Respect and Resilience

An international gathering of small business owners attracted a diverse crowd at this year’s ISSA North America 2012 convention in Chicago’s McCormick Place. The convention floor was crawling with entrepreneurs in search of innovative products and methods. When I arrived at the podium to deliver my keynote address, “Building Great Teams,” the audience was already energized. I began my presentation with a story.

In a past life as a hospital administrator, my leadership responsibilities included the oversight of the facility’s environmental services and housekeeping departments. One of our most talented housekeepers had recently transferred job positions to a clerical role in a clinical area after earning her associate’s degree at a local community college. I ran into her in the hallway during her first week in the new job and asked how the transition was going. She lowered her eyes and spoke of her disappointment in her new coworkers. “Everyone greets me with eye contact and a warm hello when I walk into the department each day,” she related. Confused, I asked her to help me understand why this was disappointing. “I’ve worked in this hospital for six years,” she explained. “Until this week, I wore a uniform and walking through the hallways rarely garnered eye contact or a friendly greeting,” she continued. “I was just a housekeeper. Now that I have to dress in ‘business casual,’ I’ve somehow earned the respect of common courtesy. That’s just not right,” she stated.

Before I could finish my story, hands shot up throughout the audience. Almost everyone had a similar tale with a similar conclusion. In their world, building a successful business included the gauntlet of earning human dignity. Most of the business owners in the room enjoyed higher annual revenues than people would typically imagine for a residential cleaning service. Their approach to building and sustaining a thriving company was based on the same principles as are successful in other industries – clear goals, accountability, willingness to attract and develop top talent, innovative practices, and resilient response to a constantly changing market.

With time to network following the keynote, stories of respect and resilience were traded by professionals transformed from strangers to colleagues. Best practices were imparted with open generosity. Contact information was exchanged for future collaboration. Humility gave way to sharing. Friendships were forged and businesses were strengthened.

Sometimes, the recipe is simple.