Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Counting our blessings: Great Clients

When Roni and I started Zenith Cleaners, we were new in Montreal and a number of the people we call friends in Montreal today, we met as clients of Zenith Cleaners.

We are blessed to have clients who believed in us when we were unsure of ourselves. Clients who believed in us enough to demand excellence from us when we could have followed the beaten path of shoddiness.

We are blessed to have clients who care so much about us as to tell us when we make mistakes and do it respectfully.

We are blessed to have clients who do not leave us or beat us on the head for our imperfections.

We are blessed to have clients who, realizing that we are imperfect, still spread the word about Zenith Cleaners, saving us from the need to advertise.

We are blessed to have clients who realize that we need to be paid on time and ensure we get paid on time.

We are blessed to have clients who write "Thank you" with every single payment. As a service provider, that is more gratifying than any amount of money.

Thanks to the blessing of great clients, we have grown consistently since inception. There has not been a single year worse than the previous year, with or without recession.

We are blessed to have clients who open up not only their homes, buildings, offices, schools, churches, organizations but also their hearts to us. Clients that invite you over to their homes, that invite you for tea or coffee, that send you get well wishes and even visit you when you are sick, that shower you with baby gifts when you have a baby, that give our staff huge tips even though we do not (even subtly) solicit for tips are no longer mere clients, they are people with hearts and they should be appreciated, not just at Christmas but all through the year.

Thank you from our hearts, for supporting and loving these group of cleaners called Zenith Cleaners. Thank you for helping us to make 2010 the best year we have had.

Have a beautiful Christmas and a prosperous 2011.

Counting our blessings: Great Staff

2010 has been a great year at Zenith Cleaners. We consider ourselves blessed to have the best staff in our industry.

Our staff are far from perfect but every year has been an improvement on the previous, because we have been blessed with great people, some of whom are no longer with us. We have and have had people who enjoy doing the work that they do, not minding the lowliness of it. Most employees do not enjoy going to work, even those who do much more "noble" work but we are cleaners and our people enjoy coming to work! We consider that a blessing.

In our industry, dishonesty and theft are common but we have not had a case of theft since inception and we have been blessed with staff who are trustworthy, who are true custodians of clients' information and physical assets.

It is rare to have staff who go out of their way to cook meals, send flowers, write 5-page get-well letters when their "boss" is ill. We are blessed to have staff who do.

Our staff go beyond the call of duty. They do everything they can to ensure clients are satisfied and to correct mistakes when they happen.

We are cleaners and we are "supposed" to be at the "bottom of the pyramid" but we are blessed with staff who volunteer to clean for non profit organizations, with no less commitment to excellence than if they were paid for it.

It is a blessing to have staff who clients love to see and have around. It is a blessing to have staff who clients notice are happy to work, even while cleaning up dirt.

We are blessed with staff who spread the word about Zenith Cleaners. Almost every one of our staff today learnt about Zenith Cleaners from a current or former staff.

We are blessed with staff who show up for work! As simple as that may sound, it is not that easy when you have to clean dirty floors and bathrooms in a public space on a snowy Sunday morning, when you would rather be in bed. Our staff show up!

Thanks to the staff we are blessed with, Zenith continues to go from strength to strength in a virtuous and unending upward spiral. We could not possibly compensate them for who they are. When they have to leave us, we are not sad to see them go but we are glad for who they have been with us and happy to see them flourish elsewhere.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The mystery of freedom

At Zenith Cleaners, we intentionally give staff and clients equal freedom to be engaged and to disengage at anytime they choose, and to choose how they want to be engaged, so long as it does not compromise our essence. This should create enormous instability on both sides but not enough to keep us from doubling every 2 years.

It definitely puts us in a seemingly precarious position because our reality is that every client has the freedom (without penalty) to discontinue their relationship with us at this very moment. Every one of our staffs also has the freedom to leave anytime, anyday, without notice. Yet, we have no fear that we will lose all our clients and staff.

Why do we give this freedom?

