Inside Perspective: Dignity

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

I remember a few years back listening to Bill Pollard speak about what made his business, The ServiceMaster Company successful.    ServiceMaster was recognized by many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine and the Financial Times for its many successes.  You may remember that ServiceMaster was, at its most basic level, a janitorial service.  As such, it employed people who did the work that most of us would rather not even think about.  Bill Pollard also happens to be a lawyer.

Bill spoke about  how his company worked hard to recognize the contributions of the “lowly” janitor – the most basic part of the “who” who made up the ServiceMaster workforce.  He helped them understand that they were a respected member of the team, essential to the success of the company.  He greeted them in the morning and told them they were doing a great job.   As CEO, Bill made it the culture of this company to recognize the contribution of every worker, from the bottom to the top, but especially those at the “bottom,” who did the work that made the company what it was.

We as inside counsel are an integral part of creating and nurturing a culture of respect and dignity within our own companies (and quite frankly, beyond).  Generally, the inside counsel is looked upon as a respected member of the senior management team.  By this statement, written with true humility, I do not mean to elevate the lawyer beyond his or her due, but rather to simply recognize that we do occupy positions of influence within our companies.  Some of us influence the CEO, some of us influence the VP of Marketing and some of us influence the front line sales team or the purchasing departments.  No matter where our sphere of influence extends, we can do much to help our team members adopt a level of respect and an attitude of honor for those who are “below” them in the corporate food chain.  Each person within that food chain has an important job to do and if they do not do it correctly, the company will fail.

Pollard spoke of a famous cardiac surgeon, known for his high success rate and pioneering methods in  saving patients who would have been written off as lost causes by less talented doctors.  Needless to say this doctor who literally made life and death decisions every single day of his life could have had quite an ego.  However, Pollard told our small group about the day the doctor approached the ServiceMaster employee who was cleaning the operating room after one of his more difficult surgeries.  He asked the man his name, asked him about his family and his history and other aspects of his life.  Most importantly, the doctor thanked him for doing such a fine job in cleaning his operating room.  The doctor told the man that he (the doctor) could never do what he does, could never heal otherwise terminally ill people, could not save one life, without the excellence with which the simple janitor went about his duties on a day-to-day basis.  The doctor helped this man understand that he played a very important role in a very important business, even though all he did was clean up after the doctor.

Do you think the janitor worked any less diligently after hearing those encouraging words from the doctor?  Of course not.  As in-house counsel, we need to build very real relationships of mutual respect within our own companies not only so that our team works harder to help us be successful – but because it is the right thing to do.


One response to “Inside Perspective: Dignity

  1. Dan,

    This is one of your best columns yet. Extremely well said.


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