Would They Hold the Elevator for You?

“If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his employees, not his equals.”

J.K. Rowling

When I read this quote, it was like preaching to the choir.

I always found it amazing during my days in corporate HR that people’s memories got so much better as they progressed up the organizational chart. They knew all the big shots, they laughed at their anemic jokes, and every utterance was seen as true genius. However, that same statement from an underling would be treated with a side eye.

Leaders should start at the bottom

Take a close look at the org chart in your organization. Fix your eyes 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 starts at the bottom of the organization. It is an inverted pyramid that makes this puzzle work. It no longer works from the top down, because it is now bottoms up.

A final exam leadership lesson

I wrote an article a while back concerning this topic, which told the story of a CEO whose final exam in his business class was to name the cleaning lady in the building where his classes were held. He could not name her, despite having seen her often. He failed the exam — her name was Dottie — but learned a powerful lesson about the most important people in the organization.

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Great leaders set great examples

In my younger days as a manager, I had the gift of an opportunity to work with a CEO who understood the bottoms up approach. That was a powerful lesson for me; she set the example that everyone has value. Look for the CEO in her office and she was probably not there. Wander the hallways and you’d come across her, but not in any of the “power” locations. You would most likely find her in the mail room, or sitting next to a junior designer, or arguing with the sports fanatics over a recent game. None of these were power spots. They were “people spots,” as in ordinary people. It almost seems that she relished talking and collaborating with the “small people.”

To get it right, focus on the employees. When senior teams take this approach, it sends a powerful signal throughout their team and the organization that everyone has value. Your employees do not turn to the written statements on your intranet for clues on how to behave. They see how others are being treated and, for the most part, will model that. When managers act out, employees act out. When leaders disengage, employees mirror the same. Words have no value unless you live, eat, breath and sleep them.

Do they hold the door open for you?

I was in an elevator years back with someone I did not know. Looking out, I noticed a person walking toward the door. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the other occupant reach over and push the close button. When I looked at him, he sheepishly said, “That was our CEO and nobody likes him. He is known for calling everyone by name, just not their given name. If you are not in his clique, he could really care less. Hope you don’t mind if I did that.”

No, I didn’t because I learned a powerful lesson in case I became CEO one day.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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