The Importance of Being Memorable

First appeared in ‘Across The Board’ (U.S.A.)

Great leaders have stories, legends, myths about them. These tales may be totally true, based on some truth, or purely wishful thinking, but it doesn’t really matter: They inspire people. If you’re a CEO for a billion-dollar company, you need to be noticed. Your employees will want stories to tell about you. They don’t want to be led by faceless accountants (no offence to faceless accountants). However trite it sounds, actions really do speak louder than words.

There’s the example of a British CEO who took charge of a confectionery company that was in serious financial difficulty. His first act was to cut the tails off the mouse-shaped candies. What an incredible symbolic act-with one gesture, he demonstrated the ruthlessness he was going to show to turn the company around.

There’s the story of Michael Grade, then controller and now director-general of BBC One. Visiting the news department one day when they were short-staffed, he acted as a junior researcher to cover a shipwreck story, finding a member of the coast guard to interview. People at the BBC still talk about that today.

You can have the world’s best mission statement talking about teamwork, respect, and treating people as equals, but until you demonstrate it, it’s just words. Bill Gates illustrated this theory in Microsoft Germany. Most German industries operate in a very formal manner, but this memo, on Gates’s instruction, told employees to use the informal German word for you, Du, instead of the more formal Sie. This very small act was highly significant in motivating the employees and encouraging them to recognize a more egalitarian way of working.

Making a statement doesn’t have to involve a grand gesture. James Dyson, founder of the vacuum-cleaner company Dyson, created a superb environment for his staff-subsidized restaurants, no memos, no shirts, no ties. The story that sticks in my mind, however, is what new employees have to do on their first day: Everyone-whatever grade, whatever salary-has to build a new vacuum cleaner themselves and can then buy it for £5. In a similar vein, Edward Guinness, head of Guinness brewers, publicly recalls his first day in overalls and Wellington boots, cleaning out huge beer vats. These examples allow all employees to see their leaders as human. There are a number of television shows at the moment that show leaders getting their hands dirty: Executives are filmed spending a week on the shop floor, delivering products, selling burgers. Aside from being great TV (and great publicity), it’s a way to get employees to respond to the leaders. You can see their newfound respect for their bosses.

On the more serious side, there are a number of acts that organizations make in times of crisis that allow them to stand out from the crowd. In Liverpool, England, the Littlewoods Organization, a mail-order company that is the largest family-owned business in Great Britain, sent each employee called up to fight in World War II a personal letter guaranteeing him a job upon his return. These letters became legendary. During the Depression, Levi-Strauss CEO Walter Haas kept employees working when there was no meaningful work for them. Malden Mills CEO Aaron Feuerstein continued to pay the company’s 2,400 employees after a devastating fire that practically ruined the business. These stories live on in the minds of employees and customers in a way that advertising can’t. They engender tremendous loyalty.

Often in organizations, individuals make the difference. Their values permeate the company, and their acts say more than a hundred mission statements ever could. There’s another story of the Littlewoods Organization’s founder, Sir John Moores, who as a multimillionaire always bought his shoes from his own catalogue. On one occasion, the supplier, knowing whom the shoes were for, sent a handmade pair, with fine stitching and soft leather soles. They were returned with a terse note: “This isn’t what I ordered.”

Other individual stories are legendary: When John Harvey Jones took over at British chemical manufacturer ICI, he moved all of the meetings out of the huge boardrooms and into the offices; Sir Colin Marshall of British Airways attended every session of his customer-care program, “Putting People First”; IBM’s Lou Gerstner was reputed to have unplugged the projector during overlong, convoluted presentations by his executives. These stories appeal to employees, customers, and the media. You cannot buy this advertising. Leaders who are real characters, charismatic and passionate, inspire others by these acts. They take business out of the nine-to-five grind. It gives their employees role models, something to talk about and something to be proud of. It gives employees the freedom to take risks-and that has got to be good for business.

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