How Watching a Billionaire Pick-Up Garbage Totally Inspired Me

It was a typical Sunday for my family — church followed by a Costco run at the flagship location in Kirkland, WA. I was double fisting a chicken bake in one hand and a mocha freeze in the other.

My mom immediately recognized someone, 15-feet or so in front of us and I had no idea who he was. It just so happened to be Jim Sinegal, the CEO and co-founder of Costco. We paid close attention to him for a couple of minutes and I’ll never forget what I saw.

Jim was picking up trash — napkins, free sample cups, forks, whatever you can imagine gets dropped on the floor at Costco.

There’s that saying about it not being worth Bill Gates’ time to pick up a $100 bill off the ground, a saying that we all are amused by. Well, Jim may not be as rich as Gates, but here was a 76-year old billionaire bending over and reaching to the floor to pick up a used napkin. He picked up three pieces of trash in the few minutes we were paying attention to him.

It was one of the most remarkable displays of humility I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t nationally televised or GIF’d the way Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s throwing away trash was. Prescott was in the sports news for a week, praised for his attention to detail and leadership qualities. Most of the time those kind of deeds go unrecognized.

Jim set a clear example for his employees, many whom I’m sure have either seen or heard about him doing this. I took away two lessons from this:

  1. CEO/Custodian

Nobody is too good to pick up trash or wipe counters. No matter the pay grade, getting your hands dirty and doing the job of the custodian (when needed) shows that you care about the work you pay your employees to do. It sends the powerful message that nobody is too good to pay attention to even the smallest details.

The larger the company, the more these acts of relate-ability are appreciated. There are opportunities outside of picking up trash that boosts morale and even sales. At the first startup I worked at, the CEO would setup a desk in the middle of the sales floor for a day and cold-call like everybody else. This was a 500-person startup with $100 million in VC raised, not a small shop.

Sales for that day would skyrocket. I remember feeling the momentum in the room, everybody on their game knowing the CEO was hitting the phones as hard as we were. He was talking to our customers, making sales and even getting hung up on, an inevitable result when making 100 phone calls to random strangers in one day.

Whether it’s washing dishes or hopping on a phone call to save a customer, the CEO can and should be doing those things that they expect their employees to do. Time is obviously the biggest constraint to CEO’s doing this on a frequent basis, but I believe the impact it makes on an organization is well-worth making time for.

2. Get Immersed in the Customer Journey

It’s not a secret that companies that are hyper-focused on creating the best user experience are usually the ones that win. Putting that focus into practice is not as easy as it sounds. It starts from the top, executives who are committed to working tirelessly on the details and understanding the customer journey to better address their needs.

There was a period of time I stopped doing this. I got tied up in metrics and data and was not using our product everyday. Data of what our users are doing doesn’t replace walking through their journey.

The founders of AirBnB were fantastic at understanding and improving their users’ journey early on. They noticed most of the photos of their hosts’ listings were trash so they rented a fancy camera and went door-to-door to capture high-quality photos of their hosts’ homes. Suddenly, they had new relationships with hosts and a competitive advantage over Craigslist as the quality of their listings improved dramatically. It more than doubled their bookings in New York City.

Jim Sinegal is obsessive, even 30 years into his run with Costco (he retired in 2012). There are 727 warehouses in the U.S. alone, what does picking up a few pieces of garbage do? More than any sort of metric can determine, especially when we consider he’s been doing that for years. Everyday people walk into Costco and who wants to shop in a dirty warehouse? Not Jim Sinegal.

Lady photobombing my moment with Costco CEO, Jim Sinegal