Lessons from The Help
I never really liked going to movies as a teenager and most of my adult life was the same. Then, two things happened: 1) Showplace ICON opened a VIP theater near my home in Chicago, offering the opportunity to see movies in a recliner with drinks and gourmet sliders (and popcorn with bacon!); and 2) I started watching the Harry Potter movies to connect with my nieces and nephews. It was the second one that kind of leads me to this blog. You see, while I started off watching for the “action” of the young wizard, I quickly realized how many leadership lessons can be found in movies. Like rap music for inner city children in some schools, perhaps we can use movies to bridge between popular culture and leadership lessons for Gen Y.
I can blog thousands of words from Harry Potter, which is in my opinion as rich as the Godfather movies with leadership lessons. However, today I will discuss “The Help”, a movie about three very different women and the relationships between them and other people in their Jackson, Mississippi town. I have watched the movie and read the book so may interchange them a bit. The movie was a very good adaptation, in my humble opinion.
Here are some simple lessons found from the book which spawned the movie:
1) Communication is more than just talking
“I don’t know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain’t saying it. And I know she ain’t saying what she want a say either and it’s a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation.”
How many times have you been in a meeting that lasted an hour and accomplished absolutely nothing? Sometimes it seems that everyone has something to say and yet nothing is said. I firmly believe that people need to listen more and talk less. Think about what goals have been set for the meeting and how each participant can add value.
A mentor of mine once told me that anyone who came to a meeting and said nothing should not have been at the meeting. However, some people are SO VOCAL that others may want to contribute but do not. Try not to be THAT person. Listen, learn, and watch for non-verbal and verbal cues.
2) Carrots work better than sticks. And they are a lot cheaper.
“…and that’s when I get to wondering, what would happen if I told her she something good, ever day?”
For many of your team members, you may be the only positive encouragement they have all day. I have had the pleasure of managing help desk technicians as part of my organization for several years. Many of them are the brightest, hardest working, and dedicated employees I have led. But talk about a thankless job. When things are good, no one calls the help desk. So they only get the irate, the frustrated, and often, the …. well, clueless.
Greet your team members, both peers and subordinates, by name and with a smile. Tell them something positive about their work, their attitude, or anything else you can find that is truly positive. Don’t make things up, but challenge yourself to find the best in everyone with whom you interact. You will be amazed what it does for that person and in turn what that person will do for your team and your clients.
3) Change begins with a whisper
There are thousands of quotes out there on change. And everyone says the right thing. Change happens. Change is good. Change is the only constant. And so on…. But the fact is CHANGE IS A PAIN IN THE …. Well, it’s hard.
In the movie and book, Aibileen is known as a solid citizen in the black community, respected for her wisdom and her prayers. Skeeter, who wishes to get several of the maids to participate in her book project, works first with Aibileen, who starts to mention it to Minnie, who then spreads it to others. Soon, the whisper spreads and several women want to speak to Skeeter.
The best way to manage change I have found is to think of every change as both necessary and positive, but to spread the word through individual conversations as much as town halls and large announcements. It is incredibly powerful for you as a leader if the day a major change is announced, you have dozens of people out there who have already been talking about it. Start small conversations with key influencers amongst your team and get them to discuss the change with others. Don’t do this for politics or scheme, you’re not just pandering to junior colleagues. Engage them because your team knows what works and can help make the change more effective. Let your key employee leaders be the whisper that starts a successful change event.
4) Some people will never change. Deal with it. Or Leave.
“It seems like at some point you’d run out of awful.”
I have been blessed to work primarily with great people. Even those that had their rough spots and mean streaks typically showed their good more than their bad sides. But there were two in particular that try as I might, I could not find within them a redeeming quality. They were mean, nasty and completely uninterested in team building and collaboration. One even went so far as to tell me I needed to be more of an [expletive] and that my team enjoyed working for me too much. The implication was that they could not possibly be working hard enough and still like me the way they did. I know, right? Crazy! And this was not in the 1980s.
My solution was to walk away. I knew it could be risky (using up some of my “marbles”, as a mentor of mine used to say) but worse still would be staying and working in a toxic environment that could make me toxic. I sacrificed the “glory” of working with this particular team and opted to find my success in other teams. To take the risk to be a respected AND liked leader and not just one that was feared.
If you have this kind of person in your team, try to address the issue head on. Do all you can to make it better, but at the end of the day, some people will never change. If you are the boss, you must fix the problem either by getting them to change or severing them from the team before they spread their negativity. If you are a member of the team and working for the “negative nestor”, you have the option to stay or go. If you can, get out of there before the negativity spreads to you.
5) Relate to and empower all employees.
One of the main characters in The Help convinced herself that building separate bathrooms for her maid was good for the maid as well as protecting her from “their diseases”. Most people watching this today feel this is so far from what anyone would do and thankfully they are correct. But how many times have you personally spoken to the most junior employee in your organization? Do you structure every meeting in layers where you meet with your directs and they meet with their directs and so on? Do your junior associates call you by your last name (Good morning, Mr. Stanley) sometimes and feel they have to ask permission to say hello when walking past your office? Watch for this and consider what you can do to create an environment where all of your team members truly feel equally engaged and empowered. And hang out with the senior and junior staff. A beer tastes the same with a CEO as it does with an analyst. Trust me.
Don’t give your employees the separate but equal treatment. Be a part of the team. As one of my favorite Aon teams used to say, “Hug it out!”
Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, we are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.
I pledge today to be a better listener and communicator, to empower my teams and treat them as equal partners, to encourage and uplift them, and to involve them in change so that their whispers can drive powerful success. Will you take this pledge? Do you have other lessons on leadership from this or other movies? I would love to hear from you. Post your comments below, on my Facebook page, or via Twitter.
Be well! Lead On.
See more thoughts on leadership in my other blogs, such as: