At 21, I started my first full time job at Delta Air Lines. It was a dream come true to work in the airline industry at that time. My job? I was a janitor. I cleaned bathrooms. I cleaned the same 3 bathrooms, twice a day in one of the hangars in Atlanta. Some might say that was a demotion from my previous job at the glass bottle factory, or that I was really starting from the bottom. I suppose based on their standards, it was. But, I loved it! Not just because I was getting a full time paycheck with benefits. Nor was it because of all the thanks I received for providing a clean bathroom which wasn’t many. I loved it because I felt it was challenging, meaningful and purposeful.
It was challenging to keep the bathrooms clean in the wake of hundreds of aircraft mechanics going on break. It was meaningful because I was providing a service to a group of mechanics whose job it was to ensure Delta’s aircraft were mechanically safe and sound. It was purposeful because it was a means to an end. Not only did it help me pay for college, but it helped me study. I kept my study notes in my janitor’s cart. Sometimes, before a big exam, I would tape my notes to my mop handle and pause to read from them while mopping.
It was making a difference in my life as well as the mechanics. Giving the mechanics a clean, sanitized and well stocked restroom gave them one less thing to worry about which enabled them to do what they do best, provide a safe and uneventful travel experience.
The best leaders help their employees find pride in their work. The best leaders can make disgusting work enjoyable. They do this by showing how the work is meaningful, and how it contributes to the greater good of the organization and the people it serves.
We will eventually come out of this pandemic and when we do, the role of the janitor will take on a whole new level of significance. It will be the janitors, cleaners and sanitation workers who help us prevent the spread of germs and maybe the next pandemic.
A new line of heroes has emerged including healthcare workers and grocery store workers. All folks who fly in the face of danger so we can stay safe, healthy and well fed. We can soon add janitors to the list. When we do get back to some form of normal, don’t forget to thank the janitor who cleans and disinfects the bathrooms in your office, school or your favorite restaurant.