The Ability to Unleash Ability

April 03, 2013
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

We have discovered that people have incredible potential.

If you know Barry-Wehmiller’s story, you know that we suffered a tremendous financial crisis in the late 1980s. The challenge caused us to reinvent our business model, ultimately turning our business around.

We learned a great deal from the experience. Since then, we have acquired a number of companies facing similar financial distress. Why? Our strategy is to buy businesses to which we know how to add value. Because of our experience we are confident we can help them flourish.

However, when you buy a distressed business, there’s a natural assumption that there must be something wrong with the people in the business.

I recall a meeting a few years back with a group of people in the Customer Service department of a recently acquired business. This struggling business had the slogan “Committed to Our Customers’ Success” on a sign on the front door.

I asked the leader of the Customer Service department what I would find among his team members. He replied, “A group of pissed off people.”

How can a company be committed to its customers’ success when the team members servicing those customers are pissed off?

The fact is that when a business is struggling, a great deal of pressure comes to bear upon the Customer Service department. The team members there field the phone calls of disappointed customers who can’t get what they need from the business. This was the case with the Customer Service team.

The leader went on to say what he thought I wanted to hear. “It’s kind of a dysfunctional team; we probably need to address some people issues and reduce some headcount.”

Instead, we implemented our simple motivational game for the team members and began celebrating daily and weekly team and individual wins. The performance of the team turned around over night, but more incredibly, the culture of the team changed. Results jumped beyond the goal we had set and lasted for 13 straight weeks.

After 60 days of playing the game, I asked the team how they felt about it. Tears streamed down the face of one associate as she relayed the experience of her teammate giving her an order so that she could achieve her daily goal and “win the game” that day. A wonderful sense of camaraderie emerged, brought about simply by the experience of winning together.

In awe of the dramatic change in performance and culture on this team, I asked the team leader, “Now what do you think about this group of people?” He said, “I never would have thought they had it in them.”

The truth is they had it in them all the time. What was lacking was the right leadership to bring out the very best in them.

We have experienced this lesson again and again and again. People constantly wow us with their ability to respond to great leadership.

The next time you encounter a group of underperforming people and think the problem lies within the group—that there’s something wrong with them or that a change in people might be necessary–take a look in the mirror. It’s more likely that a change in leadership is needed.

People are capable of incredible things; it’s our leadership that fails to help them rise up to their true capabilities.

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