Our local weekly business journal (HBJ) featured a short article by John Nemo author of Fired Up: Ignite Your Passion, Love Your Work. Live Your Legacy! The article headline was about what a NASA janitor can teach us about living a bigger life. Nemo’s thesis was an instruction, or challenge, to trade our false sense of fulfillment via fame, fortune … or next generation iPhone for a “bigger story”. Instead, he asks “what if we decide instead to go a different, more mythic route? What if we decide to explore why we’re here, discovering what we love to do and how our unique gifts and talents can impact this planet and leave a legacy that goes beyond stock options and private swimming pools?”
Nemo’s article began:
During a visit to the NASA space Center in 1962, President John Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour and walked over to the man and said, “I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” “Well, Mr. President”, the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon”!
The story’s intent was to encourage the reader to consider seeing our work role as contributing to the larger story unfolding within our lives, our businesses, in our organizations. That “larger story” context reminded me of another story from C. William Pollard’s book, The Soul of the Firm. Pollard’s story was about a janitor as well. The janitor’s name was Shirley and she worked at a hospital. You see, Pollard was the CEO (retired) of ServiceMaster Corporation, whose principal business was building maintenance.
Pollard’s context was the complementary flipside of Nemo’s emphasis; at ServiceMaster they made sure that Shirley understood that her task was not just cleaning terrazzo and porcelain. Rather, as a result of the intentional attention to culture and purpose, Shirley understood that she was an integral part of the healing process in that hospital.
While Nemo’s janitor was helping put a man on the moon, the janitor likely understood his role in the mission from the highest levels of the organization. A sense of contribution, belonging and meaning in every job is usually an intentional understanding communicated by the organization’s leadership.
Great organizations thrive because they “run” on inspiration that comes from work meaning. In his book, Intrinsic Motivation at Work, Kenneth W. Thomas, states succinctly “engagement is the outcome of meaningful work.” And where does meaningful work originate? In the minds of janitors? No, rather it begins at the highest echelons of the organization where leadership declares and communicates the organization’s purpose.
Purpose yields meaning. Meaning inspires. Everyday.