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As his leaders began to better understand the new direction, Rooney had to make sure the bulk of his employees — those without fancy titles — were fired up about the company’s new direction.

Rooney did a baseline culture survey in the summer of 2000 to get a feel for his employees and has done it yearly ever since, focusing on a few unusual elements. First, he was interested in how much pride they had in the company. Along with that, he gave employees an open forum to discuss any competitive advantage they saw.

He found that people had some pride in their job, but there was plenty of room for more. Looking to make a more personal touch, Rooney stopped hoteling call center employees, something competitors still do, and let everyone have their own desk where they could feel at home and put up personal items and pictures — which Rooney comments on during his visits.

“They just love it; they eat that stuff up,” he says. “Somebody’s paying attention to them and when you pay attention to them, they’re going to pay attention to the customer.”

The other thing that employees told Rooney about took some time. As the organization was changing, they began to wonder why U.S. Cellular didn’t flaunt its new focus on the customer. While it didn’t happen immediately, Rooney says you can’t ignore repeated outcries from employees, so the company came up with what it called human coverage, a way of presenting itself to the customer based upon the culture of the business. Rooney wanted his people fired up, so he told them they were now the face of the company, something he says pushed them to have a competitive edge.

“So I keep on telling them, ‘I want you to be cocky,’” he says. “‘I want you to get out there on that floor and feel sure of what you are and where you stand, and I want you to understand that you’re the best of the best.’”

And as more items employees mentioned on the survey became part of the culture, the more the pride element went up. Today, more than 90 percent of employees fill the survey out every year, answering questions and producing thousands of pages of extra ideas.

And that also gets other leaders more interested in seeing what people are thinking.

“Once I got this thing started, the leaders became more interested in hearing what their front-line people were going to say, too, because they wanted to know what they were going to say to me,” Rooney says.

While he doesn’t have an exact total for critical mass on a change like this, Rooney watched the pride element reach the point where more than 90 percent of employees felt positive about the company. And that’s a result of being unflinching along the way.

“It occurs when people figure out that you’re serious about being intolerant,” he says. “When they figure that out, then they become self-policing, because they then have to make the decision whether they want to stay with the business or not.”

Even with the success he’s had, Rooney doesn’t think he’ll ever be done pushing his organization forward — especially when inevitable bumps like the recent economic downturn can make people regress to old habits. Still, he says U.S. Cellular has watched turnover in its call centers fall to roughly 25 percent in an industry where the average is more than 60 percent. It’s getting those sorts of numbers that indicate forward movement. Any leader can get a group of direct reports in line, but it’s full buy-in that’s important.

“I can get the vice presidents singing together like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but that’s not what we want,” he says. “What we want is the whole organization singing together. The only way this company is competitive and successful is if I get 9,300 people to be creative and innovative and customer-focused, and if we’ve got people that really care, it’s sort of like a football team or a basketball team, right? People that are fired up about playing the game, they’re going to play a hell of a lot better.”

How to reach: United States Cellular Corp., (866) 872-4249 or