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Out of the mouths of window washers…

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

by Steven D. Goldstein

It was 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in London, and I was sitting at my desk. It was 1988 and my third day on a new assignment, which was to run the card, travel and traveler’s checks business of American Express for the U.K. and Ireland. I had been sent there to turn around the business, and it was a great opportunity to live and work in a different country.

Suddenly I felt a presence and turned around to find a window washer setting up to clean the interior windows in the office. A bit startled, I said, “Hi, my name is Steve, what’s yours?”

After a brief pause, he said nervously, “My name is John.” He was a short man, on the older side, wearing blue coveralls with one suspender down, a newspaper stuck in his pocket, and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He had a thick Cockney accent.

“It’s nice to meet you, John,” I said. “How long have you been washing windows here?” A look of pride came over his face. “Twenty-five years, sir.” Then he asked, “Are you the new guv’nor, sire?”

“Yes, I am the new governor,” I replied, not quite sure how to pronounce it like John did.

“It’s good you’re here,” said John solemnly, “the other guv’nor wasn’t doing a good job.”

“How do you know that?” I asked him.

John said, “I go into people’s offices to wash the windows, but they don’t see me, it’s like I’m not there. I hear what they say to the people in their office and when they’re on the phone—and they say everything, because like I said, they don’t really see me—I’m only the window washer.” Flabbergasted, I asked John if he wanted to join me for a cup of coffee, to which he—after hesitating a little—said okay.

We spent the next forty-five minutes having an amazing conversation, at the end of which he said, “I’m sorry, guv’, but I have to get back to work or I’ll be in big trouble with the boss.” I thanked him and asked if he would like to have a cup of coffee in a month, and he said yes.

After that initial encounter, I met John for coffee on a regular basis.

Here is the point of the story: I learned more in my first meeting with John than I could ever have learned reviewing reports, or even talking to my team. In spite of the limited schooling he had, he was extremely perceptive about what was going on in the business. Thinking back, I’ve always felt so fortunate to have had this experience, because it reinforced my belief in the value of reaching out to people at all levels.

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Steven D. Goldstein is the author of the new book, Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami? Transform Your Business Using the Five Principles of Engagement, from which this article was adapted.

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