A couple of weeks ago, whilst making a cup of tea in one of those functional, but deeply impractical kitchens you find on any given floor of uniform, open-plan office spaces, I met John.
John is a cleaner. In his late sixties, he inhabits a world invisible to corporate New Zealand; he passes unseen between bins, elevators and lavatories. He waits patiently whilst the bureaucrats and executives reach in front of him for sugar to sweeten their fourth cup of bitter instant coffee, or hurry into a lavatory cubicle where they’ll leave lean-six sigma infused skid-marks in the toilet for him to remove – in spite of the little white brush beside the porcelain throne. The middle-management dump is a pressing matter when time is money, and you’re a rising star between meetings of little value. Every second counts, and you count every second that conveys your importance.
I’ve watched this theatre play out for a few months now and during one matinée performance, John was trying to wipe the kitchen work-surface clean. I wanted to grab a tea bag as one of the preludes to me letting another warm brew of black tea go cold; it was to be my third so far that day. With his slight build and below average height, John cuts an unimposing figure; his hair is gray and neatly brushed, but he misses patches of whisker on his face when he shaves. His nose has a small patch of dry skin on the bridge and his skin is pale white, almost translucent, save for the clearly visible capillaries that network on his cheeks. The wiry frame of his body can’t hide the bony shoulder blades which protrude through his oversized, logo-marked, cheap workforce t-shirt and his formless polyester trousers hang off him like a sack. At odds with his appearance is the methodological manner with which John works, unless you notice his eyes; he pays attention to the smallest details of cleaning, ticking off items on his roster card in his head as he goes. His eyes are dark brown and hold a glint of mischief when he grins. Cleaning is routine for him, but bin-bag changing is done with meticulous application while no-one notices.
My waiting seemed to prompt John to speak to me. “You’re new here”, he said. I wasn’t sure whether it was a question or not, as he stepped back from the sink and indicated with a rubber-gloved hand and a wet cloth that I should get my tea-bag, because he would wait. “Thank you”, I said and plonked a white dusty perforated package of equally dusty tea into the bottom of my unwashed mug. “I am new; my name’s Jason.” He nodded, “I’m John” he replied. I could see that from his ID tag – and he was right, his name was John. He tapped a finger tip on the photo of him hanging around his neck it, to reinforce the point.
“Ever been to the South Island?” he asked. “Sure have” I said, I love it there – because it’s mostly empty”. He grinned and there was a pause. “I’m from Gore – way down south”, and he rolled the letter “r” as he spoke the place-name, in keeping with the way people from Gorrrr tend to. There’s a mostly good-natured, cultural ‘in-joke’ that New Zealanders have about people from Gore; it is something of a backwater relative to…well almost anywhere. The one thing I’ve found with people from Gore – they’re resilient and hard-working. I guess they have to be; winters are tough down therrrr and most people leave.
John came to Wellington in 1972. He’s the eldest son of a farmer, and the tradition dictates that the farm always passes to the eldest son. However, John explained that when he was a youngster, the doctor told his father that a job on the land wasn’t a good idea. “It’s not ‘cause I’m small, it’s my skin.” He rubbed his un-gloved hand on the forearm of the gloved one, the skinny fingers wrinkling the tissue-paper flesh. “I’ve got pale thin skin, and the doctor was afraid I’d burn in the sun, and so that was that.” It was an interesting way to hear the loss of an inheritance described thus, and what might have been a very different way of life.
So when John and his wife came to Wellington, he got a job working for the Post Office. He did everything from sorting mail, to deliveries, to cleaning. Eventually an opportunity arose for him to return to the South Island, and he eagerly took a job with the Post Office in Blenheim. “I was a rugby player,” he told me “but I was small, so I had to use my brain and learn the rules.” John said he couldn’t understand why the game has become all about massive blokes crashing into each other; to him it is a game of technical skill and finesse. I suggested that perhaps it’s because that’s what looks good on television. He nodded, just once. “A tiny bugger like me has to learn to jink, and know the rules. You have to tackle right around the ankles when you’re my size – and they go down like falling trees.” He tapped the side of his nose with an index finger, nodded once more – just once – and grinned again. He was describing his actual experience of what most youngsters see in textbooks, but rarely see eventuate these days. Eventually, when John decided he was too small to play against big guys any more, he became a referee. “Nothing fancy, just club games and the odd provincial game; I loved it.” His brown eyes flicked onto me and then off again just as fast.
He and his wife made a smart decision to rent out their house in Wellington whilst they worked in Blenheim. A couple of years passed and they returned to Wellington, to the same house, and still live in it today. It’s located in a suburb that would be unaffordable to a cleaner – and to most middle managers – these days. John and his wife own it outright; mortgage free. His younger brother eventually sold the family beef and sheep farm down near Gore. “Farming wasn’t really his thing” John explained. No judgement; no regret in his tone, just matter-of-fact in the same way he is about his job as a cleaner. Day in, day out John pushes his trolley on the rostered circuit his shift requires. “Bit of a change for me having people in the office; I used to worrrrk the night shift. Mind you, it’s funny – I get about the same amount of conversation, except now people just get in the way when you’re trying to do your job. Doesn’t feel efficient.” He wiped at a clear piece of worktop to remove what must have been microscopic crumbs, or invisible sugar granules to the untrained eye.
About 15 minutes passed while we chatted and during our conversation, a couple of senior executives came to the kitchen area to make a cup of something. Each time, John would stop talking and take an involuntary step backward. It was as if he anticipated that I would cease speaking with him, and engage with them instead. I didn’t – and the second and third time it happened, John grew bolder at staying put, and continuing to talk with me. Now I grinned at him, and I think we both too unspoken enjoyment in the puzzled look on executive faces when they were ignored by us both – role reversal for a moment or two perhaps?
I talk a lot about paying attention to behaviour, because it tells us vital pieces of information. Noticing the little things – especially as a leader – requires effort, understanding what the little things mean and finding their context, even more so. Good interaction with a horse necessitates it, and I’ll venture that good interaction with people absolutely necessitates it too. Start with something simple – like say, “hello” to your office cleaner and learn something about them; who knows, it might be the most rewarding 15 minutes of your day.