Mine happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
I was in university at the time, working as a front desk agent for a hotel here in Ottawa. I spent a number of years with the company and during that time I was fortunate enough to have met thousands of people from all over the world. But one person in particular, a little boy not more than 5 years old named Jared, is the one I remember most.
How I met Jared
I wish I could say that I met Jared under better circumstances but in fact they were pretty dire. It was Christmas time and the hotel had partnered with local hospitals to provide free accommodations to people visiting their loved ones receiving either critical or palliative care in Ottawa. Jared was here with his mother visiting his father in the hospital. I met the duo when they arrived at the hotel and proceeded to check them in. I took the opportunity to banter back and forth with a little with the young man and found that he was refreshingly full of energy but his emotions were pulling him any number of directions. He was excited to be at a hotel for the first time, but deeply concerned about his father’s well-being, happy to finally have arrived at the hotel but worried about being away from home on Christmas.
“What if Santa can’t find me?” I remember him saying to his mother as they passed me in the lobby early on Christmas Eve. Without hesitating I walked out from behind my desk and told Jared that perhaps he could write Santa a letter and leave it on the mantle above the fireplace in the lobby alongside some milk and cookies that we could fetch from the kitchen. Surely if he did that Santa would know where to find him I assured him. While his mother was skeptical, Jared was more than happy to oblige. I sat with him in the lobby as he crafted his letter, then took him back to the kitchen where the chef helped us with some milk and cookies. We returned to the Lobby, placed the letter and care package above the fireplace. Jared was grinning ear to ear and as he went upstairs with his mother I signaled at her to call me once she got there.
“Tomorrow, when you wake up there will be gifts for Jared under the tree in the lobby. Just give us 15 minutes advance notice to put them out. Merry Christmas,” was all I said to his mother when she called down. When I finished my shift I grabbed the letter and went straight to the mall with the woman who I would later marry and we proceeded to buy gifts for a boy I barely knew and had met only a few days previously. My wife and I wrapped the gifts, delivered them to the hotel, wrote Jared a note from Santa wishing him, his mother and most importantly his father, a safe and happy Christmas. We left the hotel that night knowing that we did the right thing and went to my family’s home for our réveillon but declined to explain in great detail why we arrived late.
I never got to see Jared open the presents. In fact, I never saw him or his mother again, but I’m certain they got them because I received a call from the Vice-President of the $4 billion company on New Year’s Day thanking me for providing exemplary service to the client (his words, not mine).
So what’s the point?
It’s precisely what I told the VP on the phone: “What we did for Jared during Home for the Holidays wasn’t an individual or isolated act. While it’s true that the team saw a problem and decided to act we couldn’t have done it without a culture that supported it. The culture of empowerment at (the company) is so enabling that it actively shapes positive behaviour. The company’s trust in the professionalism and judgment of its employees is incredible; it’s a frame I’m thankful to be working in. We do things like this at varying scales every single day. You may not hear about it, but its happening.”
That experience set the benchmark for me
I’ve worked for a number of different organizations since meeting Jared over 10 years ago and I’ve been a vocal proponent of open, collaborative and action oriented work environments since then. Over the years I’ve found that the best organizations to work for aren’t the ones that pay you the most, or promise a bunch of outlandish perks, but rather the ones that foster a purposeful sense of agency and clearly articulate the frame that they want their employees to act into.
My challenge to business owners is to build cultures that compel the right types of actions. My lesson for employees is to cherish the moments where you can make an impact in some lines of work they are rare and you ought to cherish them, like my wife and I cherish our memories of Jared.
Note: I will co-presenting a workshop on Storytelling at NextGen in a couple of weeks; hope to see you then.