“I wish people would come to work with enthusiasm,” the CEO said to me, looking up from his copy of From Good to Great. “I really wish they showed some passion.” His voice was a mixture of puzzlement, longing, and frustration that could only come from a man wondering why the rest of the world wasn’t more like him.
The statement shouldn’t have caught me as unprepared as it did. As a communications consultant, I didn’t even show on the organizational chart, but I’d noted before that executives often feel free to confide in a consultant in a way they’d never consider with an employee. Besides, we were sharing an office until the company could take over more space on the same floor, and it was a hot Friday afternoon, a time when even the most gung-ho company officer takes off his jacket and feels conversational.
All the same, the statement left me dumbfounded for a minute. What I wanted to say was, “You mean you really don’t know?” But I settled for something non-committal and corporate about teams taking time to build. After all, consultants may have more freedom than employees, but wise ones learn to temper that freedom with discretion.
Besides, the fact he could express the wish — and the puzzlement behind it — made all too clear that he didn’t know how much he was responsible for the lack of enthusiasm.
You see, the CEO in question had been recruited by the board of directors to make the company profitable. And he had done everything he could from a business end to achieve that goal, finding new markets and products, and developing business intelligence about the company’s industry and local business. However, what he had forgot was his responsibility for morale.
Frankly, it couldn’t have been worse.
The CEO had come in six months ago, and quickly proceeded to cut a third of the staff. About a month ago, he had done the same again, and anyone who could read a balance sheet and his worried glance could tell that another staff reduction was due in the future.
All these cuts made sense from a bottom line perspective, but they left employees uncertain. The stress was even greater because he had closed a branch office after promising to keep it open, and fired everyone who wasn’t willing to relocate to headquarters.
Moreover, even at headquarters, he had laid off people with no regard to their roles within the company. As a result, the survivors were not only wondering when the axe would fall on them, but having to cope with a sudden loss of a lot of unwritten knowledge because key people were gone. In other words, not only was morale so low that the photocopy machine was starting to jam from the rush of resumes, but the company had become less functional because of the cuts.
Then, just to make matters worse, having just read Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Lou Gerstner’s biography of his days at IBM, the CEO was inspired to hold retreats for those he designated key personnel. These chosen few were given free copies of various best-selling business books, and invited to spend a day or two at a resort discussing the contents.
But what might have worked in a mega-corporation like IBM, where a few absences across the country would barely be noticed, only served in the CEO’s small company to make make three-quarters of the company feel under-privileged and insulted. Several of the elite didn’t feel especially honored, either, since what they really wanted to do was get on with their work.
And, after all this, what did the CEO do at Christmas? Cancel the company party, and, on Christmas Eve, leave at 11AM without telling the staff they could do the same (most left anyway by 1PM).
Looking back, I’m pleased at my restraint when the CEO wished for a dedicated work force. He wasn’t a stupid man, yet he had no idea that he couldn’t have ground morale into the dirt more effectively if he had been deliberately tried to do so. Busy satisfying the board that he was containing costs, he forgot that, if he wanted dedication and respect, he also needed to show some loyalty and support for his employees. And, really, considering all his long hours trying to turn the company around, I couldn’t tell him what was wrong or the aspects of business that he was neglecting without mortally insulting him.
The company still exists, but it’s only a remnant of what it was in my time. Despite a couple of modestly profitable quarters, it continues to show regular losses, and the same CEO still heads it. I’ve never revisited, but I sometimes wonder if he’s ever figured out what puzzled him, or simply bemoans the difficulty in attracting loyal personnel.