uncluttered white spaces would like to introduce: Ben Burge | Ben has packed a lot into his 35 years. He was the youngest ever CEO of an Australian publicly listed company when emitch floated in 2000. He has published a book which sold thousands of copies. He has run an investment bank. He is currently a partner at IBM.

Ben has a unique perspective on business and understands small and large business alike. uws is very excited to introduce him as a new contributor.

Toilet Paper. Is it The Gold Standard of Leadership? BY Ben Burge;
If you trawl through the textbooks, the tales of good leadership are typically framed in terms of strategic thinking, planning capability and other terribly important, lofty matters. The poster child of leadership is often a big decision to move into a new market or otherwise “take the hill” from your competitors.  No doubt these events are critically important, and an ability to navigate the big issues is a key element of the equation.

But occasionally, leaders have a chance to inspire through the most subtle and basic gestures.  These decisions or initiatives can often be far more fascinating than the strategic plan or the “big decision”, because you can touch (or smell) their impact immediately.  These “little” things can often resonate much more strongly with human fears and aspirations, and have a greater impact on the culture of a team.

When we started emitch in 1999, we (not unlike any other dot-com) lived in a Spartan office on the outskirts of town.  Very soon (not unlike any other dot-com) we grew from zero to 17 people, all (girls and boys) sharing a single toilet.  The contract cleaning and bathroom supply arrangements were less than perfect.  So it came to pass that, in the depths of summer 1999-2000, in a crowded room full of twenty-somethings trying desperately to shape a new path in the Australian media landscape, emitch ran out of toilet paper.  It had also run out of toilet cleaner and air freshener but these were second order priorities.

At face value this was an administrative issue – a “low value” problem not worthy of executive attention.  But the problem was symptomatic of a much bigger issue about involvement, commitment, and the value of staff.  The feeling in the office was palpable, and as a new CEO without much experience I was struggling to find a circuit-breaker.  A string of sixteen hour days and 40-degree heat was testing everyone.  The bathroom situation became an important inflection point for the team.

In a moment of clarity, without any announcement, I walked around the corner to Coles, purchased 36 rolls of toilet paper, five bottles of Toilet Duck and four cans of Glen-20.  On the way back to the office, a homeless guy on the footpath looked me up and down, identified with the desperation of my plight, did not ask me for loose change, but instead asked with some concern: “Hey brother, you got a problem with your belly?”.  His words of comfort galvanized my view that this trip to the supermarket was about more than replenishing the janitorial supplies.

When I returned, the mood of the office transformed.  I shared the story of my homeless friend’s concern about our bathroom situation, we had a laugh, and everyone got back to the grindstone with a renewed vigour.

This was not the most sophisticated move I had made as a manager, but it was the move that turned us around in our drive to an initial public offering in March 2000.

It begs the question: When the team’s mood has tapered off, is there a basic but important task that you can pick up directly, that will re-set the culture and the relationship with your troops?  If you are not sure, check your supply of toilet paper .

image via the Behance Network. Visit here for full series.