Friday, February 22, 2008

How to Make Your People Cry

If I could do only one thing for the rest of my career it would be this: Interview ordinary people who love their work and discover their secrets to worklife passion. That is my calling, mission and passion of my tenure here on earth. More than just a nifty thing to do, understanding what brings passion to the hearts of everyday working people is the key to understanding what makes any company outstanding – in its community, in its industry, in the hearts of its customers and among its competitors. The voice of everyday employees who love their work is truly the anthem to a personal greatness that is within our grasp, no matter who we are.

Over the years I’ve interviewed a Columbus, OH, bank CEO who survived the WWII fire bombing in Dresden, an animal shelter worker in Asheville who discovered her life’s calling in giving a moment’s love to unwanted animals, a Chicago public relations professional who arrived at his own moment of truth when he came upon a group of crying clowns, a couple who have found their heart’s work on the small island of Tybee, GA. I interviewed a Portuguese fisherman in Provincetown who was outraged at seeing his livelihood slip through his fingers with the disappearance of fish stocks off the Grand Banks. Some of these stories you will find on my website Working From the HeartLand. And I’ll be adding more over the next several months, as soon as I update my website and find a webmaster who will help me with the technological side. (

There’s a reason why I’m writing about this topic this week. Rackspace, a fast-growing web hosting company in San Antonio, has asked me to spend two weeks interviewing its employees who deeply love their work. I’ve just about finished the engagement and am sitting in my 18th floor hotel room off of I-10, waiting for the day to warm up so I can be a tourist on the Riverwalk for the afternoon.

And so I’m using the time to transcribe the interviews of the past two weeks. I think about whom I’ve met so far and the moments that moved us all. From the CEO through all the levels to the admins, the deeply felt commitment to the company, and its people and its customers has revealed a profound sense of caring that can best be expressed in tears.

I asked the CEO to tell me about a time when he felt especially proud of his people. It was during an emergency last year when, he said, everything they worked for over the previous nine years as “on the razor’s edge.” A truck crashed into their data center, causing a disaster to the physical plant that’s too complicated to explain here (plus I don’t quite understand the whole thing myself). Let’s just say it was a really bad thing.

As these things typically happen, it was at night. But it was "all hands on deck" for everyone, and the parking lot was as full at 2 am as it would be at 2 pm. Inside the building, everyone was there, with their sleepy children in PJs in tow. “I didn’t ask them to come,” he said, with his eyes moistening. “Word got out and everyone was there, on the phones, taking very difficult calls from upset customers, doing what they had to do to keep us up and running.” Because they cared.

Another long-time employee talked about how that caring is extended to the customers. During one of the recent hurricane seasons, a Florida-based customer with an extensive web presence had to be evacuated; putting its own on-site servers at risk. My client company duplicated those servers, adding them to servers already operational in San Antonio. And then told their customer to forward all their phone calls to San Antonio, so that their customers would never know the difference. Then my client company cleared out a few cubicles in San Antonio so that their Florida customer could relocate some people and keep their business up and running while the wind blew. And the wind did blow, destroying the Florida building. But the business prevailed. Because of caring.

Another hurricane, by the name of Katrina, brought thousands of survivors into San Antonio. Graham Weston, the chairman, donated a vacant department store property he owned, to be used as a shelter for the incoming. In a matter of just a few hours, Rackers (Rackspace call themselves Rackers) cleaned out the building, which had been empty for many years, set up 2,500 cots, a cafeteria, mens and womens showers, even a beauty parlor. But that's not all...they also set up computer stations and cable televisions (it pays to have at least one techie in the family, doesn't it?) so that the survivors could keep up with the news and reach out to friends and family. But that's not all...Rackers also devised a badging system based on their own employee badging system. When busloads of survivors came in, they could be registered and matched with their families as more and more people arrived. That badging system was so air-tight that even the local banks honored the Rackspace badge as proof that individuals were eligible for money and services set up for them. (One Racker said, "Remember, these people came with nothing but the clothes on their backs -- no documentation, no drivers licenses, certainly no Social Security card.") A Racker I interviewed yesterday said that after he spent hours helping set up the shelter, he was ready to go home and get cleaned up for work the next day. But the minute the first bus pulled up, the first person to get off was a lady who just broke down into tears. And the human aspect of what he was doing went straight to his heart, and he put his own belongings down, and three days later finally went home for a little shut-eye. Because of caring.

Heroic caring can also be expressed in terms of everyday consistency. While talking with an executive admin, I asked her what is special about working for her boss. It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the cool factor of working for the head cheese of company that’s 32 on Fortune's Best Companies To Work For lists. It wasn’t the array of Beemers, Mercedes, and Land Rovers in the parking lot – and the prosperity possibilities that those cars represent. It was her children.

“He always remembers my children,” she said through a tightening voice of emotion. “He never forgets their birthdays and Christmases. Never.”

Evidently he doesn’t forget Valentine’s Day either. At 9:30 last Thursday night, my cell phone rang in my 18th floor hotel room overlooking I-10. It was the chairman of the company.

“I just wanted to wish you a happy Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I know that you’re away from your friends and family today and so I wanted you to know we really appreciate what you’re doing.”

Well. That did it for me. It’s quite possible that I’m the only consultant on this planet who received a Happy Valentine’s Day call from the company chairman on Thursday night.

What makes this community of dedicated people proud to belong to Rackspace? It’s different for everyone but it all spells pretty much the same thing: Caring about something larger than themselves. And knowing that that caring is returned – in kind. And that everyone's efforts truly make a difference, to each other, to the community and to their customers.

It’s enough to move people to more than just action. It’s enough to move them to tears.

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