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“Seek First to Understand Then to Be Understood”

Posted By Erin L. Lasch CAE, Wednesday, June 7, 2017

By Sharon Tinberg


I would love to take credit for those words but many of you are old enough to know whose words they are.  They are the words of Stephen R. Covey, one of the most insightful leaders the business world was ever blessed with.  He understood human behavior and how to have an impact on yours’ and others’.


I believe for this industry to continue to grow at the rapid rate it has in the past 10 years, we, as residential cleaning service owners and partners, need to improve our understanding of human behavior and, ultimately, how to positively impact it.


The most compelling reason to move in this direction is the positive impact it will have on retaining cleaners who are so very difficult to find in today’s tight employee market.  I just completed reading an article about Starbucks and the 5000 locations they intend to open up by the year 2021.  The only thing that stands between them and the success of that goal is finding enough Baristas to staff those 5000 locations.  They are already facing staffing difficulties with the locations they currently operate.  (Sound familiar?)  Their employee turnover rate is rising, recruiting is becoming more difficult, and current employees who are staying for the health benefits are not portraying the “So happy to see you look” to their clients that was once associated with Starbuck’s Baristas.  The prime employee complaints are fixing staffing issues, improving worker pay, and bridging the disconnect between Baristas and corporate workers. 


What are Starbucks executives saying?  That nothing is more important to them than their employees/Baristas.  The executives know they’re not perfect but they regularly engage in discussions with their employees, continue to tell them how valuable they are and how they couldn’t live without them.  (Sound familiar?)  Still, many employees say that Starbuck’s executives are falling short when it comes to listening to and supporting Baristas and other workers.  Perhaps the executives are seeking first to be understood and then to understand. 


I share this story with you because I have witnessed much of the same leadership behavior during my 22 visits to residential cleaning service offices in the past two years.  It can happen as early as my first day visiting an office.  The owner picks me up at my hotel.  I am ready when the owner tells me to be ready.  When we get to their office several cleaners are standing outside waiting on us to open up the door.  I can’t help but wonder how much the cleaners feel the owner appreciates them when they let ‘their valuable employees standing outside, especially when it is 104 or -10 degrees out.   And what about the great new employee that is starting that day who is always early.   It would be great to have a recording of that conversation as they’re all freezing or roasting waiting for us to get there to open the door.  Do you think that the new employee is feeling safe right about now or are they hearing things like “They’re never on time and we don’t even get paid for doing this.”?   Actually, that always amazes me.  In these offices, the cleaners were paid a percentage of the homes, not hourly, so they earned no money while they were preparing the supplies for the day.   This is perfectly legal as long as their salary divided by the total time, from the time they get to the office in the morning until they leave the office that night, comes out to minimum wage per hour. 


This preparation work is something that I did myself until I had enough money to pay someone to prepare the towels and supplies for the cleaners for the day.  If you are an owner who has been blessed with cleaners like these you should feel obligated to get there before any of your cleaners with, perhaps, water, juice, doughnuts, and/or coffee to show them how much you appreciate them.  Most of the owners who have been given this gift of time from their cleaners just take it for granted that that’s what all cleaners do.  Believe me, they do not.  Perhaps that is because many of us would never ask them to do that for nothing in the first place.   My question to the owner always is “Would you do that for nothing?”   I’ve always thought the best way to be a leader that someone wants to follow is for the leader to follow the golden rule ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. Luke 6:31NIV 

One thing, among many, that I truly admire about all 22 owners I’ve worked with is their ability to step out of the box, look at the situation as others see it, understand things as others see them, not shoot the messenger and sincerely embrace their leadership role.  I’m truly grateful for the amazing owners I’ve had the pleasure to work with and their non-ending desire to learn and grow, even though it may be painful at times.


