Without filters | GUEST OPINION

Last week I met Debbie, who supervises the janitorial teams at a number of facilities in downtown Seattle including everything from historic office buildings to modern skyscrapers housing an array of government agencies and officials — an imposing stretch of real estate and a huge responsibility.

Debbie is a highly capable leader by any measure. She demonstrates the most amazing qualities of no-nonsense wisdom and common sense, delivered in a straightforward manner completely without pretense. Most books on leadership would be irrelevant in Debbie’s world because they focus so much on the pretensions, power struggles, and complex masks most of us experience at work. Neither Debbie nor her team worry about any of this because everyone on the team experiences the world differently from most people — they live in the unfiltered world of the present, simply being their honest selves. They are people with developmental conditions the rest of us would label “disabilities,” which is simply another way of saying “not like me.”

And what do Debbie and her crew of janitors accomplish every night? They keep over 50 floors of critical government office space spotless. They handle all snow removal and de-icing of sidewalks. They clean the elevators, stairwells, restrooms, offices, lunchrooms, and ornamental architecture. They manage dumpsters, recycling, and waste disposal. They polish the brass and marble. They consistently receive “outstanding” performance ratings in quarterly tenant meetings. They are embraced as an integral part of the community of government employees in a major American city, without whom the most powerful nation on earth could not do its work every day.

That was Wednesday. Then Thursday I took two business colleagues on a tour of our manufacturing facilities. When we finally reached Michelle’s workstation she wanted to show off her new teeth and tell us about the whole process of her recent oral surgery. “Money,” she explained, getting immediately to the heart of the matter. “Shot,” she added, gesturing to her gums as if clarifying a great mystery. Then she wanted to know what I was doing for Thanksgiving. “Eat turkey?” she hazarded. “Drink beer?” she added hopefully, with the bottoms up gesture known to tipplers the world over.

But when I returned to the production floor Friday with another guest, Michelle waved us over with a very different purpose in mind. “Show you,” she said, urgently gesturing for us to wait. She dug around in her backpack for a minute until she found what she was looking for, a thick legal size envelope. She removed the contents, a five or six page document, and unfolded them so we could see the top page.

PRODUCTION WORKER-1 it said in bold letters across the top — a job description. Michelle pointed at the papers, then pointed at herself. “Me,” she said, beaming with her brand new teeth. “Wait,” she commanded as she thumbed through the pages looking for something else. She found the page she was looking for and folded back the rest to show us. APPLICATION FOR EMPLOYMENT it said across the top. Michelle slowly ran her finger under the words for emphasis then pointed to herself — “Job,” she announced proudly.

That Debbie defines leadership and quality in its purest forms, and with her team helps government function effectively in the Pacific Northwest, is a tribute to the power of diversity, to the contribution made by people of all abilities. That Michelle has completed an extensive training and (in effect) apprenticeship and is about to become a fulltime employee of a profitable manufacturing company that packages high quality goods for some of the leading brands in the nation, is a tribute to the power of diversity, to the contribution made by people of all abilities. By the way, watch for Michelle’s product next time you’re in your favorite outdoor equipment store, no, not the discount chain — I’m talking about the high-end one downtown.

Debbie and Michelle have so much to teach us about what is important, about the essential qualities of life, work, and leadership that are so often obscured by the static that consumes most of our attention. This is the power of diversity, that it teaches and reveals and enriches us in the most wonderful way.

Tom Everill is President & CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.



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