Daring to be great Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

“Dare to be great.”

Those four words might sound like a slogan from a break room motivational poster, but to Bill Whitmore, they are four words with which he has done more than just tack to the wall.

He has placed those words in the hands of every employee at AlliedBarton Security Services in a very real way.

Upon being hired and entering training at the $1.2 billion private security provider, each employee receives a “Dare to be Great” booklet. It outlines the company’s core values pertaining to leadership, vision and teamwork, it includes some of Whitmore’s personal beliefs on management, and it gives new hires something of a path to follow to become a working cog in the AlliedBarton machine, which has about 50,000 employees nationwide.

For Whitmore, chairman, president and CEO of AlliedBarton Security Services, “Dare to be Great” is about keeping his work force on the same page and giving it the tools to be successful.

“We describe the core purpose of the organization, the core values,” he says. “We actually list what our ideal culture is. Then we have leadership nonnegotiables, we have operational nonnegotiables and security officer nonnegotiables, and we have to live by those.”

Whitmore says you can leave nothing to chance when it comes to building and communicating your culture. Employees must know what is expected of them and know that the company will support them as they do their jobs.

If you have well-coached, enabled employees, chances are you will have satisfied customers who keep coming back to your company. But it all starts with the words and actions that cascade from the CEO’s office.

A singular vision

Driving a finely tuned culture through an organization involves far more than just standing on your proverbial soapbox and preaching team unity. Whitmore says it’s as much about feedback from employees as it is about what you tell them.

If you don’t give employees a voice in the direction of the company, your chances of getting them to buy in to what you are saying go down, and that factor increases exponentially when you’re dealing with a company of 50,000 people.

In order to give everyone at AlliedBarton — including the security guards who provide the company’s end product — a chance to have a say in the company’s vision and values, Whitmore employed a third-party research firm to gather data in advance of producing the “Dare to be Great” booklet.

“We hired a third-party firm to go out and do online and in-person focus groups,” he says. “We didn’t do all 50,000 people, but we did do thousands of employees, enough to validate the results.”

The data were evaluated and processed with the help of a strategic planning specialist, who helped compile the “Dare to be Great” booklet.

“Dare to be Great” is a starting point for Whitmore, but it’s intended to be more of a companion guide and quick-reference tool. The most important opportunities to communicate your vision and culture are the face-to-face meetings with your managers and employees. It might not be practical to make face-to-face meetings your primary means of communication, but Whitmore says it’s the most effective means of getting your message across.

Periodically, Whitmore runs a series of leadership “boot camps,” designed to get the company’s various levels of management together and talking.

During those camps, Whitmore makes personal interaction a top priority.

“We were running a leadership boot camp (in May), and every evening I’d go out and do the Jack Welch thing, have a fireside chat with our managers,” he says. “When we do camps in Philadelphia, my wife and I have whoever attends come to our house for dinner.

“Frankly, it drives my wife a little crazy because we have a lot of them, but for a class of 60, we’ll have a buffet at my house and get people to speak and build teamwork. For a class of eight, we’ll sit around the dining room table and have dinner. But at every step, we’re trying to foster a sense of teamwork and let people know they’re empowered to act on behalf of the company.”

Whitmore says that after gaining a certain level of experience, business leaders form a kind of intuition about their company and their people. He calls it developing a “gut feeling,” and it factors heavily in how he manages his employees.

Among other factors, Whitmore places a high emphasis on getting to know his managers personally so he can properly direct them when they come to him with a question or a concern.

“Someone posed a question to me one time about a client, that our employees might be exposed to personal risk,” he says. “Employees and managers spoke to me; they said, ‘I’m really debating this. It’s a big client, a lot of money, but in my gut, I’m a little worried.’”

After listening to their concerns, Whitmore directed them back to the “Dare to be Great” booklet.

“I told them the answer is in there, and we ended up not taking the piece of business. Because if you do feel your employees are your most valuable asset, and you do care about them, you’re not going to expect them to do something you feel isn’t right. That’s how people recognize that they are valued.”

