This article was originally published in 2010 in the Australian Financial Review. In it James Strong, chairman of Woolworths and IAG, and former CEO of Qantas, who sadly and prematurely died aged 68 this week, reflects on the value of walking the talk on management style.
A considerable outpouring of sadness reveals how this successful Aussie businessman was widely respected and cherished, and when one reads this article – packed full of commonsense – it is easy to see why.
I have always said I can tell everything from a potential business contact by how they treat waiters, waitresses and barmen.
The first thing I do in a restaurant is find out the name of the person serving me, as we don’t have the charming American tradition of them introducing themselves. I then use their name throughout the meal, and thank them for the work they are doing on my behalf. Of such common courtesies is the world built. People who ignore them will genuinely not be the type of people with whom I want to do business.
Years ago, I spoke to a group of managers from a telecommunications business on the importance of understanding how your own behaviour sends a message.
Their leader at a subsequent dinner said how he totally endorsed this very personal approach, whilst at the same time disdainfully dismissing with a wave of his hand a young waiter trying to offer him some wine. No eye contact, no acknowledgment that the waiter was a person. My heart sank, as I knew I had wasted my time.
Years later, I recounted this story to 500 guests at a business luncheon. After the event, the hotel manager rushed up to tell me that his entire staff were amused that the audience was suddenly unusually polite to his staff at every table – lots of eye contact, with smiling acknowledgment of service!
Why should that not apply to every person providing service? They could be your son or daughter, niece or nephew. They are entitled to respect.
Very successful groups tend to share a fundamental value in how they operate, implicitly or explicitly.
This is recognition that the key factor in creating high performance is how you treat people, inside and outside the organisation, every day in every way.
The gap between what someone in a leadership position says they believe in and what people actually observe I crudely refer to as the “urinating in a wetsuit” style of management. The person in the wetsuit gets a lovely warm feeling, but no one else from outside can see that anything has changed.
So when a leader promises enlightened and empathetic change, and there is no discernible difference in the organisation, you predictably get “the rolling eyeball effect” as staff mutter “another wanker telling us the same old story, but we know nothing will really change”.
It is behaviour that matters – it’s how you actually treat people, not how you say or think you treat them.
People are much more likely to do their best and deliver extra discretionary effort for an organisation when they experience respect, encouragement, personal development and opportunities to grow.
It is all too easy to underestimate the intelligence or powers of observation of people. All of us are making assessments of people and companies or groups every day – guaging sincerity, credibility and trustworthiness. Where actual daily behaviour and treatment do not match stated value propositions, cynicism and distrust flourish quickly. (And productivity falls vertigionously – Ed.)
Many frothy mission statements or management “manifestos” declare the importance of people, and a set of high-minded values held dear by the organisation. If this is not the actual experience each and every day, it is no surprise that those words mean nothing.
The central proposition should be to establish and display authenticity and believability with people through consistent daily behaviour and powerful personalised communications. The greatest compliment any speaker or writer can receive is a comment such as “I understood everything you were saying”.
During my time at Qantas [Strong was CEO from 1993 to 2001], we evolved a format of presentations immediately after every six-month results announcement. Each forum was attended by 1,000 people from every level and area.
It started with the financial results, then a simple explanation of our profit and loss account, so people saw our costs and revenue streams, taking the profit onto the balance sheet, showing why a company needs profits to invest in its future, dividends to pay its shareholders, plus a cash-flow statement to show the importance of timing in balancing investment, etc. All simplified and easily understandable.
The rest of each day was a report by the CEO on challenges, issues and directions, then an update by the head of every major division of the group – aircraft fleet plans, engineering, IT, marketing, people issues, etc. Always a section by a front-line team telling their colleagues how they had taken on a problem in their area, and what they had achieved. They were powerful messages. From a doubtful “Is this a brainwash?” start, people were bidding from all over the business for an opportunity to attend. They walked out feeling they had been trusted with enormous amounts of information and were now incredibly well informed. The atmosphere was always electric. They had individual kits and an obligation to share with colleagues.
People like to be well informed, to feel like “insiders” as to what is happening, what is planned. It makes them feel they are respected and trusted.
It is very difficult today for CEOs to spend a lot of time speaking directly to staff in groups, but it remains the potentially most powerful way to influence people. Fronting up has great credibility in good times or bad.
Exciting atmospheres can be created by inviting staff to participate in problem identification in their area of work.
For example, Woolworths in the past experienced some difficulties with its huge warehouse distribution system in relation to turnover, absenteeism, productivity and staff engagement.
The senior management backed an outsider with an impressive track record of real cultural change in tough environments to bring about a transformation. In his usual daring form (and with the approval of the CEO), he invited the whole senior management group to hear a presentation by staff from one distribution centre. They were forklift operators, team leaders and others from the front line. They were nervous, but they outlined what they thought were the problems where they worked, and what they would like to have a say in changing.
They told about quality and suitability of equipment, safety and workplace injuries, rostering and manning practices, and being treated as though they had something to contribute. Hallelujah! Amazingly, this matched the management concerns.
They began a process of people in distribution centres forming groups to take responsibility for critical issues such as safety. They also were given data so that today you can walk into any centre and they can tell you their cost per carton handled and how it compares with other sites, with a real competitive edge and attitude of ownership.
Never underestimate people. If things are not as they should be, perhaps the way you are managing is creating a negative atmosphere. Ask them, listen to them.
Warmth, sincerity and good intentions will not convince everyone.
Some resist change and don’t care; some seek to sabotage.
However, genuine chances for people to grow and have greater influence in where they work appeal to most because of that most powerful incentive of personal growth and improvement. It is a positive resource to be tapped in inspiring people to strive to achieve their full potential.
- James Strong – a passing of an outstanding leadership brand – You will be remembered! (jonmichail.org)
- Tributes flow in for James Strong (smh.com.au)