When I think of leadership listening I think of my mom, who has been a hairdresser most of her adult life. Being a hairdresser means standing on your feet all day listening to other people’s problems and trying to make them look pretty. For the price of a shampoo and set my mom has been listening, smiling, and acknowledging people, making them look good and feel good about themselves for nearly 50 years. Some people pay a therapist and don’t get as much as she offered as their “hair-apist”.
I never thought much about the role of the hairdresser other than when you find a good one you stick with them, sometimes even longer than a marriage. It is often the hairdresser who gets the first call to be a part of the preparation for any big event in a woman’s life: proms, graduations, weddings, funerals, holidays and job interviews.
What skills does it take to be a successful hairdresser? For 45 years my mother shampooed, cut, curled, teased, rolled, colored, bleached, sprayed and styled other peoples hair all while standing on her feet. She had customers who had been with her for nearly all of those years. They returned not simply because she gave a great shampoo or used enough hair spray to have the style last a week. Most of her customers came back to her year after year, decade after decade because she listened to them, she laughed with them, she supported them, she was interested in their lives, and indeed she cared about (almost) all of them who sat in her chair.
She acknowledged her clients, remembering the details of their lives and continuing their story when they would return. They had credibility and were people worthy of getting to know regardless of their job title or role in life. My mom treated people with respect and dignity and rarely judged people based on their income, dress, language skills, heritage or color of their skin (or hair).
Do you offer that kind of acknowledgment to your customers and staff? Do you know who your customers are? How about the people who work for you? When was the last time you listened to the story of your lowest paid employee? When was the last time you listened to a friend for an hour (or 5 minutes!) without interrupting?
Great leaders know when to speak, but also they know when to listen. They know that every person deserves to be acknowledged for the role they play in an organization. While the high paid employees are often key to the successful strategy of an organization, it is the lowest paid workers that keep the place running: the chef needs clean plates to serve his creations, the 5 star hotel must have clean rooms and linens or the fabulous architectural design means nothing, the hospice agency with fantastic nursing aides is often known as the best.
Listen. Acknowledge. Care about your customers and those who work for and with you. If you can do that, you will have loyal customers AND loyal employees who just may stick with you for 45 years.
My mom the hairdresser worked 4 days a week into her eighth decade. One morning last year she didn’t showed up to work. Her breakfast dishes were in the sink, her work clothes were laid out on her bed and my brother found her lying on her bedroom floor having had a stroke.
Today she cannot walk, her speech is mostly unintelligible, her right side is limp but her spirit and personality are vibrant and alive. She no longer does hair, and they miss her greatly at “the shop”, but she is laughing, loving and listening and acknowledging her fellow residents and staff at the assisted living facility where she now calls home. They love her and treat her like the reigning queen that she is, queen of the listening ear and the happy, caring heart.
As we begin this New Year I challenge you to acknowledge and listen to someone today. Perhaps you can begin with yourself!