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Leading with heart Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Robert H. Chapman was having a really good day. He had just eaten a fabulous breakfast with his wife, complete with impeccable service and great food at the Ritz-Carlton hotel where the couple was staying.

After the meal, on the way back to his room, Chapman noticed a man painting the hallway.

As he approached, the man stopped his painting and began to speak to Chapman.

“He paused and apologized for interrupting my stay because he was touching up the paint,” says Chapman, chairman and CEO at Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc. “I said, ‘I can’t believe anybody has engaged people so much.’ If Ritz can do it with a lady serving breakfast and a gentleman touching up the paint in the hallway, any organization can do it. Those people felt valued. So when they felt valued, they treated people with value.”

The idea of ensuring a positive experience between your employees and your customers is a universal challenge. How do you ensure that each and every interaction between employee and customer is a good one?

Chapman says it’s more about showing employees that you value their role in your business and much less about trying to be their manager.

“Never have I really sensed that we have learned to teach inspirational leadership,” says Chapman, who has led the 5,500-employee manufacturing and service company since 1975. “People graduate with management degrees and take management courses and are put into place managing companies. So what do managers do? They manage people. Nobody in this world can be managed or wants to be managed, but we put people in management positions instead of leadership positions.”

It’s not as if the moment at the Ritz was an epiphany for Chapman. He always viewed a leader’s job as being more about what you can do to put your employees in a position to fulfill their potential. When you’re able to do that, your customers will notice.

That morning at the hotel simply reinforced the idea that he wasn’t the only one who thought altruistic leadership was the way to go. You need to show your people that you value their talents and value their ability to put those skills to use for your business.

“We think that’s why we’re here, to create an environment where each of us can help the other person by working together and sharing our gifts to do something with our life,” Chapman says. “It’s the core thought. We don’t do this to get more out of our people. That may be a byproduct, but it’s not the intent.”

Chapman has helped his business succeed by developing an inspirational vision that appeals to his people. He firmly believes in asking employees to think deeply about their talents and to think about how they might be put to the best use in the organization.

And even though he says it’s not his goal, the approach has resulted in growth for his business. The company hit $960 million in fiscal 2009 revenue and expects $1.1 billion for fiscal 2010.

Here’s how he inspires his people and as a result, intentionally or not, puts his company in a position to be great.

Inspire your people

Any idea that seeks to change behavior has to begin with a vision. Your employees need to have a clear idea of what you are looking to do and then be able to find something in your plan that they can grasp on to.

“You have to create an inspiring vision of why you’re all coming together for some common economic purpose,” Chapman says. “Our vision is to create a global something that can pay people fairly, treat them superbly and create value for all stakeholders in the process. We can share that with people, and we can say, ‘Now let’s go do it.’”

Chapman likens the process to a religious leader seeking to gather disciples.

“You want to gather people around you in an environment where they feel their ideas and input are of value,” Chapman says. “Then you need to have a way of sharing your initial vision and saying, ‘This is a vision that I have, but I want to engage you all in making it more powerful because I value your input.’ When people feel like they are involved in the process, it’s uplifting to those people. They will go the last mile with you to help make it happen because they have had a chance to share their gifts and be appreciated for sharing their gifts.”

While you may be thinking big with your vision, you have to start small with your effort to sell it.

“You have to create disciples and get people in the boat with you,” Chapman says. “Pick a core group of people that you begin the process with that can spread this over time. It’s a long, firm leadership philosophy. You look at Toyota and companies that have embraced lean manufacturing and you say, ‘Oh, I want that.’ Well, you can’t just go out and buy a kit and think you’re going to be a lean company.”

You need to realize that you’re never going to reach everyone, no matter how inspiring your leadership is. Chapman says he simply began with people in his company who he thought would be receptive to his idea.

“I just thought about people who I thought were the kind of people that could help us develop it,” Chapman says. “It wasn’t all senior people. It was the secretary from one division. It was the president of another division. It was a production executive. It was just a group of people that I thought could help me develop it. They become disciples. They spread the beliefs. You try to change one person at a time. They become believers and disciples and the more they share it, the more other people embrace it.”

Once you have a core group of people that believes in your plan, you can begin that effort to sell it to the rest of the company.

