Every Little Thing

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I’ve always loved sharing my passion through speaking. On this podcast of course, but also in person, and especially to a crowd. Whatever nerves I feel melt away when the energy I share returns multiplied by the audience. I get animated, amped up, and I talk too quickly. And I sweat, boy do I sweat.

I’ve never understood why conference organizers seem to love the heat. Comdex, the massive gathering of the entire tech world was held in Las Vegas. Mercifully it was in the fall, so the heat was down out of triple digits. Still, hundreds of thousands packed into the desert was never cool.

I sweated my way through a Microsoft Worldwide Sales Conference in New Orleans. In July. The air outside was heavy and thick. The convention center’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows dripping with condensation. The two short blocks from the hotel rendering my clothes nearly as wet. My navy blazer, both blessing and curse. Hiding my drenched shirt and yet smothering me even further.

And then there was Microsoft’s European Developer’s Conference I helped keynote one year. It was in Nice, France. Don’t get me wrong, Nice is amazing. The architecture. The food. The pebbled beaches. But whether on the French Coast or the in French Quarter, July is hot and sticky.

Nonetheless, I was excited, because, regardless of language barriers, these were my people. 5,000 software developers, and they loved our newest product: Microsoft Visual Studio.

I followed Brad Silverberg, who I interviewed here recently as he kicked off the event. As the father of Windows 95, he was a rock star, and they showered him with love. Brad reveled in it.  And ran over. Way over. Standing in the wings, awaiting my turn, I watched the event manager’s sweat turn to panic as the clock ticked. An intricately packed day of events was slipping through his fingers. He turned to me with a look that begged for my help.

I did my part. My talk was a blast, my jokes landed even to a very multilingual crowd, and they loved the product. The applause was frequent and genuine. Yet no praise was as great as what I got from the stage manager. I had trimmed almost 20 minutes and had the day back on track. We both wiped our brows and shared a smile.

No acclamation however matched that which I received for one seemingly small act as VP of HR. It reinforced that sweating the details matters. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this episode we’ll explore why sweating the small stuff is worth the effort. This is Episode 212 — Every Little Thing.

Making this podcast has brought me back in contact with many people I’ve not seen in decades. I always begin with “do you remember me” and am pleasantly surprised with “absolutely” or “of course”. One recent such response from an especially remarkable leader caught me off guard. She reminded me of a tiny decision of mine that had cemented my legacy in the most unlikely of ways.

I made small talk with the receptionist as I awaited my ride. The Microsoft campus sprawled so that walking was often not an option. And HR was relegated to distant quarters, so I frequented the ever-efficient shuttle service. She and I stared through the glass at the clear, cloudless day. The bluest skies, we agreed, really are in Seattle. How lucky we are to live in this amazing place.

A woman approached the desk, visibly nervous and uncomfortable. She leaned over and whispered to ask if the receptionist had a dime. I watched as she opened her top desk drawer to a puddle of dimes, with a whole wrapped roll of dimes atop it. The woman gratefully accepted one and hurried off.

My ride arrived shortly, and I headed off to my meeting. But this encounter had me puzzled. What was the dime all about? I made a mental note to ask Jill about it later.

Jill Hoover was my executive assistant for years, both at Microsoft and after. She was a remarkable woman, with an infectious smile, a sharp wit, and the artful skill to make chaos into order with ease. I’ll never forgive breast cancer for stealing her from us, and especially her young son and daughter, while only in her 30s.

Ever my confidant, when I returned from my travels that day, I asked Jill about the dimes. She smiled a smile that seemed to say, “oh you silly man”. She explained to me that the tampon machines in the restrooms only took dimes. That a woman could always turn to the receptionist in their building for an emergency dime, just for the asking.

I pushed back, “Really? Every receptionist?” She assured me it was true. Been that way for years. How, I wondered. How did this get organized? How does this get funded? How did I not know about this?

I also began to think about things that I, as a man, had never considered. How it must feel to be caught off guard by something so personal. So natural. So potentially embarrassing. To be humiliated by this stainless-steel box, demanding money to rescue you. Not just any money, mind you, but a specific unit. A dime. And the ultimate humiliation of needing to beg the receptionist for salvation.

An entire cultural institution had been created to solve this. A plan, a process, a mechanism put in place. Every receptionist would have a pool of dimes. They would all need to know about it, monitor it, replenish it. And it would have to be communicated to every woman, but discreetly. Even visiting women would need to know.

