As I’m thinking of lessons that are extremely important for all of the members of our teams to understand, communication jumps to mind. Behind ethics and more specifically “being honest with all people”, effective communication is probably the most important part of the culture of any organization.
In my experience visiting businesses I’ve seen plenty of examples of why great communication is so important to an organization. However, 3 great business leaders who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and learning from taught me a few simple lessons that drive home the point a bit easier.
Behind my father, Steve Dickerson and Bob Reiss are probably the most influential businessmen I have met. Mr. Dickerson has an amazing knack for story-telling and an even more uncanny ability to solve problems. He was one of the people I interviewed and referenced in my very first blog and he’s the one who taught me that the difference between a positive and a negative action almost always lies in the way its communicated.
So lets consider this for a moment. You’re in charge of a manufacturing facility that employs a few thousand people (over 2,000). You’re notified 2 years ahead of time that the facility is going to be closed. When do you let your employees know? If you give them 1-2 months then they may just leave in spite. If you give them 4-6 months you’ll probably have most people leaving before you even shutdown and then you’ll have to start hiring people for just a few months. If you give them any more notice then for sure people will leave which makes your job a whole lot tougher. It’s not like you can prevent the plant closure, so its not your fault. Take a few minutes and think through what you could do in this situation to best help all of the company stakeholders. Obviously the way you handle this situation can certainly dictate what will happen to you after the end of those 2 years.
Mr. Dickerson looks at the world a whole lot differently than most people. I have never personally met someone so confident that he could overcome any obstacle and solve any problem. He elected to tell all of his team members right away. Now read this carefully because the way he communicated the plant closing is what turned this situation into a “positive.” Before he told the entire team, he called in upper management and let them know and informed them that they have 2 years to find jobs for everyone in the plant. That’s right, his management team including himself took the personal responsibility to find employment for everyone who was going to be laid off. So they did some research and found a new manufacturing plant was being built not too far away and some other businesses were expanding. The day the plant closed 2 years later, every single one of the “laid-off” employees were now employed somewhere else or had made appropriate plans for retirement.
So the first question that comes to mind is, why isn’t that story taught in every business ethics class in every school and MBA program in the country? Doing the right thing and COMMUNICATING effectively can turn even the most negative situations positive.
Now many of us may not be responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of people so that story may seem to be a bit beyond our capabilities. So let’s take a look at a lesson that Jamie Hresko taught me.
Mr. Hresko was the plant manager for the Pontiac G6 plant in MI. To get an idea of his capabilities, when he took over responsibility for that plant there were over 3,000 grievances outstanding from the union. Amazingly, as I understand it, that’s only slightly higher than the average for a GM facility. However, within 3 years, Mr. Hresko had managed to drop that number to around 30. The lowest of any union facility under GM’s ownership. One of his 5 keys to doing that was Communication and he told this story to illustrate.
He said one day the union rep came to him and said we need another water fountain out on the floor. Jaime considered for a split second that they cut the workers’ hours, the labor force, and their wages (if I recall correctly) and the grievances were still unrealistically low so the least he could do is give them a water fountain. He said “no problem we’ll get it ordered right away” and then asked someone on his staff to make sure they had their water fountain. Two weeks go by and still no water fountain so the rep comes back to Mr. Hresko and asks where the fountain is. Mr. Hresko tells him the truth, “you know what, I’m not sure. I asked someone to take care of that for me and we’re definitely getting it for you so can you give me a chance to find out what’s going on?” So he went and found out the fountain had been ordered, everything had been taken care of, and it would be installed the next day. Low and behold the fountain shows up the next day and all the union members thank Mr. Hresko and start saying “man that guy is good. We don’t have a water fountain for 2 weeks and soon as we mention it to him he takes care of us. If you want anything done around here you have to go to Mr. Hresko.” The reality of the situation was he did absolutely nothing. The person he had asked to take care of the fountain did exactly that. Except one thing. He failed to communicate with the union what was going on and how long it would take. That simple act of communication would have instilled more faith from the union in the rest of management, would have saved Mr. Hresko the time of researching what was going on, and would have prevented the union from getting upset because no one took care of the water fountain for 2 weeks.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, it has been over 3 years since I’ve heard either of these stories so they are paraphrased, however I’m certain my numbers are very close. Even if they were off a bit and Mr. Dickerson helped 3,000 or 1,800 people find new jobs – or if Mr. Hresko only reduced the grievances to 50 or 60 would the stories be any less compelling?
The point is, in every situation, be it a conversation with your sister, husband, colleague, boss, or team member, you should ALWAYS be looking for the most positive way to communicate. Often times being positive simply means calling people back when you say you will, or keeping people up-to-date on the progress of a project. Dale Carnegie in his classic, How to Win Friends & Influence People, suggests in instances where you must critique someone you start out with a positive statement about the person first, so as not to put them on the defensive.
Bob Reiss made a point of assuring his employees that ethics were a high priority. For example, he always kept a copy of the 10 commandments on his desk to reference when a situation with an employee warranted it. From several sources familiar with his companies I was told it was nearly impossible to get a job there. No one ever left. Once you had a job there you stayed for life because you loved working there so much. In one instance, an employee of Mr. Reiss’ approached him with a difficult situation that she was very concerned about sharing with him. Her boss had apparently done something inappropriate or unethical (I was never told what he did) and from experiences she’s had at previous jobs, going above the head of your boss was never a good idea. Mr. Reiss thanked her for bringing the situation to his attention and took care of the problem (I believe by getting rid of that manager). Had Mr. Reiss not been known as an owner with high ethical standards and who strongly valued honesty, there’s a good chance that lady would have never felt comfortable enough to approach him. So if you’re going to be an ethical business builder, make sure you communicate that with your team members. After all, if your team doesn’t know that, are you really an ethical business builder or leader?
The best way to communicate those ethics is through actions and a good way to hold yourself and your team accountable is by setting very specific guidelines for the “culture” you expect at your business. We’ll get more into the importance of defining your business’ culture in another blog.
To your success, Bryan