The Importance of Knowing What is Important

by Colin Berkshire

I’ve been a corporate executive most of my career. I was one of the lucky ones that made it to the executive suite in my late 20s and who has has relatively long tenures at the companies I have worked for. But I am also one of the executives that wears blue jeans to the office (with a nice shirt) and who spends time walking the floor and talking with staff at absolutely every level.

I’m old school enough that if I walk into a company bathroom that is a mess I will go over, pull out a mop and mop down the floor (usually lingering long enough for several people to come in and see me diligently doing it.) It isn’t that I have nothing important to do. (Quite the contrary.) But I lead by example. There is no task that I will ask anybody to do that I am unwilling to do. And, I love to get caught doing something that allows me to teach a lesson.

The lesson that comes from cleaning the bathroom is one of attention to detail. If we allow our bathroom to become messy then we will soon allow our hallways to become disorganized. Then, we will acquire disorganized file systems. It will no longer matter if a few callers get lost. Then, our product wrappers can be flawed and finally our product quality will drop. It is attention to detail that starts at the top and which becomes a way of living that drives a company to excellence.

But it can be done the wrong way, too…

Consider a company that builds a large opulent headquarters. (I am not specifically referring to spaceship buildings, but it applies.) At first you might think that this sends the message of quality and attention to detail to employees. But it doesn’t. It sends the message of superiority and affluence. Employees who are coddled in luxury act like any aristocracy does: with disdain towards the common customer. (“If you are so smart, why aren’t you working here.”) And, since the employees are so superior they are above question, criticism, or customer needs.

I have seen this happen countless times in my career. A company moves into an opulent new headquarters building and the company becomes arrogant and indifferent. Product quality drops. But the employees, feeling their conspicuous superiority, simply don’t realize that they aren’t paying attention. They have lost their edge. They a=have become…complacent.

So while we keep our bathrooms clean, and we have an immaculately organized accounting system, and we take price in producing outstanding products, our offices are a message of practicality. We have never forgotten that our goal is to service our customers. That everything we do is driven to maximize value for our customers…not for ourselves.

A corporate palace simply cannot be a message to the employees that the customers are the most important thing in the world. An opulent headquarters facility cannot send the message of delivering value to customers as a primary mission.

Time and again, companies that move into new headquarters buildings soon find that their products have become mediocre and their organization’s shine is lost. You see, it is really about paying attention to the important details. A clean bathroom is much more important than mahogany floors.