The Values We Bring To Work: A Shoemaker’s Tale

The author's grandfather in his shoe repair shop, circa 1986

A chance encounter with a friendly shoemaker in New York City earlier this week got me to thinking about the personal values we bring to work.  This gentleman — who, to my amazement, offered to fix my shoe while I waited (!) … and then proceded to do exactly that, with great care and expertise — reminded me in several ways of my late grandfather, who began his career as a shoemaker as a 9-year old boy in Sicily.  He emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920’s, opening his own shoe repair shop in Elmhurst, Queens a few decades later, which is where our story begins …

Leather dust, Italian opera, and lunchtime culture lessons

My grandfather was a kind, proud, hard-working, happy man with strong hands, and fingers blackened by 75 years of working with leather.  He enjoyed his work, and put his heart into fixing his customers’ shoes to “as good as new” every time.  But leather soles, heels, and taps weren’t the only things on offer in his shop — or even the main reason many of his regular customers came by the shop. 

With operatic music in the background, he was always eager to share a story, ponder a bit of philosphy, or inquire about your family — in heavily accented English accompanied by a warm smile. While shoemaking was his profession, helping people — with a word of support, a twinkle in the eye, or a hand of friendship — was his vocation, and he practiced it every day, day after day, year after year, well into his eighties, in that little shop in Queens.

Succeeding Generations, Same Values

It was that vocation — of using his work to help people in ways large and small — that he passed down to my father, who passed it down to me.  Though the context has changed — from a shoe repair shop, to  a social service office, to a corporate setting — the purpose hasn’t changed: Do what you can to help someone. Every day.

For my father, that meant working around an often cold and unsympathetic bureaucracy to find a way to provide aid to those in need.  For yours truly, it means trying to help employees and companies attract, develop, and retain people who help it fulfill its mission serving its clients every day.  You might call that “organization development,” “strategic planning” or any number of other HR-related names.  In the end, though, it is all about helping people and firms move forward, little by little, day by day.

Waiting for New Soles

I found myself in Manhattan on a beautiful summer’s day earlier this week. Walking leisurely to catch my train home, a shoe repair shop caught my eye.  Having some time to spare, I decided to poke my head in and inquire if they worked on shoes “while you wait.”  The kindly gentleman behind the workbench boomed a friendly “Sure — why not? — and we were off and running. 25 minutes later, my shoes were fixed and polished,  and I was on my way — thankful for the encounter with the 2011 incarnation of my grandfather, and smiling inwardly  at his memory.

The Values We Bring To Work

This encounter caused me to ponder the question of values.  So much has been written and discussed recently about corporate values (such as those exemplified by and its “Delivering Happiness” cred0).  I wonder, though, if we talk and think as much about the personal values that each of us brings to our work (such as those that I’ve been blessed to have handed down to me from my grandfather and father).

As HR professionals, leaders, and managers, I wonder if we:

  •  work hard enough at articulating the organization’s values … so that candidates can know whether their personal values are in-synch with the organization’s values before they decide to jump on-board?
  • consciously create environments conducive to employees expressing their personal values? (Example: A policy permitting a front-line employee to use their judgment in accepting returns, exchanges, or other ways of serving customer needs vs. rigid restrictions on what can or cannot be done).

 I wonder what our organizations would be like if we could enthusiastically answer “of course” to both of the above questions.  Your thoughts?

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