Conscientiousness

Johan woke up early, that day, that spring day in 2017. He crept downstairs in the dark house, after feeding himself his regular cup of coffee (small) and eating his breakfast (knäckebröd & ost). Silently, he picked up the shoes lying by his door, two pair shoes slightly larger than his feet, shoes left there by the surprise visitors sleeping further down in the guest bedrooms. He could hear them softly breathing further away, dreaming, no doubt, of the families they had left to come looking for work. Johan picked up the first shoe–size 12–and hefted it. It was a black shoe, a shoe worn to fancy dinner parties or to weddings or to church, a shoe used when the outcome matters, when you know people will be watching you. Upstairs he returned, upstairs to the kitchen table, neatly spread with yesterday’s newspaper. There, waiting in an organized black case, with gleaming gold clasps, was the Kiwi Premium Black Shoe Polish Paste, 1-1/8 oz, lying along side the brush, mink oil, and the Waterproof High-gloss Aftereffect (also Kiwi brand). He applied the polish with small, quick, circular strokes–dip in the can, rub lightly across the shoe, spread out as far as it will go. A quick glance was enough to satisfy him that the shoe was covered sufficiently, which he left to dry as he made his way down to the door to pick up the next shoe and repeat the earlier step. Four shoes were quickly, efficiently anointed, and Johan could now wait the remainder of the 10 minutes prescribed by Kiwi with his second cup of coffee (small) and his second knäckebröd (with ost).

The shining went as efficiently. Quickly, the brush was set to the shoes, one after the other, and in the same order the polish had been applied. The lamp above the kitchen table gleamed in the reflection of the shoe as he turned them just so. Stirring sounds were heard from the floor below, and the sun peaked in through the windows, its red sleepy gaze brightening up the workspace. Johan moved purposefully, without hurry, to return the shoes to their spot near the door, near to where the guests had left them, but laid straight and tucked more appropriately under the bench.

Johan is conscientious.

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From Wikipedia:

Conscientiousness is the personality trait of being careful, or vigilant. Conscientiousness implies a desire to do a task well, and to take obligations to others seriously. Conscientious people tend to be efficient and organized as opposed to easy-going and disorderly. They exhibit a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; they display planned rather than spontaneous behavior; and they are generally dependable.

See, conscientiousness is critical to a lot of things, but it is especially important in an organization where you are entrusted to deal with the financial and sensitive personal information of others–in other words, every accounting organization everywhere.

But our little company, Silvertrek, had a problem. I tend more toward the easy-going and disorderly side of the spectrum, not toward the efficient and organized side. We, self-described as Construction Accounting for the 21st Century, have a lot of stuff that’s just gotta be done right and just gotta be done on time. While I can’t change my core nature, I can change how our customers are interacted with, so when we recruit, hire, reward, and train employees, we stress the need for conscientiousness. We stress the need that we need to be dependable, we need to be organized. For us to be successful, in other words, we need suppress the spontaneity.

But this goes beyond accounting. Conscientiousness exists in all successful companies, and in any social structure that lasts.

Atul Gawande, in his ground-breaking book The Checklist Manifesto, describes the transition of highly trained doctors from arrogant, slip-shod behavior while performing surgery to precise, careful conduct. The surgery itself wasn’t done any differently, neither was the diagnosis or the recovery. No, Mr. Gawande merely introduced a humble checklist that asked the surgeon to stop, think, and communicate during procedures. Without the checklist, nobody questioned the surgeon, and no one person was in charge of critical steps. With the checklist, everybody was asked for help and opinions, and critical steps were taken by the full team. Without the checklist, the results of surgeries ranged from brilliant to mediocre to disasters; with the checklist, the disasters were averted while still allowing for the brilliancy. Surgeons, with all their training, with all their experience, must still be conscientious, and Mr. Gawande’s checklist forced conscientiousness upon them.

I am not, nor ever will be a conscientious person by nature. I am disorderly and tend to be easy-going when relaxed. However, Silvertrek cannot be disorderly, nor can we be easy-going when it comes to paying the IRS the appropriate amount of money. Thus compensation must be made so that where it matters, in the Silvertrek surgery room, Michael Kelley can be as conscientious as the next guy.

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Johan’s story is a true story, although the details were invented by yours truly, with names changed to protect the innocent. See, I was one of the two surprise guests snoring in the basement. I had a business trip pop upon me that took me near to old friends and I asked if I and a coworker could bunk with them to spare the monotony of a hotel room. They were happy to have us, and imagine my delight at having my shoes polished for a Big Important Meeting! And my shirt ironed, and breakfast made.

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In your business, where is there disorder where there needs to be order? Where is the unreliability where there needs to be dependability?

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