My More Human Leadership philosophy and practice is guided by 8 core principles. One of them is “Establish A Mantra Of Key Values”. A few words or a short list of bullet points can’t tell you how important that was for me in becoming a successful leader, so I wanted to share with you my personal story of how I discovered, and then fully absorbed, the values that guided me towards the right path. It’s one of my favorite chapters from my “More Human” book manuscript, a project that has yet to fully see the light of day (and that’s another blog post in and of itself, but I’ll save it for another time).
To quickly set the scene, I was the SVP of Operations for a 1,100 employee cable television company based in 4 states in the Rocky Mountain west. We had acquired the properties in 2003 from a large company that had largely ignored and neglected them for a number of years. The employees we inherited were naturally skeptical and untrusting of any new owner, so we had a lot of work to do and trust to build. By the time of this chapter, 2006, I had already put on thousands of miles on road trips throughout the 4 states, had many many conversations with the field staff, and had made some meaningful progress. But there was more to do…..
Get it Right The First Time
“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” – Roy E. Disney
By early 2006, I had begun to feel a sense of assertiveness and increased confidence in my leadership. I had a clearer sense of what I wanted to do, and the steps I needed to take. One of those points of clarity became a big focus on establishing a company-wide set of values. I wanted to be able to point to something that just wasn’t coming from me – an overarching “line in the sand” as to how we should conduct ourselves with our customers, and with each other.
The values also needed to be consistent with my vision of a company of more human leaders, and the personal connections I wanted them to make. Once they were in place, we could have a human yardstick in which to hold ourselves and our teammates accountable.
I felt it was a perfect time to do it, because of the trust I had established over the past several years, and the latest breakthroughs I had in the field.
But the big questions were – what are the values we want to express, and how many should there be? I decided to do a little field reconnaissance to help figure it out – and I could think of no better place to start than one of my little “works in progress”, Alamosa, Colorado. It had a lot to offer my brain, heart, and taste buds.
Alamosa & The Fab Five
As was the case in many of the “road trip” towns I came to know so well, this visit to Alamosa had a particular and comfortable rhythm – a routine that would keep me grounded, and ever mindful of the purposes of the journey I was taking. It was time in the trenches, face to face with people.
I arrived in town, walked into the front office, took a coffee order for whoever was there, and headed over to Milagros Coffeehouse just down the street, on the main highway. Milagros is a very un-“Starbucksy” place. The proceeds from their fine organic brews and (too) tasty homemade pastries go towards helping the homeless and disadvantaged in Alamosa. The staff there are super friendly and always smiling, reflective of the great cause for which they so ably represent.
I couldn’t help but be inspired by that place, and its spirit of community. THAT was a value that really connected with me. It turned out I was there for SO much more than the coffee. It always put me in the right frame of mind as I strolled back to the office, with a smile on my face and a tray full of lattes in my hands.
After the coffee run, I spent a little time hanging around at the office waiting for the techs to return from the field, and chit chatted with the front office staff, finding out about their lives, and what was going on around town.
I wasn’t being “the boss” at those moments –just Terry. I naturally love interaction, and was just there to talk. And when customers came through the door, I’d chat them up too. They had no idea who I was, or why I was there (by then I had changed my travel wardrobe from jackets and collars to polo shirts and casual slacks, so I didn’t stick out in these places like a sore thumb).
I watched the interactions between my teammates and the customers, and was struck by the familiarity of the conversations, and the mutual sense of gratitude. These were customers who intentionally didn’t want to send their bill payments in the mail – they’d rather come to the counter to pay, and more importantly, make a social call.
They clearly had made a connection with the folks behind the counter, and it was just as clear that many of these encounters had been going on for years. It was, in the best possible sense, cable TV and life therapy all rolled into one, and I learned a lot by watching what went on.
I also knew that I had “found” another value worth sharing with everyone.
This was a small town, isolated, and not economically robust, so for a lot of these people shelling out money for cable services took a significant chunk of their income. But yet they kept coming, month after month. And by making these personal front counter connections, it only deepened my commitment to make sure we were providing them the best service we possibly could.
And there, another value popped to the surface.
After watching these conversations unfold as I finished my Milagros latte and waited for the techs to arrive, I definitely left any trace of a NY state of mind behind (apologies to Billy Joel).
As the day wound to a close, the 5 local field technicians returned to the office from their daily rounds, and we had a chat in the break room.
I had visited with this often surly group several times before. They called themselves the “The Alamosa Fab 5” – a disgruntled and disillusioned clique that had banded together to resist their perceived injustices from the “corporate” suits.
On my last few visits there I started a habit of writing directly on the white board that was on the wall as I was speaking, recording thoughts I was having, inspirations I wanted to share, and metrics we were tracking.
