The Lawnmower Man

Recently I was on the campus of Wayne State University, a large public university, close to downtown Detroit, Michigan. I was meeting up with a mentor who was at a conference to go over some business development plans I was hoping to be vetted. I’d never been on campus before and was doing my best to find the correct building with my iPhone and Google Maps. As I was looking at a campus map on a street corner, a gentleman stopped me and asked if I needed help.

But this wasn’t just any gentleman

He was a Wayne State employee. But he wasn’t just any Wayne State employee. He was one of the men who was on the lawn maintenance crew. He was on his large lawn tractor – on the sidewalk – in the middle of Detroit. He asked us if we were looking for the conference. I guess we looked the part. He gave us specific instructions on where the building was. He even went the extra mile and asked if he could help us with anything else. We joked and asked if he knew where we could find a good cup of coffee. Without missing a beat, the man gave us directions to a local place we could go. He then offered a handshake and drove off on his tractor. A few blocks later, we arrived at our cross street and headed for the building. He was waiting for us mowing a spot of grass. He recognized us and waved us toward the building. Later in the afternoon while we had coffee in our hands, we happened to walk by him again on another part of campus. He simply smiled, and gave us a salute. We hoisted our coffees in triumph towards him.  Question:  Who is he representing on a lawn mower?

I flashed back to about fifteen years ago when I attended my first employee retreat at a higher ed institution. I worked in the marketing and communication office and was building a new website and making promotional videos. One of the sessions had all of the VPs bring a report to the entire faculty and staff. The VP for admissions began his presentation by asking the entire audience, “Who by a show of hands is an admissions officer at Spring Arbor University? A few people in the admissions office raised their hands. Then a few others trickled. Then I got it as others began to tentatively raise their hands. All of us were admissions reps. Wherever we go, we represent the university. Since then, he has begun every employee retreat the same way. Now, everyone gets the memo.

Flashing forward to Wayne State, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lawnmower guy. I wish I would have asked his name. I thought that if I had a kid thinking about college and Wayne State wasn’t on my radar, I’d give it a look because of the guy that mows the lawn. I’d hire a guy like that because he gets culture.  He makes a difference for the university and it’s more than just landscaping.

He understands that even the guy that mows the lawn is an representative.

Dan Pink wrote about the hidden motives that drive us and it’s not money. In his book, Drive, he notes that the things that matter most in our work are autonomy, meaning, connection, etc. Dr. Gayle Beebe, president of Westmont College and author of “The Shaping of an Effective Leader:  Eight Formative Principles Leadership” coined a phrase “meaningful work with meaningful people”.

Meaning matters

Two years ago, I was in my second year of my first executive leadership role. I had made some major changes in the department, budget, direction, and personnel. We did an all-staff one day all-employee retreat. One of the greatest compliments I heard that week as all departments gathered was someone said, “I wish I could work in your department. You have something we don’t”. At first I felt sadness for the person who shared that vulnerability. Later, little did I know at the time, but that statement was the answer to culture question. It wasn’t that our team was popular. I’d submit they saw a couple of things:

  1. Love. I’m a heart-based leader. Everyone who knows me knows my leadership is messy. It’s more Photoshop than Excel. I lead like I want to be led. I inject lots of eating, movies, “adventures” and fun in the way we work when we meet together face-to-face. As we develop life outside of work, share personal things including pain, we deepen. We began to love each other. Keep in mind that we’re not all best friends. It’s not perfect. But we genuinely love each other in our diversity. The love is for shared vision and for each other. People can spot a fake. I think they may have seen genuine love.
  2. Synergy. We worked on this a lot together as we rewote the book on what is the role of our team, what we produce and why. We all were in sync with this. We understand our role on the team and the value it brings to the greater organization. This synergy is life giving to the team and infectious to others.
  3. Transparency. Many departments and teams desire to succeed so much that there’s a pressure to perform which also creates a parallel expectation that failure is bad. I began from day one to share with my team that we will celebrate and learn from our mistakes just as much – if not more – than our successes. That frees us up to work without fear. I think the transparency gives energy and peace that people pick up on.
  4. Success. At the time where I started to pick up on our culture being infectious, I realized that we had a few key wins under our belt. They were hard wins. But they were important. People respect a winning culture and mentality. I think they saw it.

Culture isn’t something that can be manufactured or microwaved. Anyone that has succeeded at it knows it takes time. Just because I’m writing about this now doesn’t make me an expert. We’ve had seasons where culture is been on and off. Leadership is not a fine art because it’s working with people and we’re messy.  I think key for me thus far as I’ve stumbled, succeeded and failed is to be open, consistent (still a growing edge) listen to mentors as well as my team, focus on the mission, and trust my instincts more.

And, as my team continues to grow, look to add people who are more than technicians. People who do their work differently and see it as mission – meaningful — and important. People like the lawnmower guy.

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