What a 10-Year-Old Boy From Kabul Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

By Raphael Hernandez

Raphael HernandezinKabul

I recently attended the Hay Group’s Employee Engagement Forum in New York City, which was attended by well-known organizations such as ESPN, Univision, Merck, BMW, Miles Finch Innovation, Luck Companies, Data Alliance, Borderfree, Estee Lauder and the Girl Scouts of America. This intimate gathering provided a forum to share insights and experiences related to employee engagement. A story I recounted at my table caught the interest of the broader group and I suddenly found myself standing before the entire audience relating the story. It’s about a 10-year-old entrepreneur I met in Kabul who taught me a thing or two about employee engagement and great customer service.

In 2002, I was working in Afghanistan as a logistics planner and routinely traveled to Kabul to conduct business with organizations there. During one of these visits, I took the opportunity to shop for some unique Afghan gifts I could bring back to my family. I found my way to a crowded market filled with several small businesses, all nestled closely together, competing aggressively for people’s cash. The market was known as Chicken Street.

Chicken Street was unlike any Main Street USA image you might conjure up in your imagination. It was an area heavily guarded by a combined security force of Afghani and Coalition Forces who were responsible for providing a safe and secure environment. Chicken Street was thriving; the place bustled with shoppers and animated salespeople negotiating fiercely. The fact that a few of us were wearing flak jackets with bullet resistant plates didn’t seem to faze anyone. They must have known behind our armor were bulging, dollar-filled wallets waiting to be emptied.

As I walked through the brown and dusty marketplace, I was drawn to a vendor’s stall thanks to the gregarious smile and vibrant green eyes of a 10-year-old boy. He was holding court at his father’s small business, which specialized in clothing items and other accessories. I noticed this particular store not because of the assortment of goods, but because of the charming employee who acknowledged me with a warm smile and made eye contact that suggested, “I care about you. I’m happy you are here and I want to make sure you find what you need.”

The small group of American and French citizens I was with made a beeline to the boy. For certain reasons, I’m going to call this young man, Anwar. I assumed didn’t speak English but was pleasantly surprised when I discovered he did—quite well, in fact. He told us he learned it while watching American movies. When I asked why he chose to learn English, he replied, “So I can take good care of my English speaking customers!”

An interesting transition took place midway through the conversation: he began to ask me questions to identify what my needs were. He listened intently and ascertained that I was searching for special gifts to take back to my family in the United States. This kid was good—really good! Before I knew it, I was buying more stuff than I had anticipated!

I worked my way through college selling men’s clothing in a retail store, so I know a thing or two about customer relationship management, not to mention that I have many years of professional experience as a marketing, logistics and operations professional. As such, I have a solid understanding of professional selling skills. This enthusiastic, engaged, and knowledgeable 10-year-old went through all of the key sales steps any world-class sales representative would have.

He clarified and confirmed; drawing out my needs behind the needs, and he made the close when I signaled I was ready to buy. He did it in a way that made me feel great! I felt great that I was contributing to the local economy and helping Anwar and his family. I felt proud about why I was there representing my country in the first place. And I felt excited that I found truly special gifts to bring back to my wife, daughter, and son; beautiful gifts that were unique to this country—a country with thousands of years worth of culture, history and tradition. You see, I was seeking the truly memorable because of the huge sacrifice my family made in allowing me to pursue my passion: to be of service to others during this difficult time in history.

When I asked Anwar why he was the only one in the store that day, he told me that his father was away on other business. Since Anwar was in charge that day, he wanted to impress his father by selling as many goods as he could before he returned. In doing so, he’d prove that he could be trusted to take care of the family business.

Anwar was a remarkable young man. I was so taken by him that I asked if we could snap a photo together to remember the experience. He enthusiastically agreed.

So what did I learn from this young man about employee engagement and customer service?

Be wary of quick judgments. Employees have valuable skills you may not be aware of. I made the assumption that Anwar did not speak English and I was wrong. He not only taught himself English, he did so to support the needs of his customers and the family business. Are you aware of all the valuable skills your employees possess? As leaders, we need to ask ourselves, do we really know those we lead?