As I sat down for our chat, I noticed that some of the things I wrote up there hadn’t been erased between my visits. I wondered, Was some of this getting through? Was I making progress?
It was good to see that this board was being used for something other than the typical legal and employee rights notices, and not much else. I’d also saw new things tacked up, like stories of good customer service interactions, and kudos to employees. The legal notices had to stay up there, certainly, but other things were being deemed important enough to share there too.
“Small victories” I declared to myself. This group had always been a tight-knit “team”, but ever so slowly, that circle was expanding beyond that little office in Alamosa. And there was another value to pin up on my internal thought board..
I visited a few other places on that trip, but while it was clear continued progress was the norm, those visits didn’t have the same impact as Alamosa. There, I saw a larger corner being turned – and a subtle declaration of many of the values I wanted the whole company to adopt as their own.
A Breakthrough Lands In My Mailbox
With the reconnaissance behind me, my team and I started to actively brainstorm about our values list, while at the same time continuing to tinker with our operations machine.
For weeks we played with a few concepts, centered around many ideas that had cemented in my brain in Alamosa, but nothing fully “stuck” as a complete whole, until one day I saw an employee brochure from another cable company hit my inbox.
“Thought you’d be interested in this” said the note on top of the stack of papers.
I flipped through the brochures – this company was rolling out their values declaration.
There were 7 “principles”:
It was like a gift from heaven. I thought “My goodness, there were several that had been parked in my brain, ready for something like this to put it all in context. Wow! This is it.” I decided that I’d try to adopt them lock, stock and barrel for our use, since I didn’t think there were copyright problems with any of those words, and quickly got our CEO’s approval.
The marketing department created a little “gift” for each employee that represented each of the values – things like coffee mugs, mouse pads, and wristbands. We wanted to introduce them to everyone one at a time, over seven weeks, and reinforce them with the gift.
We went ahead with purchasing all the gifts (and it was a lot of stuff, filling up several of our closets in our corporate office in NY) and right around the time we were going to launch the first value, I got a phone call from my boss.
“Hold up, change in plan”
“What?! We’re ready to go here!”
“We decided to hold off because we’re going to do a rebranding and we want the agency to weigh in on the values thing – plus, don’t want to create any confusion between the values and the new brand”
“The ‘whole values thing’?” I thought to myself. “It’s not a thing, it’s essential to living the greatness we aspire to.”
“How long will it be put off?”
“At least a couple months – sorry Terry”
“Bummer,” was what I said to him. Inside, I was angry. We were at the starting line with everyone lined up, enthusiastic, and ready to roll, and we just had the rug pulled from under us.
I closed my office door, which is usually open, because I just needed to decompress – and keep my feelings from leaking out. I sat at my desk and stared at the wall for a moment. I knew what I needed. I turned and hit “play” on my iPod, sitting behind my desk in its home base (complete with a cool external speaker) hoping that once again this sound machine with a brain would put me in a better place. In this case it would take a little while longer than normal, but eventually my equilibrium returned, and I started thinking about how long “a couple of months” would really be.
All of it was “back in committee”.
And all we had were all those boxes of gifts sitting in those locked closets with embargoed values written all over them.
I walked out of the office, opened one of the closets, and stared at a few boxes for what seemed like an hour. I opened one of them just to see what was inside – it was filled with blue rubber wristbands.
I opened one of them – “Get it right the first time” and “Commitment” was etched into the band. It slipped very nicely onto my wrist. Maybe all wasn’t lost to the marketing holding pattern after all. I could literally hear the light bulb going “bing” above my head. It was time to call an audible.
The next morning, I literally charged into my boss’ office.
“I want to distribute the wristbands”, I declared.
“You can’t do the values thing, you know that, right?”
“Here’s the thought – we’re really trying to reduce our repeat truck rolls, and repeat phone calls, and really push a ‘get it right the first time’ philosophy. Why don’t we put the wristbands out under that umbrella, rather than as a value?”
I had a goal in mind.
“I want to have employee wear one, and then get visual proof – I’ll travel throughout the systems this summer with my camera and capture them all. Then, I’m going to do a poster with a collage of all the pictures on it, so we can put them on as many walls as we can”
My boss gave me that look – it was a look I got used to seeing from him once we got past the “he’s my boss” stage, and became friends.
It was the “OK buddy, sounds kinda crazy but I’ll let you go for it” look, and it was the one that I always valued getting from him.
“Have at it, and let’s get some results from it, OK?”
I had the green light, and I wasn’t about to let my foot off the accelerator on this one. I quickly gathered my leadership team together and laid out my plan to distribute the wristbands.
