In my position, I have an opportunity to rub shoulders with executives from all walks of business. The vast majority of them are capable, competent and driven. They know exactly what they want and most of them are well on their way to realizing their goals. Almost all are confident. After all, nobody follows a leader who’s not. Unfortunately, many suffer from a disease common to executives – pride.
If you ask many executives, “Who is the most important employee in your company?” they will point to some top-level executive. Many will even point to themselves. The evidence they use to justify this answer is the fact that they’re the highest paid employee, therefore, they must be the most valuable.
Please allow me to share a story from my early career and then ask the question again.
30 years ago I ran a meat processing company. Because we dealt with raw meat, we were inspected at all times (day and night) by an inspector from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA.) His job was to make sure the cleanliness of the factory and methods of processing met the government’s high standard – a standard that ensures the food we buy is safe to eat. If at any time he sees something that is outside the written standards, he has the power to immediately close the factory until everything gets resolved.
One day, I arrived at work to see over 200 employees standing in the parking lot. I thought, “What are these people doing? We have some big orders we need to ship and we don’t have time for extra breaks.” I got out of my car and walked up to the supervisor and asked what was going on. He said nothing. He just pointed to a yellow tag on the door. We had been shut down by the USDA.
I went inside and found the inspector. Unlike some inspectors we had worked with, this man was a good man who cared about our success. He was truly sorry he had to shut us down. But it turned out, after the afternoon shift had finished, the cleaning man had done an especially sloppy job. In fact, the place was unacceptable in every way – both to the inspector and to me. I got permission from the inspector to let us bring in a crew and get the mess cleaned up and get back to work.
We lost six hours of productivity that day because we were shut down. That was six hours we could ill-afford to lose, and six hours that we never got back.
So, let me ask again – who is the most important employee in your company? I would submit to you that in this company the most important employee was the guy who cleaned the factory. At least in that moment. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or your marketing team, or your accounting people, or anyone else. If the cleaning person doesn’t do his job, none of those other superstars will ever have the opportunity to do theirs.
Still not convinced? Consider this: if you don’t do your job today what happens? Sure, things slow down, but it will be weeks or months before the company is out of business and the doors are closed. What about your marketing or accounting people? Same thing. If they don’t do their jobs today, it’s weeks before it will impact the company to the point that it shuts it down. But the cleaning person (or crew) – one or two minimum wage employees – have the potential to very literally shut your business down in a matter of hours if they fail to do their jobs.
So, who is the most important employee? It’s true that the company can’t flourish without top-notch senior leadership. It’s also true that the company can’t reach its potential without a great marketing team, accounting team and support staff. But the thing we all need to understand is that if the person on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder doesn’t do his or her job as well as the people farther up the ladder, those people farther up will never get a chance to show what they can do.
The point is this: there are no unimportant jobs in your company. You’ve already eliminated the unimportant positions. If you haven’t, shame on you. So, every position in your company is important.
Which brings us back the original question: which employee is the most important? Well, I suppose if you’re a “glass-half-empty” kind of person, there isn’t a “most important” employee. Or, for those who are of the “glass-half-full” persuasion, every employee is the most important employee.
Meaning, of course, that every employee is critical in his or her sphere of influence. In successful companies, the person at the bottom of the ladder is as engaged and excited about the direction and success of the company as the person at the top. You can’t motivate the top third of the company and somehow think they are going to have enough strength to drag the bottom two thirds along with them. It doesn’t work that way.
Following is a little exercise that will help you to see your employees in a way you may have never seen them before.
Next time you take a walk through your company, look at each employee and think, “At some point in the day (or the week, or the month) – even if only for a minute or two – this person is the most important employee in my company.” It will change how you see them. It will change how you treat them. And most of all, it will change not only how they feel about you, but how willing they are to follow you.
So, to circle back, are you the most important employee in your company? Yes, you are. At some point in each and every day, you are personally responsible for the success of your company and you are the most important employee. You and each and every one of the people around you.