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Why Leaders Should Never Forget Their Garbage Truck Story

Most successful leaders have a garbage truck story. While I have no data-driven research to support that claim, I am convinced, based on experience and conversations with other leaders, that it is true.

A garbage truck story is about a leader’s first experience in the real world of work, whether it was making pizzas, stocking shelves, or hauling trash.

I had several part-time jobs prior to graduating from college, but the most memorable was working on a garbage truck in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Chapter 12 of Transfluence describes my humorous first morning on that job, as well as the powerful lessons I learned that summer about respecting people regardless of their role or pay grade.

As I began my professional career, those experiences served as reminders of the different types of people who were affected by my actions and decisions.

The further up we move in the corporate world, however, the more our garbage truck stories can slip to the fringes of our memories. When that happens, our organizations pay a price. In fact, everyone pays a price — our industry, our community, our world.

Discussions about the “future of work” or the “war for talent” typically emphasize highly skilled knowledge workers. They are hard to find, hard to keep, and often command a higher percentage of a company’s payroll. Those workers are vital to the future of work, but so are frontline workers.

There are roughly 112 million frontline workers in America. That’s about 70 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to McKinsey, and it’s where many leaders get their start. Some are professionals – teachers and nurses, for instance. But most — some 95 million — earn an average annual income of $33,000 in retail sales, as cooks, waiting tables, or other such jobs.

Panelists during one discussion of the Forbes 2022 Future of Work Summit spoke about the importance of investing in good jobs for frontline workers — better pay and better working conditions, for instance — but the meat of their message was around shared ownership. Frankly, that’s a taboo topic for many top-level leaders, but the panelists looked at it in terms of what’s best for the workers and the business, not by pitting one against the other.

Pete Stavros, co-head of the Americas Private Equity platform at KKR, is so passionate about this idea that he co-founded Ownership Works, a non-profit that brings together leaders from industry, labor, nonprofits, and government to promote economic opportunities for frontline workers.

Here are a few lasting impressions I took from the Forbes conversation, which also included Sarita Gupta (vice president of US Programs for the Ford Foundation) and Andy Stern (president emeritus, SEIU, senior fellow of the Economic Security Project).

Investing in frontline workers has broad impact.

Gupta gave a concise, rising-tide-lifts-all-ships summary of why leaders need to increase opportunities for frontline workers: “They’re consumers, they’re voters, they are … members of our collective community. And if we don’t figure out how to create the pathways for them to have economic stability, then we fail.”

Building wealth among working-class families is good for the health of the communities in which they live and for the overall economy. And it can have a far-reaching impact by addressing racial and gender equity, Stavros said, while also driving employee engagement and reducing quit rates.

“Think of how wasteful our economy is right now,” he said. “What we are doing is insane for both the company and the worker. There’s a lot we can do here.”

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Ownership involves more than financial equity.

Stock ownership is the foundation, said Stavros, but the way people are treated on the job is what changes cultures. Are they respected? Are they trusted? Is their voice heard?

“Ownership is really an all-encompassing philosophy on how people are treated,” he said.

Sharing wealth can fit with capitalism.

Stern pointed out shared ownership doesn’t necessarily equate to socialism.

“People do believe in capitalism,” he said. “They just wanna share in the success.”

Stern is particularly optimistic because efforts such as Ownership Works go beyond public programs.

“Now we have the private sector trying to figure out somewhat of an institutionalized way to share wealth,” he said. “This isn’t just about government intervention (where) the private sector resists and the government tries to intervene. Now we have the private sector with the potential to sort of institutionalize … (and drive) a lot of private sector money into change.”

Shared ownership takes time and effort.

One reason many leaders avoid programs that offer equity ownership to employees, Stavros said, is that “there’s a deep-seated belief that working-class folks won’t understand it.” The fear, he said, is that workers won’t understand the programs well enough to value what they’re getting, and it will end up being a waste of time.

“The truth is, it’s an enormous amount of work,” he said. “If you’re not gonna go the full distance and commit yourself to financial education, sharing information transparently, really engaging on worker voice and all of those things, then it’s just a compensation discussion. Cause it’s just money. But if it’s this broader philosophy, then it, it really can work.”

The future of work involves everyone — the remote workforce, those who prefer an office, those who have no option about where they work, and those at every level of the pay scale. The concept of ownership will look different for everyone. But whether your workers are developing code, planning a strategy, or collecting trash, I hope you’ll remember the lesson I took from my garbage truck story: there’s a basic level of respect we should give to everyone—a respect for their humanity and well-being.


  1. Steve Ferguson

    Another great article, Walt. I am very thankful for my “garbage truck” stories.


    Reply to Steve Ferguson

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