You Never Know Who It’s Going To Be

This is the first “guest blogger” post, by NerdGuru’s Pete Johnson. See Pete’s bio below this post.

Janitor MopMy father was a high school teacher for 25 years and always made a point to be really nice to the janitors he interacted with. He discovered early on in his career, that those folks can make your life pretty miserable if they want to because when that kid barfs all over the carpet during first period, it’s you who has to sit in the room with the aroma until it gets cleaned up. The response time, he found, was just a little bit quicker if he included the janitors on the Christmas card list or if he held doors open for them as they moved heavy equipment around the school.

In my own career, I’ve mimicked that behavior when it comes to administrative assistants as their help with meeting logistics can make or break a gathering of colleagues. More recently I’ve come to extend it to people in all levels of jobs because you never know who it’s going to be that can help you or be in a position to give you that next job. My lowly but ambitious college intern may end up running the next Google in 10 years. You just never know.

A better example can be found when examining the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), which runs the housing project system in the greater Chicago area. The lines between elected and appointed positions in the CHA hierarchy are blurred in this organization. CHA is headed by elected officials who then appointed people to run the various facilities. In the mid 1990s (and perhaps also today) at the Altgeld Gardens RowhousesAltgeld Gardens facility, by some magical coincidence, people who openly supported the CHA elected officials got their plumbing or heating fixed a whole lot sooner by the local administrators by those who did not.

During that time, the CHA’s Altgeld Gardens management offices were discovered to have asbestos problems and the entire building was retrofitted accordingly. Despite being built at about the same time as the offices and by the same contractors, the actual Altgeld Gardens housing facility was not even scheduled for an asbestos inspection. This concerned a young community organizer, who rallied residents into launching a letter-writing campaign with the local officials after they ignored requests for a face to face meeting.

The letters escalated to various levels in the CHA hierarchy until finally, the community organizer got media attention by arranging a meeting with the elected head of the CHA and invited several local television crews to capture the meeting he correctly predicted would get ignored. With media pressure on his side, the community organizer was able to get the same asbestos retrofits for the housing facility that the CHA offices received.

Barack Obama - Presidential CandidateThis story is only important because the community organizer was Barack Obama (and these events can be found in his pre-fame written memoir). As a United States Senator and current presidential candidate, I’m thinking that guy can do a lot more than clean up vomit for you right about now, especially if you are a CHA administrator that needs something. Regardless of what happens with the 2008 election cycle, it would be a lot better to have him owe you a favor than to remember you didn’t care about asbestos exposure in a housing project.

That’s not to say that the kid who mows your lawn is going to grow up to be that venture capitalist you need funding from to launch your dream company, but the point is that you can’t afford to treat anybody with anything less than respect and courteousness. You never know what they are going to become later. It’s best not to burn bridges with anybody and build as many strong relationships as you can. The result is a personal network that can pay dividends for you down the road.

Pete Johnson - Hewlett-Packard Chief Architect and Nerd Guru bloggerPete Johnson has held a variety of positions with Hewlett-Packard since 1993, focusing mainly on web development. As IT’s Chief Architect he is responsible for technology standards that govern all HP websites, the company portal strategy, and a variety of other web publishing challenges. He blogs at on how improved non-technical skills can accelerate an engineering career.

7 thoughts on “You Never Know Who It’s Going To Be”

  1. One of my favorite ways of signing off on many types of communications is: “I look forward to the courtesy of your reply…” This would be the written equivalent of saying “Please” and “Thank you” and holding the door open for … anyone.

    While the squeaky wheel may get the oil; it’s the “courtesy of reply” (in whatever form that takes) that receives the well-remembered and appreciated extension of kindness(es) in return.

    Congratulations (again), Jason, for your excellent choice for your first “guest blogger”. Kudos, Pete, for a well-written and good reminder of the two-way and long lasting value a “simple grace.”



  2. I enjoyed your comments, Pete. And welcme to Jibber Jobber. Hope to read more posts by you in the days ahead.

    It is important that we treat everyone with respect. Many people have given me the same advice: you never know who someone will become, or who they might know. My only caveat is that our motivation for treating others with respect should not come from what we might potentially gain from them. Rather, we should respect people simply because we recognize their inherent worth and value as a human being.

    Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Jessan and Steve. I have nothing but positive things to say about Jason and all the extremely nice people I’ve met through him and JibberJobber.

    Steve, I agree with you completely. It is indeed important that we treat everyone with respect. I think that if your motivation is solely based on your own interests, your transparency will show through. People are generally too smart for that.

    By the same token, though, you can’t be afraid to do something nice for someone to earn that respect from them. When you’ve done that, people are far more responsive and open to helping you in return. There can certainly be a fine line between “I’m doing this so I can get something out of someone” and “I’m doing this so I can earn respect”.

    Jason has been kind enough to agree to a second article of mine to appear in this space next week that goes deeper into my thoughts on that and how, as an example, our relationship has quickly developed into something that is mutually equitable because we both took time to earn that respect with one another.

  4. Hi Pete:

    Thanks for reminding us about human decency, courtesy, and the value of both in enriching our lives. It makes me wonder if interviewers and recruiters who leave candidates hanging for days, weeks, or an eternity for the gift of a post-conversation/post-interview decision — any decision — ever think that the candidate may be someone they’ll meet again one day? Perhaps as their new boss or team member — with a long memory! ‘Love is the Killer App’ and ‘The Power of Nice’ are business book best sellers for a reason!

  5. Pete,

    You’re most welcomed.

    ..and, Deb, there is a saying about those you meet on the way up are the same folks you meet on the way down. (…or, perhaps, the same folks you meet on the way — out!) ‘Nuff said. ~;->

    In addition, there’s a very old and simple maxim that, for me, sums up a lot (if not all) of this – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There’s no expectation of buzz words like “value,” “return,” “business,” etc. Simply – treat others as you’d like to be treated.

    I look forward, with anticipation, to your next installment, Pete. Good on Jason for having the good sense to go for, at least, one more part.



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