As the economy faltered over the past several years, Campbell was in a difficult position as the central Florida division president for Pulte Homes. He had to get a grasp on what the future of the homebuilding industry in the region would look like and figure out how to best maneuver his company to respond to the changes in the market.
“It actually all started back in late 2005,” Campbell says. “Nobody wanted to believe it was going to be as ugly as it has been. You’re constantly chasing your business decisions and your staffing decisions to a lower level as the market continues to deteriorate. It was, from a leadership perspective, the need to rely heavily on my management team to assist in evaluating their people and making some very difficult decisions.”
The decisions included a large-scale head-count reduction. Campbell started out as president of Pulte’s Tampa market, which at its height employed 225. Since 2005, the Tampa work force has been pared down to fewer than 50 and was combined with Pulte’s Orlando market to form the current central Florida operating division. The regional staff now employs approximately 150.
“Essentially, we reduced our staffing levels by about 70 percent over a four- to five-year period,” Campbell says. “That has been my biggest challenge, and it comes back to having to navigate through what has been one of the worst real estate cycles the country has seen since the Great Depression.”
As a division president within homebuilding giant PulteGroup Inc., which generated $3.9 billion in 2009 revenue, Campbell has had a sturdy organizational structure to lean on as he has piloted his business unit through the recession. But a lot of the burden — particularly in the areas of communication and reinforcing the culture — has fallen directly on the shoulders of Campbell and his leadership team.
It’s difficult to swim upstream, preaching a message of stability and focusing on the positive when employees are surrounded by layoffs, budget cuts and general uncertainty. But that is exactly the task Campbell faced.
He needed to handle layoffs with compassion and continue to build up the confidence of those who remained.
Cushion the blow
You might think the act of performing layoffs might be the most difficult hurdle to clear in a corporate downsizing. But it’s not.
Walking into an office and telling a person that he or she has lost his or her job is gut-wrenching, but once it’s done, it’s over. Then, you get into the real mess: cleaning up the fallout for those who are left at your company.
One round of layoffs can rock your company to its foundation. Campbell and his leadership team had to oversee five rounds in a five-year period.
Each time, Campbell had to gather his people together and lay out the future for them.
“We had an overall division meeting with the team, where I discussed what had happened, why it had happened and what our go-forward strategy was going to be,” Campbell says. “We also wanted to address it from an educational standpoint, really trying to work through the emotions and showing people why we had to make the decisions we did, given the environment we felt the future would hold.”
Getting the team together in one physical location is an effective way to regroup as an organization, and it was a critical element in Campbell’s communication plan.
What Campbell said was important, but perhaps not as important as the mere fact that, as the division leader, he was willing to get up in front of every person in the company, face them and speak to them in person.
“If you’ve developed your culture the way we have, you develop a lot of good peer-to-peer relationships,” he says. “When you’re letting a large number of people go, it’s almost like asking your friend to walk out the door. So it is difficult. That’s why we wanted to get everyone together in one location and have a half-hour, 45-minute conversation.
“I shared some remarks about how we did (the cuts) and how the former employees were treated and shared what the business strategy would be going forward. Then, we allowed people to ask questions and did our best to answer those questions.”
It might sound like what you’ve heard time and time again, but the lesson still rings true: You need to remain forthright and honest in your communication with employees. Disclose everything that you’re allowed to disclose. Showing compassion means delivering bad news in a sympathetic way, not glossing over bad news and withholding information. Employees need the full story if they are to maintain their confidence in management.
“Openness and honesty is probably the most important piece of advice I could give,” Campbell says. “There are obviously certain things that you can’t communicate from a business or confidentiality standpoint, but you can certainly communicate things from a big-picture standpoint. You can communicate why decisions are being made, what is happening in the industry and how it is leading to some of the tough decisions that have to be made.
“I was honest with the team during the reductions in force. I told them that I didn’t know if we were done, if we had made all the cuts we were going to make. You never want to guarantee and make promises to individuals that you might not be able to keep.”
After you have performed the initial tasks of informing your employees of the challenges that lie ahead, you need to begin taking steps to generate momentum for your business.
If there is any silver lining to layoffs and attrition, it’s that the people left behind are often your top performers. At Pulte, Campbell seized the opportunity to give his remaining high achievers on staff more responsibility and additional training. The top players on Campbell’s team became more versatile within the company.
“By virtue of the fact that those individuals continue to be employed by the organization, it sends a very positive message to them, both directly and indirectly,” Campbell says. “It also allows us to cross-train them in a variety of roles and prepare them for other opportunities, both within our company and from a career standpoint. So what you’re trying to do is take what is overall a negative situation and turn it into a positive situation for a number of individuals.”
Unfortunately, if your company is dealing with cutbacks and downsizing, you might not have the money allocated in your budget to finance promotions and the accompanying bumps in pay. But you don’t have to offer promotions to offer your employees new opportunities.
“By asking them to take on additional responsibilities, you are able to train, teach and develop their skills on a deeper level, even in their existing role,” Campbell says. “It has been an eye-opening experience for me. If you continue to empower people and teach them a bit more about the business, why and how decisions are made, it’s really amazing how much they can contribute to the success of an organization.”
You can continue to empower your employees on a day-to-day basis by simply listening and making yourself available for feedback. You need to communicate what you know, but equally as important is your ability and willingness to remain open to what your employees are seeing, demonstrating with your actions that you want their input and opinions.
“People need to understand what you’re all about,” Campbell says. “That means having a lot of face-to-face interaction, doing a lot of listening and realizing that the listening aspect of communication is a huge skill for an executive-level person to be successful.
“You need to put yourself in a position where you understand the challenges your people are facing and what concerns they have. You can only be successful in getting that information if you set the tone with your own communication, which goes back to the need to be open and honest. You need to truly have an interest in what they have to say.”
If you’re going to empower and motivate your managers and employees to pull your business back from a challenging time, you need to have their trust. Trust is gained when you speak the truth, have your actions follow your words, listen to and consider feedback, and as a part of that, allow employees to speak their minds — even when they have critical things to say — without fear of retribution or retaliation.
“People need to be able to believe and trust you, and that means developing an understanding that what they say won’t be held against them,” Campbell says. “You need to establish a track record of behaving that way.”
And the only way you can establish that track record is over time, by remaining consistent with your words and actions.
Campbell says it boils down to one word: discipline.
“It does come down to discipline, and I’ll be the first to admit that I always need to have more discipline than I currently have,” he says. “It’s a matter of being consistent with what you’re trying to accomplish each week, taking some time to pull a game plan together for myself, which includes frequent meetings with my management team. And it’s also making sure that you get out into the field and continue to engage people on a face-to-face basis, doing it as best as you can.”
As 2010 has progressed, Campbell’s division still finds itself mired in a difficult situation. Though the economy has shown signs of short-term recovery, Pulte’s central Florida region is still weighed down by the real estate environment in Florida — a state that was, in many ways, ground zero for the federal mortgage crisis and its subsequent spillover into the new housing market.
It’s something that Campbell and his team have to endure from a new business standpoint. Culturally, however, the division remains strong, due to the foundational principles of the nationwide Pulte organization and the willingness of Campbell’s team to communicate with one another.
But Campbell recognizes that there is always room to grow, which is why he continues to focus on the same basic principles of communication, no matter how many times his staff has heard it.
“There is not a magic formula in any of this,” he says. “It’s a building block kind of process where you need to communicate, interact with people and constantly make sure that you’re engaging employees so that they can feel empowered to make solid decisions. It takes time to position an organization like that, and we always have a ways to go as we continue to improve.”
How to reach: Pulte Homes, www.pulte.com or (813) 265-3343