Wash the Dishes When Nobody Else Will

When you're starting a business, you have to wear a lot of hats. You don't have an HR department, or an IT department, or a marketing department, or any specialized department, so if a press release needs to be written, or a networked printer needs to be set up, or you need to find the personal email address of a prominent celebrity chef, you have to figure out how to do it, and do it yourself. When you're starting up you have to take the initiative to identify things that need to be done, and do them, even if they're outside of your “job description” or area of expertise. Even if you don’t know how to do them. Especially if you don’t know how to do them.

Here at InTheMO we've been growing lately, and we're fortunate enough to be staffing out specialized roles for things like PR, HR, and quality assurance, but one of my personal goals is to preserve that scrappy sense of startup hustle that we all felt back when we were sitting in a cramped, black widow infested office in a back alley in Culver city, making calls to Florence at 2am trying to book our first Michelin-Starred Restaurant shoot.

When Cary Levine, our CEO, talks about owning projects and taking responsibility, he often says “Operate as if you were the CEO of the company.” He says this all the time, and I think that the tendency is to think that being CEO of the company is glamourous: having authority and freedom, being the big dog, sitting at the top of the chain of command.

When I hear Cary say "Be the CEO," I think of a story from when I first started working at InTheMO. Back at our first real office (and I say “real” because before that we were essentially squatting in empty office space), we had a kitchen, but no dishwasher, and no cleaning service. A lot of people brought their lunches, cooked in the kitchen, used the dishes, and generally made a huge mess. Everything would just accumulate until it got really out of hand, but somehow, it always got cleaned up. I was an intern at the time and only working 3 days a week, so i just figured everyone kind of pitched in when I wasn’t there.

One day, I walked by the kitchen and saw Cary washing the dishes. “Huh” I thought, “The CEO is pitching in. Cool.” I figured it must have been his turn or something, and sort of forgot about it.

A week or so passed, and then it happened again. The kitchen became a ginormous mess, and then one day, there’s Cary, washing dishes. Then it happened again, and again. Each time, he’d look up, and nod, then go back to scrubbing dishes. One day, I walked by the kitchen and noticed it was a huge mess. So I washed the dishes.

Being the CEO of the company isn’t about power, authority, or glamour, it’s about washing the dishes when nobody else will.

Be the CEO of the company. Take responsibility for things that other people ignore. That’s the definition of leadership, and if you make a habit of it, pretty soon you'll be inspiring the people around you to do the same.

Update: great discussion going on at Hacker News

24 responses
Terrific article! Setting the example like this is a great way to get the bar moving up.
Great piece of wisdom for people who aren't leaders too. Servant leadership starts with being a servant sometimes.
Wow, I had the same experience at one of the jobs I worked at. Another team was hosting a party for some clients and just before the party started, when I was about to head home, I realized there was a pile of dishes in the sink. It looked really bad so I just went there and started washing the dishes. I didn't have anything to do with the party or the other team. The following week I got major kudos from the CEO. He was pissed that nobody on his team setting up the party took the initiative.
This is great. As a leader, I have always been first to pitch in for the dirty work, but I never thought about it from the other end. What it looks like, what it makes them think. Things need to get done, and when your valuable team is hard at work, the last thing I wanted to do was to distract them with grunt jobs.

I encourage all leaders to read this and wash dishes!

inspiring story - real leadership comes from action not empty words -- it's nice to think that some ceos really care about the little things
awesome piece of advice! It not only shows leadership qualities but also character!
Extra-wise. Good words Sash...
Really great article. Reminds me of the first place, where I started as an intern. Our CEO was exactly as you mention, and I grew up professionally with "any job is good job" attitude. Now that I started my own business 3 years ago, thanks to you, I've went through nostalgic feelings again. Best of this approach - you know every detail of the hard work. Of course there is time to delegate things. But in the meantime, you can always look up to your team and yourself and proudly stand up. And I've noticed that people tend to respect more those who do everything than those who define very narrow job descriptions themselves.
Many people think being CEO means you get to do the fun stuff. Actually, if you're a good CEO, it means doing whatever needs to be done.

I've been the founder and/or CEO of numerous startups, and I've always tried to do my fair share of dishwashing.

It sounds like great advice, and it probably is in the right situation.
I can tell you that at my current company I behaved in this way for years, and metaphorically, and sometimes literally, washed the dishes to end up being pushed aside by office politics.
When you treat the company as if it were yours or you were its CEO don't forget that it is not yours and you are not the CEO, otherwise you'll be in for a big wake up kick in the butt...
Authority always lags action and responsibility.
There is a story concerning Grant Dalton, ceo of Team New Zealand, one of the most successfull yachting teams of the last twenty years. When he first took over TNZ they were licking their wounds after being thrashed by the swiss team Alinghi on their home turf and losing some of their major sponsors. The very existence of the team was in doubt. Dalton is a cleanliness and order fanatic and for the first week or so would finish work in the office and come into the workshop and clean up after them while they prepared for leaving.Every day the guys started in a clean shop. At the end of the first week he finished cleaning and told the boys that he had cleaned up after them for a week and if he ever had to do it again they would be fired! To my knowledge he never did have to clean up again and he commands respect and support through the team.
Great post! Everyone should get aware about this before they start their "work independency". The most are not confidential with the donkey work.
Such a great article. kiwin has made such an important point - I've seen plenty of dishwashing 'leaders', but it is not leadership until that action makes others wash dishes too - not just out of guilt or sympathy, but because the leader's actions and words makes everyone realise that by washing dishes, everyone benefits. Example without inspiration is pointless.
This is so true to life for me - we are a fast growing family business and I work hard to lead by example - add sweeping, loo cleaning and floor washing to this article too! I have to say my staff now clean our office up at the end of each day - sweep, floor wash, dust - they know I have high standards and they want to please and follow my example - this article is SO true!
great article, good words and suitable title, more than everything inspiring :)
Being CEO is also about delegation...
Good insight.
Wonderful, heartful and accurate article. An old Wiley cartoon defined an entrepreneur as someone who'll do anything to KEEP from getting a job. The version I share with my audiences: An entrepreneur is someone who'll do EVERYTHING (even washing dishes) to keep from getting a job.
Great comment written by someone who's obviously never been in a position of leadership. I can empathize with how heartwarming it must be to see the CEO washing dishes. I used to have a similar philosophy to Sash's; the CEO does everything that no one else will do. So I washed dishes, and mopped floors and dumped trash. Then one day it hit me: While I'm washing dishes, who's holding the steering wheel? Answer: No one! We were fast becoming a company with clean dishes that was going nowhere. The CEO's job is to lead and a big part of leadership is deciding who does what job. If you can't delegate effectively, maybe you shouldn't be the CEO after all. There are, fortunately, plenty of dish-washing jobs still out there.
What a great article, shared it on my FB page....MT.
Same goes for the rest of your life ... Don't complain, was your dishes ;)
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