With the passing of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D–NJ) this week, some very large shoes have opened up in our national government. I will leave it to others to speculate on how NJ Governor Chris Christie might temporarily fill those shoes, preferring instead to recall a powerful lesson I learned from Mr. Lautenberg early in my career, when we both worked at ADP. It’s a lesson worth passing on, so here goes.
Approximately six months after graduating the University of Miami school of business, I took an HR manager job with Automatic Data Processing (ADP) in Miami, and enjoyed a five year run that also included assignments in Chicago and at the company’s New Jersey headquarters. Shortly after appointment to the NJ position, I went to New Jersey for an orientation of sorts.
On the evening after my first day in NJ, my wife and I made our maiden voyage into New York City. Driving into the city, we got stuck in an accident-induced monster traffic jam at the bottom of the Lincoln Tunnel. We sat there for about 90 minutes, breathing noxious fumes being spewed from the buses and trucks around us. After a short visit to the city, we made it back to our hotel in Clifton, NJ where we both spent a very unpleasant night being sick to our stomachs from having ingested so much foul air.
The next morning, I probably should have stayed put in the hotel, but I wasn’t about to make a bad first impression with my new bosses and co-workers, or so I thought. At the beginning of each meeting in the morning, I told my host about my little problem and asked the location of the nearest restroom. In one case, in a meeting on the executive wing (I’ll never forget the purple carpet), my host pointed to an unmarked door about twenty yards away, and said, “There’s the closest one, but since it’s Mr. Lautenberg’s private facility, you probably should use the regular men’s room unless you just can’t get there.”
My worst fears were realized about twenty minutes into our discussion when I was startled by a loud noise and suddenly the urge to hurl was immediate. I bolted down the purple covered hall, through the door, and nearly flattened the President and CEO of ADP as I made my way to the porcelain facility. As I was slinking out of the bathroom, Mr. Lautenberg’s assistant, Ellie Popeck looked up from her desk and said, “Mr. Lautenberg wants to see you for a minute.” That was about the last thing in the world that I wanted to hear right then.
She ushered me into his office, and I’ll never forget that he stopped what he was doing, got up, smiled (yes), shook my hand and said, “Well, we’ve already met, why don’t we get introduced?” As I resumed breathing, we probably spent fifteen to twenty minutes in which he wanted to know all about me, what I had done in my earlier ADP assignments and what I hoped to do in my new one. We also discovered that we shared a common birthday and heritages that involved lots of work but little money. This guy was listening, really listening, and he didn’t have to. After all, we were separated by two very large rungs on the org chart. But listen he did.
Later on, as I got the chance to observe him in action, it was clear that Frank leveraged his listening skill in lots of ways. He had been ADP’s first salesman, and remained quite active in selling our payroll and accounting services – a process that starts not with talking, but listening. In 1982 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and quickly earned a reputation as a legislator who could get things done, again from a willingness to listen and consider the views of others. Indeed, he was able to work across the aisle to sponsor and help pass a great deal of legislation having to do with public safety and national security. As but one example, when you travel on commercial aircraft today you can thank Senator Lautenberg for the fact that you are not seated in a cabin filled with cigarette smoke.
Let’s all take a lesson from Mr. Lautenberg and realize that no matter how big and important we get (or think we are), none of us is too big to listen to and be informed by others.
A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the Contented Cows leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows