Denver Bar Association
November 2009
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Uncle Clayton’s Ways

by Deborah Nicklaus


Five minutes with my Uncle Clayton and you are likely to forget Steven Covey, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker and other consultants who share their secrets for running successful organizations. Clayton might not know it, but he is onto something — something simple yet brilliant; something that seems to be working effortlessly.

I spoke with Clayton recently at a family wedding. I learned more from him during 10 minutes standing at the punch bowl than I have from years of keeping up with the latest business books and articles.

By way of background, my Uncle Clayton has been one of my heroes, ever since he retired at age 55 from a career as a postal carrier and enrolled in law school. Ignoring friends and family who scoffed at his idea, he spent four years living away from his wife and community, studying law, determined to become an attorney. At graduation, he received his diploma to a standing ovation, attesting to the fact he was clearly the oldest in his graduating class. For the past 20 years he has been practicing law — his way.

From our punch bowl conversation I surmise "his way" is to:

– work with a goal to serve others,

– work to create and enjoy, relationships and

– do what makes sense.

Clayton clearly loves his work. He does not state goals such as, "build a large client base," or "generate a large income." He says his goal is to simply, "use what I know to serve those who need legal help."

He enthusiastically talks about work as an opportunity to create relationships. He does not speak about his "clients" or "cases." He talks about Mr. Schaefer, Mrs. Shannon and his friend Bill Miller. The people he serves are not "things" to be "processed." Rather, he enjoys a relationship with each one. His face lights up when he talks about his clients, similar to when he talks about his grandson.

His focus on nurturing relationships carries over to the office staff, as well. Clayton’s secretary/assistant has been with him more than 10 years. She came to him straight from high school. He hired her because she was energetic, demonstrated the necessary clerical skills and most important, because he liked her. He speaks of her as he would one of his daughters.

After working in his office for a few years, she married, and a year later had her first child. Clayton wanted to continue to work with her; she wanted to be with her baby. So, in a mode of making it work for all, she brought the baby to work. No fancy or complex personnel policies were created, nor references to "Can we run a business like this?" They just decided that it was an appropriate thing to do and did it. They feel it is still an appropriate decision, three kids later.

How does this affect the way the office runs? Well, for one thing, her attendance rate is nearly perfect; no problems with babysitters or illnesses picked up at daycare. Another effect of having young children in the office is that Clayton typically starts his morning with two kids on his lap reading a story, prior to reading his briefs for the day – not a bad way to start the day. Plus, he receives a lot more hugs than the average attorney.

I don’t believe Clayton thinks he’s different. He thinks he is simply doing what makes sense.

Just for a moment, consider, what your day would be like if you started it with a 4-year-old on your lap reading "Green Eggs and Ham." What it would be like if you really, truly cared about the others with whom you work – your colleagues, supervisor, customers, suppliers, etc. – like they were your family, or good friends or members of your community? What would it be like to see work as a place to create brilliant relationships, rather than to "process things?"

I anticipate you have valid explanations as to why "Clayton’s ways" do not apply to you in your work situation. For example, I imagine some of you are thinking to yourself, "I work for a major corporation, it can’t be done," or "You’re asking me to like my boss? Ha! He’s the biggest ..." or "In my company ..."

I am not asking you to change your personnel policies or to allow dogs or children in the workplace. Rather, I ask you to consider, what is one thing you could do in your work setting that begins to capture the simple, magical way that Clayton works? What could you do to create and manage great relationships in your work? What could you do simply because it makes sense?

Deborah Nicklaus is a Denver-based market research consultant. She holds degrees in engineering and adult education and enjoys traveling and participating in Colorado’s outdoor lifestyle.

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