Yesterday a friend from high school (actually she was in my younger brother’s peer group) posted on Facebook that there is a first time for everything. She and her husband had gone to a restaurant for lunch. After taking her order, the waitress turned briefly toward her husband to take his order and then turned back. She said: “Wow, you just make me miss my mom so much. You smell just like her.”
Immediately a memory came alive in my head that was pleasant to remember. The year was 1988. I had left a 17 ½ year career track as a State employee the year before. It was probably a midlife crisis, but I also processed it as a sense of calling. I wanted to try my hand at direct service delivery to children and families from hard places by serving in the role of an executive director of a children’s home.
I had invested 15 ½ years in residential childcare licensing and felt fairly comfortable that I had the skill set and knowledge base to be successful. After all, I knew state licensing requirements like the back of my hand. In the context of my new role, I was invited to speak along with two other people at a State wide annual child care administrator’s conference. The workshop was entitled “Things You Need To Know”.
Actually it was the first time I’d ever been invited to speak at a conference. I was both honored and humbled by the invitation. The other two persons participating in the workshop were seasoned professionals who were highly respected for their work. I figured since I was the new kid on the block at the age of 42, that newfound role was my only foray into the lineup. I certainly didn’t have the experience and expertise of the other two presenters.
I was pretty transparent in my presentation. The thoughts I shared were more along the line of what I was discovering you needed to know, rather than definitively identifying a chiseled in stone list. One of the first things you needed to know was that having a knowledge base of how to work with children, minimum standards, best practice and child development weren’t the highest ingredients needed. Important? – “Yes” Urgent? – “No”. There were many other things that took priority over any of that.
For example: Whom do you call when water is spewing out in the boiler room? What do you do when you receive notice that payroll taxes weren’t submitted during the last quarter? What do you do with resolving delinquent taxes on property you didn’t even know the children’s home owned? Trust me when you are in a place of leadership where the buck stops, the sky is the limit in things you need to know, but don’t.
I talked about the importance of involving the board in any deliberation related to change. After all, they are the group that can identify the sacred cows. In addition, when push comes to shove, they have the upper hand. In fact, some of the board members may see themselves and what they want as sacred.
I don’t know if you’ve ever considered it, but the search committee of every board looking for an executive director has the same rhetoric. They are all looking for someone who can walk on water (I mean who can provide the leadership needed to promote a program of excellence).
They are sincere. They mean it when they tell you they think you are exactly the kind of person they’ve been looking for to fill the position. And of course you want to believe it because it provides unlimited opportunity for you. Truth be told, give it a little time and the situation may look quite differently.
I know you’re thinking that nothing I’ve shared has any relationship to the “you smell like my mother” reference made in the introduction. If you’re thinking that, you’re rushing me. I haven’t gotten to that part yet. Actually, it was the concluding point I made during my thirty-minute presentation. Consequently, in the interest of time, I’m skipping over other points that are vaguely on the horizon of my conscience memory. The concluding point was simply this: “If your investing your life in the well being of children, keep doing what you’re doing because you may never know the impact it carries.”
I then shared the story of Teddy Stallard that Charles Swindoll had included in one of his books. The book was a new release at the time and reading the story had brought tears to my eyes. Wiping away the tears, I remember having the thought, “I’ve got to include this example in my presentation. It is definitely one of the things you need to know.”
Mrs. Thompson, Teddy’s fifth grade teacher, didn’t immediately find herself drawn to him. He was an unkempt, quiet, solemn and distant. He didn’t relate well to his peers and he wasn’t a good student. Mrs. Thompson had read his file. He was a kid from a hard place. You could look at his records for each of his previous school years and note the decline. As his mother became more ill, he experienced more academic difficulties. Mrs. Thompson knew that Teddy’s mother had died the previous year, but even that knowledge didn’t pull at her heartstrings to get involved and offer extra help.
At the class Christmas party, most of the students brought brightly wrapped presents for Mrs. Thomason. Even Teddy brought a present, but it was not neatly wrapped. Opening it, she found a bracelet with a rhinestone or two missing and a partially filled bottle of ladies perfume. The other students started laughing.
Mrs. Thompson thoughtfully offered thanks, put the bracelet on and sprayed some of the perfume on her arm. As she thanked Teddy for his gift, he said: “You smell just like my mother”.
That affirmation melted her heart and she purposefully chose to provide extra attention, support and encouragement to Teddy for the remainder of the school year. By the end of the school year, he was functioning back at grade level and his demeanor and posture seemed completely changed. Teddy was a child she stayed in touch with for several years, but as Teddy grew older the connection faded.
Many years later, Mrs. Thompson received a handwritten invitation to Teddy’s wedding. He communicated in his note that he had graduated from college and subsequently from medical school. He also shared that his father had passed away. He asked if she’d attend his wedding and have the honor of sitting in the seat his mother would have filled.”
Obviously that is a good place to stop and offer the reminder, “When you invest your time in making someone else feel important and valued, you’ll never know the difference it might make.” The point was well received by the audience in the workshop. There reaction caught me totally off-guard. There was a thunderous applause as I was taking my seat. It was a nice affirmation.
Out of curiosity, I just did a Google search to determine the authenticity of the Teddy Stallard story. Reportedly, it is false. That being said, the principal I shared is still valid. When you invest your time in making someone else feel important and valued, you’ll never know the difference it might make. I know any number of adults who would attest that the kindness of folks who invested in their lives made a lasting difference.
All My Best!