As president, general manager or new owner, I learned that it was my actions that had the most impact on the organization, not my words. As such, everything that I did was observed, reported on, discussed behind my back and evaluated – I was in a “Fishbowl.”
In most of the positions I held, I had to “turn-around” the business – not necessarily from the brink of bankruptcy, but from sales and profit declines, market share losses and customer dissatisfaction. ÿIn every case, I needed the support and cooperation of the employees in the business and had to develop trust quickly. ÿIn most cases, the first days on the job were crucial because of the value of “first impressions”; everyone was watching. ÿRefocusing attention on cash flow, waste elimination and developing a sense of urgency while rebuilding morale would be critical in the transformation of the business.
Day one on the job could not have been more dismal for me than at Brown Machine in Beaverton, Michigan. The British conglomerate that had owned the company recruited me as president to fill a position left vacant for six months in a one “Stop sign” town, 150 miles north of Detroit in Northern Michigan after a number of interviews at their headquarters in Rhode Island but never a visit to the operation. ÿDuring a celebration dinner at our friends’ house three days before my start date, while she and Debby were in the kitchen, I was alone in her living room with a “jogging trampoline” and with no one but the cat looking on and I attempted a back somersault, unsuccessfully! The arriving guests were greeted with my departure on a stretcher.immediate surgery was required for a fractured kneecap and a shattered knuckle. ÿSpeaking to my new boss from the hospital bed the next day, explaining to him that I was all right and would be on the job in a few weeks, he assured me, “I know there is nothing wrong with you. You’re just dumb!”
Two weeks later, on a Monday, I showed up for my first day on the job with a full leg cast and an external “pin” in my finger. ÿA local nurse had come to my motel that morning to wash my hair and help me dress. I learned later that she was well-known to the factory workers and reported on my progress each day. ÿLeaving my crutches in the car for the first time, I hobbled up to the front door to discover a dozen people looking out the window at my arrival. Addressing the employees for the first time in the cafeteria, they laughed with me at my story and as I “limped” through the shop each day, they would share their own story of doing something “stupid” themselves. ÿNot the kind of “ice breaker” I ever wanted to repeat again, but it set the stage for communicating the elements of how the business had to change.
In all my businesses, I walked through the factory every day and, on payday, handed out checks to everyone, only once giving the wrong check to an employee. ÿI regularly asked “how are you doing today”, “what could make your job easier” or “are you keeping safe”. ÿI made sure everyone wore a name badge, including me, to be sure we all knew each other. ÿThe time clock area was always a great place to see both incoming and outgoing shifts.ÿ Whenever I saw trash or scrap on the floor, I picked it up – it was noticed.
I never parked my car in an “assigned” spot and turned it over to Visitors/Customer parking and generally walked from the back of the lot.ÿ Whenever I held meetings, I would shut the door in the conference room after the meeting started; the message got out – don’t be late for one of Jim’s meetings and never come emptyhanded.ÿ Agendas, with followup from previous meetings, happened at every meeting.ÿ To set people at ease, I avoided having one-on-one meetings in my office, instead sitting in their area or a neutral conference room. ÿI avoided using an assistant and tried to use technology to make meetings happen, arrange for travel and correspondence.
Collecting information on how my predecessor did things was very useful and allowed me to reinforce the good practices and be clear about breaks from the past without naming names or criticizing the incumbent.ÿ In Michigan, I sought out the company founder and invited him “back” to the company for discussions about technology, technical issues and strategy.ÿ Again, everyone in the company and town heard quickly that the “new kid” was reaching out for “old wisdom” and was repairing relationships.
Consistency was important – from how I dressed (suspenders and a tie) to when I arrived at work each day and when I left to go home.ÿ Lunch was always an opportunity to set a new tone.ÿ At one business, I used the cafeteria as a way to sit with anyone in the business and talk informally…not bring lunch back to my desk.ÿ At another, I “reset” the 1-1/2 lunch hour break to 30 minutes by getting the local diner to serve us faster with no desserts.ÿ At my own business, since I had made bag lunches for Debby and the kids, I just ate at my desk.
I had learned that it was less important what I said and much more important what I did in developing the confidence and trust from our employees. ÿIt was as much about the “little things” as the “big things,” and just being aware that I was in the Fishbowl allowed me to consider all my actions as I stepped into a new situation.ÿ
If you have comments…website or letters to editor. The Harbus and Jim would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment online at www.harbus.org.
Jim Sharpe (MBA `76) is one of theÿHBS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence for the 2009-2010 academic year, who ran an aluminum manufacturing business for 21 years while working with his wife, Debby Stein Sharpe (MBA `81) after both left careers at GE and large companies and sold the business in late 2008. ÿJim can be reached at: email@example.com, 310 Rock Center, 617-496-6285.