If you haven't seen the movie, "The Help," do so now. The parallels between your company culture today and that of Jackson, Miss., in 1960 might be closer than you want to believe.
In the movie, housekeepers and cooks, had vastly different perspectives and circumstances than the patriarchs and matriarchs running the households.
If the story had been told by homeowner Ms. Hilly Holbrook instead of the maids Aibileen Clark and Minnie, you might have heard about how well they treat the help, how lucky they are to have such a good job, how well they are paid and treated based upon the skills they bring. Or, you might even have heard that the help is hardly worth the trouble.
If you reduced the job of the help to mechanical processes, it was simple, but not easy work, tasks that included cooking, cleaning and polishing.
Taking a more strategic view, the most important role of the help was to raise the children of the family. What's more important to you -- your silver or your child?
As I watched, I kept thinking about how the help in 1960s Mississippi equates with "the girls" in a contemporary office setting. We know most of you would never call your staff "the help." However, we have observed a surprising number of agency principals, managers and producers that refer to their professional staff as "the girls." More often than not, this is a term based in familiarity, tradition and affection.
The reality is that the girls may have a different perspective and "the girls" may not be their term of choice. Also, this term often reflects a class system existing in producer-defined and producer-driven organizations that is not conducive to professional teamwork and results.
Before you say, "We don't do that" carefully consider the past 12 months. Have you, or someone else in your team utilized this moniker?
Your future will require a client-focused team of peer professionals that work on client needs not at the pleasure of the producer. The right talent will be the differentiator between the best in class and that in all other agencies. The girls can't be a lesser group. Your success is dependent upon knowing and growing their talents, incenting them to assure maximum performance and results, rehabilitating those that need it and transitioning out those who aren't right for the team or the client. You must have professionals that are kind, smart and important.
To me the movie captured a reality and showed two different perspectives of that reality. I was touched by a member of the help whispering to the child she was hired to raise: "You is smart, you is kind, you is important!" Although she was the help, she understood how to help the child grow and maximize their potential.
I remember Skeeter's momma acknowledging and apologizing to Skeeter that she had not stood up for what was right, and that "sometimes courage skips a generation." I smiled when one of the help who had nothing was walking away from her job finally empowered because her story had been told.
The real message of the film was the transformational power that was unleashed when the help, as a group, shared their stories, their experiences and commitments -- giving power to the people.
You can unleash this transformational power with a shared vision and one voice by:
* Reinforcing to each employee that they are "kind, important and smart";
* Making the agency benefit them for their commensurate with their considerable contributions;
* Listening to and learning from their stories and mentoring them to maximize their contributions;
* And courageously creating a culture of accountability, trust, respect and humility
The girls raise your kids and deal with your customers -- isn't that more important than your silver?
MICHAEL G. MANES is owner of Square One Consulting, a New Iberia, La.- based consulting business focusing on planning, sales and operations, and change management and architecture. He has over 37 years of insurance industry experience, including serving as an instructor of risk and insurance at Louisiana State University.
November 14, 2011
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