“It’s continuous learning,” Chapman says. “We ask people for their input so we are constantly benchmarking and sharing it and continuously improving it and refining it. We have to live those principles of continuous improvement.”

Chapman says it really comes down to adopting a philosophy that your people bring a diverse set of skills to the table. It’s your job to figure out how best to draw out those skills.

“There’s an expression, and I don’t know who said it, but it goes, ‘We paid people for their hands for years and they would have given us their heads and hearts if we just knew how to ask,’” Chapman says. “We have never learned to ask people for their heads and hearts. We’ve just simply paid them for their hands. That is at the core of what we have come to realize.”

You need to show your people that you’re interested in anything they can do to better themselves and, in the process, better your organization.

“If you work for a company that you don’t feel cares about and doesn’t draw out your passion and your abilities, how could you possibly share your full potential with that company?” Chapman says. “It’s just a job. You’re going to do what’s expected.”

Chapman doesn’t believe that’s enough.

“People are craving to be part of something meaningful and to share their life in a meaningful way,” Chapman says. “Why can’t a job be meaningful? Why can’t the role we play in business allow us to fulfill our dreams? Why can’t it allo

w us to share our gifts? Because we never taught people how to do that.”

Give your plan substance

If you expect your people to open themselves up to your plan and buy in to your leadership, you need to give them a good example to follow. You need to show them that’s it’s more than just fancy bells and whistles and that there is substance behind your words.

“You have to live it,” Chapman says. “It’s not what you say; it’s what you do. You have to live that commitment to your people. You can’t just go around preaching. You have to actually mean that you want to engage people in creating something of value for everybody and that you value their input. It’s not one meeting and then we go back to normal.”

You have to show that beyond the initial pomp and circumstance, which often comes with a new way of doing things, that you want your plan to endure and you want them to participate in its development.

“If I don’t engage them in this vision and in a dialogue and I don’t get them to buy in to it, then this vision is under a rock,” Chapman says. “It’s never going to be embraced. We said we could either print this out and put it up on the wall or we could engage people in a dialogue about it every day. We need to put it in people’s heads and hearts and take it off the wall.”

One of the ways Chapman shows his commitment to the principles of his vision is through a leadership checklist. It’s about taking those values that you want your people to embrace and making sure they stick in terms of everyday action.

“Every day when someone walks in our company, you purposely go through a thought process of what you need to do,” Chapman says. “We have a purposeful process each day that focuses on people and performance.”

The list is made up of things it takes to be a good leader at Barry-Wehmiller, taking into account the vision that employees have heard and bought in to.

“They are just things you need to think about as a leader each day for the fulfillment of your teams,” Chapman says. “The leaders need to genuinely embrace it and then you need to find a way to live it. You can’t just run in one day and say, ‘We’re going to do this.’ There is a process to everything. You can’t decide you’re going to be a great chef tomorrow and say, ‘That’s what it takes to be a great chef.’ It takes time to develop these habits and skills and processes.”

In driving home the importance of your vision, you have to make sure you stay aligned with it. In the case of Chapman, that means remember that you’re part of the team, too.

“You don’t instruct them,” Chapman says. “You go with them to create it and live it. You’ve got to live the principles you’ve articulated.”

Focus on finding the ways your people are living your values and make an example of them.

“I spend my day trying to find goodness where people have done something right and I hold up good behavior,” Chapman says. “I don’t look for broken behavior. I hold up good behavior to inspire people and to recognize the people that showed good behavior and to encourage others to do the same.”

Chapman rewards this good behavior by giving employees who demonstrate the company’s values a Guiding Principles of Leadership Award. Employees are nominated for the award by their peers, which puts them on the lookout for people who are adhering to the vision.

“I sit down and I have a dialogue and remind them of what we believe in and how we’re trying to live it,” Chapman says. “I engage them in a dialogue from their perspective so that I stay in touch with their heart and soul. I’m not just sitting on the pinnacle of our company and looking down. … Leadership is not an accident. It should be a purposeful process each day that we consciously think through to allow people to fully reach their potential.”

How to reach: Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc., (314) 862-8000 or www.barry-wehmiller.com