As I type this my wife and 21-year-old daughter are in Vienna, Austria and I am in my office working. Our daughter is doing a semester abroad in Prague and my wife is visiting her for spring break and they are doing a three day trip to Vienna. You may be wondering why I am sharing this with you as I doubt you care for a status report about my wife and daughter. The reason I am telling you this is I would rather be with them but our company has been going through a three-year downturn in our construction supply business and I know it would look terrible to my associates if I were in Europe with them. Given that we have laid off about 50% of our associates and my remaining associates are absorbing pay cuts and doing the work of 2-3 people, it would look terrible that I am in Europe while they are working so hard. Some of you may be wondering why I care how it looks. Well, I learned a long time ago, that when you’re a leader, people don’t listen to what you say, they watch what you do. If I were preaching austerity and teamwork via email from Vienna I don’t think I would have much support. In fact, I think I would destroy our already battered morale. My dad (a Marine who went ashore in the first wave at Iwo Jima and Okinawa) used to say, “You can’t lead from the rear.” I agree.
During my career I have never understood why owners treat themselves differently than the rest of their associates and then wonder why their associates hate them. I first learned to care about setting the right example when I was working as a welder at a mobile home plant while going to college. Mobile home sales had fallen significantly and the company did a layoff and cut everyone’s pay. However, a few weeks later the owner and his wife (who only worked part time but drew a full time salary) both got new Cadillac’s which they parked in their reserved parking spaces under carports erected solely for their use. You could imagine the impact this had on morale. For months the new Cadillac’s were all that my coworkers talked about during our two 15 minute breaks and one 30 minute lunch period per day. I noticed that graffiti (some threatening physical harm) denigrating the owners quickly covered the restroom walls and even the break room. The final act of defiance was when another coworker with a large family and an ill wife got laid off. As he was leaving he keyed both of their cars. This lesson has never been lost on me.
During my career in management and as an owner, I have gone out of my way to not treat myself any better than my associates. My wife and I are on the same benefit plan, pay our own deductibles, and I don’t allow anyone to call me Mr. I clean up the restroom when it’s messy and I clean my own office. I don’t have an assistant and I answer my own phone and record my own voicemail greetings. I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely pretentious when I call for someone at a customer or supplier’s office and get a voicemail greeting recorded by their secretary. I think this looks self-important during good times and utterly ridiculous during bad times. I also have an office that is about 8’ X 10’ which barely has room for a visitor. If we are busy and a customer needs a delivery in a hurry it’s not beneath me to jump in a truck and take the materials to our customer. (My wife has too even thought she doesn’t work in our business.) In fact, when customers see me making a delivery they are surprised but also impressed that I don’t think I’m too important to make a delivery. You can preach all you want and note on your website about how customer focused you are, but nothing gets the customer commitment message across like a CEO making a delivery to a muddy job site on a sweltering day in July, in the South.
I drive a Nissan Murano and when I’m on the road I stay at Hampton Inn’s. I know a lot of owners that drive a Mercedes, have a reserved parking spot at their office, and leave early on Friday and come in late on Monday because they were at their beach house over the weekend. I learned from my father to not drive a flashy car and to not have facilities and a personal office that looks too expensive. Your customers and associates have enough to talk about regarding you and your family without your giving them more ammunition.
I’m not saying that owners and managers aren’t entitled to nice things. That’s why most of us work 70-100 hour weeks, or even more. But, I am saying that you need to be discreet about the trappings of wealth, especially during tough times.
What do you think? I’m curious to know.
© Copyright 2011 by Jim Sobeck. All rights reserved. This information may be reproduced as long as full credit is given to the author.