I remember it as if it was just yesterday, yet it was January 19, 2004 – just over nine years ago.
Fredericksburg, VA – I was “the new guy from the Home Office” – there to do what needed to be done to turn around the business and earn the company its “expected return” on the investment made. The investment of course, was based solely on spreadsheets, financial statements, and a balance sheet – with no conscious awareness of the greatest assets there.
I spent the first couple of hours walking around on the main floor – meeting and greeting the physicians, nurses, and other team members. There were about 72 of them – perhaps I met most that morning.
Around 08:45, I was upstairs unpacking in what would be my “temporary-but-for-a-while” office. I had my favorite coffee cup in my hand when a determined knock was made on my partially-open door.
I looked up to see Algie – or “Al” as most called him. With a serious look and piercing eyes he inquired, “Boss Man, got a minute?”
I invited him in…”Al, right?” I remembered him as our lead housekeeper – we’d met briefly downstairs. “What can I do for you, Al?”
He paused for a moment and then, with a bit of a nothing-to-lose perspective, took a deep breath and said, “Look, Boss. I just wanna know about you and what kind of person you are. I gotta know who we’re dealin’ with so I can decide if I’m gonna stay and work for you. If this is just another steppin’ stone for you shirt-n-tie kind of guys, just tell me. I’ve had two or three jobs most of my life – I have two full-time jobs now!”
Before I could interject, he went on…”There are a lotta good people here, Man. They work hard, but their spirits are broken. Nobody’s straight with ’em – they know this place is broken, but they don’t know what to fix ’cause nobody talks to ’em. So, what about you? You gonna fix this?”
I was stunned. And I appreciated his boldness. Then he said it…”This is your ministry, Man. Are you up for it?”
Still holding my coffee cup – perhaps tighter than ever – I asked if he’d join me for a cup. This conversation needed more time and attention. Al quickly informed me that it wasn’t time for a break, but I convinced him that we could have a cup of coffee together while we worked through his questions.
Al and I spent about the next hour together. He wanted to know about my family, my interests outside of work, and what was important to me. He asked me if I attended church and wanted to know about my relationship with God. Al was peelin’ back the onion – determined to learn about me at my very core.
I guess I passed the test, as Al finally told me “Ok, then…I guess you’re alright.” And he smiled. I asked him if that meant he was staying and he replied “Yeah, I am – for now.” So, we agreed that he would stick around at least through the week…maybe longer, if he liked what he saw.
That afternoon, we had a meeting with the entire staff. We laid it out – the good, the bad, and the opportunity. We made it clear that the business was at risk.
From that day forward, Al was a great resource. We talked just about daily – about family, life in general, and perhaps what was going on with this team member or that one.
I’d bounce ideas and strategies off of him and he’d give me one of three responses – 1) Yeah, that’d be alright – go for it; or 2) No, don’t do that!; or 3) Gimme a day or so and I’ll get back to you. And he would.
I knew what Al was doing. He was runnin’ traps with other members of the team – gauging their reaction to things like adding hours to create growth capacity. Then he’d come back and give me “his” feedback. Throughout it all, Al would remind me “Hey, Brother – I’m just a janitor.”
Our unique partnership worked magically. Granted, there were other managers imortant to the team’s success, however, the key element to our collective gain was Al’s insight and ability to bring people together. Our swingman was “just a janitor.” Indeed.
The team gelled. We gained momentum. People took ownership of quality and service. “Owners” stepped up, while “renters” rose to the occasion and bought in – or left. Either way was fine.
We became profitable in 90 days.
Ten months later, our team cleaned house at the annual company conference. I proudly returned to share their awards with them. The same team that struggled 10 months prior and was losing $100k – $150k per month received the top awards for patient satisfaction, physician satisfaction, and EBDITA improvement. Unprecedented success.
Before I moved on to manage other opportunities in our expanding region, we adjusted our organizational chart a bit. A new leadership role was added: “Algie Jones, CWO.” As in, “Chief Wisdom Officer.”
Even after I left my short-term assignment at that facility, Al and I remained friends. If I went back to Fredericksburg for a partnerhip meeting, I’d try to carve out some time to sit and chat with Al – always a way to bring perspective back in-line. Occasionally, I’d call him while doing some windshield time. Whenever we talked, he always asked about my family and reminded me “take care of your people.” So true.
It’s 9+ years later and I still talk to Al, though not quite as often. He’s enjoying a well-earned retirement with his bride of many years. He’s a deacon in his church and has a brigade of grandchildren in and around the area. And, while he’s aging and has had his share of challenges, he’s as optimistic and upbeat as ever. I never come away from a conversation with Algie with less than a smile. And a “God bless you, Brother.”
Al taught me a number of valuable lessons. The importance of transparency of management. The value of input from all levels of the organization. Tasks and titles do not define the person or their value.
Algie Jones, CWO. “Just a janitor?” Hardly.
Keep it Lit, Y’all.