In the midst of a horrendous storm in Washington, DC, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, laden with ice and snow, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River after taking off from National Airport. I can remember being glued to the television, watching live coverage of the recovery efforts. Passengers were floating in the bone-chilling waters, struggling to survive.

Priscilla Tirado was one of those passengers and though a helicopter line was dropped to her, she couldn’t hold on as she succumbed to freezing waters. Lenny Skutnik, an employee in the Congressional Budget Office, routinely drove over that bridge every day. On this day, he stopped at the scene of the crash and watched in horror along with hundreds of other onlookers. When he saw Priscilla Tirado’s struggle, he impulsively dove into the ice-clogged river and pulled her to shore. He didn’t think about it, he just knew a human life was about to be lost and he was compelled to save it. It was the right thing to do.

Two weeks later, President Ronald Regan gave his State of the Union address to our nation. As always, first lady Nancy Reagan sat in the balcony, this time with Lenny Skutnik by her side. The President pointed everyone’s attention to the balcony and spoke about the heroic act. He used this as an example of what was right with America and that our best days were ahead. It was the beginning of a presidential tradition and every year since, during the State of the Union address, there is a “person in the balcony” who is singled out and recognized for their actions.

Ordinary people perform extraordinary acts every day. We see it here in our firm – team members putting others first because it is the right thing to do. It may be going above and beyond for a client, it may be an act of community service, or it may be mentoring younger staff to help them achieve their goals. As leaders, we need to have individuals in the balcony and to recognize them for doing the right thing. These individuals don’t do the right thing for glory or recognition, but because they share common values and are fostering a culture from which we all benefit. We need to let them know they are recognized and their acts are appreciated.

We should always seize the opportunity at every meeting, gathering or event to be pointing to someone in the balcony. Who will be sitting in your balcony the next time you have a meeting?

In a recent post I linked to my piece on the psychological challenges of culture change published in Dialogue Review.

One of the items left on the cutting room floor and not published with the article was an interview with an Elliott Davis Decosimo client, David White, then-President of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers. David was kind enough to respond to some questions about the challenges he experienced with Shealy’s own culture change. Since I found his responses insightful, I’m posting the interview in two parts so that others can read his experiences. Part I was posted on Monday; this is Part II.

How did you as a leader work through those challenges? What decisions did you make?

We are working through them now. Trust is built over time and through positive experiences.

As a group we defined roles, explicit responsibilities, and accompanying expectations for each position. I have communicated these throughout the organization and built an executive compensation plan to support the company objectives.

As a leader I look for opportunities for our leadership team to spend time together in teams creating strategy, developing innovative solutions to problems, and supporting customers.

Did the culture change your company experienced improve your company’s position?

It has improved our company’s position. Our challenge has always been to provide a unique, meaningful set of solutions and services to create a great customer experience. In earlier days our customers had a generalist from Shealy who tried to manage the entire customer relationship. While that generalist philosophy has its benefits it also has its risks.

The risk we tried to eliminate was of one person “owning” the customer relationship.

Today we have an account manager who acts as a quarterback and directs a team of specialists to engage with the customer at the appropriate place and time. The customer benefits by having product and application expertise more readily available. We benefit by having a deeper, broader relationship with the customer through an array of Shealy contacts which leads (we hope) to better customer retention, more share, and better margins.

If you were to do it all over again, what might you do differently?

I would try to push accountability deeper into the organization faster. As we grew I maintained too much responsibility for developing strategy, defining objectives, and managing outcomes. In order to identify and develop more leaders I needed to let them play the game and not over coach.

What one or two primary principles of managing culture change would you offer a CEO whose company is experiencing significant culture change?

Communicate frequently – be as transparent as possible with information. It’s better for people to know than to “guess” or “think” they know.

Communicate more than just the “what” or the “how” – spend time communicating the “why”. When implementing change or driving culture it’s helpful to have those affected by change (or who feel that they are having change imposed on them) to understand the “why”.

In my last post I linked to my piece on the psychological challenges of culture change published in Dialogue Review.

One of the items left on the cutting room floor and not published with the article was an interview with an Elliott Davis Decosimo client, David White, then-President of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers. David was kind enough to respond to some questions about the challenges he experienced with Shealy’s own culture change. Since I found his responses insightful, I’m posting the interview in two parts so that others can read his experiences. I’ll post Part II on Tuesday.

