Why Business Leaders Must 'Clean the Bathroom'
How can you expect people to do the things you want them to do if you won’t do them, haven’t done them, don’t know them well enough to understand what needs to be done, or are completely disconnected from them?
Honestly, I'm most leery of the leaders who won’t do the day-to-day work and who shun or look down on the people who do. Don’t get me wrong: Your time must be used wisely. I want leaders to do things that make them most effective in thinking big and acting bigger—that’s why we need great people to help us, and you can’t stay on top of everything your employees do all the time, nor should you. But that doesn’t give you license to create an “ivory tower” within your business.
Most jobs must be below your pay grade, but you can't be so far above them all the time that you never look below. You can’t view any work or people connected to your business—those who work for and with you as well as your customers—as figurative “garbage.” To do so undermines the cadence of the company you just worked hard to develop and the trust of the people for whom you are ultimately responsible. You still need to remember what it's like to get your hands dirty—to stay connected to the work of the entire business so no one can ever think that you aren’t. That’s not just the mark of a great entrepreneur; it’s the mark of a great leader.
In my first book, The Mirror Test, I wrote about my battles with “Johnny Vegas Syndrome”—the evil outgrowth of success characterized by an Ocean’s 11 attitude: exaggerated swagger, excessive celebration, unbearably inflated ego, metaphorical swinging of chains, and an undignified belief that you're bigger than yourself and the community that surrounds you. A crippling business disorder, it strikes leaders following periods of sustained growth or after major triumphs. The only known cure is a metaphorical slap in the face or failure.
The only way to keep the syndrome at bay is for leaders to remember to pick up the garbage now and then. The other way eventually leads to inauthenticity, losing touch, and eventually going from growth to gone.
I actually clean the bathroom at our New York City office. I do it as a reminder to never see any work as demeaning or beneath anybody—and to stand as an example to everyone in my companies as a result. It’s a stake in the ground, and a visible one at that: If I'm willing to take responsibility for and do the most disgusting jobs, who can complain about taking out the garbage (literally or figuratively)? Who can complain when I say, “Clean up your desk”?
When was the last time you walked the floor of one of your businesses? Picked up the phone and talked to an important vendor or customer? Ate in the cafeteria or ate your lunch at a communal table? Read the systems, rules, or operating manual for your company? Sat and talked with people in your office who are normally filtered by your direct reports or assistants, not because you had to or for a review but just to listen? For far too many people, the answer is: “Almost never.”
I have metaphorically “cleaned my bathroom” everywhere I have worked, and you should, too. The following short sections detail the ways I "clean the bathroom" every day. Try these. You’ll find that once you do, they become an integral part of your personal corporate culture.
Connect. I send my own emails, texts, and updates—often individually, not blasts. All my social media posts come from me, and nearly all are posted by me. I even write my own thank-you notes and letters.
Immerse and attack. At my Team Logic franchise years ago, I found the systems weren't working. Rather than assign the task to one of my direct reports or hire a consultant, I became an expert in those systems myself. I shopped my company as a customer to test the front desk and sales teams. I went through every part of the business to understand where the problems were and how to fix them so I knew not only what needed to be done but also that it could be done.
Stay visible and get out there. At Kodak, I walked the halls to meet everyone I could, from the account executives down to the janitors—to understand what was really happening and hear what I needed to hear unfiltered by those who answered directly to me. Beyond the office, I went into Best Buys and put on its blue shirt to sell Kodak’s printers to learn what it took to do so, ensure it was being done right, and refine any missteps.
By doing these things everywhere I go, I've stayed connected bottom to top in the businesses I've worked for and with, reinforced trust with employees and colleagues, and become an elephant that never forgets what it’s like at the bottom of the ladder. Does that mean I won’t fail or fall victim to a Johnny Vegas-like business syndrome? Of course not—I’m human! Does it demean me in some people’s eyes? Perhaps. Haters gonna hate. But few ever think I am above the process even though I don’t want to see or be involved in most of it anymore. Fewer still would say I don’t understand things and fail to push forward in everything I do.