Strong signals Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Early on in Kay A. Henze’s career, the then president and CEO of Verizon Wireless told her something she still remembers to this day: Good leaders say the same thing over and over and over again. When they get sick and tired of hearing themselves say it, they say it again.

“It really has helped me, especially in that first year when we became Verizon and were bringing all these different cultures together,” the president of the Houston/Gulf Coast region says.

With 1,800 people following her lead, Henze has to work extra hard to guarantee everyone is on the same page, which she does by being visible and staying in touch with employees and customers.

“In large organizations, especially as managers increase their level of responsibility, that becomes more and more of a challenge because the workload continues to grow,” she says. “But you always have to remember that in my business, it’s a very consumer-centric business, and the business really happens where the customers are and where most of your employees are. It doesn’t really happen in your office.”

That type of attitude is contributing to the company’s success.

From a customer loyalty perspective, Verizon Wireless has flourished. The second quarter of 2009 was the 19th consecutive quarter that the company, which serves 87.7 million customers, experienced the industry’s lowest customer turnover rate, and the organization continues to see year-over-year growth.

“I think it’s definitely benefited our organization, because it’s helped the company grow,” she says. “At the end of the day, it does come down to the results. At the end of the day, it does come down to what we produce and what we give back to the corporation. By being engaged and visible and committed, we help each other grow.”

Be available

Henze and her team were having trouble articulating the competitive advantages that Verizon Wireless had over its competitors. She and her team talked to some front-line employees at retail stores and found those employees could articulate very crisply and succinctly what they saw as competitive advantages.

She took the ideas, shared them with directors and formed a cross-functional small group of the employees. They drafted in their own words what they saw as the company’s competitive advantages in Houston, and those words were adopted nationally.

Without getting out and talking with employees, Henze and her team might still be looking for the best way to summarize the company’s competitive advantages.

“The more that you are out there, the more comfortable they become,” she says. “So, it’s not a big event, or it’s not a big deal that Kay just walked in my store.”

Making yourself available for employees and customers is key to being a great leader, but unfortunately, it is sometimes easier said than done.

“At the end of the day, you have to remember that you control your own calendar,” Henze says. “For me, that is really the biggest piece of it. I schedule time to be in front of my customers and in front of my employees all the time.”

Henze spends time with business customers and business sales representatives and tries to make announced and unannounced visits in retail stores once a week.

“You have to schedule it,” she says. “Through the years, if you set a goal that you’re just going to do it and don’t have the discipline around it, like any goal, it never really occurs.”

Don’t overdo it, though.

Scheduling visits once a week instead of once a day is much more realistic to achieve, and gives you time to work on problems or ideas you are hearing when you are out and about.

“I can’t think of a time that I haven’t spent time with our employees or our customers that it hasn’t resulted in work that needed to be done,” she says. “You have to allow yourself the time to go do that work. Because, otherwise, the employees lose faith.”

When making the rounds, be aware that you will run into all different types of employees. From the overachieving to the disinterested, you have to gauge the temperature of the room and be ready to interact with everyone you meet.

“Sometimes you’ll find an employee who is disgruntled and just doesn’t want to necessarily share for the betterment of themselves or the company,” she says. “Sometimes you’ll find an employee who feels, for whatever reason, that it’s inappropriate to share directly with a president as opposed to following the chain of command. Sometimes you’ll find, unfortunately, an employee who simply doesn’t care. You hate that, but it’s reality.”

When Henze runs into employees who feel uncomfortable going outside the chain of command, she will ask other people to step in.

“I might ask one of the HR consultants to go to the store and see if they are more willing to open up to HR, which sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not,” she says.

“But it’s always a sign to me, and I always just try to use other resources to get to what exactly is going on.”

A pitfall of being an engaged and available leader is the reality that you may undermine your managers. If you are making the rounds and speaking with your managers’ direct reports and employees, you could create a situation where a manager feels like you are micromanaging him or her or interfering with his or her leadership style.

To avoid that situation, Henze will give a new director some insight into what she does on trips.

“When I have a new director come into my organization, the first time that I go to visit their locations or work with their managers, I do it with that director,” she says. “They can see for themselves what I’m looking for, the questions I am asking and I can give real-time feedback with them right there with me. I can point things out, and then I think you can build from there. The employees also see you together, which is very important.”

You also need to report back what you learned on the visits almost immediately. Henze’s first call she makes after a stop is to the director of the location she just visited.

“Feedback to the next level is always provided,” she says. “It’s always in the spirit of improving the business and making sure that our employees have a good level of morale, that we are putting our customers first and that we are working together across all the layers to improve. So, my managers, my directors, when I leave a store they are usually the first phone call I make and the response that I always get is, ‘Thank you for the feedback.’”

The call will also let your managers know that you aren’t going behind their backs or keeping information you learn on the visit a secret.

“There is no hidden agenda,” she says. “Everybody is on the same page and because of that, (it) filters throughout the entire organization. It’s very transparent.”

Deal with trouble

About five years ago, when Henze was a director, she had a district manager who was uncomfortable with the visits she made. It turns out, the district manager was not guiding the business by the company’s core beliefs. Eventually, the manager resigned but the damage had already been done.

It took about two months from the start of the process to the resignation, which may not seem like much, but to the employees under that manager, it seemed like forever.

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201C;It took many months before the employees really felt that they were moving in the right direction, and that they felt supported because they had not felt that way for a long period of time,” she says.

Either you or people whom you trust will have to stick around that location to make sure that everyone gets back on the same page and is buying in to the company’s beliefs.

“That’s what I call hand-holding,” she says. “Not micromanaging, but that’s a period of time that you really have to hand-hold the leadership in that organization as well as the employees in that organization.

“What I mean by that is making sure that if you are not there as the leader that there are other people there representing you that you trust and that are on message. You may infuse some additional leadership for an additional period of time.”

You might also move a more productive manager to the troubled locations to settle things down.

“You might move one store manager to a different store and put the other store manager in the troubled store,” she says. “You really have to strategically ensure that you’ve got the right people there in the long-term permanent positions.”

Don’t put the new leader hired to replace the bad leader in the troubled location. Instead, start them out in a location that is doing well.

“Because then the new leader, if they are in another location and if they are in a store that is really getting it and they want to improve, they will feed off of their employees and they will feed off of that new environment,” she says.

“The other, trusted employee going into the troubled store — the employees will respond very quickly. You’ve got to kind of mix some things up sometimes to make sure people get the support they need.”

If you stay engaged, not only will the employees get that support, but you may be molding a future leader, while, at the same time, keeping the company heading in the right direction.

“We foster a growth and development culture within our organization, which helps us see what the customer sees and helps us hear what our employees are seeing and doing,” she says. “So, we are constantly building the future leaders of the company and we are constantly focused on how we can improve our results. For us, the good news is that it’s worked and that our results continue to be strong. We have the highest customer loyalty in the entire industry. So, I think that’s the benefit. The benefit of it is in the results and in the development of your people to become the next leaders to help carry the company forward.”

How to reach: Verizon Wireless, (800) 922-0204 or www.verizonwireless.com