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Train leaders

After setting a sharp tone, Rooney backed it up by making leadership retraining a top priority. He began instructing the executive vice presidents on the expectations of the dynamic organization and then had them teach the vice presidents and so on down the line.

To ensure that the lesson was getting through, he set up the process so that it would rival a minor in leadership at most universities, bringing in Ph.D.s in business to help design a curriculum and make sure executives were clearly getting their point across. The idea was simple: No leader could stay with the organization if he or she didn’t thoroughly understand the new direction.

“I have a very firm belief that when businesses fail, it is not the associates that cause the failure, which, in many cases, it’s them that pay the price; it’s the leadership that screwed it up,” Rooney says. “And so often, the leaders get byes; well, they don’t get byes here.”

And while Rooney couldn’t personally teach every class, he did make a concerted effort to keep an eye on one group of leaders — those who handled front-line employees directly. When you’re focusing on company culture, it’s easy for a message to get lost down the line.

“That means that the most important coaches in the company are those people that we entrust our customer service people and our store personnel to,” he says.

So as U.S. Cellular went down that road, measuring leaders became important. It took more than five years, but Rooney put in place a measurement of how leaders were working that weighed as heavily as how they did on quotas and budgets. That meant a complaint about going against the dynamic organization held as much weight as a missed deadline.

“This is where we really started looking at the how with as much weight as we looked at the what and started taking people out that were doing the whats but were not doing it the way we wanted to do it,” he says.

That’s where the intolerance Rooney mentioned came into play. He didn’t expect changes overnight, but he did want them to be willing to try overnight.

“If it’s a will issue, just don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out,” he says. “If it’s a skill issue, I’m willing to show patience because, especially if you bring someone in from the outside, they have never been trained this way. I mean this is so different than most corporations and I can understand how someone can say, ‘That’s how I lead.’ We’re willing to coach them and put them through training and work with them, and as long as they’re making progress and they’re honest in their approach, we’re fine. We don’t expect them to automatically change overnight, but I expect those spots to fade pretty quickly.”