How, again I wondered, did I not know about this? And worse, let’s be frank… really? We give unlimited free sodas to every employee. Yet we nickel and dime half the population for this? And for what? Someone had to empty the machines. Count the dimes. Make bank deposits. Reconcile the books. The more I thought about it, the more outraged I became.

I called our facilities people. How much do we take in from the tampon machines each year? He didn’t know, he’d ask the vendor. The answer soon came. Across every building company-wide, it amounted to about $130,000 a year. And it was pure profit for the vendor. They charged us for the tampons and kept the dimes.

I asked what if we made them free? Just pull the lever, no money required. “I guess we could do that,” was the reply. “Who would make that decision?” I asked. “I dunno” he said. “How about me?” He said “ok, that’d do.” I said, “let’s do it, as soon as possible”.

Within days, the vendor taped over the coin slot, and turned the machines to free. They simply changed the sign that read “ten cents” to “zero cents”. Across the entire company. Didn’t announce it, just did it. Turns out the vendor didn’t really care, our contract was so large, they just ate the difference.

Word eventually got out that it was me. Probably through the same underground network that funded the receptionists in the first place. And of course, I got email. Much of it delighted. But a few from enraged shelf entitled “concerned shareholders”, mostly women oddly, concerned about the cost. That people would just steal them. I reminded them that people “stole” sodas too. And that they were the cheapest tampons money could buy.

Months later, I gathered the entire HR team together to announce my retirement and introduce my replacement. I told them how proud I was of all that we had accomplished. We had just completed Comp 2000 that changed the salary, stock options, and pay grade of the entire company. Over 30,000 employees around the world. And we had done it without a hitch. I was so amazed at how well we had all worked to pull that miracle off. I joked that I got more negative email about the tampon machines.

To my astonishment, the mere mention of tampons brought the crowd to their feet. Every single woman, and many men, rose to applaud. For a good minute, they reveled in the joy of what should have been an obvious decision. I had simply recognized the humanity of half of our population.

Of all the things to be remembered for… I remain uniquely proud of that one. To this day.

I sign off every episode of this podcast with the same line: each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of leading smart. It doesn’t mean every decision changes the world. Just that every leader makes a lot of choices every day, and that even the small ones matter. It’s up to you to make sure they count.

We talked last time about how small change in the use of your time can have an impact. When you control the tempo of a meeting, it may barely get noticed. But it can make the difference between a marginalized person feeling safe or not. And in turn that can help them build confidence that will unleash them later.

When you as a leader intervene in the micro-aggressions you see every day, you’re having an impact. Telling someone to back off, to slow down, or to listen more carefully creates a culture that is more open to ideas. Saying “hey, that’s not helpful”, and nothing more, sets an example. It lets the aggressor know what’s expected, and it gives license to others to call it out as well.

In fact, the smallest things, in large numbers, can have great impact. Each time you as a leader can fix a tiny annoyance, remove a little hurdle, make things just a little easier it has a ripple effect. Your team moves just a little bit easier. That one tiny nit that drives everyone silently nuts, is … poof … just gone. Maybe it’s so small they don’t even notice it’s gone. It certainly won’t change their life. But that little nit, that snide comment, that tiny dig, those micro annoyances add up. And you can fix them.

On the other side of this are the detail people. The accountant who says “entering a job number before every copy keeps costs down”. Even if everyone enters the catch-all job number. The security team that insists the “lock on the restroom prevents misuse”. Even when they themselves can never find the darn key. Or the person who worries about people stealing tampons. That results in every receptionist keeping a roll of dimes.

You don’t have to make a big deal out of it. You don’t need to make a policy. You don’t have write a manifesto about the company culture. You certainly shouldn’t appoint a Chief Culture Officer. Just set an example, day by day, decision by decision.

When I changed the tampon machines I did it because it just seemed like the right thing to do. But I also like to believe it had a number of tiny impacts. It made it just a little bit easier for women when they got surprised by nature. It took a tiny burden off the receptionists. It probably made the janitorial staff’s job minutely easier. But perhaps most of all, it told all women who worked or visited that, in even just a slight little way, the company did care. Yes, they were vastly outnumbered, and by all evidence underappreciated, but we recognized an issue they had, and solved it.

In hindsight I realized that even the smallest things, make a difference to some people every day. And if you can fix them, you can truly make an impact.

Of all the things in my career, for this small thing to be part of my legacy is both a lesson and an inspiration. Make a small difference. Every chance you get. Remember every little thing.


Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site CLWill.com.

If you like the show, please share it with your friends especially on social media. Referrals are the greatest source of new listeners. I’d also love your feedback. I’m “theCLWill” on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or send email to pod@clwill.com.

That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.