If you’re involved in change, as a sponsor, project or change leader, a champion or a target, you know two things for certain; the changes led by great, inspiring leaders are invariably wonderful experiences and, changes lead by the other kind of leaders can be dismal affairs.
As change agents, it’s vital that we understand what it means to be a great, inspiring leader. Simon Sinek’s quote above provides part of the answer. Culture is a key enabler. But how does a leader build the culture that delivers wonderful experiences? Sinek has an answer for that too – “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
In this story, we’ll look at a company with an incredible history of sustained growth and innovation, led by a man who had a passion for people. His motivation? To care for his families, both personal and corporate. If you’re not a CEO, you might be thinking, this doesn’t apply to you. And you’d be wrong. These days, if you’re leading or involved in a change in any way, there will usually be hundreds, if not thousands, of people affected by what you’re doing – your teammates, your customers, suppliers, partners, staff in affected organizations, regulatory agencies, IT experts, security staff, auditors, financial types, and so on. You need to think like your change’s CEO. The more you know about being an inspiring leader, the greater the opportunity to deliver wonderful experiences for all involved. Isn’t that something to strive for?
Thanks to A.B. for the details on this story.
The subject of our story, let’s call him Roy, was the long term CEO of a construction company which had operations across North America. The company grew from a small operation forty years ago to thousands of employees today through smart acquisitions and organic growth. It was hugely successful in a tough, often cutthroat business. It was at the forefront of innovations in constructions practices and equipment development and evolution. It was always profitable and never laid off staff, in both good times and bad. It could count on significant repeat business from its public and private sector clients because of the competitiveness of its bids and the quality of its solutions.
But what characterized the company and Roy’s leadership most was the human touch. Roy knew almost everyone’s name, from the executive ranks to front line workers. When he didn’t know someone’s name, he’d ask. But, instead of first asking what job the person was performing, he’d ask about their family, their spouse, their kids, their hopes and aspirations. Sure, he’d eventually get around to the work discussion, but it was almost always in the context of the family, not the other way around.
He ensured he had lots of frontline contact in his busy schedule. That gave him time to know his people and the opportunity to shape his managers’ approach to the job. Roy always said that nothing was more important than his people. He walked the talk. His approach reminds me of Jim Goodnight, the Co-Founder and CEO of SAS, who once stated, “Ninety-five percent of my assets drive out the gate every evening”.
The culture Roy built in his company was pervasive. So what were the pillars of this empowering culture? There were nine:
- Look after the welfare of the family – Roy’s passion was the family – his own, his employees’ families and his corporate family. The work/life balance was zealously guarded. Communications were open, honest, straight forward and as broad ranging as required by the topic under discussion. Roy called one of his managers regarding his wife who had just undergone surgery to find out how she was doing and whether they needed anything. On Christmas day. Hiring focused as much on cultural match as skill fit. The company was consistently ranked as one of the best places to work.
- Keep the customer satisfied – Roy’s focus on family carried over to his customers. Even though he was dealing with major public and private organizations and their senior executives, he treated them as extended family, looking after their welfare, their needs and their concerns. Customer satisfaction scores were almost always stellar.
- Ensure the company’s success – You can’t safeguard the welfare of your family if the company isn’t a going concern. So Roy made sure that the company took the decisions, both long term and short term, to ensure his family members would always have a place to be engaged and valued. The corporate focus was on continuity, not just money.
- Engage from the executive suite to the front lines – Roy ensured that his values were mirrored by his managers. When new projects were started, when new equipment was acquired, when new practices were implemented, when a smaller company was acquired, Roy and his local management team were there, engaging with and listening to front line staff. Everyone was on a first name basis. Discussions were held in the construction zones and local field trailers over coffee and sandwiches or pizza, in hard hats and safety boots.
- Provide opportunities for growth – One of the key drivers for new projects and new acquisitions was staff opportunity. Roy recognized that his people needed the chance to build new skills and capabilities to keep them interested and challenged. That focus resulted in an amazing number of long service employees with in depth knowledge of company operations. It was great for the staff and great for the organization. Staff turnover was ridiculously low.
- Obsess about safety – Construction sites are dangerous places with lots of heavy equipment and materials and often precarious or uncertain footing. Safety was a constant obsession in the planning and construction phases. When accidents did occur, management and front line staff reviewed the circumstances of the incident, changed equipment and revised their practices accordingly. Their record of safety was exemplary.
- Provide good pay, benefits, bonuses and recognition – The company’s compensation package was competitive but not top quartile. However, staff were rewarded for contributions above and beyond through bonuses and recognition in the company’s various media sources. As well, an active employee suggestion system (remember those?) encouraged outside-the-box thinking and provided handsome rewards to successful submitters. And Roy thanked every submitter personally.
- Engage in the community – Roy encouraged local participation in every community where the company had a presence. That could include involvement in charity events or support for local community services or facilities. The targeted events were selected locally and carried out locally by company staff. Over the years, they raised millions of dollars for good causes, increased community ties and built corporate camaraderie. And strengthened the family.
- Be a leader in best practice and technology deployment – One of the key contributors to company success, providing opportunities for growth and delivering a safe working environment was a corporate obsession with best practices and the best equipment and technology for the job. The company was an early and continuous adopter on many fronts. Management and front line staff relished the opportunities provided.
These nine pillars used by Roy and his company can be leveraged by sponsors, project managers and change leaders to help their “families” survive and thrive. Will they make a difference? Absolutely! As vital contributors to team effectiveness, these nine pillars can help deliver an order of magnitude improvement in performance. But remember what Simon Sinek observed - “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Roy’s experience proves the point.
So, put these points on your checklist of things to consider, become an inspiring leader and deliver wonderful experiences for all. Also remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group (including the key stakeholder roles), the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.
Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks