This Janitor Turned CEO Just Identified the Key to Building a Great Organization. Here It Is in 1 Word

Corey E. Thomas grew up in Georgia, the son of a self-taught electrician and a secretary. He credits his parents and humble background for shaping his work ethic and values, qualities that helped him work his way up to the chief executive position of Rapid7, a corporate network security company that serves nearly half of the Fortune 1000.

I read a recent New York Times interview with Thomas, where he shared some lessons learned in those early years in the South. One quote especially struck me, in which Thomas describes what he learned about leadership as a young man:

“My first job was as a janitor for local churches in Georgia, where I grew up. And there were some important leadership lessons there. You learn a lot about the difference between how people act on the outside and how they behave when no one’s looking. They might seem upstanding, but you learn that they expect others to clean up after them.”
In an era when entitlement and inflexibility are as dangerous as ever, Thomas’s words resonate.

The key to building a great culture, in a single word:

Humility.

Why Humility Is So Important

In business, it’s often the self-promoters who command attention. They consider themselves to be “self-made success stories.”

But the most effective leaders are the ones who aren’t afraid to learn from others. The ones who are willing to do the dirty work and set the example, inspiring others to follow.

Corey Thomas…Most influential movers, shakers, thinkers, and connectors on the local technology scene right now.

Thomas explains how his parents taught this lesson:

“They were working class,” he explains. “My father was a self-taught electrician. He had an amazing work ethic and sense of humility. There was a period when he lost his job as a security guard at Sears. He became a janitor. Someone made a comment about him doing menial work, and I asked him about it. His response was to never let your pride get in the way of doing what’s right.”

“‘Feeding and clothing our family is the right thing,'” he said. ‘So therefore I’m proud to do it.'”

Thomas’s mom was a secretary, “but she was always striving, learning, trying to figure out how to make things better. She has this never-ending curiosity. She’s always learning, and this idea of continuous learning is a core value at our company today.”

(Reminds me of some recent advice from another top CEO: “Don’t be a know-it-all. Be a learn-it-all.”)

The importance of humility in an organization can’t be underestimated.

It makes for greater communication, because it helps managers and others deliver feedback in a constructive way. Further, it helps individuals on the receiving end of that feedback, because they can focus on learning and improving (instead of how that feedback makes them feel).

And what about company leaders?

That great school you attended may look great on a résumé, but ask your team how much it means to them in the real world. In the end, they won’t care where you graduated from, whether or not you have an MBA, or even about your previous accomplishments.

But they will care about the time you’re willing to take out of your busy schedule to listen or help out. They’ll care about your willingness to try out the team’s ideas, even if you’re not completely sold on their effectiveness.

They’ll care that you’re willing to get down in the trenches with them–and that you’ve got their backs.

Being humble doesn’t mean that you lack self-confidence, or that you’re afraid to stand up for your principles.

It does mean working hard, and being willing to do the right thing.

It also means recognizing that you don’t have all the answers. Because humble people don’t just learn from their own life perspective.

They learn from everybody else’s, too.

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