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BW Businessworld

PI Talkies: The Heart Counts, Not Head

The time to look at improving employee engagement is not when you need employees to show they care for the company, but when they need you to show that the company cares for them

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A year ago, I met Dr Apoorva Shah, the founder and CEO of Richfeel (the hair specialists) for a book I was working on. I was struck by the fierce loyalty and pride that his employees displayed. I was astonished to discover, for instance, that his first 70 employees were still around after all these years.

Even his driver and his cook have remained unchanged. As I wondered what the secret might be, the doc told me the story of an accountant who worked with him. Some years back, the accountant had betrayed the trust and siphoned off a few lakhs. When the fraud came to light, the doc did not sack him. He merely reprimanded him — and gave him a second chance!

“He is still with us, and doing well” said the doc. And then came the telling message: “When someone in the family makes a mistake, you correct him. You don’t throw him out of the house, do you?” Wow, I thought, surely you wouldn’t hear of this happening in a modern professional company. Several leaders talk about treating employees as family, but when rubber hits the road — do businesses actually treat employees as family? Does that happen in the harsh, real world of business?

The idea of employees as family came back to my mind this week as I read about layoffs in the IT sector. Every day, news seems to be filtering in of yet another Indian tech company letting go of people. Not because they are non–performers, but simply because profit pressures are compelling leaders to downsize their organisations.

That set me thinking. Is there another way to manage this crisis? If employees were indeed treated like family, what would companies do? What can they do? Maybe leaders and company boards should hear the story of Bob Chapman, the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a US $2 billion manufacturing company. Not much may have been known about Barry and his company, had Simon Sinek — one of the world’s finest, modern leadership thinkers — not spoken and written about him.

The story goes that in the economic downturn of 2008, Barry-Wehmiller was in trouble. Sales had slowed down, margins were under pressure and with the order book shrinking almost 30 per cent, the outlook was rather bleak. The board of Barry-Wehmiller advised the CEO to take a closer look at the head count numbers — and mandated a reduction in head count that could potentially save the company $10 million.

And Bob — the CEO — refused to do that. His reasoning was rather simple. How can you just let go of an employee? Why should a man struggle to put food on the table — simply because a company is unable to meet its projections? As he puts it, he saw his employees as heart count — not head count. And that made all the difference.

So what did Bob do? He came up with a furlough plan whereby every employee — from CEO to secretary — would take four weeks’ unpaid leave in the year. In a memo to the team, Bob explained that it was better “we all suffer a little rather than a few of us suffer a lot”. The move worked. Employees bought into the idea. Even in a period of apparent stress for the business, morale went up. And the company saved more than the targeted $10 million. And Bob Chapman showed that ‘truly human leadership’ can work.

Maybe all those looking at reducing head count and laying off employees should take a leaf out of Barry-Wehmiller’s book. It might sound too idealistic, unreal even, but as Bob Chapman writes in his book, Everybody Matters, there is tremendous power in caring for your people like they are family. If leaders like Shah and Chapman can do it, maybe large company leaders should do it too. Treat employees like family. In times good and bad.

The time to look at improving employee engagement is not when you need employees to show they care for the company, but when they need you to show that the company cares for them. Great leaders put people before profit to build robust businesses. Great leaders see employees as family. They think heart count, not head count. Become that kind of leader.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Magazine 8 July 2017 leadership management

Prakash Iyer

Iyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach , and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

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