As Mike Bloomberg was finishing his third term as mayor of New York City, he announced his plan to focus full time on philanthropy. At the last minute, he changed his mind.
Instead, he called the media company he owns and asked for a desk to be ready for him to come to work the following week. He had spent almost no time in the office for 12 years.
Bloomberg showed up early that Monday morning and the word quickly spread.
The rest of senior management sat clustered on the west side of the 6th floor. Unable to find space there on short notice, Mike was given a desk on the fifth floor on the east side of the building.
Days of uncertainty followed until a company-wide message went out saying there would be a town hall in the main reception area in a couple of hours. I joined scores of other people who attended.
Mike stood on a riser and addressed the hastily assembled crowd. He said he was glad to be back and eager to learn about what had happened in his absence. The speech was short. He asked if there were any questions.
A hand went up and someone asked if there was anything — in the brief time since he’d been back — that he would change at the company.
Mike thought about it for a minute and said yes, there was something. He said that in the men’s room on the main concourse it was too hard to find the paper towels.
He wasn’t wrong. Some designer had tucked them underneath the wall panel and out of sight. Everyone had seen guests struggle to find them. It was ridiculous.
Nevertheless, the answer probably confounded newer employees. It wasn’t visionary. It didn’t seem presidential. It didn’t even seem mayoral.
What they didn’t understand is Mike Bloomberg. He is an incrementalist, evolutionary, not revolutionary. When he notices something askew, he makes a small adjustment. He goes bird by bird.
The message about the towels was evidently received because the next day the men’s room on the sixth floor had signs to indicate the location of the paper towels.
There are a variety of ways to interpret this story. There are undoubtedly people who would argue that worrying about the visibility of paper towels isn’t what a CEO should be doing.
And maybe that’s true.
Another reading is that being present and pointing out small things that everyone knows aren’t quite right you convey the sense that you notice and care. It breeds a culture of small, but steady improvement.
And over the long term, it’s culture that breeds success.
It’s been eight years since that town hall. Since then Mike has made countless additional recommendations to both the product and office, some of which I’ll detail in later posts.
One thing that hasn’t changed: he is still sitting in the same temporary desk that was set up for him on short notice on the fifth floor
(Part of a series about lessons I learned from three decades at Bloomberg LP)