Phase 3 – Enlightened People Engagement – “Fire All my People or Get them Fired-Up?”-12.05.17

by Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership Solutions, Inc.®

‘“I was working in another glass box near here,” a Liveops agent shared at a company event. “I reached the point where it was either jump off the roof or walk out the front door.” The other agents laughed knowingly.’ As reported in NY Times Business article entitled: ‘Paradise at the End of a Phone Line,’ November 2017, by Noam Scheiber.


Twenty or more years ago this writer recalls how commonplace it was for executives or owners to pursue ‘fire all my people’ – otherwise known as cleaning house. However, tougher employment laws – spearheaded by certain progressive countries in Europe – have made it increasingly more difficult to do that. In earlier days organization turn-around specialists wouldn’t think twice about doing so. But then increasingly more enlightened thinkers pointed out the institutional memory loss by ‘cleaning house.’ And so executives have become much more cautious about pursuing such an option today.


At the same time, we’ve all read stories about where prominent teams or organizations have been turned around by enlightened leaders. One of the more famous success stories within the past twenty years or so was IBM. IBM was in a lot of trouble when Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of food and tobacco giant RJR Nabisco, was tapped to succeed

John Akers: the life-long career IBM’er. No one else within computer industry leadership positions at the time would touch the job.


Akers was asked to step down from leading a rapid IBM decline a year after he was famously quoted as saying, “The only thing wrong with IBM is that there are too many people standing by the water-coolers.” This writer was stunned when he read this at the time, because what Akers was implying was that his people were not particularly engaged in his company. Just think about this; ‘Why would people be standing around their water-coolers?’


Gerstner moved into IBM in 1993, despite not having worked anywhere near a computer company. Prior to his time at RJR Reynolds he was a senior executive at American Express and was particularly successful there. So he came to the company with a fresh set of leadership eyes. He assumed there were a lot of capable people in the company and took at least six months to size up the situation. There were reports in the press about impatient bankers and Wall Street types who couldn’t wait for him to fire a lot of people and get the company profitable again… making money was first and foremost as the typical, bottom-line mantra at that time.  (NOTE: More enlightened thinkers today appreciate that if you take care of all your stakeholders – including customers, suppliers, staff and team leaders – you will make all the money your marketplace will bear.)


He concluded from many able IBM executives and others across the organization that they didn’t see much of a future for the legendary company at that time. That it was in a schizoid mode: part mainframe company, part PC company and part software house, where each market had a different drumbeat. Mainframes were dying fast as PCs were gaining ground, while top executives had grown up in a mainframe environment and were stuck with that mindset. The more progressive thinkers convinced Gerstner that the company had a brighter future in integrated computer solutions.


With this fresh compelling purpose, he got people’s attention. He had listened to them and treated their views with respect and so they became committed to turning the company around. As renewed success came IBM’s way, people started feeling a sense of accomplishment once more. People in the slimmed down company, as it sold off its manufacturing plants, started to feel more relaxed and greater camaraderie ensued. Also, Gerstner gave them a more significant sense of empowerment enabling them to contribute much more. Finally, he ensured the right training and development was in place to operate a software and computer consulting house. Overall, he saved a famous company, where it now thrives in another form.


Now we can think on another level. Let’s consider that small firm (or team) which has lost its growth impetus and is struggling to survive. What should the owner do: fire all the people, especially as there’s less legal protection for businesses under 15 people? Should the owner fire all the people or fire them up? Or is it a combination of the two; as per Lou Gerstner?


A likely path could be as follows – again see the parallels with Gerstner:

» Clarify Near-Term Vision and PurposeGather those 10-15 people around you and have a three tier conversation- through sub-groupings in an undistracted place, wherever possible, covering:

  • 3 things we enjoy about our workplace and 3 things we would like to see different? – Sub-groups compare listings for combined thinking.
  • Do we need to transform our business, step-it-up or continue as we are? – Group discussion along with individual poll to discover A, B or C and reach a consensus.
  • Once decided: What priority initiatives do we need to pursue over the next 3-6 months to make our consensus choice happen? – A list of consensus priorities will emerge.

(NOTE: Such an activity helps to build a compelling purpose, a feeling that our voice counts, and imparts vital know-how.)


» People EngagementWith a team of ten people, you can break them into 5 pairs or 3 groupings (2×3 and 1×4). Discourage sub-teams of greater than 3-4, although pairing works best as a team size where it’s important to get something accomplished. (NOTE: This can be done especially successfully with a survey indicating persona types.)

These sub-teams or pairs can now volunteer to take on one of the corresponding number of top-priority initiatives. Their immediate objective will be to map-out a priority action initiative (PAI). It will answer the questions: WHAT do we need to accomplish – the priority issue? HOW will we accomplish it – through a series of coherent steps? WHO will handle each step – by team members or others? WHEN will each step be completed – without trying to take on too much at once? And, WHERE will we go for allies – to help us succeed, both from within and without?

(NOTE: Here we see accomplishment and camaraderie at work.)


» Follow-through and Success Appreciation – The team or company leader-sponsor must now regularly interact with the PAI teams to challenge them in a constructive way to keep their commitments. When sub-teams complete their important priority initiative there should be some sort of recognition or celebration – a special meeting over coffee, sub-team lunch, a free half-day, a valuable book for each member, or a letter of appreciation, and so forth. Nothing lavish, but a token of appreciation for a good job done.

(NOTE: Such an approach encourages empowerment, recognition and a sense of achievement.)


Through activities like this, the team or enterprise leader will readily observe which members are stepping-up to the task of contributing to the turn-around and who is coasting.  For those who are clearly contributing that leader should find every reasonable opportunity to show appreciation for their efforts. For those who appear to be coasting, the leader needs to find a quiet corner for discussing their attitudes and contribution. If it becomes clear that the individual has lost their enthusiasm for their role and the enterprise, they should be given a graceful exit option to clear the way for a fresh and more willing person to succeed them.


All of this takes time and leadership patience to pull-off. It’s rather like going through the stricture within an hour-glass. Once you have addressed the purpose and engagement issues, the firm will have progressed. Pairing initiatives will have resolved some key issues; rather than leaving it all up to you. Less engaged people will have left, which is good for the enterprise and workplace colleagues. Renewed success will become more of an everyday experience, where success breeds more success. That’s what enlightened leadership is all about!


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