Providing the freedom that we do to clients and staff benefits us first, just as the giver of any gift is really the first beneficiary of the gifts. When we provide freedom to others, we experience that freedom first, internally. It is impossible to be blessed when we truly bless others. This is why providing freedom to clients and staff frees us from fear of the worst and in a mysterious way, prevents the worst from happening. In a way, we are a sustainable enterprise because we create freedom for instability.

Another reason we give freedom to disengage is because there can be no true freedom to do what is right without the freedom to do what is not right. No one has the freedom to succeed without the freedom to fail. No one has the freedom to love without the freedom to hate. We realize that the freedom to be fully engaged, loyal, committed and responsible must come with the freedom not to.

While interviewing a potential associate last week, she mentioned that no one can really control or restrict another human being and I thought that was true. I think attempts to restrict people in contracts and other means are essentially futile at least, because human beings are created to be free and are essentially free. We cannot have sustainable relationships without nurturing that fundamental human attribute of freedom.

Life happens and life is not always straightforward and smooth. There are detours, bottlenecks, sticky and messy situations from time to time. Providing freedom takes real life into consideration because there is freedom of growth and of death, in life. We are all healthier when we create room for what needs to grow and what needs to die and do not restrict either.

When people are free to do whatever they like, they show their true colors, almost without fail. For an organization like ours, that values relationships, it is a true blessing to know the true nature of everyone we engage with since we can easily decide who we want to develop a relationship with and who we do not want to develop a relationship with. Honest, reliable people will show themselves as exactly that. Dishonest, unreliable or lazy people will show themselves dishonest, unreliable or lazy because freedom is a fertile environment for everyone to thrive, for good or bad. I think people show up the way they really are, in an atmosphere of freedom. The benefit for us is we can easily choose who is good for us and leave who is not.

The fact that our clients and staff stay with us shows that something commits them. That thing is much stronger, much deeper than any contract we may sign. It is an understanding that we truly care and are not paying lip service to service. We make mistakes but our clients know deep down that we care. We are far from being perfect employers but our associates have a sense that we want to treat them as whole human beings and in the words of my friend Tana Paddock, we have "equal reverence for clients and staff". Our clients are not more important because they pay us. Our associates are not less important because "they cost us". So, it is easy for staff to forgive us when we fail.

These and many other reasons some of which we know and some which we have no clue about are why we provide freedom the way we do at Zenith Cleaners.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cleaning as Practice

Cleaning is a humble activity but it can be a rewarding activity. Personally, I do not think anyone should do cleaning full time for the rest of their lives and we encourage our staff to have something else going on in their lives than cleaning as people who do, do better in cleaning. However, while engaged in cleaning, I think it is worthwhile to do it as a practice, a place to hone skills that are required in other domains. At Zenith Cleaners, we have always maintained that cleaning is much more than cleaning. As someone engaged in every aspect of cleaning, I think it can be a practice that helps develop vital skills, if one is attuned to learning even from humble activities and one does not think that the cleaning activity somehow diminishes them..

In cleaning, there are opportunities to stretch yourself mentally, physically and spiritually. Recently, we started a new cleaning engagement which I assigned to myself. I was almost certain at the beginning that it was impossible to complete the tasks within the time that we needed to complete them to have a profitable relationship. But I decided to take a risk by allowing myself to think that I could complete the required tasks in about 60% of the time it would normally take without compromising on quality. I set that goal for myself and was able to achieve it consistently, without compromising on quality. This required stretching myself - improving my speed while remaining present so as not to miss anything. Achieving that goal required practicing how to do more with less (less time, less resources, etc.)

I am presently in transition to a new project and I am glad for the opportunity to practice much needed skills: concentration, operating under a tight time and resource budget, improvisation, practicing presence, testing and stretching my limits. I think of Karate Kid, learning how to fight by waxing cars. It seems to me that approach is much more rewarding for everyone than if he simply went to the gym or a training arena to train his hands.

