It was a conversation that forever changed my vision of “corporate leadership“, and put me on the more human path.
It also taught me the immense value of an open heart and mind.
The funny thing was, it wasn’t a chat with a boss, or a mentor, or a teacher that set me straight.
It wasn’t a concerned friend or colleague who wanted to pass along helpful advice.
It was a stranger that sat across a table from me in Gillette, Wyoming, who started out in my mind as a naysayer but ultimately shifted to the truth teller I needed to push me in the right direction.
A Day In Gillette
His name was Matt, and he was a technician for our cable TV company in Gillette, a city in northeast Wyoming notable for its energy production and its abundance of wide-open spaces.
We had just acquired this company a few months prior, and I arrived that day with the rest the corporate executive team, all freshly scrubbed and in our suits and ties, to make a brief pitch to Matt and the rest of the Gillette team (about 15 people) about our future plans, and our intentions on how we would lead them.
We couldn’t have stood out more, a group of guys in well-pressed suits, ready to give what turned out to be a very “flat” pitch. It started clunkily because of the tension in the room. This group viewed us quite warily, and you could see the chips on their shoulders. We were just talking “at” them and it was apparent the messages weren’t getting through.
All I could see right then across the table were a bunch of naysayers, rejecting our words as rubbish, and seeing us as just another bunch of suits they couldn’t and shouldn’t trust.
I watched the reactions of the staff very intently, and a certain feeling really kicked in – we needed to be doing something different. Looking back, I didn’t quite know what that was at the time, but watching the air leave the room started to nag at me. I noticed that one of the higher-level technicians was clearly the leader of the group, and did most of the talking.
Matt and the Pack
That was Matt. He was a stocky, round faced and had a neatly trimmed goatee. His uniform was clean, crisp and neat. There was “no nonsense” written all over him, but yet, there was a bit of a twinkle in his eye. There was more “there” than what was on display.
Notwithstanding his naysayer posture and words, I liked him immediately. He was a straight shooter who appeared to understand the dynamics of the situation, and had a realistic viewpoint about how the relationship between employer and employee should work. He minced no words when he said that the reason that they were complaining “had nothing to do with you (the new owner)”.
It was due to many past broken promises, by previous owners and by their local union. They had very strong reservations about putting any kind of trust in “corporate management”, whoever they might be.
I knew then that I had to speak to him privately – I sensed that he could hold the key to how we might be able to move forward and built that trust. But I needed an “in” with him to break the ice – I wanted to get at that sparkle.
I approached him during a break.
“Hey Matt, can we chat for a minute?”
“Sure, no problem”. There was a sly smile behind his reply that told me he knew that this conversation was going to happen.
I noticed he had a t-shirt on under his uniform shirt – and it had a very familiar green and gold color.
“So, you like the Pack, eh?” I said it in my best Wisconsin accent. I was able to summon it because I was born there, and spent the first 18 years of my life in Milwaukee. He was a Green Bay Packers fan, and oh yes, so was I.
“Yep, sure do”, he replied. That smile remained on his face.
We had something HUGE in common (I guess you have to be a Packers fan to know how huge), and that was the opening we needed. By this time I had also rolled up the sleeves of my dress shirt and taken my tie off.
We immediately clicked and had a wonderful, illuminating chat about what led him to this point, and how he felt about us. He was refreshingly candid and down to earth. I saw something there behind the usual artifice.
What it all boiled down to was pretty simple – they wanted their concerns to be heard, their work to be respected, their workplace and cable system to be well managed and maintained, their pay and benefits to be fair, and, most importantly, they wanted promises to be kept.
In return, they would work hard, take pride in that work, support their teammates, and serve customers faithfully and well.
He then put it very simply – you can only earn our trust by walking the walk as well as talking the talk. And you can’t break promises.
“Show me. Then we’ll trust you. We’ve been burned too many times before.”
After a few more minutes of Packers talk (we couldn’t help it), I turned to him.
“Thank you.”, I said.
“For your time, your pride, and your honesty.”
He seemed surprised to be thanked.
The Leadership Lesson (Thank You Matt)
When I got back on our plane home I knew exactly what I needed to do to turn the ship around. We couldn’t do the corporate boilerplate anymore. No more suits flying in, giving the company pitch, and flying out again.
Of course our CEO could talk with passion and pride about the company. The past companies under his leadership were admired as well-run and successful enterprises that took care of their employees.
It’s natural that the executive team wanted a hand in setting the tone with the employees, but the folks in Gillette had seen their share of corporate tone-setting before (albeit not in person), and they knew that this group likely wouldn’t be back again for a long time.
These employees, and all the employees in the company needed, a different kind of commitment. A physical presence and a different, more direct connection. We needed to be less corporate. We needed to be more human.
And thanks to Matt, the naysayer turned truth-teller, that’s exactly what we did.
I’m so glad I was able to see him through that lens, rather than “just another complainer”.
It was a lesson in leadership that bears repeating – when the naysayers pop up on your journey (and they will), take the time to find and listen to the truth tellers among them by finding common ground, and a human connection.
Because it’s SO true – the (right kind of) truth really does set us free to achieve great things.
We just have to find it in people like Matt.
PS: I hope you can join us for my new “Lead Positive The More Human Way” webinar series with Dr. Kathy Cramer. Through this series we’ll help you find, embark on, and successfully complete your Heroic Journey to great leadership. The next webinar is on January 22nd, 2016, at 10AM PST/1PM EST. For more information, and to register, go HERE. Thanks!