I spent last summer working in a laundry. No, I hadn’t lost my mind; I was filming an episode in a reality TV series in the UK, coming soon to ABC in the US. It’s called The Secret Millionaire and, in it, a millionaire goes ‘undercover’ to find great people or organizations they want to give money to. In my case, I went to Nottingham, known as the Gun Capital of Britain. I saw a lot that made me think about a lot but chiefly what I saw left me wondering how much talent we overlook.
The Bright Waters Laundrette, where I worked, is a community laundry. Staffed by volunteers, it is led by one paid manager, Joanne Brodsky. Now, Joanne is not what most people would identify as management material. She didn’t get much of an education, her grammar isn’t gracious, her presentation isn’t brilliant, she’s blowsy, has a rather blue sense of humor, smokes too much and can be quite rude. All of those surface qualities would probably have her out of most offices in the twinkling of an eye.
She began at the laundry as a volunteer herself when, at home with her third child, she suffered panic attacks. Working at the laundry got her out of the house, into a safe, sociable place where her mother could drop in to see her, giving her the support she needed to get through the day. And so Joanne thrived. She loved the company and she loved working. Most of us do. It’s no surprise that work and happiness are highly correlated. What makes us happy isn’t money but purpose and at the laundry, that is what Joanne found. She could help people and in doing so, she helped herself.
When the laundry’s manager left, Joanne took over. So now she runs the place – very well. She has a few industrial contracts to keep revenue steady. Every Monday, a van arrives, stuffed with paintball uniforms from the weekend’s ‘skirmish’. To me, it looked like an almost insurmountable mountain of smelly, filthy clothing – but to Joanne, it’s secure, recurring revenue.
She also has an entire community that comes in for washing – but for so much more besides: cups of tea, advice, comfort, company. Bright Waters is a social hub; that is how it markets itself and keeps its customers loyal. You want to do business with the laundry because it’s a wonderful place to be. Joanne’s doing with washing machines and cups of tea what Starbucks does with armchairs.
The whole place is staffed by volunteers. They don’t have to turn up to work – they want to turn up to work. (Imagine if that’s how your workforce felt!) Most of them are mothers, like Joanne was, who have lost their confidence staying at home. Coming to work gives them a purpose and a group to belong to. And Joanne takes her management of them very seriously. I watched as she had them fill out personal evaluation forms. The volunteers got real feedback, were taken seriously and learned to start taking themselves seriously in return. For many, volunteering at Bright Waters is the first step on the road back to work.
And the business is expanding. Volunteers drive a van all around Nottingham, collecting laundry from people who are housebound. For many of these customers, the van is their link to the outside world. They get clean clothes and contact. Is this a business or a social service? It’s both.
No one taught Joanne how to do this. And yet what I saw in Nottingham was, simply, leadership. Bright Waters is a thriving operation which adds real value to loyal customers and wants only to expand faster. As such, it is everything a business should be.
But I couldn’t help thinking: what company or manager would ever have spotted Joanne’s talent? Most people would be so struck by her defects (lack of education, no training, a loud mouth and strident opinions) that they’d not bother to see the blazing potential underneath. Only a manager smart enough to hire for attitude over skills would see the value that Joanne brings to her business. What makes her so good? She’s a wonderful manager because she’s passionate and committed to work that suits her personality. She’s successful because she’s had the freedom to define the job on her own terms. And she’s driven because a little success has given her a taste for more.
Working alongside Joanne made me wonder: Are we all open and imaginative enough to spot the Joannes that are out there? Are we so obsessed by the need for skills that we overlook the value of attitude? Do we dare to give new hires the latitude they might need to succeed? Do we have the courage to hire people so different from ourselves?
Nottingham may not be everyone’s idea of the coolest place in the UK. But sometimes you learn more from people who have less.
Margaret Heffernan* CEO, Author and Speaker* www.mheffernan.com