Author Archives: tolu

Cleaning the intangible


Human beings live and function in a physical world and are surrounded by tangible things but every waking moment is consumed with the intangible. We are driven, motivated and inspired by what we do not see. The desirable and undesirable events around us are not caused by material things but by immaterial, invisible things.

Organizations are not physical structures. Companies, industries, cultures, societies are intangible. An individual is an invisible subject – we cannot touch a personality. Thoughts are intangible. Cleaning an organization is cleaning the individual and collective thoughts of that organization. An organization does not exist in space, on paper or on electronic media but in the minds of people. People are engaged in their work, they are productive and creative and the organization is continuously innovative because they are inspired about their work, which is a function of what they consistently think about themselves, their work and the people they work with.

If human beings are intangible at their core and if the intangible and the invisible determine the destiny, the success and failure of individuals, organizations and societies, there is a need to translate our proficiency at cleaning tangible things into cleaning intangible things.

Cleaning an organization is removing invisible dirt that accumulate within the organization as surely and as consistently as visible dirt accumulate in physical spaces, surfaces and objects. Invisible dirt blocks inspiration, vision and potential. Any space not regularly cleaned is dirty and may be a transmitter of dirt.

The cleaner’s goal is not to expose or cover dirt but to expose potential, to expose possibilities.

What would happen if we consistently clean our organizations as we consistently clean the physical structures where our organizations function?

Redefining Cleaning


One of us made a profound but simple remark recently, “cleaners do not change the objects they clean, they simply reveal the truth and beauty by removing dirt.” Cleaning is transformational not by changing the essence of a thing but uncovering its potential by removing the dirt covering it. What does not need periodic cleaning then?

As we clean physical objects and spaces, we are reminded of the need to clean more important, intangible objects and spaces. Perhaps it is as simple or difficult to clean our minds, relationships and organizations as it is to clean floors, bathrooms, desks and windows. After all, cleaning does not change the essence of a thing, it only reveals existing beauty by removing dirt. Organizational transformation could be as simple and as difficult and frustrating as cleaning sometimes is.

Cleaning has a lot more to do with relationships than tasks. Cleaning involves relationships among the cleaning team and relationships between the cleaner and the client. Effective and efficient cleaning tests and stretches team dynamics. We succeed not just because we have great tools, products and methods but because we work well as a team and receive the contribution of every member of the team to achieve synergy.

A cleaning relationship is a relationship of care and of trust between the cleaner and the client. Cleaners have the privilege of being invited into the private or less private spaces of their clients on a regular basis and being entrusted with the care of valuable and invaluable assets. We are not serving buildings or physical objects like floors, mirrors or sinks but people. We care by cleaning objects and spaces people use on a regular basis some of which border on sacred or confidential and of high economic value.

When we bring our spirit, soul and body to the simple act of cleaning, possibilities are limitless. Cleaning becomes transcendental but also potentially of immense value. A cleaner who is present and aware can learn a lot more about a person, a family, an organization, a culture than is obvious just by reflectively interacting with the spaces and objects they use on a regular basis and by merely being a cleaner, seen or unseen.

Cleaning tests an individual or a team’s ability to solve problems that naturally arise from regular usage of objects and spaces. It requires no less presence, no less mental and spiritual resources than is required to address personal or organizational issues that naturally arise in the course of living and interacting with others. Physical dirt is created when humans interact with matter and when matter interacts with matter. Non physical dirt is created when humans interact with each other. Similar principles are required to clean both.

Cleaning is more than it seems. Our task at Zenith Cleaners is to wipe away the dirt covering cleaning and to show that we all need cleaning, we all need to be cleaner and we all need to be cleaners.

Structures and tasks


The structures that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy were probably cleaned hours or days before the Hurricane washed away the cleaned and missed spots together with the structures.

Given that man-made structures are inherently unsustainable, how and for what purpose should we build or clean?

It makes sense to build and clean with the understanding that our structures will not last and to pay attention to what lasts. The missed spots suddenly appear less important than people, whether they are the cleaners, users, occupants or owners of the buildings.

At Zenith Cleaners, we tend to focus more on people and relationships than on tasks, not just because it makes business sense but because it makes people sense and is worth getting up in the morning for, especially in a world where Hurricanes, Tsunamis and Earthquakes happen.

Structures and tasks are meaningful, joyful and vibrant only when they are designed to care for people and nourish relationships. When they truly serve people and relationships, they are worth every dime and effort, even if they eventually get washed away.

