Friday, December 6, 2013

How Leaders Build Trust-Leading by Example- A Story

A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to interview twenty successful leaders in a large company in Southeast Asia. This particular company, like most, has a base country but operates throughout a number of ASEAN countries. Our team were trying to tease out from their stories how these leaders built their leadership capabilities over time.  The company wanted our team to help them become more deliberate and consistent in building leadership competencies across the company rather than being somewhat idiosyncratic and inconsistent.

One of their stories helps illuminate the lead by example maxim. In one interview, I was exploring the change management competence. The leader being interviewed mentioned he'd led a turnaround in another country in the region.  I asked him to tell me what that was like.

First of all the business in the other country had under-performed under several managers for the previous ten years. His charter was to fix it or close it.  Because he knew the scope of the challenge he chose to leave his family in his home country since he knew his job would be a twelve to eighteen hour day, seven day a week task.

Early in his tenure he gathered the employees into a town-hall-like meeting.  He bluntly explained the situation...  if together they could not establish the unit as a profitable activity, it would close and they would all lose their jobs.  He went on to reveal he had left his family with young children at home so that he could fully commit all his time to their collective success.  He explained the business problem with charts that illustrated rising costs and flat or declining revenue and was clear both costs had to come down and revenue had to increase.

As he assumed his duties he chose very modest housing near the plant...using less than half of his expat allowance for housing.  While operating in this tropical climate, he had the air conditioning turned off in his office.  He told me "If I got hot I could always take a cold shower".  He turned off the refrigerator in his office saying "It only held water and I can drink room temperature water."  When his leadership team wanted a team-building away day,  rather than going to a local hotel or resort, he arranged for them to help build a home in conjunction with the local franchise of "Habitat for Humanity". This leader told me his role in the team building activity was to carry the bags of cement from the truck to the mixer.  He also arranged for the families of employees to sell baked goods or made-at-home foodstuffs in the company cafeteria both providing extra income to cash-strapped families and reducing outsourced catering costs.

The business broke even in his first year there and has been profitable every year since. Although there are clearly other factors that contributed to the sustained commercial success,  this leader's personal examples set the make the personal sacrifice of family separation, to choose modest accommodations, to work in an un-air-conditioned office in a tropical climate, to drink room temperature water, to demonstrate both community and family welfare concern....In so doing he built the trust essential to make the hard choices necessary for success..

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