I spent last summer working in a laundry. No, I hadn’t lost my mind; I was filming an episode for Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire series.
Ostensibly a hard-up newcomer to a tough neighbourhood in the gun crime capital of Britain, I went in search of great people and organisations that deserved my money. But what I saw along the way left me wondering how much talent we overlook.
The Bright Waters Launderette, where I worked, is a community laundry. Staffed by volunteers, it is led by one paid manager, Joanne Brodsky.
Now, Joanne is not what most people would identify as management material. She didn’t get much of an education, her grammar isn’t gracious, her presentation isn’t brilliant, she’s blowsy, cheeky, smokes too much and can be quite rude. All those surface qualities would probably have her out of most offices in no time flat.
She began at the laundry as a volunteer, when, at home with her third child, she suffered panic attacks. Working at the laundry got her out of the house, into a safe, sociable place, giving her the support she needed to get through the day.
And so Joanne thrived. She loved the company and she loved working. Most of us do. It’s no surprise that work and happiness are highly correlated. What makes us happy isn’t money but purpose, and Joanne found this at the laundry. She could help people and, in doing so, she helped herself.
When the laundry’s manager left, Joanne took over. She now runs the place – very well. She has a few industrial contracts to keep revenue steady but she also has an entire community that comes in for washing – and so much more: cups of tea, advice, comfort, company. Bright Waters is a social hub; that is how it markets itself and keeps its customers loyal. What Joanne’s doing with dirty laundry and cups of tea is what Starbucks does with armchairs.
The whole place is staffed by volunteers. They don’t have to turn up to work â“ they want to turn up. (Imagine if that’s how your workforce felt!)
Most of them are mothers who have lost their confidence staying at home. Coming to work gives them a purpose and a group to belong to. For many, volunteering at Bright Waters is the first step on the road back to work.
And the business is expanding. Volunteers drive a van all around Nottingham, collecting laundry from people who are housebound. For many of these customers, the van is their link to the outside world. They get clean clothes and contact. Is this a business or a social service? It’s both.
No one taught Joanne how to do this. Yet what I saw in Nottingham was, simply, leadership. Bright Waters is a thriving operation that adds real value to loyal customers and wants only to expand faster. As such, it is everything a business should be.
But I couldn’t help thinking: what company or manager would ever have spotted Joanne’s talent? Most people would be so struck by her defects (lack of education, no training, a loud mouth and strident opinions) that they’d not bother to see the blazing potential underneath. Only a manager smart enough to hire for attitude over skills would see the value that Joanne brings to the business.
What makes her so good? She’s a wonderful manager because she’s passionate and committed to work that suits her personality. She’s successful because she’s had the freedom to define the job on her own terms. And she’s driven because a little success has given her a taste for more.
Working alongside Joanne made me wonder: are we all open and imaginative enough to spot the “Joannes” that are out there? Are we so obsessed by the need for skills that we overlook the value of attitude? Do we dare to give new hires the latitude they might need to succeed? Do we have the courage to hire people so different to ourselves?
Nottingham may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday. But you don’t have to leave the country to see a whole new world.
To read more columns by Margaret Heffernan, click here.
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