “The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, he said, ‘Go ahead and turn it over.’ Both sides were blank.”

A final exam for life

Next, the professor said:

I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this — What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”

That, my friends, was the final exam for Walt Bettinger, CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation, in a business strategy class, that he recounted this story in a recent New York Times Corner Office column.

As he reflected on that final exam question, Bettinger talked about how it turned out.

It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the ‘B’ I deserved. Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name. Since that most important lesson, I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.”

Bettinger says that experience was a great reminder of what really matters in life, “and that you should never lose sight of people who do the real work.” He said that this was his biggest career lesson and is thankful that he learned it early in his career.

What was your biggest career lesson?

I recall an HR leader who talked about a business executive in his firm who interacted very well with his peers, but when it came to his underlings, he brought terror into their lives. Just the thought of being called into his office would terrorize his people.

Another CEO boasted to me how connected he was to his organization and how he leads by example. The problem is that later in a conversation with his Chief HR officer, I was told that this big shot comes in every day and walks past a great many people in the corridors and in their workspace, and he totally ignores everyone. Not even the most basic of pleasantries is uttered.

Take a look at the org chart in your organization and let your eyes fix on the lowest level. How many of these people do you actually know and what do you know about them?

Then, move up the chain and see how many people you “really know.”  If you are like a lot of executives, the higher you go up the “better” your memory is.

Let me let you in on a small secret: Engagement level starts at the bottom of the organization, and it is an inverted pyramid that make this puzzle work. It no longer works from peers down, because it is now bottoms up.

There are Dotties in all of our organizations, and it is our duty to make sure that we are know where they reside.

My “Dottie” story

In my career, I once worked at a company for close to 10 years. Because I arrived early at my desk every day, I would always cross paths with the cleaning lady who would work on our floor.

I would always engage in conversation with her, and initially, she was hesitant to engage in conversation because she may have thought that I was a “big shot.” But over a period of time, we would talk about a lot of different things. I told her all about my weekends, and she would ask about pictures in my office of my kids. In other words I got to know “Dottie.”

When I decided to leave this company, and the word got around, on my last day I walk in and there she was sitting outside of my door. I greeted her and asked jokingly “were you waiting on me?”  Her reply was, “yes I am.”

That stopped me in my tracks. She then proceeded to tell me how much she enjoyed our conversations over the years. She told me about how she was hesitant in talking to me when we first met, and as we came to know each other more, she was surprised that I even wanted to talk to her since I was one of the executives at this company.

You know, she said:

I work here and people walk in and it is like I am invisible to them. They would look through me and not even say hello. I did not even register as a human being. You never treated me that way.”

By that point, tears were running down my face, and she in turn began to tear up. When she finished, I looked her in the face and tried to regain my exposure

My life’s lesson

I told her this:

You know, your story is my story. My mother used to be a maid and she told me your story and how she was treated and ignored as a worker for these wealthy people. That was at the beginning of her working life. As my father became successful, she eventually became a housewife and never worked again, but those stories stayed with me.”

As a result of that interaction, my mission in every phase of my workplace encounters is to know the “Dotties,” engage the “Dotties,” talk to the “Dotties.”

Executives, do you know the Dotties in your organization?

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.