03/28/2012 09:18 am ET Updated May 28, 2012

The Sopping-Wet Supervisor (a Leadership Lesson)

I worked such long hours that spring that I told Michael not to wait if he got hungry, just to go ahead and eat dinner by himself. The company I worked for was growing like crazy. We were hiring people every day, and I had a new crop of people in new-employee orientation every Monday. I could hardly remember their names, much less their stories. The forty or so hiring managers in the company were on me like white on rice, as my Arkansas father-in-law would say: where are the candidates? Where's that background check, and that offer letter? I was having fun and going out of my mind at the same time.

One Thursday I left the office unusually early, for me -- around 6:15 p.m. I figured if I stopped at Flavorland, my favorite Indian take-out place, I could get to our condo in Rogers Park and surprise Michael before he started making something to eat alone. As I crossed the parking lot a huge clap of thunder boomed. When I turned the key in the ignition, sheets of rain started falling. Man, I hit that right, I said to myself. I would have been soaked if the rain had come any sooner.

It was raining so hard by the time I came out of the parking lot, I could hardly see with the wipers going their fastest. Traffic was backed up in every direction. I inched forward as the traffic and the rain allowed. Through the downpour I could see someone walking on the sidewalk, alongside me. It was almost too dark to make out a face. Then she stepped into a bus shelter and I could see her clearly. It was a young co-worker of mine (Lia? Alissa? I couldn't remember) from Tech Support. She was in her mid-twenties, a little younger than me. The girl from Tech Support was completely soaked from her short walk, drenched to the bone. I was stopped in traffic in the rightmost lane. I pushed the button to open the window on the car's passenger side. "Get in, Lia!" I called. She saw me, and startled. She took a step toward the car. "I'm sorry, I forgot your name," I said. "I'm Liz, from HR. Please get in!"

The girl's name was Elise. We started driving, not that the rush-hour traffic allowed much movement. Elise was soaked to the skin. "I'm sorry, I don't have a towel or anything," I said. "Put on my sweatshirt, at least." I had a company-logo sweatshirt in the back of the car (what HR person doesn't?). She didn't put it on. "So," I said, as we moved ten feet or so per minute,"what's new in Tech Support?"

Elise was the Tech Support department administrator. "It's busy," she said.

"Crazy times, such fast growth in the company, eh?" I said, and moved to turn on the radio. Elise was silent. The poor thing is embarrassed, I thought. She's sopping wet in my car, and I hardly know her. I realized that I didn't know where were were headed. I was still driving toward my condo in Rogers Park. About to turn to her and ask "So, where do you live?" I realized that Elise hadn't said a word since "It's busy." I turned my head two degrees to look at her, the poor thing, sopping and cold in disgusting early-spring, cold-rain rush-hour suburban-Chicago traffic, and saw her face screwed up. Elise let out a breath, and sobbed.

"Hon!" I said. "What's wrong?" I took a turn off the main road and pulled into a strip mall parking lot. "What is it?"

"It's our temp," sobbed Elise. She was shaking, gulping air between sobs. I tried to remember - yep, we'd put a temp in Tech Support a month or so before. Natalie? Natasha? I didn't think I had met her.

"What's going on with the temp?" I asked. Elise choked out the story. Tech Support was slammed, hiring new people every week. Elise got them set up with passwords and manuals and training sessions. She answered their questions, and made sure the unhappiest customers got their phone calls returned. She managed the director's schedule and put together the staff meetings. Elise was slammed with work, and so was her director, John. John had asked her "Should I get you a temp for a while?" and Elise had said "Please!" A month in, she wasn't sure she had done the right thing.

"Natalie is wonderful," said Elise, calming down.

"She's smart. She tries really hard. She's a single mom. She is such a good person. I really like her. It's so hard -- there is so much information, and it changes so fast. John isn't happy with her. He asks her to do things, and he doesn't realize that what he's asking her to do requires more knowledge than Natalie has. She makes even more mistakes because she's so keyed up. I'm so afraid! If Natalie doesn't get up to speed in another few days I know John is going to terminate her. It's my fault! I don't know how to help her. She's desperate. I'm a nervous wreck. John isn't happy with me, Natalie is depending on me and I don't know what to do."

Elise was silently crying now. We sat in the dark car in the cold parking lot with the rain sluicing down on us. "It's going to be okay," I said. "I'm so glad you said something."

"I can't sleep," said Elise. I thought, My god! I have supervisor training going on in the conference room every week. Elise could have been there, talking about topics like Natalie's new-hire training, but I never thought to ask her to come -- she's not a supervisor, officially. I felt very sad, and very guilty.

"Can you take on the project of re-training Natalie, with my help?" I asked her. "Can you have the conversation with Natalie, to make sure she's on board and willing to work hard? Can you have the conversation with John?" Elise said she could. We talked in the cold car in the dark. I asked "If you were starting the job all over again today, Elise, what would you want to know first?" She said, "I would want the answer to the question 'What does the company do?'"

I had a notepad in my car. We wrote a training plan for Natalie. Day One, what does the company do? Let's read these brochures together. Here's a short coaching assignment -- describe our business in your own words, and tell a story about a person using our products. Day Two, what kinds of things go wrong with the products, or get our users confused enough to call Tech Support? What kinds of problems are easy to solve, and which ones get escalated? We talked about return authorizations and call tags and troubleshooting scripts. We started with the big picture, and worked our way down.

By the time the rain stopped, we had Natalie's 15-day training program sketched out. "What do I do now?" asked Elise. "Type it up, walk through it by yourself and see if we've missed anything," I said. "When you have time, stop by my office and we'll fine-tune it. Now, sleep!" We drove to Elise's house. I gave her a hug across the driver-side-passenger-side divide. "I am so sorry that you had all that stress on you, all month," I said. "Thank you for talking about it," she said.

Meeting Elise in the rain was a huge HR and leadership lesson for me (and Natalie came through her one-on-one training program with flying colors, no surprise). I realized in the wet car that night that people like Elise want to care about their jobs; they want to take responsibility for other people and make a difference. People like Elise have huge amounts of compassion and concern and emotional energy to bring to their jobs. All we have to do as managers is let them do it. All we have to do is get out of their way and allow them to be significant, the way Elise became so significant in Natalie's development and the growth of their department.

I might have passed Elise in the hallway 10 times in the month since her mentoring crisis had begun, but I wouldn't have gotten the story if I hadn't run into her in the rain, at a vulnerable moment. I need to listen more closely, I realized. I need to ask more questions.

The last thing I expected to chat about with my co-worker on our way home from work was her stress -- trauma, really -- over the fate of another employee (a temp!) and her own role in Natalie's success or failure. People bring that energy and concern to work because people are wonderful, when we let them be. In HR and as all kinds of leaders we have a huge opportunity to tap that energy and those good instincts, just by respecting people enough to allow and expect them to rise to the occasion the way Elise did. It isn't that hard to do, is it? We just have to drop the frame that says that employers run the show. Employers don't. Rules don't, and policies don't. Smart and switched-on, caring people and their boundless, amazing individual and collective mojo do -- but you've read this far, so you already know that.