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Blog Post - It's the People, Stupid, not the Stupid People

Imagine you’ve just been hired to lead a serious culture change effort inside a 135 year-old company - culture being defined as “the formally or informally agreed upon beliefs and behaviors within an organization”. Or, in street language, culture simply means “the way things are around here.”

So here you are, hired to shake things up, get things moving in a new or different direction and create better financial results and do it quickly! What would you do? How would you do it?

That was the position Charlie Eitel found himself in on January 1, 2000. And the culture he was hired to turn around was Simmons Mattress Company. Basically, the challenge he had before him was to erase and replace old beliefs and behaviors that were no longer working.

So, what did he do and how did he do it?

First, he stayed out of his office, and, instead, spent time with the employees and customers. Why? Because he knew that employees and customers are a company’s most important assets and that he needed to make a positive emotional connection with both groups as quickly as possible.

I was there when Charlie made his first “state of the company” speech to all his employees. The core message was simple. He said: “I want to create a company where people get out of bed each day and want go to work. One where each employee knows that what s/he is doing is important. And, I want to create the company that other companies want to do business with because they know they can trust us to do what’s right for them. Now, I know that as much as I want this to happen, I can’t do it by myself. But I also know that not only can all of us together make it happen, but we can have great fun and fulfillment along the way.”

At first, not everyone believed Charlie’s intentions, including some of his top executives. Many were skeptical and a few truly cynical. They had been led down and let down too many times in the past. Yet, at the heart level, they wanted to have someone and something to believe in and trust. Charlie gained and maintained their trust through his actions and commitment to the vision he had shared with them.

Let’s fast-forward almost 4 years later. Simmons was sold in November of 2003 having more than doubled its economic value and in the same year was included in Fortune magazine’s one-hundred best companies to work for. This is a prestigious honor for any company to achieve, and especially in a four-year turn around situation during some of the most challenging economic times in recent history.

When other CEOs ask how he did it, Charlie always replies, “I did it through the people.” Almost always, the CEO’s next words are, “Yeah, Charlie, but, how did you really do it?” Charlie replies, “I did it through the people. I trusted the people to know where most of the problems lie and also how to solve them.”

Charlie simply asked the Simmons employees to help the company wage a war on waste. He hoped they would find 40 million dollars of waste in three years. They found $25 million the first year alone! And it didn’t stop there.

Charlie believes that most leaders seldom ask the people to find and solve problems because they don’t believe the workers are “smart enough” to achieve the task. That attitude becomes the most expensive waste of all — the waste of human potential.

The key learning from Charlie’s story is to think differently about the potential of people. In today’s global economy, we need all of what people have to offer, not just their time and effort. We need their hearts, passion, commitment, and best creative thinking in order to find and keep loyal customers.

To put it bluntly, “it’s the people, stupid” who have the answers today. And it would be a “stupid leader” who undervalues or under-appreciates the potential of the people they’re trying to lead.

So, be smart, learn to trust your people and access your company’s highest potential!

Post by Jim Leslie - Leadership 3P
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