"Andrew's on the phone. He needs to reschedule again."
Andrew's last-minute update stopped me in my tracks. His cancelation was the third time in sixty days he delayed our meeting. He had promised to have our programming completed. Since I like Andrew's company, I reluctantly agreed to postpone our product launch by two weeks.
A pattern was beginning to develop. Andrew hardly apologized. Then he announced he and his team needed an additional month to complete their work. I was stunned! And couldn't imagine how Andrew must treat other clients hundreds of miles away. Ironically, when his call came in, I was on the verge of driving half an hour across town to see the so-called "finished product."
When we did finally meet, I insisted on engaging Marci, my longtime friend who also happened to be Andrew's CEO. It was a cordial but tense encounter.
Ultimately, I was heartbroken for our team and disappointed for Marci's company. We collectively wasted six months and considerable expense on a product that was "vaporware." In the end, Andrew's "finished product" was a simulation of the desired tool. It wasn't a working model or anything remotely close. No one was happy. Marci was embarrassed by her team's performance. And as the owner, she was facing an immediate moment of truth. She could either rationalize her employee's failure or take decisive action.
I'm sure this type of bad apple experience has happened to you. Strangely enough, worms hatch in the heart of the apple. Is there a message for you? Here's the question.
Do your employees make decisions based on your firm's internal core values or do they default to personal conveniences when times are tough?
As you know, strong corporate culture is the fundamental building block for consistent success.
World-class companies work hard to ensure their employees' decisions are guided by a refined, detailed and deliberate set of principles. The stakes are high. So CEOs of winning companies demonstrate little patience for an errant action taken in the heat of the moment. They take the time to train their team and hold them accountable. In other words, they're tough but fair with their employees.
As a leader, you determine the culture in your organization. It's your most strategic decision.
Power is amazingly fluid—the opportunity to influence how a customer feels about your firm pings from one employee's hands to another in rapid fire. Your "folks" are in the spotlight. The power to enhance or destroy your customers' loyalty ricochets off of your employees' fingertips at the speed of light. Organizational charts in actuality seldom determine who will make or break your company's reputation. It's the frontline employee.
So each employee in your company is a leader at some point in time. The salesperson exercises leadership when he or she raptly takes notes as your customer defines their expectations. The receptionist who soothes an irate caller exercises leadership. The programmer who sees the big picture and delivers a superior solution to your client exercises leadership. Each one may exert good or bad leadership, but at that split second, they are leaders in your customers' eyes. They can lift your firm above the fray or put years of hard work [by others] at risk.
Andrew was oblivious to the damage he inflicted on his company's image. Can you afford the apathy of even one employee? Remember the apple and the worm. Where else will the worm cause damage if allowed to roam?
Harvard University conducted a groundbreaking study for the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. In their analysis, researchers found an astonishing 68% of the surveyed customers left a former supplier for one overwhelming reason—an attitude of indifference shown by one employee.
Source: White House Office of Consumer Affairs
Technical Assistance Research Program (Harvard University)
A lack of concern is habit forming and contagious. Sir Isaac Newton wrote, "a body in motion tends to remain in motion in the same direction and at the same speed unless acted upon by an outside force."
You model the character of your organization daily. What your employees experience between the lines is just as important as the words you meld into your vision statement. Too often character failures become front-page news while the much-vaunted corporate principles are found hanging on the wall in a dimly lit corner. Never leave your organization floundering for direction. The consequences are staggering.
Five Steps You Can Take Today
1) Develop or revise the company's core principles. They should be realistic and passionate.
2) Ensure each employee understands how each principle relates to his or her specific job.
3) Utilize team exercises to practice and demonstrate principled decision making.
4) Leverage a 360° leadership assessment to establish a current benchmark for the team.
5) Conduct regular evaluations of the employees' alignment with your corporate principles.
As the old cliché goes, inspect what you expect since everyone is suspect.
Andrew is gone. Marci stepped in before Andrew's infectious habits could rub off on the other employees.
She reconfirmed her company's commitment to their core values of integrity and transparency. It became apparent that Andrew was not up to the task of changing his behavior, so Marci made a much-needed change. She chose to protect her clients. Andrew works for a new company now.
Most admirably, Marci put her money behind her words. She refunded every penny that we invested in the software and apologized profusely for our lost time. Marci is an alliance partner for life.
On the other hand, Andrew sent me a LinkedIn invitation to let me know where he can be found. I'm pretty sure we won't be doing business with his new company any time soon. We'd rather do business with Marci's company.
It's that age-old adage about one bad apple—and the worm!
Take action today to protect the rest of the bunch.
Keith Martino, author of
Expect Leadership, has a passion for advocating with women technologists to achieve stellar results. Keith is head of CMI, a global consultancy founded in 1999 that customizes leadership initiatives for technology companies and IT departments.
Keith is the author of Expect Leadership in Technology