Business is filled with people writing big visions, planning grand schemes, making major investments in enterprise-wide infrastructure, pushing huge numbers across spreadsheets, obsessing about disruption, opportunity, risk, compliance, KPIs and promising exciting returns to investors and ‘game-changing’ experiences to customers.
But no matter how big and grand these projects, they rarely match the lasting emotional impact or the ‘word-of-mouth’ power that a small act of kindness creates. Few of us forget the moment of thoughtfulness someone took to treat us personally because they understood that is what matters most to any of us.
I was speaking recently on this subject to a Leadership Team of a major bank and then again to a variety of leaders from the fashion world at an excellent event organised by HGA, a specialist headhunting firm. On both occasions, I did not have time to share my favourite, personal story of an act of kindness; so I decided I would share it in this blog.
In 2004, I, my wife and our two sons were staying at The Holiday Inn, Darling Harbour in Sydney on the first leg of a round-the-world tour. My boys, Ted and Frank, were 6 and 3 years old respectively at the time. Each has a teddy bear who has been with them since they were babies and who are as much a part of the family as any of us. Ted’s bear is special to him and so he called him ‘Special’. Frank more prosaically, though with no less affection, named his ‘Bear’.
One night, Special got into a play fight with a plastic Darth Vader toy and sadly, his arm fell off. This caused Ted no end of agony and remorse but we promised him that as soon as we got home to London, we would take Special to Bear Hospital and they would put his arm back on. The following day, when we returned to our room, having been out sight-seeing, we could find no trace of Special other than the arm that had fallen off. We searched high and low, in cupboards, drawers and under the bed; we pulled off all the linen from all the beds and even looked behind curtains and desks. But there was no trace. Ted was now beside himself with grief, clutching the one little arm as if that was all that would ever be found of his beloved Special.
Then we noticed that the bed linen was fresh and clean. We realised that the cleaners had changed the linen that day and so Special must have got caught up in the bedding and taken off to the laundry. So we rushed down to the reception and explained the situation. They promised to look into it right away. Two hours later we had heard nothing, so we went down and asked again; they were still looking into it but the laundry service was outsourced so it was taking them a while to get through to the contract cleaners.
The following morning we checked again; still nothing. That evening, the same news. The following morning (the day before we were due to leave for the rest of our round-the-world journey) we checked again. There was a new person on the reception. ‘Excuse me‘, I said, ‘I don’t know if your colleagues have informed you, but my son lost his bear in the laundry and…‘. Before I could say another word, she kindly smiled and said, ‘Mr Milligan, I assure you, there is not a person in this hotel who is not aware of your bear’s plight‘.
Eventually, on the day we were due to leave, the hotel receptionist informed us that they had been in touch with the contract cleaners, that the bear had still not been found but that they would keep on looking. They asked us to leave a forwarding address and contact telephone number in case they needed to talk to us. We gave them Ted and Frank’s grandparents’ details in London. And so, with heavy heart, we left Sydney without our dear friend Special, who was lost somewhere in a pile of laundry and with only one arm to fend for himself…
We were travelling across Australia and California and would not return to London for another few weeks. But every night, wherever we were, we would say a little prayer with Ted for the safe return of Special. By the end of our trip, we had even managed to reconcile Ted to the possibility that he would not see Special again but that being such a lovely and kind bear, he would find a good home somewhere.
Eventually, we arrived back to London where we would stay with Ted’s grandparents for a few days before going back to our own home. When we got to their door, Grandma opened it, gave Ted a big hug and said, ‘They’ve found him‘. The Holiday Inn in Darling Harbour had phoned a few days earlier to say that their cleaning firm had found Special in the laundry, had returned him safely and that they were sending him home to us.
Sure enough, less than a week later, a box arrived all the way from Sydney. Inside, tucked up in paper, safe and sound and happy to be home was Special. And alongside him was a note. In fact it was a memo from the Holiday Inn, Darling Harbour Sydney. It read: ‘To: Ted; Subject: The Adventures of the One Armed Bear’. The rest of the memo was written by Special himself. He was sorry he had missed the journey round the world but he had got a little stuck in the laundry. He had had a lovely time though and had been looked after so well by his friends at the Hotel. And he hoped he hadn’t been missed too much.
It was a beautifully written note and for Ted a wonderful end to a few weeks of woe. You can see the picture of Ted lifting out of Special from the box. Boy, Bear – and Arm! – reunited.
There are many learnings one can draw from this story and I will not insult your intelligence by spelling them all out for you. But at heart, it is simply a wonderful example of knowing what matters most to people and of knowing you can do that small act that makes someone feel very Special indeed.[starbox]
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