How to Succeed By Treating Everybody Like a Somebody

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The Foster Harris House is a lovely little Inn and restaurant in the tiny, historic town of Washington, Virginia. For the new owner, Klaus Peters, running the House is a post-retirement labor of love.

Innkeeper Klaus Peters, with Executive Chef Dawn Sieber, and Director of Operations Zoe Sieber.

Klaus is a distinguished gray-haired man with a bit of an accent and a beaming smile. Before his “boring” short-lived retirement, Klaus enjoyed a long and successful career managing some of the country’s top hotels, like the Watergate and The Fairfax at Embassy Row, both in Washington DC.

But Klaus started his career in hospitality at the bottom, as a 14-year-old kitchen apprentice. His German father had lost his job and money during World War II, so in the late 1950’s young Klaus had to help support the family. Eventually he worked his way up to a waiter’s job in Paris, and at age 18 he answered an ad to become a waiter at a Texas hotel.

Klaus told me that in those days in Europe, if you were a German at the low end of a hierarchy, you were treated like a non-entity. He recently wrote in a LinkedIn post, “In 1964, I arrived in Houston as a ‘Nobody’ server, at the Hotel America … making $3.50 a day plus tips…I had low self-esteem and thus became arrogant to cover up my insecurities. I don’t believe that I was liked by too many people.”

But then a miracle happened. He was given the opportunity to serve dinner to the hotel manager, Earl Duffy, and his guests.

“Just imagine, Mr. Duffy greeted me by name and introduced me to his guests and his guests to me,” Klaus wrote.

“WOW, this had never happened to me before. Mr. Duffy respected me and treated me like an equal. To him and his wife, I was a “Somebody”. The way he made me feel, totally changed my personality and the way I would treat subordinates in the future,” he said.

Klaus’ life was transformed by the realization that you can shift another person’s sense of self, and behavior, by focusing on them and treating them with respect. So Klaus adopted the rule, “treat everybody like a Somebody.” And by the time he was 26 he was managing a Florida resort, and greatly enjoying a career built around making other people happy.

Klaus understands that leadership is not as simple as respecting each team member. Not only must you motivate your colleagues, but you must share the vision and give them the resources they need. But “treat everybody like a Somebody” is a mantra that can take you a long way, in your career as well as the rest of your life. Here are some reasons the practice is so powerful:

  • Expressing gratitude makes you both feel better. Research makes clear that when you experience a feeling of gratitude your stress goes down and you become more optimistic. And expressing gratitude is even more powerful than simply feeling grateful. So when you treat a person “like a Somebody” by thanking them, and you mean it, you boost your happiness as well as theirs.
  • Modeling civility creates a productive culture. When workers routinely experience rude or demeaning behavior, their stress can skyrocket and the level of their performance may plummet. They are likely to spend less time at work, they may lose their creativity and commitment to the mission, and they could take out frustrations on customers. But leaders who model civility, treating every team member “as a Somebody,” can dramatically change the culture. When they approach everyone with respect, listen intently, and smile often, they set a tone that supports achievement.
  • Noticing people makes them feel better. In our busy society, folks may have little time or opportunity for real conversation, they may feel unseen and unheard, and loneliness is rampant, even in crowded workplaces. People who feel invisible and marginalized are not likely to do their best work, or appreciate the efforts of others. But those who feel valued often want to help. I have watched the way Klaus charms people by providing them his full attention. He tells his inn guests, “we’re in the business of making you feel good.” And part of the way he accomplishes that is by making each individual feel as though they matter.
  • Paying attention helps you improve. Offering attention to other people is not effective if you are just going through the motions. Treating a person like they count requires that you truly listen to what they say, and you notice what they may need. That careful observation can help you spot problems, improve processes and policies, and at the same time build your expertise.

Klaus says he loves his new life at the Foster Harris House, partly because he loves the hospitality business. During his retirement years he missed the engagement with guests and the sense of making a difference. Beyond that he loves to deliver comfort and warmth and a top quality experience, in a small, friendly community where he can get to know everybody. For him, making everybody feel like a Somebody “is an absolute pleasure.”

Beverly Jones, an alum of Ohio University, is a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.