Paperclip Leadership

by T Taylor

Ten years ago I designed the building we are in today. It wasn’t “something I always wanted to do” as much as making sure our vision came to life. My wife watched for a couple years as I sketched hundreds of drawings of our dream space.

Finally, after lots of hard work and lots of mistakes, we had a building. I remember leaving after our first full day inside. It was late and dark. The outside lights were on and highlighted our sparkling new place. I must have drove out of the parking lot and then back in again 10 times just to marvel…

I was a proud owner.

It didn’t take long to learn a big lesson: buildings, like homes, need constant upkeep and attention to many details to preserve and keep like new.

It took me 48 years to realize that “somebody else” took care of buildings. Buildings don’t come with people who clean up the trash in the parking lot, change the outside lights, empty the outdoor trash cans, wipe off benches and dirty fingerprints on the glass doors—or my least favorite—picking up stray cigarette butts.

I asked the builder. “Who do you hire to do this kind of work? Landscapers? Office cleaners? “No one that I know. This is the owner’s job?” Wait. That’s me. I have to do this thankless work?

You guessed it.

But it goes further than stuff outside. Inside, office cleaners clean for us, but they do it only once a week or so. What happens when people don’t clean up after themselves, leave a mess in the bathroom, or just drop stuff on the floor? Ah, I know—we’ll have our assistant do that! But that doesn’t work either, as that person would be doing nothing but picking up after grown adults all day.

Hmm. Maybe therein lies the answer. “Grown adults” should pick up after themselves. They should—and sometimes—they do. But who cleans up when those people forget, don’t care, or worse, think it’s below them to do it?

We work with visionary business leaders at The Creative Alliance. Yes, these are people that have titles like CEO, president, founder, managing director, etc. Never do they say “cleaner upper” next to their name.

Yet, for the last 10 years, these are the very same people I see bending over and picking up paperclips. It’s rare when they walk their halls and see something out of place—and don’t straighten it or make it right—especially if they own their space.

Consultants used to say, a great business needs to have “ownership thinking” with its employees—but I wonder about that. Maybe we all just need a 45 second reminder in “paperclip leadership.”

Picking up paperclips says a lot about a person—whether they’re a leader, owner or an intern. If they care about the little things, they’ll be sure to care about the big things. Leaders notice.

“Do you want to be successful in life? Then do things others won’t; volunteer for thankless jobs. And remember to pick up paperclips. The people in charge will know you are leadership material.”