Leadership landed me a job. Just not in a way you might think.
I always plan to show up early for every appointment—“ just in case.” There are many variables, from traffic to parking to finding the right building and floor. I don’t always get there early, but I do plan for it.
This was one of those days when everything just clicked. No traffic. Open parking. Bizarrely smooth sailing. I turned out to be 20 minutes early.
I killed time by buying coffee and a magazine, and I went in to see the receptionist. I could just sit and relax and read and wait.
It was the summer of 2001. I had just started my career as a business coach for some big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Bear Sterns. This was going to be a big account for me, if I got the job. I was supposed to meet with some guy named Alex—a bigwig, senior VP. I had my pitch completely nailed. I had practiced exactly what I was going to say to land the account. I had it down cold. I was so confident I was simply going to enjoy the magazine and my coffee in the waiting area.
This story sticks out in my mind because of one singular image: the ladies’ room. I was in a professional office building; I expected certain things. One of them was a relatively clean restroom. But I was shocked when I walked in. It was a mess. Something akin to “the horror” Col. Kurtz was talking about in Apocalypse Now.
I emerged from my stall to see a woman, a businesswoman, cleaning up—picking up the paper towels, wiping up the sink area. I was so impressed that I immediately mimicked her actions. I didn’t want anyone to think I was in any way responsible for contributing to this catastrophe.
I attempted to make small talk and support her plan of attack, saying, “A woman’s work is never done…”
“Do you think women feel so at ease in here they are truly themselves, or is it the opposite, and they just stop caring?” she asked me, then scooted out the door.
I returned to my coffee and magazine in the waiting area until the receptionist ushered me into the vice president’s office for my big interview. And there she sat: the woman from the ladies’ room.
“Hi, I’m Mel.”
“Nice to meet you, Mel; I’m Alex.” Silly for me, of all people, to think I had to be meeting a guy.
“I have to tell you, Alex, you really got me thinking about bathroom etiquette,” I said. “I think people just don’t think it’s their job. They know someone else will take care of it.”
Alex replied quickly: “Then I think most people are missing the point.”
“You are absolutely right. I learned one thing today. A true leader leaves the bathroom cleaner than they found it. You are someone I definitely have to work with.”
And with that, I had the job. No planned speech, no résumé. We just saw eye to eye. She taught me a lesson I carry with me to this very day. When I get up and leave a conference room, a public restroom, any space, I want to be the example. Leading is just that—taking the lead.
Alex was right. Most people are missing the point. A true leader leaves the bathroom cleaner than they found it.
How do you behave when no one is watching? Answer that, and you’ll know whether you truly have the leadership gene. If you do, I’d follow you anywhere. Even in a public restroom.