A smiling employee is an engaged employee—so take care of them. Anwar initially communicated with me nonverbally. He made me feel special and drew me in by smiling with extraordinary enthusiasm. Unlike other vendors who were verbally pestering me to shop at their store, Anwar didn’t have to say anything. His smile and sparkling green eyes were infectious and all that were needed to draw me to his storefront. Are your employees smiling in your organization? Why not get them smiling by being a beacon of enthusiasm—just like Anwar was?

Invest in developing frontline employees with sales skills they can use for a lifetime. Anwar clearly had been trained by his father and, very likely, influenced by his community on buyer behavior, marketing, sales, and customer service. He benefited from a culture known thousands of years for its trading expertise. What are you doing to develop your employees so that customer service and an enthusiastic spirit become part of your culture’s DNA?

Engaged Employees are your best brand ambassadors and they have the power to transform your customers into ambassadors. It goes without saying that Anwar was a highly engaged employee and a great ambassador for the family business. His enthusiasm and ability to communicate authentically made me an ambassador—his biggest fan! Are you leading in a way that inspires belief, passion, and commitment from your employees? Do you empower them to express their unique passion to customers? Train them. Get them fired up. Let them loose!

Trust your employees. If a ten-year-old in a war zone can be trusted to manage the family business, doesn’t everyone possess the capability to be trained and trusted to take charge of the business? Today’s 21st Century Leaders must be trustworthy and trusting of their employees. This supports our natural human desire for autonomy, encourages initiative, and ultimately builds confidence—all of which benefit the bottom line and mission attainment. What is your organization doing today to develop current and future leaders so they lead by example, act ethically and earn the trust of those they lead?

As I concluded my story at the Hay Group Employee Engagement Forum, I mentioned how I think of Anwar often and hope he is doing well. I would not be surprised if he is a wealthy 22-year-old small-business owner now. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, he earned a PhD in Business and Leadership when he was 10 years old!

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Raphael HernandezAbout Raphael Hernandez: Lt. Col. Raphael Hernandez currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command and in coordination with J. Walter Thompson Atlanta, the Corps’ advertising agency, leads a strategically aligned, multi-million dollar, national integrated marketing program designed to increase brand awareness, generate high quality leads for 3,700 plus enlisted and officer recruiters located across the United States. Raphael has served in the United States Marine Corps for 21 plus years and has extensive experience in logistics, strategic and operational planning and execution, recruiting operations and organizational leadership. He earned a business degree from the University of Texas At El Paso and a Masters in Organizational Leadership from National University, LaJolla, California. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq and in 2011 was part of a 6 person planning team who assisted the Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, to rapidly develop contingency plans as a result of the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. In addition, he served as the Director of Operations and Logistics, for the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade during Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief Missions in the Sri Lanka in 2009 and the Philippines in 2009 and 2010. Connect with Raphael on Twitter: @Raphaeleads


  • OKAY!
    Have a great weekend – talk soon –

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Rita, thank you. Stay motivated and let’s continue to expand our world view by continuing the conversation via Miles Finch Innovation. I will work on new stories as you suggested. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Raphael, you´re absolutely right w/ AI and the ww.connecting technology!
    Just notice that we communicate here with one another thou´ we´re complete strangers. I recall having a few EU-wide pen-pals in the 70´s which was a big thing back then! We´ve moved pretty fast in terms of worldwide communication, connections and trade. I like it very much! Nothing´s more boring than living in a locked or shut box 🙂
    And return w/ new stories….

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Powerful thought indeed. Jane should Tweet that! I will be the first to RT.

  • Raphael, I also told Jane (on Google+) how much I love that line, “Judging is opportunity lost.” It’s a powerhouse thought!

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Jane, so glad you liked the story and the lessons learned. The fact that you mentioned “smile” and “trust” signals to everyone reading your comment that you are a 21st Century Leader. Nothing like a genuine smile to let a peer, senior or junior leader know that you care about them and that you trust them. Engagement can only increase in such an environment. “Judging is opportunity lost,” Brilliant! Yes it is. I recommend you Tweet that. Keep leading by example.