Building a Collective Consciousness – One Wristband At A Time
We all agreed on this point – we really didn’t want to force our team to wear the wristbands; it had to be strictly on a voluntary basis. We really wanted to separate those who wanted to be “on the bus” and those who did not. All we decided to ask was that they wear them for at least one month.
I did a little “test” of my road show pitch to the home office staff. When I mentioned the link of the wristbands to the value of Commitment, it resonated. More specifically, the link of commitment to “getting it right the first time” with our customers, AND with each other.
In that meeting I also introduced the concept of what I called a “collective consciousness” of a seemingly disconnected employee group – if we could all wear the bracelets at the same time, and use it as a way to remind ourselves daily about what it means to make this commitment, then we could create another virtual connection, all of us moving forward in the same direction, separate but yet together in our hearts and minds.
“I believe these wristbands can have a very powerful force on a team like ours”. With that, the group posed as I requested, with their hands in the air, wristbands in place.
In the meantime, my field team had their distribution meetings and handed the bands out to everyone else over a couple of weeks, and then I hit the road again, hoping for the best.
Some days I felt like a wedding photographer, spending a lot of time herding people into the “correct” positions, while on other days, it happened quite naturally and happily.
Like a wedding photographer, I did end up asking the “non-banded” folks to at least put them on for the pictures, and given the peer pressure of the ones that had already jumped into the pool, that strategy worked pretty well.
Then it was time to head to Montana for the middle legs of the trip.
My trek through Montana proved to be the most memorable part of the trip for me, not only because of the great reception at the local offices to my now dubbed “collective consciousness tour”, but for the glorious weather and scenery that constantly inspired (and awed) me.
On one particular day – June 21, the longest day – I left Billings at 9AM with brilliant sunshine at my back and headed northwest. The mountains along the way, with the spring snowfall still lingering at their summits, glistened intently as my iPod and I made our way to Great Falls. After a great meeting there I headed towards Kalispell, but not before stopping in one of my favorite places in the world, Glacier National Park.
I took some photographs – a solitary barn, a waterfall, a couple of mountain goats. It made me think of how great it is that this country has set aside these National Parks for our enjoyment, but it also brought to mind an article I read that morning in the Billings newspaper about how the parks are “losing ground in maintaining and protecting their current resources while facing increased costs for security, workers, energy and the crush of 270 million annual visitors”. It seems that wherever I looked, even in a heavenly place like this, people are managing people, resources, and jobs.
Finally, I arrived in Kalispell and checked into my hotel. I looked out my window. It was 9:45, and it was still daylight. The sun had followed me here and still refused to let the darkness come. I took in the deepest breath I had taken in weeks, and thought about how I too was determined to keep the darkness away. I wanted this collective consciousness to be that bright light that illuminates everything in its path, just like the summer sun I saw this day.
One More Picture
And then there was the Alamosa Fab 5. I needed one more picture. This one would show them in uniform, if I had my way. I traveled to Alamosa once again on the very last part of the trip, and had my usual sit-down with the Fab 5. Instinctively, I didn’t get too far in the stump speech. I just wanted to get to the point.
“Look guys, I need a favor.” I took the bands out of my bag and dropped them on the table, still in their plastic wrappers.
“I’ve been all over the place. Everybody has put on these bands and raised their hands for a picture. All of the water under the bridge and the acrimony doesn’t matter here. This isn’t for ‘corporate’. You’d be doing it for everyone else. And I want you to do it for me”
The room was silent.
“C’mon, put these on. Time to take the picture.”
Slowly, reluctantly, the Fab 5 unwrapped them and put them on. We trudged outside. They posed for the picture. Their only victory was that they didn’t put their banded hands in the air, like many of the others.
They subtly sent their message, while still giving me what I wanted. I knew even as I snapped it that I’d cherish that picture of the Fab 5 for what it represented. Not a total capitulation on their part, but a hard-earned détente and recognition of a common value – and, the other values they helped me see more clearly on my last trip there.
I sent all the pictures to our Marketing staff and they produced a wonderful poster that featured nearly all of our employees, holding their banded arms aloft and acknowledging their awareness (and commitment, hopefully) of our common desire to “get it right the first time”.
That poster did end up in every office, and in its wake, in the following months there did seem to be a type of a “collective consciousness” that came out of it. We were all separated by great distances, but we had forged common connections across all those miles.
By early 2007, the long-awaited company re-branding effort was complete, and it was time to finally roll out the 7 value principles to the field. Over those months we honed the values and made them our own.
- Integrity became “Honest”
- Commitment became “Thorough”
- Dependability became “Reliable”
- Teamwork became “Supportive”
- Responsiveness became “Respectful”
- Gratitude became “Grateful”
- Community became “Invloved”
There was an interesting shift in the emphasis of the words. The new principles were adjectives, rather than nouns – specific modifiers instead of generalized identifiers.
They sounded more human.