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Leadership Lessons: Listen to the Janitor

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- The El Cortez Hotel in San Diego is known to many architects and engineers as a trend setter. While that is true in many respects, I think the following story has another lesson to offer. Back in its prime, it was one of the more elegant hotels in the country and was often the destination of choice, not so much for what the local area in San Diego had to offer, but just because people wanted to stay at the hotel itself. At some point due to its popularity and correlating high occupancy rates, management determined that the single elevator in the main lobby was no longer sufficient.

The well-paid and highly educated leadership team of this extravagant hotel set out and assembled a team of other well-paid and highly educated architects and engineers. Their collective assessment was textbook. They would cut a hole in each floor from the basement to the top of the hotel to create the space for the extra elevator. Makes sense, right?

On one particular morning shortly before the team was going to begin construction, one of the hotel janitors overheard the discussion in the main lobby of the ground floor. He humbly moved his mop bucket closer to the group and listened as each member of the team briefed his part to the hotel management. The plan was splendid and it just made sense. Nonetheless, the janitor very respectfully asked the team what they were discussing. Many of the engineers and architects were not impressed with the man's clothes and were a little put off with the fact that he invited himself in their discussion. One of the team members took the time to lay out the supply and demand situation with the current elevator and the proposed solution for installing a new elevator.

After politely hearing the entire plan and patiently waiting for the rest of the team to contribute with their nods and grunts of assurance, the janitor stated the obvious by mentioning how much of a mess this undertaking would create. In addition to the mess, the construction would also be very noisy with all of the large machines, drilling, cutting, hammering and so forth and this could adversely affect the quality of stay for patrons. Another engineer quickly dismissed the janitor by adding that none of that would matter because the plan also included closing the hotel for the duration of the project.

The janitor again stated the obvious and mentioned the project would certainly cost the hotel a lot of money. Also, if the hotel shut down for what would certainly be a lengthy project, then a lot of people would be out of work at a time when unemployment was already at one of the highest in our nations' short history. What would the current employees due for work?

One architect, growing tired of the discussion, simply asked, "Do you have a better idea?"

A few moments passed and then the janitor answered the question with another question. He asked the team if they had considered building the elevator on the outside of the hotel. A few more moments passed before the team offered the fact that no one has ever put an elevator on the outside of a building before. The janitor rattled off a few of the immediate benefits. The hotel could stay open to guests throughout the duration of the project and therefor continue to draw income to help pay for the new construction. The hotel would not need to lay off close to a hundred employees. And lastly, there would be no mess to clean up on the inside because there would no longer be a need to cut holes in every floor from the basement to the penthouse.

Construction of the first exterior elevator began almost immediately. When some folks look at this hotel, they see it as the birthplace of this architectural first. When I look at this hotel and the story behind it, I see a lesson. While we can distill many teaching points from it, I want to highlight the one which resonates the most with me.

Regardless of what situation or challenge we are faced with, it does not always take the most educated or highest trained individual to come up with the best idea. That is why I think diversity is so paramount to our business. When I read General McDew's commentary last month I took the time to right down his definition of diversity which was "a reflection of what makes us unique." I believe if we take the time to appreciate each other's uniqueness and what each of us brings to the fight, then we will have no other course but to remain the world's premier fighting force in air, space and cyberspace.