Henry Ford once hired an efficiency expert to go through his plant. Ford directed him to find the nonproductive employees and, he said, “I will fire them!”

When the expert finished his evaluation, he reported to Ford that he was particularly concerned with one of his administrators. “Every time I walked by, he was sitting with his feet propped up on the desk. The man never does a thing. I definitely think you should consider getting rid of him!”

Ford was curious to know who was using company time that way. Then the expert identified him, and Ford shook his head. “I can’t fire him. I pay that man to do nothing but think, and that’s what he’s doing.”

Even in this culture of downsizing, right-sizing, and just plain streamlining operations, no company can afford to lose its thinkers.

Most small to mid-sized companies probably can’t afford to hire a “staff thinker,” but among the larger, and likely the most successful companies, I’ll bet you’ll find someone with a title like strategic planner, researcher, creative engineer, visioner, or some similar version. At Disney, they’re called “imagineers.” (At Microsoft, they’re called “millionaires.”)

“What a job!” you’re thinking right about now. No measurable goals, no restrictive job descriptions, no pressure, because nobody can tell if you’re doing your job. But you must prove yourself over time.

Guess again. Some people get lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory. And then look around your office and see if you can identify the person you’d go to first if you needed a great new plan or idea. There’s the thinker. The job title may not be a tip-off.

Years ago, at the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego, management decided that one elevator wasn’t adequate to serve their guests. They hired engineers and architects to add a second lift.

The professionals discussed several options, and eventually settled on a plan to cut a hole in each floor to accommodate the new elevator.

A janitor overheard the discussion, and inquired about their intentions. The engineers patiently explained their plans to him. The janitor was concerned and told them so: “That’s going to make quite a mess — plaster, dust, and debris everywhere.” No problem, he was told, because the hotel would be closed during the construction.

“But that will cost the hotel a lot of money, and a lot of people will be out of jobs while the hotel is closed,” the janitor replied.

“Do you have a better idea?” one of the architects asked.

The janitor surprised them all with his answer: “You could build the elevator on the outside of the hotel.”

It had never been done before, but it was an intriguing concept. The engineers and architects, hired for their creative thinking, decided it was an idea worth developing. An architectural feature we now see every day was the brainchild of a hotel janitor. Not a “staff thinker.” But a thinker on the staff.

Chances are you have several folks like that in your employ. They are worth their weight, and yours, in gold. Consultants may come and go, but those employees who can think are your best source of great ideas and inspiration for the rest of your organization.

Let me lay down a few ground rules for encouraging great thinking:

  • Respond with enthusiasm. When someone has a great thought, be enthusiastic rather than demanding details on implementation. This person has ideas. Somebody else can develop them. You’ve seen that happen a million times.
  • Make your workplace conducive to thinking. Windows are inspirational. Cheerful colors stimulate creativity. My office is full of photos and souvenirs and some of my favorite things. Sterile surroundings are for brain surgery. We’re looking for brain candy.
  • Celebrate occasionally. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is still true. Let your staff know they can have fun and be productive at the same time.
  • Give credit where credit is due. I surely hope that janitor at the El Cortez got the recognition he deserved and a big bonus. Reward great thinking. You’ll be surprised how creative every member of your staff can be.

Mackay’s Moral: Minds are like parachutes — not much good unless they are open.

[Ed. Note: Harvey Mackay has written five New York Times bestselling books, two of them named among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time — Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive and Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt. His latest book, Use Your Head to Get Your Foot in the Door: Job Search Secrets No One Else Will Tell You, was released Feb. 18. Harvey is a nationally syndicated columnist and has been named one of the top five speakers in the world by Toastmasters International. He is also chairman of the $100 million MackayMitchell Envelope Company, a firm he started in 1960.]

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