Recognition and engagement

Whitmore says there are two levels of employee recognition. And contrary to popular belief, he says money falls in the lesser of the two.

The first level is the tangible rewards, such as financial compensation and gifts. While the vast majority of employees would never scoff at a cash bonus or a gift certificate, Whitmore says you are missing the point if you think your employees are working hard because they want more material compensation.

The best employees aren’t driven by that first and foremost, he says, and he tries to set his own example.

“What I believe as the chairman and CEO, I don’t come to work thinking about what my paycheck is. I get engaged in our company, and I get excited to come to work to build the company and build a future for our employees and shareholders.”

That’s why the second level of employee recognition — the intangibles — is more important to Whitmore.

By intangibles, Whitmore isn’t referring to simple pats on the back or applauding someone at the quarterly all-company meeting. When Whitmore talks about intangible recognition, he is referring to reward by engagement.

The more an employee shows a willingness to work toward your company’s goals and objectives, the more that person should be involved in steering the company.

Whitmore says that type of involvement, in and of itself, is a reward to a truly driven worker.

“Don’t think of it in terms of the surface, in terms of somebody getting a pat on the back,” he says. “I’m going deeper than that. Here is an example: We have standing committees in the company. They could be on anything, be it risk, sales and marketing, technology. We rotate membership and invite managers to participate.

“If you’re working at a company and believe the company really values your input, you feel like you’re really creating value here. Not necessarily monetary value but a good customer relationship, a good employee touch.”

Whitmore goes a step further and gauges his employees’ level of engagement. As he did when AlliedBarton was compiling information for the “Dare to be Great” booklet, Whitmore has his staff send out periodic engagement surveys to field offices in various markets.

The object of the surveys is to give management a sense for how connected AlliedBarton’s employees feel. Low scores in a given market means that market gets more attention from headquarters. High scores will also make management sit up and take notice.

“If we come back in a market where employees feel extremely engaged, we want to take that manager and have that person help mentor others,” he says. “It’s a combination of hiring people, giving them the tools, programs and practices to keep people engaged, and the last thing we do is monitor their engagement.”

Leading yourself

As the company leader, chances are you are always asking yourself how your company can be more efficient, how your employees can do their jobs better, and how you can draw up policies and procedures that are streamlined and effective.

But even with all the evaluating that you must do on a day-to-day basis, Whitmore says you can’t forget to look in the mirror.

That businessperson staring back at you needs occasional maintenance, too.

One of the traits Whitmore says he most admires in a president or CEO is curiosity. Good leaders are curious about themselves as much as — or even more so — than they are about the companies they run.

“If you’re not curious about yourself, about others, about how to improve, about how things work, I find that does not make for a good attitude,” he says.

Whitmore says a good leader wants frequent feedback on how he or she can perform better. When he recently attended a leadership conference, Whitmore picked up a stack of 360-degree personal evaluation forms. When he returned, he had just about everyone who knows him personally — family, friends, peers, employees — complete an evaluation of him.

“I felt I knew how I performed, how people perceived me, but I wanted to know, in an anonymous way, was I the person I thought I was?” he says. “That’s curiosity about your leadership skills.”

Whitmore wanted to know where he stood as a leader in the eyes of other people. He believes that if you aren’t a good leader in the eyes of those who follow you, then you aren’t a good leader, period.

That is why Whitmore believes in taking a people-first approach to leadership. Above all else, he says, it’s motivated, enabled, engaged people who will make your company successful, not necessarily the efficiency with which you do things.

Whitmore’s fundamental business leadership belief is this: Efficiency, prosperity and satisfied customers come when you have great people doing great jobs for your company.

“It’s not just about efficiency,” he says. “I think there are a lot of statistics that will show you that engaged employees perform better than disengaged employees.

“What I’m looking for is, are the employees really engaged, are they delivering great service to our customers? If you do that, efficiency is a byproduct. You can be very efficient and lose every customer you have. It isn’t the be-all, end-all. But if my employees are engaged, my fundamental belief is that they’ll deliver great customer service, and we’ll have good financial results.”

HOW TO REACH: AlliedBarton Security Services, www.alliedbarton.com