Maid To Lead

November 18, 2014
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Kristen Hadeed credits failure for her success.

I met this remarkable young business leader in September at a leadership retreat where she told her story. In 2009, while a junior at the University of Florida, Kristen started  Student Maid, an all-student cleaning company that today employs 400 college students in two cities with plans for expansion. It was her early mistakes, however, that shaped her into the successful business owner and truly human leader she is today.

Last week, Kristen shared her journey with a group of Barry-Wehmiller team members at our St. Louis office. Shortly after launching Student Maid, she landed a major contract to clean the units of nine apartment complexes, which allowed her to increase her staff from four to 60 people. Once the project began, Kristen spent her days relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of the complex clubhouse munching on a café salad while her team toiled away in the un-air-conditioned units sharing subpar cleaning supplies and only two vacuums.

On day three, 45 of the 60 quit.

"'We don’t want to work for you,' they told me," recalled Kristen. "They didn’t blame it on the work or the heat or the hours. I was the reason they were quitting. That was very difficult to hear. But the way I was leading wasn’t the right way."

"That’s when I realized that leadership isn’t a privilege to do less," Kristen said. "Leadership is a responsibility to do more."

Kristen apologized to all 60 team members, and then set about convincing them to stick with her. She began by painting a vision of what Student Maid could become if they were a part of it. "I wanted them to know how important they were to me and to the success of the business. I wanted them to realize they were a part of something bigger," she said.

Luckily, the 45 employees returned to clean — now with Kristen alongside — and the business continued to grow. After turning down a lucrative job offer in New York upon graduation, Kristen focused on building more than just a cleaning company; she was determined to build a great culture. She implemented a system of values for the company and began expecting everyone to live up to them. She offered training, not just about how to scrub toilets and dust furniture, but how to build great relationships with their customers and their fellow "maids" in order to provide the best possible experience for everyone.

Clients primarily hire them because they like the idea of helping college students, said Kristen. The service they receive from Student Maid, however, usually exceeds their initial expectations. "'Raise the roof' is one of our values," Kristen said. "We recently had a team member notice a wedding anniversary date on a framed photo she was dusting. She made a note of the day and, when the anniversary came around, she sent a card to the client. They couldn’t believe it."

Kristen says Student Maid grows exclusively through word of mouth because of happy customers. And she believes the reason that happens is because of happy employees. She pointed out that the employee retention rate for cleaning companies is, on average, two months. At Student Maid, it’s two and a half years. The reason they leave? They have to because they graduate.

“I failed a lot early on. And I’m thankful for that,” she commented.  “It made me see that it’s not about the cleaning. It’s about gaining confidence, learning the value of personal relationships and face-to-face conversations, realizing that it’s okay to fail, and getting the chance to become the best version of yourself.”

As I told Kristen the first time I heard her story at the leadership retreat, “You have been given a gift. Don’t waste it.”

Something tells me that this time she definitely won’t fail.

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