A CEO of a US based company was going through very troubled times. His company was not doing well, the people in his company lacked motivation, the shareholders pressure was increasing day by day to downsize the company and increase the profit margin.
The CEO was having nightmares day in and day out from various angles and from various levels. As it happens more often than not with bad news, it spread very quickly within the company that a large portion of the employees were going to get fired in order to make the company profitable.
But the CEO was a determined and kind hearted man who had come up the ranks starting at the very ground level. He understood people and their perspectives very well. He understood what it meant for people to loose their jobs. So he decided to turn things around in his own way. In order to turn the situation around he started meeting people, as many as he could every day.
As he kept meeting his people, he could see that there was tremendous fear among people that they would loose their jobs. This fear kept people away from taking up new challenges and new opportunities as they felt that if something didn’t work either due to their own fault or someone else’s fault, it was going to be an easy decision for the management to fire them.
So everybody maintained a status-quo and nothing new was happening within the company that could act as the fuel for growth of the company. The CEO understood very quickly that this lack of excitement and motivation by the employees is the main reason why the company is not doing well. So after a few weeks of careful planning he came up with a scheme for his employees.
He gathered all his people for a meeting and admitted that the company is going through some troubled times but he declared that the best part is that no one is going to loose his or her job. He said that in order to improve the situation, people irrespective of their level or designation including himself will have to go for unpaid leaves of 8 weeks each.
He also said that these leaves are tradable, that is if someone cannot afford to take 8 weeks of unpaid leaves he or she can trade it with someone who can afford to take more than 8 weeks of unpaid leaves. He further declared that he himself can afford upto 16 weeks of unpaid leave and is ready to serve the unpaid leave of some of his employees who couldn’t.
The mood of his people immediately changed and then magic started happening overnight. People started going out of their ways to help each other. Those who went on unpaid leaves also started contributing in their own ways by looking out for new opportunities and challenges where they could help their colleagues and thereby in turn helping the company to perform well.
Within 6 months the results started showing up and the situation dramatically improved. Now this company is ranked as one of the best companies to work for in entire USA and their CEO never talks about the products and services they offer to the market, he only talks about “Why” his company exists and how his people believe in that “Why”. After this magical turn around there has been multiple instances where people from his company have refused to leave the company inspite of being offered bigger pay packages and better facilities by competitors, just because the people in this company love and feel themselves being part of a bigger and higher cause.
I started the article with this story because I wanted to emphasize on few simple point about leadership amongst many misconceptions that are there. If you ask me leadership is an attitude which can be cultivated among most of us, but very few actually go that way, rather people take on the simple route of learning process and technology. I am a firm believer that technology can be learnt and also un-learnt within 3 months and process can be created or discarded depending on human need. But if people have or atleast try to build right kind of attitude then the world would change for sure. Now let’s look at the above story and try to understand what leadership is:
1. Leadership is not jumping into conclusion, but listening and trying to understand from different perspectives. Like for example the CEO of the above organization spent weeks meeting and talking to people to understand the root of the problem.
2. Leadership is about creating trust and giving people a safety net so that they can do magical things. That is what the CEO did by coming up with the innovative scheme of sending people on unpaid leaves. The safety he provided is that, he made people feel safe by telling them that no matter what, you still have a job, now let’s do something together or in other words let’s take some risks together to turn the company situation around.
3. Leadership is about walking the first few steps along with people, so that they can walk the rest of the path alone. This is exactly what the CEO did by offering to take unpaid vacation of 16 weeks instead of his due 8 weeks.
4. Leadership is creating an environment where people feel they belong. In the story above this is what the CEO did by announcing the scheme which was equally applicable for all levels of employees and people started volunteering in their own ways evenif they were in their unpaid vacations.
5. Leadership is about making people care for each other, and not create competition among each other. With the simple scheme of tradable unpaid vacation, the CEO achieved this very easily where people who could afford more vacation time helped their fellow colleagues by filling in for people who could afford less.
6. Leadership is about serving those who serve others, in this case the organization’s customers. In the story the CEO sent out a clear message that irrespective of level or designation everybody would have to serve under the scheme. It was obvious that people who were higher up the ladder opted for more vacation time than the ground level employees which ensured that people higher-up served those who are at the ground level who serve the company’s customers directly.
I have seen people try and define leadership in one short and simple sentence. But trust me, it is not that easy. Leadership is like parenting a child, to whom you give all the right values and principles and you also lead a life of values and principle as a showcase to your child. As you care for your child, same way you should care for your people. It is very easy to say “yes” to shareholders when they want short term gain by laying off people.
But it takes courage to say “no” and then try to turn things around to build a company which gives you long term returns. This can only happen when you have happy employees who share the same dream as yours, who feel they are a part of a greater cause and are ready to live and die for it. Ultimately happy employees leads to a happy organization, which leads to happy customers, which leads to better and long term consistent returns, which leads to happy shareholders, which leads to a better economy, which leads to a financially strong country and society. It an irony that in the military world you get medals and badges for protecting people’s lives, but in businesses you get incentives and fat bonuses for screwing people’s lives.
Nothing in this world can happen without people, not even business. So it is imperative that people come first in whatever you do, it is not your customers, not your shareholders, not your processes and not even technology. Success lies in mastering the art of how your treat your people.
There are leaders and there are those who actually lead. Leader more often than not, is a designation which is assigned to you when you achieve a manager rank, but to actually lead, you got to master the art of eating last, no matter how hungry you are, you eat only after all your people have finished their dinner.