Conversation with Sushrut

Our friends, Tana and Rennie of Organization Unbound recently hosted a conversation between Tolu of Montreal-based Zenith Cleaners and Sushrut, founder of Mumbai-based Hammer and Mop. With inputs and questions from Tana and Rennie, we talk about some of our experiments, challenges and on-going lessons with being the change we seek.

The underlying issues or practices discussed transcend cleaning. How can we work in a way that allows us to learn and grow while having a transformational effect on everyone? How can we create spaces for human beings to thrive, whether they be clients or staff?

Happy listening.

Metaphorical enterprise

Figures of speech delight me. I love the idea of saying or writing something that means much more than it appears. I think proverbs and figures of speech beautify and elevate language.

I recently concluded that writing and entrepreneurship have a lot in common. Writing presents thoughts in readable words. Entrepreneurship brings ideas into fruition. At the fundamental level, both require receiving ideas and thoughts, processing them and presenting them to the world either for reading or as a service or product people interact with. We can amend our enterprises and organizations the same way we can amend the thoughts we write or hold in our heads. Every enterprise or organization is a concept, a collection of thoughts people interact with.

If we can speak or write in metaphors, can we not create metaphorical enterprises that point to something deeper and bigger than themselves? I think all work can be metaphorical. Every task can be a metaphorical statement.

For many reasons, cleaning is a richer and much more exciting activity when performed as a metaphor (I know I am breaking rules of English grammar but I delight in breaking rules) in addition to the task itself being done excellently. Great cleaning is the beginning, not the end and that is why we do not devote our reflections to the task of cleaning, how to mop a floor, dust a desk, etc. Artificial intelligence can do that.

At Zenith Cleaners, we devote our minds and spirits to cleaning as a metaphor. That is why we love it.

When poets clean

Jesse Eckerlin started working with Zenith Cleaners less than one year ago. He and his friends had just acquired Argo Bookshop, Montreal’s oldest independent English language bookstore. He wanted to earn some money in a meaning-full environment while ensuring the store not only survives but thrives. He was not a “cleaner” so he fitted right in. We later found out he was a poet. A true Zenith Cleaner.

Jesse is leaving, to focus more on the store which, thank God, is doing much better and we are happy to see him go. Our intention is not to turn people into “cleaners” but to help them and their gifts to thrive. Human beings are too rich to be defined or constrained by an occupation. Whatever we do should nurture our lives, talents and purposes and vice versa.

Organizations should not be so sterile that writers who work in banks are discouraged from bringing their art to their work and vice versa. Our hope is for the poet to thrive in cleaning and for cleaning to thrive through the poet. No one should be stripped of themselves in order to do a job. Rather, everyone should be allowed to bring all of themselves to what they do. Then, a CEO will realize they are bigger than C.E.O. and will not descend so low as to manipulate LIBOR rates for example.

It was with great joy that I received a copy of the book of poems written by Jesse while he was with us, titled, “We are not the bereaved.” Here is an excerpt from one of his poems. If you are in Montreal, you can obtain a copy from Argo Bookshop at 1915 St Catherine West.

Pick up a stone: bother not with whether it’s smooth
or level: hurl it at the waves & wait for an incidental
ripple or two, since we’re none of us expert -;

It’s the way the current eddies your twirl
in all it’s dazzling makeshift proportion
that’ll decide the pave for the path we’ll know-;

The book was launched July 14, 2012 and according to him, the cleaning experience helped to nurture some of the poems during their gestation period. It is a privilege to create an environment for people, talents and art to thrive. Poetry flourishing, business thriving. Fait accompli.

By the way, no one including myself ever made the floors of the beautiful St James the Apostle church shine brighter than Jesse. When poetry is allowed to thrive, cleaning thrives too and clients are happy.

Poets who get their hands dirty by making other people’s spaces healthier seem to be better poets and better cleaners.

What if it’s a gift?

Most of us are engaged daily in creating products or services for others, putting in lots of human energy. All of us buy or use some product or service on a daily basis.

What if we treated our products or services and every input as gifts to our clients, users or members? How would we work? Would we look forward to Mondays? What would we put in and what would we exclude from the package assuming it is a gift?

What if the receiver also treated the service or the product as a gift? How would they unwrap it? What if even feedback is treated as a gift? How would it be given?