At the time of the interview, Shealy Electrical Wholesalers, Inc., established in 1945, was a $225 million supplier of electrical products and services to customers in the construction, industrial MRO and OEM, utility, retail national account and international contracting segments. Shealy was a closely held S-corp with 18 locations throughout the Carolinas and 340 full time employees. (Shealy is now with Border States Electric, an ESOP company in North Dakota, and Doug is Executive Vice President there.)

What strengths does your company have — what does it do well?

We have developed a culture that manages rapid changes well – we are able to identify a new opportunity (customer segment, product segment, customer, product, etc.) in the marketplace and have the ability to quickly engage, make a decision and execute a plan to take advantage of that opportunity. We are not afraid of taking a risk or trying something new.

We have a well communicated strategic/shareholder vision supported by specific, achievable long and short term initiatives. The organization, from top to bottom, has embraced the vision and strategy.

We have a strong, well-respected brand in our market, and long lasting relationships with some of the most coveted customers and suppliers in the industry.

What weaknesses does your company have — what might it do better?

We, at times, have a tendency to be more opportunistic than strategic with sales – we will shoot at anything we see rather than act intentionally with our strategy and selectively with our efforts.

What one or two major instances of culture change has your company experienced?

We’ve grown from 3 to 18 locations in the past 12 years and have built a matrixed sales organization that requires the leadership to trust one another and to work collaboratively. We expect the organization to act as “one Shealy” and not 18 independently managed business units. The combination of rapid, intense growth and the different structure has involved significant culture shift.

As we’ve grown we have developed more managers and a larger leadership team. These managers had a wider range of responsibility when they worked in smaller organizations — they pursued a wide variety of activities. One challenge for those managers at Shealy is to learn to work with a more limited range of responsibility.

What were the primary challenges of that culture change?

A matrixed organization requires trust and collaboration – leaders must be selfless and put the interests of the customer, supplier, and fellow associate in front of their own.

Trust takes time to develop, particularly when you’re an acquisitive organization that is continually bringing into the company new leaders and ideas with each acquisition.

Last month I was honored to have a piece published in Dialogue Review, a print and online magazine “for leaders and managers across the world.”  In the article I use examples from two leaders of companies I know who have engaged in the hard work of change.

I’m posting an excerpt below of one of the six psychological principles of change, but I hope you enjoy the entire piece over at DR’s website.

Shift gears decisively

Analyse, assess, and decide on your course methodically and slowly. But once the important decisions have been made, move swiftly and decisively. This is absolutely crucial. The concept of swift movement in the midst of change may seem counter to other advice, but the reasons for swift movement are compelling. Swift movement prevents the opposition from developing resistance; they simply won’t have enough time to formulate a plan and take action. For those who are eager for change, swift movement is encouraging. Too often, corporations announce ‘big changes’ and get people excited, only to move at a snail’s pace, allowing the resistance movement to gather strength and put up roadblocks. The end result is that neither side is happy. If you want to quickly see the rewards that are the result of improved company and employee performance, make it happen. Many will relish the rewards of change.

 

I love the unheard stories from history. Each character has his or her own small role with an individual story, as a part of the larger whole. That’s what makes it all come to life.

Of course, I appreciate the big figures of history as well — George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. All of them deserve our regard and respect for their leadership. But still, it’s the little-known stories of adventure, courage, and sheer guts that weave the great dramas of life.

I was recently emailed this story of an artillery commander, Richard Andrews, in the Civil War. Here’s how Eddie Inman (a man I don’t know) tells Andrews’ story (you can find out more about Andrews life through his Wikipedia link, which also shares the story):

