Make sure you clean the teaspoons

Last week, one of our research directors in the London office upbraided me, suggesting the number of unwashed teaspoons in the kitchen sink was directly correlated to my now being permanently located in the London office and drinking voluminous cups of tea! 

Perhaps I should add a little context as to why this is important.

After founding RFi Group 11 years ago, I have recently relocated from our Sydney office, where across 1000 m2 we have 80 staff, numerous meetings rooms, internal training rooms, a conference centre, bathrooms, showers, bike rooms etc and most importantly, a large kitchen with a suite of dishwashers; to our London office, which is closer to 200 m2. 

The UK team is currently 30 people but growing rapidly and therefore crammed into a tiny office, with a minuscule kitchenette ( with no dishwasher), a single bathroom and a large cupboard moonlighting as a ‘meeting room’, not enough desk to go round and competition to get onto the wifi!

The advantages are; you don’t need to try and bring energy into the room, it is full of energy, noise and dynamism – a classic start-up like environment, as compared to the large corporate space we inhabit in Sydney ( which is lovely – don’t get me wrong).  Culture is like a house plant – it needs constant attention, tending and care otherwise you turn around one day to discover its died quietly in the corner. This is not an issue in a small office. Secondly, I am back sitting on the floor in the middle of all the mayhem. I did this for 10 years in Sydney and only on the last year succumbed to pressure and sat in a big glass, goldfish bowl - aka an office.  I read once that Michael Bloomberg refused to sit in an office but always had everyone in open-plan seating and after 12 months in an office, I couldn’t agree more! Whether you’re running a team, a business, or a company - you absolutely need to be in the middle of it to understand the detail of what is going on – the atmosphere, the buzz, the general vibe of the team is critical – all a glass wall or door does, is cut you off from knowing what is essential and from your colleagues.  Aside from the negative cultural effects of this, you’re missing the detail and the detail is key… which brings me back to the teaspoons.

As a dual Australian-British citizen, I have to drink tea when I’m outside Australia. This is because, as an Australian, I know that only in Australia is there good, quality, coffee ( sorry Italy, but it’s true) and as an Englishman, I am culturally required to only drink tea during the day. So, why is it so important to make sure I clean the teaspoons?

One of the many interesting things about the New Zealand All Blacks ( I tried to get through this blog without a sporting analogy, but again, I am Australian) is that after each test match, once they’ve showered and changed and before they do anything else, each All Black grabs a broom and sweeps up the dressing room floor. They don’t let anyone else do it - but each test player from of one of the world’s greatest and most successful sporting teams - pitches in and sweeps the floor. The reason for this is humility. Humility is a key ingredient to success. On the flip side, a lack of humility i.e. arrogance often leads to downfall.  Think Jeff Skilling at Enron, Fred Goodwin at RBS, AIG, Travis Kalanick at Uber, Hillary Clinton in the US election, David Cameron and Brexit, the England football team at any point in the last 20 years (!), the list goes on. A lack of humility leads to not being across the detail, not being part of the team, no longer being close to the team, to your colleagues and importantly, to your customers.  Someone once said to never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself and that is one of the keys to leadership.  Lead from the front, sweep the floor and sweat the details.  How often do you hear, “He/ She is all high and mighty and thinks it’s beneath them.”? In dysfunctional teams, all the time. Crucially, not only are you not aware of any unhappy customers/ processes not working/ or product imperfection, but your dysfunctional team is unlikely to alert you to it.

So, practice humility, stay grounded and be part of the team - as well as leading it.

When visiting NASA, John F Kennedy asked a man sweeping the floor what he did. He replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Any team only works well when everyone feels that they are part of that team and contributing equally to the team – so, if you are the leader or one of the stars, practice humility and make sure you clean up the teaspoons.

If you like this blog, find it useful, or think it’s interesting, please share it and if you have any questions at all please feel free to comment – I am always open to a conversation.

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