Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Lesson learned on Kilimanjaro: Make your employees feel valued

When I think about the ultimate employee experience, my mind jumps to my favorite restaurant, which takes such great care of its employees that its servers and chefs have stayed for a decade.

I think of the family-run convenience store near my college campus, which was able to compete with the national chain across the street because its employees knew they were valued members of a team.

But the best example I’ve ever seen wasn’t by design; it was completely by happenstance. In 2006 I signed up, along with 10 other guys, to climb Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro — where better to learn hands-on lessons about teamwork and leadership than a five-day, real-world laboratory hanging off the side of a soaring mountain?

We were 11 men from all walks of life, ranging in age from 28 to 60. I was the youngest. One man, a member of the Sierra Club, knew everything there was to know about the great outdoors. Then there was me, who had never even camped before, and the rest fell somewhere in between.

We started our climb in a tropical jungle at 6,000 feet, headed for a snow-covered summit at more than 19,000 feet with temperatures ranging between 0 degrees Fahrenheit and -20 degrees. We were accompanied by a group of porters, 35 Tanzanian men who carried our equipment, fed us, and helped us set up and break camp.

Before the trip, I had read that climbers are asked to be careful how they treat the porters because if someone were to tip them really well or interact with them in an exceedingly friendly way, they might see that as the new norm and expect it from the next group. So there were clear standards in place designed to prevent anyone from upsetting the delicate balance of power between the climbers (the bosses) and the porters (the employees).

The porters were amazing people. They provided five-star service on one of the world’s tallest mountains — no easy feat — and they did it with grace. They carried 50-pound packs on their heads while we carried our little 20-pound backpacks. They set up camp at each rest area before we arrived, which was amazing when you consider that they didn’t break down the morning camp until we climbers were up and on our way. Then they would pack up, run past us (even though we had a head start of several hours!) and get to the next camp site well ahead of us, to have dinner ready and waiting.

They went out of their way to ensure none of us was ever hungry or uncomfortable. It was service with a smile, every time.

For days, we played this silly master/servant game, following the rules that the excursion company had established. But as it turns out, all the climbers on my trip were community-minded, let’s-go-save-the-world kind of people, and by the third day we decided that we’d had enough of the status quo. We wanted to get to know these folks.

Sure, we had been gracious with them throughout the climb in terms of thanking them for their hard work and asking if we could help with this or that. But that felt insufficient. What we came to understand was that they didn’t want our help. They wanted our respect. They wanted to feel valued. And we wanted to give them that! We did value them, we needed them. Without the porters we would quite literally be lost.

Before dinner on that third evening, we took the head porter aside and told him that we’d like to meet with all the porters. We wanted to introduce ourselves, but more importantly we wanted them to introduce themselves to us.
We wanted to know their names, where each of them was from, what their job was and what they were passionate about. He nodded and went to gather the porters.

So there we were — 15,000 feet up the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the climbers sitting side-by-side facing a long line of porters sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. It was strangely tense. The first porter stood, his eyes averted.

“My name is David,” he said quietly. “I am from Arusha. I carry the food.”

We all greeted David and thanked him for his service. The next man got to his feet.

“I am Haki and I am from Tanga. I carry medicine. I have three sons,” he said with shy pride.

We all laughed and applauded. The positive energy rose as the next man came forward, then the next and the next, until we came to the very last person — the smallest of all the porters. I will never forget him. He stood with his head held high, put his fist in the air, pounded his chest and said:

“My name is Israel, and I carry the toilet!”

We leapt to our feet and started cheering and hugging Israel and the other porters, and the next thing we knew we were all doing this crazy dance around the campsite. We ended up hanging out with those guys for the next hour, celebrating our newfound — and heartfelt — connection with one another. It was honestly, one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life.

Things got even more interesting when one of our guys got severe altitude sickness the next day and couldn’t make it any farther up the mountain. The porters went out of their way to help him and make him comfortable and carefully took him back to the base camp to wait for the rest of us to finish the climb. They even gave him a special plaque at the closing luncheon, where the rest of us got certificates for making the summit.

We made a snap decision to treat the porters with compassion and empathy. I think they went the extra mile for us because we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable with them. We showed them that we cared and that we valued and respected them. We didn’t plan it, but we took advantage of the chance to connect to those folks in a way that was really special, and we all reaped the benefits.

To me, the porters represent the ultimate employee experience. Because we let our guard down and showed the porters we valued them and their work, they became more than just gracious and helpful employees — in the end they genuinely cared about our safety and well being and went above and beyond what was expected of them.

You can bring this idea back to your business by taking a moment every now and then to not only acknowledge the work your employees do for you and your clients, but get to know them on a personal level. Ask them what their passions are — find out what makes them tick — make them feel valued.

Once you do this, you’ll open a new line of communication and foster a relationship of mutual respect.

This is excerpted from Joe Mechlinski’s book, Grow Regardless, which is scheduled to be released in January.