We’ve all learnt a lot about ourselves this year – some lessons more profound than others. Possibly the least profound but one of the more potent is my love and respect for James our cleaner. Not much has made me jump with excitement in the last eight months, but when our lockdown eased, and James crossed our half-heartedly dusted threshold, I literally jumped for joy like a Beatles groupie. It will come as a surprise to learn then that I started a cleaning company in London during the 90’s recession. I called it Partners in Grime.

My mother will attest that cleaning wasn’t an obvious career choice for me. There were no early signals of a keen proclivity to polish chrome, toilet bowls or the family silver. This venture came about more as a dare, and the extraordinary lengths I’m prepared to go to when someone throws down a gauntlet. In this instance, said gauntlet was that one of my mates suggested that I could never be a “char” when my friends and I discussed what I could do having been made redundant. I resolutely announced to the group that I could do anything, and the next day, I registered the name and found a professional, whom I paid £300 to teach me how to clean, really, really well. I worked out the niche I wanted to specialise in (rentals for corporate expats, paid for by their workplaces [i.e. deep pockets]) and the geographic boundaries within which to operate (Kensington, Chelsea and Belgravia). As strategic as this seems to have so tightly defined my core market, it was more to protect my sensibilities – if my friends and I were going to clean, it was going to be in swanky houses in swanky areas. Notwithstanding the recession, big international firms provided their senior expat team members and their families with extraordinary homes, in beautiful locations.

Before going to introduce Partners in Grime and myself to southwest London’s most prestigious estate agents, I designed a corporate identity that provided more credibility than I deserved. The logo was a crest with the letters, C.I.N.T.G. swathed across the bottom. My new clients all assumed that this was an acronym for some international cleaning group, which undoubtedly clinched the deal as much as my sales pitch that we were “the best commercial cleaning company they’d ever have the good fortune to encounter.” There was always a sense of fun and goodwill as well as an absolute commitment to exceeding their expectations, so when they all discovered that C.I.N.T.G. actually stood for Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness, our relationships were further cemented. Humour is a much underrated and powerful tool in business.

One of the best leadership lessons I’ve ever had was from my father when he told me that “you’re never too senior to pick up a broom”. There are so many layers in that simple statement for me – humility, leading by example, servant leadership, shared experience, and never asking someone to do something that you’re not prepared to do yourself. People invariably assume that I didn’t actually do the cleaning myself. I absolutely did. I worked beside my team (most of whom were fellow Australians who’d lost their jobs in law, finance, acting and architecture as the recession hit each industry). We’d play music and sing, loudly and badly, while we pulled ovens and fridges from the walls to clean behind them, and took down the silk and damask curtains for dry cleaning and steam cleaned the carpets. We’d spend up to seven hours cleaning just a kitchen. From the day I launched the business, my goal was to be the best cleaning company in London. Because of the intent to exceed the expectations of our clients, always anticipating their need-states and pain points, we were continually solving problems for them. We definitely weren’t the cheapest option, but we were the most reliable, most respectful and consistently had the highest standards. And if ever there were an issue, we would address it immediately, without question. Anita Roddick, the visionary founder of The Body Shop, said that “if you do things well, do better. Be daring, be first, be different, be just.” A brilliant guiding principle for maintaining an entrepreneurial mindset, continuous improvement and purpose.

Harvard conducted one of the most comprehensive psychological studies of hundreds of diverse individuals, over a period of seventy-five years. Through this study, amongst other things, we’ve learned that relationships are the number one predictor of long-term happiness. Authentic and supportive personal and business relationships predict happiness, which creates its own positive contagion. The study also found that relationships were the number one predictor of organisational success. As we cultivate and nurture relationships, listening to and caring about the well-being of all of our stakeholders, we create productive and rich environments which attract and retain. Periods such as this, call for collective hard work, humility and humour where we can find it. And remember, you’re never too senior to pick up a broom.