Press 1 for unity

When John Rooney first got to United States Cellular Corp. in April 2000, there was nothing united about it.

“It was a company that was really sort of out of sync with modern business,” he says. “They had 26 different areas that they covered with their network, but they also had no uniform culture or uniform approach to business. They were basically, as one of my senior executives called it, 26 engines under the same hood. While they all had U.S. Cellular signs, they weren’t even uniform signs, so there was no real single character for the business.”

So when Rooney took over as the president and CEO, he saw a chance to immediately bring the company together under one culture — in this case, he put into place his dynamic organization, focusing on a culture of business ethics, employee training and focused customer service at the wireless carrier that did $4.2 billion in 2008 total operating revenue. It would be an understatement to say that it wasn’t an easy task when he first tried to bring everyone under one tent.

“We had a tough time getting it in because it was one of these things where there was no way to hide, so if you didn’t want to follow the principles and behaviors, then you were out,” he says.

But Rooney started off by making a clear declaration from the top, retraining his leadership team to get everyone on board, then, with a solid blueprint in place, he got his front-line people fully invested in pushing change.

Take the ball

Rooney didn’t expect the company to change immediately, but the role its top executive played did the second he came on board.

“There has to be a CEO who has got a feel for this type of leadership,” he says.

To do that, you have to clear your schedule of everything that doesn’t have to do with driving change.

“I have three jobs as the CEO,” Rooney explains. “I get to set the culture, which is the dynamic organization. I get to set the vision of the company, which is to be the best in customer service and satisfaction. And I also get to get rid of the ‘becauses’ — when someone comes to me and says, ‘I can’t do what you want because …’ then I get to go back in my old operating role and knock down the ‘becauses.’ I had a good COO here that could work on the other stuff. It’s a question of letting other people do the things that they’re good at and then making sure that I’m doing the things that I’m good at.”

So while Rooney let his chief operating officer handle the operations, he went out and made clear presentations to senior leaders.

“We really took the leadership at that time and told them what we expected of them. We had a fairly intensive effort for the first six to eight months that I was here to put the playbook out there and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’ and make it clear to them that they either subscribe to this or they were gone,” he says. “Many of them looked at that and said, ‘Well, this is the flavor of the month,’ and that they were going to outlast me. They didn’t do that.”

They certainly didn’t. Of the top 50 people Rooney originally introduced to the dynamic organization, he estimates fewer than five survived the transition.

“That’s the way things are; you have to just be intolerant of people that say, ‘I don’t want to live this way,’” he says. “They don’t want to live this way, fine, I don’t care. People have their choices, but that choice then says you don’t live here.”

As he explained these things to his senior leaders, he also went out to the front lines and shared the behaviors he was preaching.

“I went out to the front-line associates, who really are the most important people in this company, and I told them, ‘Here is what I want your leaders to be like,’” he says. “And then they were very intolerant of leaders that didn’t act that way.

“I didn’t want them tied up in a lot of bureaucracy, and we expected them to be proud of their company, and you can’t be proud of a company where there’s not a very strong sense of ethics. I promised them, ‘If you are being asked to do something by your leader that you think is a problem, you come right to me, and we’ll take care of it.’ In some cases, they did. And we also told the leaders, ‘Don’t try to interfere with the channels of communication. If you do, you’re going to get walked right out of here.’ And we had to do that, too, a couple times.”

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.”

Get people f
ired up

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