From cleaning to caring

A journalist once asked me how the cleaning industry will be affected by the fact that robots now clean.

I think the cleaning industry will be severely affected.


Cleaning is a programmable activity. Robots can clean probably better than human beings, they are more efficient, less costly on the long run, they have no emotions which can make life messy, they can be described on paper. The cleaning industry is doomed once robots begin to clean.

This is one of the disadvantages (or advantages?) of being a cleaning company – the work can be digitized. After all, there is Siri who is quite articulate and intelligent and can carry on a conversation.

But do clients really want mere cleaners? Does anyone really want to be a mere cleaner? Does being a cleaner or engaging human beings as “cleaners” not dehumanize both parties? Are we not dehumanized the moment we treat ourselves or other human beings like machines, lacking emotion or spirit, unable to care?

If our work is cleaning, we will soon be designed out of existence but if our work is caring, it is precisely what is missing in the world, in every domain. Robots can clean as it takes head knowledge to clean well. Only human beings can care, as it requires the heart which is infinitely more intelligent than the head.

A cleaner who cares is of greater value to the world than a CEO forbidden to care.

The experience of caring and being cared for is what we want to co-create with clients.

When ecosystems meet

One of the many profound thoughts from the recent SVN conference for me was spoken by Nina Simmons,

In nature, the places of greatest fertility are places where two ecosystems meet.

It resonated with me because I love crossing boundaries and bringing seemingly disparate ecosystems together. I think our differences are a source of strength not of stress and they ought to be celebrated because when we come together they make us stronger and richer in the truest sense.

There is a natural human tendency to restrict ourselves to our own habitats where people think, act or look like us but we may be doing ourselves a disservice if we do not allow ourselves to mix with those who are different. SVN is in a sense a habitat I am glad to come back to from time to time. In order to make it an even richer place even if less “comfortable”, SVN is taking laudable steps to bring various ecosystems together, to benefit from the richness that emerges when seemingly disparate social, economic, political and cultural segments intersect.

It is much more comfortable to stay around people who think and act like we do but as Joan Halifax illustrated at the conference, our comfort zone is a tiny dot, outside of which all the magic happens. An ecotone, the place where ecosystems meet has the characteristics of both ecosystems as well as its own, making the whole richer than the sum of the parts. We are individually enriched as is our world, when ecosystems meet.

SVN’s bridge project is an excellent example of bringing ecosystems together, crossing social, political, cultural and economic boundaries. I think it will contribute to driving the next phase in SVN’s impact, because of the resultant richness and improved “biodiversity”. We impoverish ourselves and close the door of possibility when we keep away from those who are unlike us. I was impressed to hear from Danny Kennedy that Sungevity received positive responses from Tea party members and I think that is only a tip of the iceberg of what is possible. ‘Weeds” are sometimes undiscovered vegetables and “enemies” are unknown friends, if not often mental constructs.

Our world is in need of fresh ideas, which will not come by following worn and familiar pathways. Creativity happens when we change habitats because we are forced to think new thoughts. The best person for a job may be someone from outside of the industry – their naivety opens them and everyone up to possibility since in truth, “all things are possible to those who believe.” Spending all our lives in an industry, we learn how the industry works but can rarely breathe fresh air into the space since we are often missing the wisdom that we only gain outside of the tiny dot that is our comfort zones. One way to come out of the rut and breathe fresh air into our lives and organizations is to step out into a different space among a different group of people, where mere survival sometimes requires creativity, fresh thinking and more wholesome perspectives.

At Zenith Cleaners, we benefit from not being a cleaning company and by not hiring “cleaners”. Our experience has been that non-cleaners clean better than “cleaners”, first and foremost because they bring a more holistic perspective to the art and are better able to think for the client. Due to our naivety and relative inexperience in our “industry”, we are continuing to test ideas around bringing ecosystems together in the hope that there will be miracles.

We increase our impact exponentially as we practice bringing seemingly disparate ecosystems together, as we become more comfortable with seeming complexity, contradictions and “requisite diversity.” In just 25 years, SVN has changed the landscape and there are still unexplored worlds which will be easier to reach as we continue to joyfully, lovingly cross boundaries and bring disparate ecosystems together.

– Tolu

Custodian set to Graduate from Ivy League

Here is a one and a half minute video from the Associated Press about a custodian who loves what he does but is clearly not defined by what he does. He is a Zenith Cleaner. He just works for Columbia University. We love Him.