Cleaning is not just about keeping someone else's space clean. Depending on one's perspective, the cleaner may benefit much more from the process than the beneficiary of the cleaning task and I think understanding and experiencing ways a cleaner may benefit from the activity makes it much more rewarding for everyone. As a cleaner, you probably will not be cleaning for the rest of your life but while you are doing it, why not fully participate and experience what makes cleaning rewarding for you.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Trading Places

A few years ago, a thought came to me while cleaning at one of our commercial clients, that there may be people like me, who want to clean, not because they have to, but for other reasons. I thought that like me, there may be people who consider cleaning to be therapeutic, meditative and physically exerting. At a Santropol Roulant board meeting, I proposed the idea to fellow board members and Tana Paddock, who was a board member then, took me up on the offer to work with Zenith Cleaners, not as a "cleaner" but as someone who wants to experience cleaning for reasons other than needing a job. Tana worked with Zenith Cleaners for about one year and it was a great experience for her. Tana ended up cleaning for organizations she had either had either led or consulted for. I thought that was really exciting.

For me, cleaning is not just about cleaning. It is about relationships, it is about working out, it is about meditation, it is about seeing the world through a different lens and being in a different role than my training and background has prepared me for. I cannot describe what it feels like to be a cleaner doing high dusting in a clothing store one night and the next morning be speaking to a graduating MBA class at HEC Montreal. It tends to enlarge your frame of reference, at the very least.

We are open to people who want to trade places, meditate, work out, lose weight - everyone who was slightly overweight when they joined Zenith Cleaners get to lose weight without having to pay a dime to do so. Instead, they get paid. One thing to note though is that when we are cleaners, we are cleaners and we are present with the work that needs to be done. We are present with the need to satisfy our clients and ensure they have a great experience with us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Qualities of a good cleaner

Last Friday, August 20, 2010 was Sarah Mann's last day at Zenith Cleaners. Sarah was our oldest staff and while we will miss her, we are happy to see her go, and flourish somewhere else, taking with her some of the qualities of a Zenith Cleaner. Ronke and I had a short debriefing session with her last week. We spoke about her experience over the last 5 years and how that connected with the next phase of her life. Sarah came on board shortly before she left McGill University and while she was with Zenith Cleaners, she did a Masters in Social Work from University of Victoria.

It may be hard to see how several years in a cleaning company prepares you for anything else in life but cleaning. But it is clear that the skills and attitudes needed to thrive in Zenith Cleaners or as a good cleaner at all, are universal, and prepare one for greater responsibilities. This is in no way exhaustive and is in no particular order.

It takes an amazing amount of self discipline to consistently deliver top quality performance to clients even in something as basic as cleaning, where performance naturally declines over time. It takes discipline to be always punctual, show up at clients' premises rain, snowstorm or shine and follow assigned tasks when the natural tendency is to do otherwise. It takes discipline to pursue and complete a Masters full time while working 30+ hours a week in something as physically (and mentally) demanding as cleaning. Discipline transcends occupations.

This is obvious. Cleaning up after people humbles you, for many reasons, especially if you attended one of the most prestigious Universities in Canada. For most people, cleaners are at the bottom of the chain and it is very hard not to see how "small" you are when you do cleaning. This is an attitude that I think all humans need, because only with humility can we consistently improve. Only humble people can grow and become more than they presently are. Only humble people can learn. Only humble people can keep an open mind to possibilities beyond their field of experience. Only humble people can create new things. Which occupation does not need humility?

Servant heart
As a cleaner, you are practically a servant. If you did not know how to serve others before coming on board, you would need to learn it in a matter of months. At Zenith Cleaners, our clients have the freedom to disengage without notice and so the servant heart is even more needed because we retain clients only because of our service quality. The world can only be made better by those who have the willingness and the heart to extend beyond themselves and serve, whether or not they stand to benefit significantly. As a cleaner, you learn to serve with all your heart, mind and body for comparatively little financial benefit. At Zenith Cleaners, we are blessed to have people like Sarah, who do it joyfully day in day out. Such people should lead because they have learnt to serve joyfully with little compensation.

This may seem to contradict the idea of humility, but really, who is truly humble unless they have something to be proud about? As a cleaner, you need to be confident of who you are and be able to separate who you are from society's conception of you, which is dependent on what you do. If you allow yourself to be defined by what society thinks of you, you are internally defeated and once you are internally defeated, the quality of your work suffers. As a cleaner, you need to take pride in the work you do and know that even if others do not appreciate you much for it, it is worthwhile. This is why we have the Martin Luther quote on our website. If a cleaner can learn to do their work as well as Shakespeare wrote poetry, they will most likely be able to do anything else as well.

