02/05/2015 01:08 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2015

Why Successful CEOs Must Think Like the Janitor

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What does it take to be a successful CEO? I've been asked this question a lot throughout my career, mostly by up-and-coming executives. The answer I most often give can always be counted on to elicit a passionate response. Most people are intrigued, some think I am kidding, and a few believe I am being curt and dismissive. On one occasion my response even made someone angry.

When asked how to be a successful CEO my answer is, "Think like the janitor."

When pressed further I elaborate and explain that to first become the CEO you should not only demonstrate mastery of your direct responsibilities but also show concern and knowledge for a larger piece of the enterprise.

The best way to do this is to act like the manager when you are only the supervisor, act like the director when you are the manager, act like the vice president when you are the director, and act like the president or CEO when you are the vice president.

This does not mean that you overstep your bounds and attempt to overshadow your boss or coworkers. What it does mean is that you are collaborative and add additional value whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Once you are the president or CEO you must do a complete 180 and take on the mindset of the person within your company who is directly responsible for the comfort and general well being of the entire team.

Many people believe that the janitor's closet and the CEO's office are about as far apart as you can get, but they are mistaken. Here's what thinking like a janitor really means:

  • You are approachable: Employees do not find the janitor intimidating. Employees are not concerned if they ask a question of him/her if it will be perceived as dumb or ungrateful. Employees are not embarrassed to ask the janitor for what they need or want. Like the janitor, you must engender goodwill across your entire organization by being approachable and being seen as a resource that is accessible when need be.
  • You regularly demonstrate your concern for the well-being of your team: Like the janitor who listens and is quick to act when an employee complains about their office space being too hot or too cold or their chair being broken, you, too, should be eager to listen and quick to respond when a member of your team brings a legitimate concern directly to your attention. Demonstrating your personal concern for your team will foster teamwork and a more connected and engaged workforce.
  • You have your ear to the ground: Consider what other positions within your company touch almost every team member at some point throughout the day. The maintenance people are directly sweeping and mopping around employees offices and workstations all day long; they are privy to conversations in the restrooms while emptying trash and cleaning mirrors; and of course they often hear and become participants in conversations within the break room.
  • Never underestimate how much your janitor knows. I have personally seen instances where the janitor was the most knowledgeable and insightful team member when discussing overall employee morale.

    Having your ear to the ground does not mean eavesdropping or getting involved in office gossip, but it does mean meeting with your HR manager regularly and your lower level managers from time to time so you can hear in an unfiltered manner what is happening or being felt amongst various employees across your company.

  • You are humble: Your janitor adds significant value to the organization by being of service to the other team members. While the stakes may be higher as CEO, you are similarly of service to the entire company, your customers, and other stakeholders. Compassion and humility will go a long way with everyone you encounter.

Thinking like the janitor can have a profound impact on how you are viewed as a leader. This shift in perception can simultaneously increase morale and overall productivity, which leads to an increase in profits.