Let’s continue with the story of the new employee who has just waited outside in 10° weather for your arrival.  You find them a place to sit, get them settled with the new hire paperwork and leave them alone so you can get the rest of the cleaners organized and out for the day.   The orientation process begins and you are very professional and organized.  You are beginning to make this new employee feel safe again.  When you are going through the employee handbook and mention employee benefits you tell the new employee that they will receive five company t-shirts.  They are very excited about that since they will not have to do laundry all week.  At the close of the orientation you ask them what size t-Shirt they wear and they say large.   You go to your supplies room to get the t-shirts and suddenly remember you only have one large left.  You now need to tell this employee you only have one t-shirt.  There goes the safety that you worked all morning to regain.  We are cleaning services.  We do not have a lot of profits to be able to offer a lot of benefits.  If you expect an employee to follow you as their leader, you better be a person of your word regarding the few benefits you said you would give them.  If you said they would get five t-shirts you need to have five t-shirts laid out on a table ready for them when they walk in the door.  Absolutely no excuses, just like you do not want to hear any excuses when one of the cleaners leaves work undone.  You left work with work undone four weeks ago when you should have ordered more t-shirts.  Is this the kind of performance you want to mentor to a new employee?  This problem only continues to get worse as the typical owner puts the t-shirts on the back burner as soon as the orientation is over and other fires arise that need to be put out first.  Before the owner realizes it one month has passed and this new employee is still washing out their t-shirt every night.  If you are lucky enough to have this cleaner stay with your company, one thing I will guarantee you is they will not be referring their cleaning friends to you. 


As leaders who want to develop followers, we need to understand how our followers feel about situations.  It takes a lot of humility to be a real leader.  Sometimes leaders make mistakes.  Not having someone at your office in a leadership role before your cleaners arrive is not demonstrating how much they mean to you.  Not having sufficient t-shirts and other cleaning tools on hand for new cleaners is not showing your new cleaner how much they mean to you.  Accept these facts, be grateful they were brought to your attention, step up to the plate, apologize and fix them and never let that happen again.  Set the kind of example you want them to follow.   Don’t forget the golden rule to do to others as they would do to you.  


Every time you tell them they are really important to you your words are falling on deaf ears.  They are thinking “I can’t be that important if you can’t remember to order my T-shirts”.   You, of course, are thinking they are being unreasonable because they don’t understand how busy you are.  I ask you, “Are you listening first to understand or are you listening first to figure out how you are going to respond?”  I submit to you that the leader who seeks first to understand and then to be understood will be the successful leader of tomorrow.



Sharon is passionate about training and the power that education can bring to others.  Sharon also has 20 years of experience managing a residential cleaning company that generated $1.98M/yr when she left it in 2008.  It was one of the largest individual residential cleaning services in the nation.  When Sharon left her company she saw a need for professional training in the residential cleaning service arena.  Holding a BA in Rhetoric and Public Address, along with numerous years of experience writing and implementing various training programs, (not to mention a bit of Spanish), Sharon was armed with the skills and knowledge necessary to enter the house cleaning training arena.  In 2008 she produced the C.O.R.E. Training DVD set that is now used by more than 1500 companies around the world and started her current consulting firm Rags to Riches   


Sharon’s cleaning service was a 3 time recipient of awards from the Austin Quality Council.  Sharon was Past President of the NW Chamber of Commerce, American Business Women’s Association and Austin Junior Forum.  She was also a board member of NW Seton Hospital and Austin Women’s Chamber of Commerce.  Sharon mentored an ‘at risk’ child for 3 years, was a puppeteer for Kids on the Block and a recipient of the Women in Power Award.  Her leadership style is gleaned from her involvement in non-profits tainted a bit by her corporate background and her 4 years of experience managing 1000 employees.


Sharon will be speaking at the ISSA/INTERCLEAN North America Trade Show and ISSA Convention in September in Las Vegas. She will be speaking on "Where Have All the Repeat Clients Gone?" For more about the 2017 Show, visit the Residential landing page on the Show website.


Tags:  employee engagement  retainment 

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