My client acquired a large company and I went along for his initial meetings with his new employees. In the afternoon he planned a company-wide address.
That morning, we met for several hours with top executives. (Talk about emotions on full display: ego, anxiety, obsequiousness, defensiveness, fear, excitement… When the new sheriff comes to town all the icy-cool corporate masks are quickly removed.)
The meeting ended at noon and when we walked out fifteen minutes later he noticed a sizable buffet set up on the other side of the atrium. There were plenty of people standing around in white coats and black slacks but no one in line or sitting at tables.
“What’s that for?” he asked a person walking past.
“The company arranged a meal for after your meeting,” she said. “A local restaurant closed for the day to come here.” She paused. “I think the chef and her staff were really excited about it,” she said, her voice trailing off at the end.
“Has anyone eaten?” he asked.
“Um, I don’t think so,” she said.
He stood looking a few moments. Even from a distance it was evident the catering staff was confused and disappointed.
“Come on,” he said to me. “We’re eating.”
And we did.
But he did more than just eat. He spent a few minutes talking to every — every — member of the staff. Many already knew who he was and while initially hesitant they quickly warmed up to him.
And why wouldn’t they? He complimented the food. He complimented the service. He joked and laughed. And when we had finished eating he said, “We can’t let great food go to waste!” and borrowed two white coats so we could serve them. Then he made the rounds of the tables and happily leaned into all the selfies.
When we finally left, he waved and smiled.
They smiled bigger.
Sure, it took a lot of his time. Sure, it took him off point and off focus and off schedule.
Sure, they loved him for it.
I already knew the answer but as we got in the car I still asked. “I know your schedule,” I said. “You didn’t have time to stop to eat. Besides, no one else did, so no one would have noticed.”
“I felt bad for them,” he said. “They tried hard to do a good job and everyone blew them off. How bad must that feel? So it was the least I could do.
“Maybe my staff thought they were too busy,” he continued. “Or maybe they thought they were too important. But clearly they were too self-absorbed to notice they were hurting other people’s feelings.”
He thought for a few seconds. “And maybe they’re the wrong people for the job, ” he said.**
Much of the time we want famous people to be so humble they don’t recognize there’s a fuss, or a special buzz surrounding, or that people are excited to see them. We want them to be oblivious to their fame or importance. (After all, if they’re tooaware… that means they’re too full of themselves.)
But what we should really want is for famous or notable people to recognize that in the eyes of others, they are special — and that other people might want something from them, even if that something is the simple recognition that what they do matters.
Because it does.
Picture a CEO walking into a building for an important meeting. Maybe he says hello to the receptionist. (Maybe.) Otherwise he only has time for the people at his level. It’s like no one else exists; they’re just unseen cogs in a giant machine.
Unfortunately, at times, we all do the same thing. We talk to the people we’resupposed to talk to. We recognize the people we’re supposed to recognize. We mesh with the cogs in the machine we’re expected to mesh with, but there are many other important cogs.
So go out of your way to smile to everyone. Or to nod. Or to introduce yourself.
And when someone does something to help you, even in the smallest way and even if it’s their job to do so, go out of your way to say thanks. Make it your mission to recognize the people behind the tasks: the people that support, that assist, and that make everything possible.
Even though most of us aren’t famous or notable, by recognizing people — especially those who have been conditioned not to expect to be recognized — we add a little extra meaning and dignity to their lives.
And that’s the best reason to go off point, off focus, and off task.
Although, when you think about it, you really aren’t taking yourself away from an important task. You’re just shifting to an equally important task: showing people they matter — especially to you.
** Six months later only three of the original 22 remained.