Don't be the CEO, be the Caretaker

I used to walk to my high-school every day during spring time. I was lucky enough to be in walking distance from my daily go-to obligation. And I very profoundly remember my high school caretaker. Let’s call him Joe. Some might call him the doorkeeper, or the janitor. For me, the most appropriate title is Joe, the “caretaker”. I will explain why.

Joe was living in a tiny little house by the school’s gate. Every morning he was the first to open the gate for everyone to enter the school and every night he’d be the last one to lock it. Practically, he was the first person in the school in the morning and the last out in the evening.

Due to his position and responsibilities, Joe was coming daily, face to face with every stakeholder of the school. He would meet the teachers, the employees. He would meet the students, the clients. He would meet with technical personnel, the suppliers. He was kind enough to have a small chit-chat with everyone across the value chain.

Joe was a middle-aged man with a big-ass smile. He probably had lots of troublings of his own but nonetheless he had this warm, welcoming smile. Joe was very approachable and every time you walked passed him he would give you the impression that he runs things around the school.

Joe also always seemed that he knew everyone’s secrets.

Teachers would always stop before the entrance barrier. Now that I am thinking of it, it seems that Joe didn’t want to keep the barrier always open during morning time, even though most of the personnel was entering the premises during that time. He wanted to have a few minutes for a short chit-chat with everyone before they enter the premises. So teachers would roll down their car window, Joe would welcome them and wish them good-morning. He would ask them something slightly more intimate, like “Is your daughter feeling any better?” and then he would nod for them to carry on, rewarding them with a warm smile. Sometimes he’d just wink to teachers. As if he knew what’s bothering them and that little wink would be that friendly tap on the shoulder; the “keep strong in there buddy”. I am not sure how Joe managed to keep track of everyone’s affairs. I guess he was so of an approachable guy that you just couldn’t resist to share more personal things with him. I mean, you can’t be perceived as silly or ungrateful by a smiling doorkeeper, can you?

Joe was also a man of craftsmanship. Most of the repairs, whether they were electrical, mechanical or plain brick-and-mortar, Joe was the guy to take care of them. And probably that’s why many teachers went the extra mile and asked him to fix things too. “Check the pressure of my tires Joe, will ya?”. Those kind of things. Employees of the school were not embarrassed to ask the doorkeeper for what they needed or wanted. Joe was always there, helpful to everyone.

I remember Joe always asking me “What did you learn today?” while I was leaving school. Of course, he was never looking for a specific answer. That was the kind of question that would kickstart a discussion that would eventually reveal some of our concerns. Some of the kids would tell him it was too cold in the classroom and Joe would turn up the thermostat the next day. Some would say the net of one of the basketball hoop is torn and he would go ahead and replace it. It is amazing, but in a school of a few hundred students, Joe was the go-to person for day-to-day feedback. He was making sure the students were being taking care of the way they should. He cared for the school’s customers.

During breaks, sometimes we would see Joe moving packages around. Taking care of the garbage. Mopping the basketball court and the stairs. I guess no one can confirm but Joe probably was spending a fair amount of time with the school suppliers too. I am sure he knew them by their first names too and probably even knew a few more intimate stuff for them as well. I am sure he knew what was being delivered to whom and when and I’d bet he has sent a few shipments back as unacceptable. I am also sure he was the only one in the whole school who knew what brand of garbage bags we were using for the trash bins and why, when the lights were programmed to go on and off and which tap outside wanted wrapping during winter time in order not to go frozen and broken.

Joe was probably the only one guy in the whole organization who knew how everything worked. Well, probably not exactly how it worked, but what was going well or wrong with something. And don’t get me wrong, Joe wasn’t the dude who was involved in gossip or eavesdropping on what people say around the offices. Joe was street smart, he had his ear to the ground. He would keep hold on information that looked important to his role but utterly let go of the noise.

Did Joe own the school? Nope. Was he the one who technically ran it? Nope. But does it matter? He probably knew more about it than the one who owned it and ran it. And he served the stakeholders revolving around it more than anyone else . He knew the ups and downs of them and kept trying to fix them little-by-little on his own time, in a humble and heartfelt way behind the curtains of his little building by the entrance. No one gave Joe credit and he never sought for it. He drew his energy from the little things in the background he improved on every day.

Which brings us to my point. When you are in charge of a company, you’re mostly in charge of people. You are in charge of your employees, of your clients, of your partners, of your suppliers and all the people involved in the value chain of your industry. And being in charge, doesn’t only mean directing, it mostly means servicing. Like Joe, you need to be the first man in the business in the morning and the last to leave the building. You need to know everyone by their first name and you need to know their most important concerns. You need to listen carefully what’s going on around you and you need to act quickly to make course adjustments on everything that affects and effects your business. Don’t hurry up to strap on your Facebook and Twitter bio the CEO title, cause that title is not a medal, it’s a burden. And when the shit hits the fan, you need to be the guy who mops it off the floor.

So don’t hurry to be a CEO, strive to be the caretaker.

Many thanks to @hsoc, @kbariotis, @modkaffes, @_margaritis for taking the time to suggest edits to this article