Mervin Brewer and Ricky Martinez lead by example
Mervin Brewer (left) and Ricky Martinez (second from right) lead by example Healthy Schools Campaign

What do you remember about your school custodian? Were they a role model? A mentor? Or did they just do the cleaning? I certainly remember mine.

During my years in elementary school, we had the same custodian, Mr. Tom, with whom I had only one interaction. Walking with my friends down a hallway, one of them slammed shut a custodial closet door. Out barreled Mr. Tom, angry as a nest of hornets, with his sights set on me. (I didn’t run as fast as the other kids!) A few stern words from him and I found myself in the principal’s office.

When I got to junior high, it was Mr. Jimmy out sweeping the halls twice each day. He never spoke with any of the students, but instead spent most of his time down in the custodian’s office, where if anybody needed anything, he was quick to respond.

Finally, there is Mr. Ray, our high school custodian. He rarely left the custodian’s office, but when he did, he always took the elevator to go to the second and third floors. He was really in no physical shape to be walking around a large building.
While we certainly could rely on them to keep the heat on in the winter, I would not call any of these custodians a role model or mentor. Considering this reality, how do we garner respect for custodial services? How can we get others to realize we are the frontline of defense in creating a healthy school environment?

Our leadership team has found two principles that are key to nurturing successful leaders at all levels: leadership, both internal and external; and personal leadership, which includes customer service and the building of positive relationships.

Leadership begins within the organization. As a leader, we should always treat our employees with kindness and humility, yet still hold them accountable for their work and actions. A crucial aspect of internal leadership means that you must value your employees. When an employee is valued by their supervisors, they feel respected.

Ways to show that you value your employees include: providing them with resources (such as trainings), innovative equipment, processes, opportunities and advice. As a leader, you need to be authentic and honest, even when you have critical conversations. Employees must be assured that you advocate for them and are willing to battle on their behalf. Keep an open mind when employees have different ideas or criticisms about new equipment or cleaning processes. Give them the gift of knowledge, as well as opportunities for personal and professional development.

External leadership is manifested when you tell your success stories. This does not mean merely showcasing good employees. Instead, the aim here is to help drive education and change with the decision-makers. Get the message out that you do innovate. Educate those around you on the concept of cleaning for health, including what processes and technologies you use. Build professionalism in your department by citing examples of a successful team. Celebrate those milestones and embrace the limelight. Newsletters, blogs and social media are all good places to start.

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