Authentic Leadership: His Name is Angel

By Mike Figliuolo

In prior articles, I’ve touched on some basic principles for thinking about how you view yourself and move through the world. Now it’s time to switch gears and look at ways to interact (or not interact) with the folks in your organizations.

I hate the use of the word “just” in front of anyone’s title.

“He’s just an analyst.”

“She’s just a cafeteria worker.”

“I’m just an administrative assistant.”

No one is just anything. The phrase is demeaning and pejorative. We’re all people — we happen to have different responsibilities. The connotation of just is that someone is worth less than someone else. As if that just someone has a defect. One of the most powerful leadership skills I’ve seen and used is valuing everyone’s contributions equally. How do you do that? Simple — treat everyone like a person and an equal first and foremost. The work sorts itself out in the end.

For example, I walked by a Senior Vice President’s office one day. I knew his assistant — she was a wonderful lady. We got to talking and she mentioned a problem she saw regarding how assistants were paid. I told her, “You see it, you own it. Raise the issue and see if you can get it fixed.”

“But I’m just an admin.”

I promptly and pointedly corrected her. “No. You’re an admin for a senior vice president. The word ‘just’ is not in your job description. You know what’s wrong. You know who can fix it and what the right answer is. The thing is, if you act like you don’t deserve a seat at the table, you’ll never get one.”

Later that day, she raised the issue with the SVP. He was completely unaware the problem existed. Needless to say, said admin led the team that eventually put the fix in place. Just is a simple yet incredibly damaging word. If you find yourself using it in the context of your own title, make a conscious effort to stop. All you’re doing is devaluing yourself.

More importantly, take off the lens of just when you look at others. He’s not just a cafeteria worker … his name is Angel and he’s a great guy who always has a smile. He reliably fills the coffee machine every day and takes great pride in his work. He is polite and customer focused. He makes a great grilled provolone on white sandwich (my comfort food). Maybe you should take a moment to get to know him. It’s funny — once you remove the just blinders, you learn things. I don’t see just a cafeteria worker. I see Angel — the model of customer service. I wish I had 300 of him working in my customer service call centers. If I did, I’d never have a customer service issue that wasn’t solved quickly, politely and correctly.

There’s a side benefit to this approach — people will see how you treat others and decide whether they want to work for you or not. If they see you act high and mighty because everyone is just beneath you, you’re going to have a hard time building a following. Conversely, if people see you treat everyone around you with dignity and respect, they’ll at least consider following you and give you the benefit of the doubt in your interactions with them.

A final point on just. You never know who that “just” someone knows. When I was a consultant, we regularly interviewed a slew of candidates on Fridays. The first person they met was the receptionist. From there, they’d interview with eight or nine of us and we’d hold a “consensus meeting” at the end of the day to determine if we were going to make a job offer.

One exceptional candidate (let’s call him “Bill”) did an amazing job in all eight of his interviews. He was brilliant, charming, and energetic. All of us were excited about him as we entered the consensus meeting. Some of us were already fighting over who would get him on their team first. As we discussed his glowing performance, it was abundantly clear we’d be making him an offer. We prepared to close the discussion and asked “Does anyone else have anything to offer on Bill?”

“I do.”

“Go ahead,” said the meeting moderator.

“When he came in, I was on the phone. He tapped his pen impatiently on my desk indicating I should stop talking on the phone and help him. I asked my caller, who happened to be the office director, to wait a moment. The conversation then went like this:”

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah. I’m here to interview. Don’t you know who I am?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t.”

“Geez. Look in your paperwork. Bill. Bill Farfegnugen. Isn’t it your job to receive guests properly?”

“Yes. Please have a seat. They’ll be with you shortly.”

“Aren’t you going to take my coat and get me a cup of coffee?”

“Sure. I’d be happy to. Cream and sugar?”

“Yeah.”

“After I got him his coffee, I showed him to his first interview. I’m sorry, but I simply can’t see this guy in front of our clients. I can’t recall the last time someone was that rude to me.”

Needless to say, Bill didn’t get a job offer. He probably wonders why not to this very day, because he knew he smoked his interviews. Hey Bill — news flash — she’s not just a receptionist. Her name is Lois and she takes really good care of the people around her. Had you done the same, you might have gotten the job.

“Just” is a poisonous word in the context of people. Make it go away.

Mike Figliuolo is the author of “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.” He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC — a leadership development firm. An honor graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog, read the full original post here.
Originally published: Dec 12, 2011

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