How to put people first even when you’re busy
This is the story of Jared. Jared is one of our amazing students at Student Maid.
Every now and then, I meet a team member who turns my heart into complete mush. Jared is one of them. He was hired for a temporary position during our busy season, a time when we have only a few short weeks to clean hundreds of empty, filthy, student apartments. The work is stressful and physically hard, and it’s not uncommon for people to complain and question why they signed up for this job in the first place. But Jared never complained (not once), he was never in a bad mood (not even on the toughest days), and he never questioned his decision to clean empty apartments (not even when he opened a fridge to find rotting meat, maggots, and flies). When our busy season was over, it only made sense to offer Jared a job on our year-round team.
At the time, Jared didn’t have a car, and not having a reliable means of transportation would make working at Student Maid year-round pretty difficult. Our students carpool from client to client (we do not have company cars; they are paid for driving time and reimbursed for mileage), but Jared didn’t want his teammates to have to drive him all the time, so he saved up and bought a car. A few days after he bought it, it broke down. So he saved up again and got it fixed.
In case you aren’t in love with Jared yet, I’ll go on: He’s one of the kindest, sweetest souls I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with (and that says a lot, seeing that I’ve employed thousands of people over the last decade). Our customers love him and his teammates love him even more. He has only positive and uplifting things to say to those around him, and I’m pretty sure he was born with a permanent smile on his face. Lucky for us, Jared’s been with Student Maid for close to a year now (and hopefully will be with us many more).
A few weeks ago, Jared came into the office visibly distressed. I could tell by his demeanor that he was upset about something, which isn’t like him, so I immediately knew something was wrong. I asked him if everything was okay and he told me that someone had just stolen his backpack from a nearby restaurant parking lot. He’d put the bag on top of his car, forgot it was there, gone into the restaurant to pick up some food, and now the backpack was nowhere to be found.
Poor Jared. Theft is always devastating, but this was especially upsetting for him because his laptop happened to be in that backpack. A laptop that housed hours and hours of videos he had filmed over the last several months that weren’t backed up anywhere else. He’s been in the process of producing a documentary about Student Maid—a final project for one of his college classes that is due at the end of the month—and now it was all just . . . gone. Months and months of hard work. An expensive laptop. Footage he could never get back. $140 cash. A lot for a college student to lose. A lot for anyone to lose.
My heart sank as Jared told me what happened. He’d asked the restaurant manager for help, but she was “too busy” to help him find the culprits. Noticing that there were cameras in the parking lot, he asked if he could take a look at the footage. Again, she was “too busy.” Not sure what to do next, he came to our office, which was right around the corner.
I couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for all this: Jared and I were supposed to meet that afternoon so he could interview me for his documentary. He stopped at the restaurant to grab a quick bite before heading over to set up his equipment, but he was distracted. Because my speaking and consulting work takes me out of Gainesville often, Jared felt pressure to conduct the “perfect” interview. He worried that if he messed it up there wouldn’t be another time to film me in the foreseeable future, and that would be a problem for his grade. And now we couldn’t film anything because his laptop—a critical piece of the documentary-making puzzle—had been stolen. He was devastated.
The timing of all this couldn’t have been worse for Jared, but to be honest, it couldn’t have been worse for me either. I had just left an intense meeting with my leadership team and we had so many important deadlines and projects that we were working to finish by the end of the week. For me, it was actually a blessing that Jared and I couldn’t do the filming that day because I was so overwhelmed with all of the work I had to do that I wasn’t sure I could be in the right mindset for the interview. But of course, my heart was aching for him.
…which brings me to the whole point of this blog post.
In that moment—with Jared standing right in front of me, devastated—and with a ton of overwhelming work piled onto my plate—I had to make a choice. Do I give Jared a hug, say I’m sorry about his backpack, tell him to let me know when he wants to reschedule, and then go back to my work? Or do I stop what I’m doing and help him track down the backpack, even if that means bringing my work home with me and pulling a really late night?
The truth is, neither of those options were good ones at the time. If I didn’t help Jared, he wouldn’t feel cared for. But if I did—and I worked a late night because of it—I wouldn’t be at my best the next day, and my team and my work would suffer from that. So what was I supposed to do? I had to do something.
I decided to stop what I was doing and find someone who could help him.
I walked Jared down the hall until I found BOB. (If you’ve read Permission to Screw Up, you know that BOB is my mom. She works with us part-time and her name stands for Boss Of Boss, a title she clearly gave to herself.) I told BOB what happened and asked if she could help Jared call the police and file a report, as well as accompany him to the restaurant and attempt to get the security footage from the world’s “busiest” manager. Several hours later, a police report had been filed, Jared had been interviewed about what happened, and they were able to track down the footage. BOB stayed with him the entire time. (The icing on the cake was Jared’s car wouldn’t start after all that. Poor guy. So, I found someone on the team who knew a lot about cars and asked her to help him. Luckily they got it working.)
Turns out, even though I wasn’t the one to physically help Jared that day, it still had a huge impact on him. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing his thoughts with all of you. Here’s what he said:
“When BOB helped me through the entire process of calling the police and helping me out after I lost my bag, I felt comforted, extremely thankful, and a lot less stressed about the situation in general. BOB has a profound way of getting things done and handling stressful situations like that one and I’m thankful that she was there to help that day, along with the rest of my Student Maid family.
Here’s what that day with Jared taught me: As leaders, we are supposed to take care of people and help them. It is our duty to put our people first. But sometimes we can’t. It's hard. We want to, but we aren’t physically able to and that’s okay—as long as we find someone else who can help when we can’t. I still gave Jared several big hugs. I still checked in on him later that day to make sure he was feeling okay. I still told our students what happened and asked them to send him messages of encouragement. I still followed up with Jared to see if the police ever found the culprits (to this day, the criminal has not been caught). I still scheduled another interview with him a few weeks later and moved some meetings around to make it happen in time for his deadline. But in that moment—when Jared was standing in front of me completely devastated—I could not be what he needed me to be. So I had to find someone who could.
Putting people first doesn’t mean we always have to drop everything we’re doing and jump in when someone needs our help. It can also mean finding someone who can jump in when we aren’t able to do so. Whether we personally help or find someone else who can, the result is still the same: Our people will feel important, cared for, and supported.
Here’s what I hope you’ll take from this story and Jared’s experience:
Remember that people have real stuff going on in their lives. Just like Jared, they could have had something devastating happen to them right before walking into your office. If someone seems off, ask how they are doing and check to make sure they are okay.
Create the space for people to ask for help. In my company we always start meetings with personal check-ins: Each person has two minutes to tell the team what is going on in their personal lives. Some talk about their weekends. Some talk about stuff they are struggling with. When someone needs help, we find someone to help them right after the meeting is over.
If you aren’t in the right mindset to truly help someone, don’t. Don’t “half” help. Find someone who can really help and support that person. We all deserve that.
Consider your own needs. As leaders, we can’t take care of everyone all the time. We have to take care of ourselves too. I could spend all day helping everyone in my company, but would that be good for my business? Our future? My mental health? If we aren’t at our personal best, we can’t help anyone else be at their best. It’s okay to consider our own needs and decide not to jump in when someone needs us. It’s nothing to feel guilty about. It doesn’t mean we love them any less. Find someone else who can help and don’t beat yourself up.
Hope this resonated with you.
**UPDATE** Jared was able to finish his documentary and submit it on time for his class. He got an A! Our team pulled together to help him compile interviews and footage. We screened the documentary for our entire company. It made me cry. You can watch it here.