In the late summer, I participated in an amazing leadership development activity, something I believe to be a revolutionary approach for training business leaders – a three day cleaning retreat. You read me right, cleaning. The idea is simple: place a leader in the role of cleaner, in actual client situations, accompanied and guided by a Zenith Cleaners associate. Ensure the conditions are clear, that all parties are aware, and allow the work to take care of itself. The program aims to develop all participants – the cleaners and the business leaders – by creating an environment for them to learn from each other and grow, stripped of titles and roles.
Zenith Cleaners is not your every day commercial and residential cleaning company. Tolu, Zenith Cleaners founder and McGill MBA grad has an extraordinarily humble business-as-service-approach to his work. While Zenith does the work of traditional cleaners, they hire predominantly those who have not cleaned before, take extraordinary pride in their work, and come equipped with a Manifesto and a more creative approach to cleaning. It is no wonder that this nascent program is the brainchild of Tolu, longtime member of the Social Venture Network.
For the program, over a three day period, two of us cleaned at the locations of different Zenith clients, including in my case one residential, three commercial and one church. At the outset, we were given our own kit of supplies including a uniform and had a check-in to set expectations and share our incoming feelings. At each of the clients’ premises, we were treated as though we were new Zenith staff by both client and cleaner. Armed with an arsenal of spray bottles, cloths, gloves and other supplies, all eco-friendly of course, we set about doing at least a little of each of the main cleaning duties including bathrooms, kitchens, floors and dusting over the course of the three days.
Along the way, we were instructed and checked on by our accompanying cleaner, and if necessary told about shortcomings and things to redo. At one point, I had taken a cell phone call and was reminded that unless a real emergency, we were not to be on the phone. Apart from the initial fear of being involved in a new activity and environment, my only scare was almost knocking over a glass side table. A few times during particularly long stints at something, I found myself wondering what I was doing there, and my thoughts would drift off to other things. But each time, I corrected this and returned back to the task at hand.
I have always loved cleaning, and generally found it very relaxing and really therapeutic. I found that being out of my usual routine was rich, and being in a repetitive task environment actually allowed me to settle into a meditative zone. I had a chance to reflect upon things at Crudessence, to keep that objective distance. While not too personal, I enjoyed bonding with Zenith Cleaners staff and my fellow participant in the program, an executive from San Francisco.
A few of the key learnings for me:
Being invisible: seeing what it is like to be behind the scenes, in such a role. Learning to follow: being on the other side of the coin for a change. Receiving feedback: seeing my reaction internally to feedback and learning to sit with it.
At the end of the program, I felt relaxed, centered, and invigorated, and different from how I have felt at other times when leaving more traditional contemplative retreats. I was keen to go back to my day job, and integrate some of the insights I had gained. Overall, I was immensely impressed with the program and would love to see it thrive. The experience made me think that there might be other non-traditional immersive environments that we leaders might play in, in a safe way, to help us gain perspective and find flow.