We Are All Connected

October 15th, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

Overused phrase #535,285: “Our best asset is our people.”

We’ve all heard and/or used this phrase forever, but… do we actually behave as if it were true?

Lately, I’ve noticed an “us” vs. “them” tone creeping into some of my own professional reading from people who ought to know better – and it worries me. Two examples:

From the 9-27-10 issue of Fortune: “Secrets of an Undercover Boss” is an article in which the four CEOs that participated in CBS’ television show, “Undercover Boss,” share their observations after concealing their identities and spending some time doing non-managerial jobs inside their companies. The firms are all large professional concerns in the food and media/entertainment industries, and these are all educated, experienced executives.

To a person, all of them said that what surprised them was how hard their employees work: how hard their jobs are. This just knocked me out. In the context of business leadership, this has got to be one of the most fundamentally abhorrent things I’ve heard in some time.

“I thought it would be simple to do,” said one of the execs after driving a forklift around a warehouse. “What I learned is that it’s very hard to do. It was taking me forever… and I broke my pallet. My supervisor took me off the forklift.” You can read for yourself how well he did at a job that required him to experience actual weather.

And speaking of weather, one of the other CEOs remarked that, “When I was out… in 98° heat, I was struck by how hard these employees work.” Or a third, who thought she “knew the jobs and would be really good at them” before having ever actually done them. “They were a lot harder than I thought,” she says. “The amount of personal attention we give our [customers] blew me away.” So she is, to some extent, as disconnected from her customers’ experience as she is from the employees who create it?

And last but not least, the fourth: “I didn’t have an appreciation for how hard these guys work.”

I think one of them, though, put his finger on a critical factor underlying all of their stories: “the employees I met had incredibly different life experiences than I’ve had, and yet with every person I found amazing connections.”

In other words, the employees doing real work were “different than” which – in this context and by implication – I believe is code for “less than.” Less educated, less intelligent, less sophisticated… and therefore capable of performing tasks so simple that anyone could do them well (why, it’s SO easy, even a CEO can do it!)?  There is no logical connection between an individual’s economic circumstances and how hard he works or how much pride he takes in doing a good job.

I mean, the idea that an executive for some reason thought that she’d “be good at” any field job before she’d ever tried it shows not only a lack of awareness but a lack of respect for her workforce. Then again, this is also the individual who says, “It’s amazing how much more you can learn when you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room.”

Amen, sister.

A 2009 professional profile tells us that this CEO “takes the occasional water thrill ride herself just to demonstrate to potential investors and VIPs how much fun it really is.” I might suggest that she spend some time cleaning and maintaining such a ride so that she gets a full sense of the experience.

From the 9-30-10 issue of the Wall Street Journal: I stopped to read a column because of a large photograph of a woman I thought I recognized. I did know her – the photo was of the woman who shines shoes at my neighborhood shoe repair shop.

What I did not know about her is that she came to the U.S. from Ecuador eight years ago to earn money to support her family. She earns $20/day plus tips. She rents a room in Queens and works six days a week. She talks to her family, but has no money to travel and has not seen her husband or two daughters since leaving Ecuador.

Here’s how this WSJ column began [hang with me here]: “If salary were the arbiter of excellence, the most excellent people on earth would be hedge-fund managers, CEOs and, perhaps movie and TV stars. While experience has proved that not universally to be the case, most of us buy into the notion, myself included. So it sometimes comes as a surprise when we run across an individual barely scratching out a living whose drive and discipline and sense of excellence rivals that of those our culture celebrates with fat bonuses and fetes at charity galas.”

I am not certain who “most of us” would include but, again, we have the opinion (“myself included“) that compensation somehow equates to performing exceptionally well on the job. More money = a better job done.

This to me is hugely destructive, offensive and a whole lot of other things that a lady does not say in public. And as for fat bonuses and charity galas, does the Madoff and Kozlowski families’ ability to get and give away money equate to “excellence?” If any of us were going to resort to stupid stereotypes, in fact, wouldn’t it be the other way around? That the “regular joe” works harder than the ivory tower-encased senior executive? I guess the answer would be no… if the question was being asked of some senior executives.

We decry the fall of the American worker, and yet these are the true underlying opinions some business leaders and opinion-makers have? That “real people” are not as good, not as capable, not as useful, not as… worthy? Even when these leaders are talking about their own employees?

Go back to what we were all taught about true leadership and respect from Tom Peters and others. Be conscious of your thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, by the way, just think about what’s truly in your best interest. Most of us will get to the same place.

I am a contributor to the Marketing Executive Networking Group’s blog, MENG Blend. A version of this post was originally published HERE on the MENG site.


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