The biggest leadership lesson you need right now. Break down the boxes.

Many moons ago, I held a staff meeting. The agenda was to discuss some big things. When I say big, I was chasing a monumental shift and collective change in attitude, acceptance and perception of what occurred in the store. The aim was to generate buy-in to procedures and concepts that had failed a thousand times before but were needed to benefit everyone.

Every staff member from the most junior (15 years old) to the owner was involved in the meeting. Nobody was there to only warm a seat. Before the meeting, some prep work had been done and every individual had come ready to discuss three things that would make their lives infinitely better within the store. As expected, the usual suspects showed up. Better communication, remembering to scan out the webster packs, follow procedures, watch the counter and show more respect to others. Each of these was presented with a myriad of examples. Then I asked the junior… ‘what would make your life infinitely better within the store?’ I don’t know what I was expecting…she had barely been employed five minutes. She was meek, polite and said yes to everything. She proceeded…

‘the thing that would make my life better would be if people could break down the boxes.’

Taken aback, I paused as I thought, ‘the boxes? Really? I’m ready to change the world and you’re worried about the boxes?’

As a leader, I have always held the philosophy, if it’s a problem for one staff member, it’s a problem for me. The boxes were definitely about to ‘test’ this philosophy. Curious, I asked her to tell us more. She went on to explain that when people didn’t break down the boxes, not only could she not fit as many in the trolley but she also got stuck at the bin breaking them down and it took forever.

While she was stuck at the bin she felt bad and anxious that she was taking too long. It was the busiest time of the day and she was letting the team down. She was acutely aware they needed her help. As a Pharmacist Manager, I can honestly say I had never even thought about the boxes and the ramifications of just throwing them in the trolley when I was busy. I felt ignorant that I had never considered that what would take me 10 seconds could be causing such a negative flow-on effect.

That night, we gave the boxes the same air time and value as the websters, the back counter and everything else. Many people agreed that the boxes were a big problem and again, explained this with many examples. The staff left at the counter were annoyed at the person taking the boxes away. The patients waited longer. The Pharmacists were stretched further and frustrated when they couldn’t find a Pharmacy Assistant to assist a patient who had popped their head over the dispensary. We even identified that procedures fell by the wayside because the staff were too stretched and busy… All because of the boxes. Together, we then made a plan to rectify the issue.

‘Break down the boxes’ has become one of the most profound leadership learnings of my career and my life. Whether it is one degree or 180 degrees different, everyone has a perspective that is different to your own. Every action has a flow-on effect and, the catalyst that is fuelling a problem is rarely in the only place you think it is. That night I became acutely aware that taking the time to understand every perspective, and paying it the respect it deserves, can unravel the biggest problems and bring about the greatest changes. Do you know where the real magic is in this? I realised that I no longer needed all the answers. Simply by having a greater understanding of situations, the answers presented themselves. I learned I just needed to get better at facilitating their path to the surface.

I now go through life looking for the boxes. The small, seemingly insignificant things that seem like they should have no bearing on big problems or better solutions. I do this by seeking perspectives, trying to understand more and assuming less.

As a leader, this is your job too. Create an environment where everyone feels safe enough to talk about the boxes and the big things. Value the people around you, their perspectives, their insight and the solutions they can offer. In doing so, I guarantee you will find the missing pieces of the puzzle. As for my philosophy, it still holds true. If it’s a problem for them, it is a problem for you…

Even if on the surface the problem seems as trivial as the boxes.

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