Between the Chalk Dust and the Hot Rods

Ken was hiding in plain sight in the organization. Their title didn’t allow them to be considered for other ideas. They weren’t seeking out the spotlight; the job suited them just fine. In fact, they took pride in knowing their teams’ work helped the organization hum along. They had done every job asked; including the jobs most wouldn’t want to touch. Yet without their efforts there’s no way this “franchise”, let alone the parent organization, would be open for business.

I can still recall that day. A couple of friends called me up to go for a run. They were distance runners so I suggested a route that would allow us to stop off at about 2.5 km at our place of work. I could then circle back and they could carry on with their usual 10 km training. They agreed.

When we arrived we ran around the building instead of going through the front door. It was time for a drink and it was easier to get into the building at the back. As we rounded the corner we stumbled upon Ken. There were a couple of hot rods sitting in the parking lot with our colleagues working on the cars, heads down in the engines.

Winded from the pace set by my colleagues, I gasped out loud “What’s up Ken? You build hot rods!?” I was shocked, as were my colleagues.

I didn’t know it at the time but this unexpected surprise would broaden my perspective. It would also serve to ensure I check any preconceived ideas of skills others bring to a team, at the door.

You see, I had an inspired conversation with Ken a few months prior. I landed a new leadership role in the organization that put me in a position of influence to introduce new ideas and concepts. No one had really done anything new over the years – not in terms of actual outcomes you could see or interact with in any tangible way.

Looking back on that discussion, I recall it being a perfect Fall afternoon. It was cool but not cold. The leaves on the surrounding trees were bright red and gold. One could feel winter approaching but it was also far enough away that everyone could enjoy living in the present moment.

Ken leaned forward with equal parts enthusiasm and humility, “Have you considered how to improve the meeting spaces in the building? I’ve talked with some architects and thought of some creative ways of improving the communications division. I know it’s small but it could make it nicer for those visiting. We get a lot of visitors. Also, what about the conference hall? That’s a bigger challenge but the brand central to the structure could really do with some updating.”

I was overwhelmed by the ideas Ken was generating. They were both genius and possible. I also realized it would be me who would have to do most of the work up front; all of which wasn’t in my job description. That didn’t bother me – I loved the ideas and thought “why not?”

Recalling this earlier discussion with Ken, I shared these ideas with my colleagues as we looked over the cars. As I was about to tell them they were Ken’s ideas, they pulled me aside. “Jeff, please run with the projects and see how they turn out. I don’t need recognition. I’m confident they’ll succeed. If not, I’ve got your back.” I wasn’t sure why that was their position, but I respected the request.

We started with the central meeting space and worked with volunteers through the holidays. I didn’t get permission from anyone. I had a budget and knew the idea could be undone so there was really no risk. The work got completed just prior to the holidays ending and everyone returning to work.

I arrived early to see people’s reactions. The President of the organization always showed up about an hour before but never veered far from their office. The main meeting room was not a path they wandered towards upon entering the building. As people began returning the buzz escalated down the halls, and eventually into the President’s office. When they came out to see what all the noise was about, they were thrilled.

We would later implement many of the ideas that inspired others to carry on with more changes over the years. Not everything came to be, but nothing would have come to fruition if not for Ken and his team.

At one of the last “retrospectives” of the year the organization was all together. I took that time to bring Ken forward to pay recognition to the inspiration and leader – who didn’t ask for the spotlight; something that has always stayed with me as a cornerstone of leadership – for the work that had been done.

There was a collective pause. Followed shortly thereafter by thunderous applause. Ken bowed his head in thanks, turned to me, shook my hand and with a tear in his eye walked towards the back.

Field Notes

This wasn’t a story of anything you’ll find on my LinkedIn Profile. In fact, I doubt anyone will have guessed the reality of this story, so allow me to elaborate.

The year was 1991. My new position was being elected class President. The building was my high school. The main meeting space was the cafeteria which I repainted with the help of a few volunteers. I added in a speaker system to listen to music at lunch. The “architect’s” were the students in the shop class who were asked if they could build an old fashioned telephone booth for the pay phones. One of the art teachers repainted the school mascot on the centre of the gym floor. They were also inspired to paint a massive mural that was hung in the cafeteria which became a place where more students spent time.

Here’s the most interesting part of the story. Ken Coleman was the head custodian (janitor) for the high school. He worked in literally every corner of the building and had seen over two decades of students and staff coming and going.

I learned back then that a title or position within a company doesn’t necessarily equate to having the best ideas. It can however, blind one to consider possibilities outside of their own perspective and discipline. It can even have you miss out on learning about how to build the engine of a 1930 Ford Coup!

I’ve talked about the influence coaches have had on my life in sports at events and conferences. However, without question one of my earliest influences in creativity – and for ignoring an individuals’ title or role when looking for answers – was when I was 18 and spent 15 minutes with Ken.