Why I am a Dishwasher – Role Modeling Leadership

My management career started in 1977. Fresh out of college, I was the manager of two restaurants in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, which grew to 65 employees in 2 years (I was the 5th employee).  For a newly minted graduate, this was a fabulous small business experience.  I learned hiring, firing, finance, scheduling, process excellence and many more small business skills.

To this day a key lesson remains with me from this experience – role modeling the behavior you want from your employees is an extremely important and often underutilized leadership trait.

Leading by Doing

One way I role modeled behavior was washing dishes.  Our restaurant was fast moving, not as fast as a fast food joint like In & Out Burger, people who worked slowly sometimes got run over.  The easiest job was washing dishes but you had to work fast and most importantly be coordinated. I would often throw myself into the dish washing station and show an employee how to organize the job and move fast to keep up in busy times.  Some people observed and paid attention and some ended up as “road kill” on the floor of the restaurant.

By washing dishing I accomplished two things as a leader:

  • It showed that as the manager I was not afraid to get my hands dirty, and wet in this case.
  • It also showed them a system of dish washing that they might not have been aware of. I was always tweaking the system to make it faster and better quality aka clean dishes. By the way, when I jumped in, I was also getting a whole bunch of dishes washed if we were running out.

This was a long time ago and I have learned a lot about leaders and leadership since then, but washing dishes has stuck with me as one of the key nuggets to being a great leader. Role model what you want to see in your employees!

Sally Russell

Sally is an HR Business Partner at Intuit. She has worked in Human Resources and performed leadership training since 1991 for Polaroid and Smith & Nephew. Read more of her leadership stories.

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