The Housekeeper’s Secret

I was reflecting on the beginnings of my SIU career, 40 years ago, and smiled when I thought of one of my primary, take-away, memories of the decades of experience.

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Few members of the university community, know, what the housekeepers understand about the daily life and its intricate nuances at SIU.

You see, the, full time, custodial staff get acquainted with a plethora of members of the university…from all areas of its operations.

In better years…we were everywhere and saw everything.

We were a bit like the FBI or the CIA…sworn to secrecy.

However, professors and administrators and staff and students…often confided in us.

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In the old movies about the upper crust of society…Jeeves, the butler, and Matilda, the maid, heard and saw much more than they ever spoke of.

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Simple, but compelling, reasons for the loss in our student numbers, for the past 20 years…have been, both, observed by the Building Services staff, as well as confided to us by our wonderful students.

At one time…’we knew what the president knew…and when did he know it.’

We know that hierarchal leadership structures do not work very well…anymore.

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Everyone, that works, has a boss, and the boss…has a boss.  However, ‘sucking-up-to-the boss,’ is painfully evident to all who observe the process…and creates dysfunction rather than unity.

When, administrators are constantly afraid of loosing their, ‘position,’ they tend to be risk adverse.  If the suggestions of the rank and file…must travel through the brains and ‘verbal mills’ of several lieutenants…the ideas, likely, will never reach the leader that they are intended for… or if they do…they will be, forever altered…much as the old, childhood, game of Telephone…where the sentence begins as one idea…and arrives at the end of the telephone line…as something totally different.

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Speaking, ‘truth to power,’ is never easy, and will never happen without a collaborative leader and an atmosphere of collegiality.

Another secret that we housekeepers knew was that the university was comprised of a multitude of; shops and offices and academic disciplines and administrative silos.

Some of these workplaces, within the university structure, are happy and productive enterprises…while other are fiefdoms…replete with lords and vassals.

I have, always, been a person who enjoys being in the background of the scene and a observer of good leadership.

However, I have worked for dictatorial leaders and have, sadly, observed the health and happiness, consequences, that they have on their employees.

When I was promoted, through the ranks, at Building Services, I never forgot that I was a member of the team…and nothing more.  I was humbled and honored that my colleagues trusted me to lead them…and upon retirement…I returned to the ‘back bench’ of life…and continue to admire effective leaders.

We housekeepers know that our students seek someone who cares about them.  Many come from broken homes and families where they, by and large, raised themselves.  Many are worried and anxious about their futures…and many have challenges that do not fit the ‘Norman Rockwell’ paintings of the 1950’s.

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Many of our students come from homes where it is dangerous to sit in your front yard or walk to the theatre or play a game of hoops…at the basketball court.

Many of our students have seen their parents argue and fight over…so many things…that they are unclear what a health relationship…looks like?

We humans have a much larger percentage of mental health issues than our society biases…make us comfortable to admit and seek help for.  Our students have these challenges…and they are looking for someone who cares and understands.

When a supervisor or a manager or an administrator…fails to see a member of their staff as a complex human with a rich and, often, difficult life, outside of work…they have missed the first principle of good management.

When we reduce people to cliches or when we ‘pigeon-hole’ them into less than what they are capable of accomplishing…we have done them and the organization…irreparable damage.







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