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Rita, thanks for the great feedback. We both share a similar world view in terms of being impressed by different cultures and locations. You ask a good question about sales people in the U.S. speaking a second and third language. I am sure that there are areas in the U.S., along the littorals, where sales people speak multiple languages and bring added value to the organizations they serve. I have to assume it is not as common as one would find in the EU. I do believe that technology and social media will continue to bring people together and serve to expand the world view and mental model of today’s and tomorrow’s employees. I read recently that the technology exists today for a person to translate languages in real time. I would not be surprised that in the very near future a sales person will be able to hold a conversation, in any language, as a result of being augmented with an artificial intelligence (AI). I don’t know about you, but I think that AIs will not only bring people closer together, but also allow for increased employee engagement and prosperity.

  • As a world traveler myself, I know how much we get impressed by other cultures and products and the magic location. I believe that people who really “need to work hard” on their own probably offer a lot more of their in-put than a well experienced country like the U.S. and the EU. It´s a different standard. Wouldn´t it be an interesting experience to meet sales people in the U.S. who offer a second and third language to their customers? Actually that´s a message I can hear from your story.
    You guys do great work down there, it´s no easy work environment but for sure an interesting country.

  • Totally worth the read. It’s a great story with lots of lessons learned. I get everything about it from the smile to the trust. And oh yes! Don’t be quick to judge. Judging is opportunity lost.

  • Thank you once again to Raphael for sharing this great story with our community! One of the reasons why I love it so much is that it contains lessons that can be applied to much more than just employee engagement. There are certainly lessons for sales and leadership–even innovation, in my opinion. Investing in and trusting our employees to be creative thinkers and problems solvers fulfills their natural desire to express creativity, which ultimately fuels employee engagement. It’s hard to imagine a highly engaged employee population that doesn’t have the freedom and opportunity to contribute ideas!

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Stephen, thank you. It is a story that has been germinating in my mind for over a decade. So glad the time has come to share it with leaders like you. Thanks for sharing the story via your social media channels, I appreciate it. Let me on know if there is anything I can do for you. Keep leading by example.

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Thank you Todd. For a great story teller like you to find it inspirational is extremely meaningful to me. In terms of investing in front line employees, it may be a mental model developed by my time in the Marines. In fact, I consistently remind my team at the national level that our primary purpose is to “generate brand awareness and quality leads for our” 3,700 plus “individual” recruiters. Our focus in all we do is on the leader on the ground. By investing, not just in terms of tangibles, but intanglibles (For example, letting them know senior leaders are simply thinking about them), employees may be more likely to take that extra minute helping a customer or decide to stay with the company in the most challenging of times (down market). Keep leading by example.

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Ken, thanks very much for the kind words. I am glad you liked the story and felt the lessons learned are of value. Keep leading by example!

  • Raphael Hernandez

    Thank you very much for the kind feedback. You and I are on the same team by the way, the Navy Marine Corps Team. Rah! I look forward to meeting you in person soon. If there is anything I can do for you before then, just turn on the Bat signal and I will do all I can to support your needs. Have a great weekend and…thank you for your service.

  • RobertTerson

    I’ll second Ken’s thank you for your service, Raphael, and that comes from an old Navy man. Tony has talked about you so much, and in such glowing terms, that I feel like I know you well; and after reading this fabulous story, which is storytelling at its finest–my highest rating–I feel like I know you even better than I did before I read it. I’d love to talk to you sometime; hope I get the chance.

  • Ken Tasch

    Sir – first, thank you for your service. A great story transports the reader into the story. A great lesson can only be learned by great example. You have done both. Thank you!

  • Todd Schnick

    Wow, cool story. Inspiration everywhere. But the point about investing in frontline employees…just so overlooked over too many organizations. Thanks for the essay Raphael….

  • What an uplifting, wise post. I’ll be sharing this on social media – I hope that business owners and execs take note.