How a Little Toilet Paper Saved a Multi-Million Dollar Company

“My mother loved me to pieces,” wrote humorist Roy Blount Jr. “And I’m still trying to pick up the pieces.” Blount explores his relationship with his mother in his book <i>Be Sweet</i>, which anyone raised in the South will recognize as the advice we often received.

I often use that advice along with the other constant admonitions my mother gave me as a young boy to use the words “please” and “thank you” in my career in the turnaround industry. My own interpretation of being sweet is that I treat everyone with respect. That’s the way my momma raised me.

When I visit a failing company for an assessment or when I take over as Interim CEO, the situation can seem depressing. These companies are not on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, to say the least. Their employees work for the anti-Googles of the world: there is no free gourmet food, no celebrity visit, no bocce ball court or bowling lanes.

The employees know the company is in a bad situation. They’ve heard rumors about bankruptcy, layoffs, salary cuts. Most likely they have had very little communication from the higher ups to dispel what may or may not be only rumors.

Then I show up. A total unknown. About as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. I need to turn that negative emotional tide quickly so I can do the job I’ve been hired to do. I need these people on my team, and I want to give them hope about their futures. I can’t give them free gourmet meals – but I can buy them toilet paper.

I’ve mentioned this story before as a lesson for CEOs to watch their raging egos, but it applies for this situation as well. A very smart Ivy League Ph.D lost his $50 million company. He practically threw the keys at the bank considering all he kept from them, and I was called in to try to save his company.

Minutes after I arrived the executive assistant asked for $20 so she could buy coffee and toilet paper. Seems the CEO’s wife, the Dragon Lady of El Paso, as she was not so fondly referred to by the employees, had severely rationed coffee and toilet paper and they were out. Not a square to spare.

The company was losing millions, but saving a few dollars by limiting the staff to two rolls of toilet paper a day is kind of like unscrewing the light bulb in the fridge of your McMansion to save on electricity when you’re months behind on your mortgage payments. It won’t make a darn bit of difference except in the Demoralization Department.

I reached into my wallet and took out $100. “Go to that Sam’s Club I saw on the way in here, buy as much coffee and toilet paper as you can. Bring it back, put it in the break room, and tell everyone, ‘Compliments of Lee.’”

From then on, the staff loved me. Nobody lost his or her job, and we sold the company, in full, six months later.

Other times getting buy-in from employees is as easy as saying “please” or “thank-you.”

When I assume the role of Interim CEO, I need the assistance of the staff there. They may need to stay a little late to prepare a report for me, which they have to do in addition to their regular jobs. A simple, “Thanks, I really appreciate it,” to let them know that I know we’re all pulling a little more than our weight to keep the ship afloat, goes a long way. It’s always a shame that so many of them get this strange look in their eyes like I’ve said something odd. To them, I have. They aren’t used to hearing appreciation for doing their jobs.

Treating people with respect goes a long way towards helping build loyalty with a staff, especially when turning around companies. I spend a lot of time picking up the pieces, but not as a result of too much love.

Have you thanked someone lately? Who?

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