This is big. Sarah herself mentioned this during our conversation. As a cleaner, you need discretion. We do work with task lists but as a cleaner you need that unique human endowment of personal judgement to know when to stick to the task list and when to set it aside. If you are someone who only follows task lists and loves routine, contrary to what most people may think, you cannot be a good cleaner. You need discretion to be a good custodian of people's physical and information assets. More than most of our staff, Sarah had access to people's homes and information and she was a faithful custodian while she was with us. She could easily have destroyed the company and any one of our clients by simply misusing what was entrusted to her. That takes discretion and it is needed everywhere. In cleaning, you learn it if you did not have it.

A good cleaner needs to be present. At Zenith Cleaners, we always say that people should bring their whole selves to work. It is not just a physical activity. It is mental as well as spiritual. Discretion for example requires using your intuition, which is beyond mental. If you are not present, you must of necessity do a poor job. Cleaning allows one to practice being present. At Zenith Cleaners, after consistent complaints about your work, you either learn presence or leave. Don't we all love people who are just present? There is a serenity about them that is contagious and you can be sure that when they are doing anything, they are not doing something else. When they are here, they are here, now.

This is perhaps the biggest quality in cleaning. Who wants to give anyone access to their space, their lives, their information, their assets if they cannot be trusted? No matter how good a cleaning company is in terms of quality of work, trust is what determines who consistently wins with clients and gets rave reviews. Intuitively, most clients know that it all comes down to trustworthiness and not the size of the company or the age of the company. Our clients must trust us to do a good job, to care for their space, their assets, their information, to be honest and open about what we can or cannot do and to keep our word. Our staff must be trustworthy for us to retain our clients' trust. Sarah was trustworthy throughout her time with Zenith Cleaners, because she is trustworthy. Trustworthiness is a quality cleaners need and it is a quality in very short supply in our world.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Zenith Cleaners, 6 years after

This week made it 6 years since Ronke and I started Zenith Cleaners. It has been a rewarding adventure. We have had staff, clients and suppliers who have been with us almost since inception. People who believed in us when we were not even sure of ourselves. We are grateful to them because without them we would not have made it this far. I have to say Namaste, "I salute the God in you."

Some staff, clients and suppliers were with us but no longer. We are grateful to them because they contributed to what we are now. We are grateful to them because they help to drive home the reality that we are only with each other for a short while and that creates an urgency to make a difference with each other, while holding each other loosely. We realize that we may not become what we are not yet, if we have no freedom to leave where we have always been. Namaste to those who touched our lives and allowed us to touch theirs.

We have learnt many things doing this and this is an experience Ronke and I will not trade for anything else in the world. We came into this knowing that it was a 'lowly' occupation but we chose to be 'lowly' instead of 'exalted' and while we had a sense of it when we started, we realize in retrospect that there are many things you learn in lowliness that you cannot learn otherwise. We are grateful to all the people who gave us and continue to give us the opportunity to make mistakes, to learn and to attempt to love.

We have tried to show that we are not so much about cleaning and contracts and payments as we are about relating with people. For us, being environmentally friendly is only part of relating with people. We are grateful to the people who allowed us to enter into and to be in their lives through Zenith Cleaners.

One of the things we have learnt is that true greatness is at home with smallness and the true test of a person's greatness of heart is how they treat people who appear 'insignificant', people they can get away with mistreating. We appreciate our staff, clients and suppliers for exemplifying that.

Has Zenith Cleaners been successful? We have existed for 6 years so something is working, financially. However, we are neither inspired nor motivated by traditional definitions of success. For us, success has more to do with our contribution to people and that exists only in the heart. We believe J.F. Kennedy's statement: "After the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or politics (or if I may add, business) but for our contribution to the human spirit."

Looking forward, we do not know what is in store. We know we will keep learning and we will keep loving even though we make mistakes in the process. We believe that the future holds boundless opportunities to make a difference and we will seize those opportunities, which our experience at Zenith Cleaners has prepared us for, thanks to all the people who allowed and allow us to be.