“Confederate artillerist R. Snowden Andrews suffered a horrible wound at Cedar Mountain. A piece of shell tore apart the wall of Andrews’ abdomen on the right side as the major straddled his horse. With enough presence of mind to press one arm over the gaping wound and clutch his horse’s neck with the other Andrews could fall to the ground without being entirely disemboweled. Everyone who saw the mangled artillerist knew that he was dying, and various surgeons pronounced the wound fatal. Two country doctors, Thomas B. and William H. Amiss, who happened to be brothers, agreed to take on the patient. Upon examining the wound, Thomas Amiss found Andrews “completely disemboweled, his intestines covered with dust, hen-grass, sand and grit.” . . . the doctors ordered stretcher-bearers to carry Andrews to the James Garnett house a couple of miles to the rear. In great agony Andrews was taken to the Garnett home and there he was placed on the dining room table. It was now nearly midnight, almost seven hours since Andrews had suffered the wound. The ghastly tear in Andrews’ abdominal wall proved to be only one of two wounds once the gore was cleared away. The savage piece of shell had continued its path across the top of the major’s thigh, cutting it open near the hip. Dr. William Amiss carefully cleaned both wounds, washing the mass of dust and debris from Andrews’ intestines and abdominal cavity. Dr. Thomas Amiss then replaced the organs and sewed the wound shut with “….cotton and a common calico needle, the only instrument available….” Andrews himself held the wound’s edges together during the sewing. . . . Amazingly, the inevitable peritonitis did not appear, and Snowden’s vicious wounds healed within five weeks. . . . By the spring of 1863 a miraculously healed Andrews returned to field duty wearing the second star of a lieutenant colonel. Within a short time another wound knocked Andrews out of service again as a bullet hit him on June 15, 1863. Recovering, he was sent to Europe on ordnance duty.”

I read stories like this and I recognize that my day at work won’t be so bad. I also recognize that you never know what miracles may occur if you simply move forward — and meet crises with plenty of courage. You just never know.

Though I am not in the habit of offering required reading lists to our staff, I am happy to share my appreciation of authors such as Simon Sinek, Stephen Covey, Dan Pink and Jim Collins. These writers share some common ideologies about business, work and management.

Our industry is competitive which means we must always be getting better in order to stay ahead of the curve. True leaders must be continual learners, searching every day for innovative improvements.

If new employees asked me for reading suggestions, I would pose three topics for consideration: innovation, leadership and organizational culture. These are the tenets of leaders and the basis for building a better work environment.

What have you read on these topics that made an impression on you? What topics would you suggest new employees explore?

Today is Throwback Thursday on the blog, and I’m posting an excerpt from the second of two articles on the cultural changes we pursued at Elliott Davis DecosimoBattlefields & Board Rooms: More Cultural Transformations in a South Carolina Company was published on the BizSC media platform and covers four more principles of culture change. (In June I posted an excerpt from the first of the “Battlefield & Board Rooms” articles.)

We needed to help people find the right roles and use their strengths.

Washington was a surveyor, a scout, a commander of a regiment tasked with defending Virginia’s “frontier” in the French and Indian War, and a farmer — all before the age of thirty. The lessons learned in each of those roles later translated into leadership traits on the battlefield. His strengths were well-suited for his time as general of our country’s first army.

At the same time, the decisions Washington made about recruitment of other leaders within the army were some of the most important that he made during the war. Time after time, appointed leaders were tasked with certain vital war duties — sometimes by Congress. When they failed at those tasks, Washington made decisions to replace them with more suitable leaders. His actions in getting the right people in the right job were assertive, and of course, sometimes desperate. At one point, he replaced his most experienced general, second-in-command Charles Lee, in the very midst of battle. He selected a German, von Steuben, to conduct the vital training that the army needed during the long winter of Valley Forge. He placed Henry Knox in charge of transporting immensely valuable artillery across 300 miles of ice and snow. He recruited Nathanael Greene to take over the logistics of managing the supply transport for the army. All these moves were master strokes of placing people in the right roles during the war.

At Elliott Davis, our old system encouraged people to try to do everything: manage business, do the work, develop staff, be out in the community, bring in business. We all were wearing too many hats.

We discovered that discerning and recognizing people’s skills and drives, and then allowing them to gravitate towards their strengths, reaped bigger and better benefits. We wanted people to ask the question, “What are my strengths and how can I develop them to achieve goals?”

Our people needed to have a clear career path based on their strengths rather than striving desperately to be “good at everything.” They needed to be great at pursuing and developing their own strengths. Far from feeling constrained or fettered by unrealistic expectations, there’s a certain relief in knowing that you’re not expected to be something you’re not. And there is motivation in seeing where you can end up. As others have said before, it’s about putting the right people in the right places doing the right things.