The Most Valuable Person on Your Team

Who is the most valuable person on your team?

The answer is: Anyone who helps you do what you do.

In the spring of 1990, after a year of sending resumes and working at temp agencies, I finally landed a full-time job in New York City. As a receptionist. With a Master’s degree. We were in the middle of the recession, and I got one of the last jobs available through my employment agency. I was grateful for a paycheck.

I never let the receptionist salary stop me from doing the work I was capable of doing. By the time I left the Japanese investment bank in 1994 to go back to school, I was writing speeches in English for the Japanese chairman, doing political research for the director, editing the reports of Japanese translators, subbing for analysts at investor meetings, and managing the office. They changed the title on my business cards (at my request) to research assistant. But I was still on a receptionist salary. I didn’t have to do 2/3 of the work I’d carved out for myself. But I wanted to.

Even though my boss said from day one that I was overqualified, in hindsight I am grateful for that opportunity. Being a receptionist for a major corporation, I had the privilege to work daily with individuals who I consider the true engine room of the business: the people who work in the mail room, the messengers, data entry clerks, executive assistants, the admins from temp agencies, and my fellow receptionists. I also was privileged to interact daily with courier service agents, print shop workers, travel agents, and caterers.

These are the people who make everything else possible. They make communication possible. They are often the front face of the company when clients call, email, or walk in the door. Behind the scenes, they hurdle last-minute deadlines to keep the company’s good reputation. They provide a large part of the foundation, and they are a significant reason clients are impressed by the company’s production.

Yet like machines in the engine room, these team members are often overlooked until they break down. And then, at most a phone call is made to “fix it.” Often they are taken for granted and receive little appreciation for the millions of transactions that have gone smoothly and made the company shine.

Many of our temps were aspiring Broadway actors and singers. I doubt most of our sales team, as gutsy as they were, would have the boldness to stand on a stage in front of an audience and belt out a solo. Yet most people in the office didn’t seem to notice these theater professionals who wrote their business correspondence and made sure their criticical mailings got to the clients overnight.

If Meryl Streep or Johnny Depp were sitting in a cubicle next to you, would you notice them? I’m betting you would. Why not give the same VIP treatment to the temp employees who are sitting there? For that matter, why not treat your regular employees as celebrities too? Your success depends on them. Do you know that? More importantly, do they know you know that?

Here are a few steps you can take to learn more about the most important people on your team and to help them feel acknowledged and honored.

Make a list of the kinds of roles that are vital to your company but often overlooked.

Find someone who works in each of those roles. Remember their names.

Talk to them a bit (without interrupting their workflow) and find out what they do.

Find out something about their background and what makes them who they are.

Do the same with the vendors who service your company. Don’t just talk to the owners. Find out about the people they hire and what they do. Then ask the owner to tell you at least one significant way (a way that you probably don’t know about) that their team helps you.

Then show appreciation to those people. Send them a note once in a while telling them how thankful you are for them, how you literally couldn’t do what you do without them. Go out of your way to stop by their workplace once in a while, to smile and say, “Hi, and thank you.”

Talk to them like peers. They may not have your schooling (then again, they might have more schooling than you do!), but they have unique gifts you don’t have. And they are worthy of your respect just by being a person, just like you. Let them hear that in your tone. Let them see, by the way you interact with them, that you honor and value them for who they are. That they are the ultimate VIP and you know it. That you are humbled and privileged to work amidst greatness.

I believe your working environment will become more enjoyable when you take these steps. This is not about creating the right corporate culture. This is simply about being a humble and honoring citizen of the place where you live and work.

Let me know how it goes.