When I was starting Echelon Management, I was 24. I had many ideas and processes from people such as Drucker, Deming and the consulting firm where I had worked, but I was thirsty to learn from turnaround CEOs and how they really did it.
I heard variations of a simple exercise used by turnaround CEOs to change culture and ramp up employee engagement. Raised in the Tennessee hills, Ralph O’Dell told it most simply. He never earned a degree but was a turnaround genius. By the time I met him, he had turned around three seven-figure bankrupt companies and grew each past $100 million.
Ralph said, “Mark, nearly every company, and especially those in trouble, needs a cultural kick in the ars.” He went on, “People know when things are bad, and when they don’t have a chance to share ideas, they’re gonna share gossip, and it ain’t gonna be good. You might as well point them in a posi-tive gossipin’ direction.”
I asked how he does this, and he gave me a one-word answer, “Listen!” So, I said, “Ralph, I need step-by-step directions. What do you really do to get them to open up?”
“Well, you’re gonna have to take the notes, Mark, because I don’t have a handbook with this stuff in it, but here is one thing I do that any fool of a CEO can do.” He said the key was to start and end the week on a positive note.
“First, on Monday morning, buy some great coffee and doughnuts. Even if they don’t eat ‘em, they appreciate the gesture—jelly-filled are best.” Then, he said to follow six steps.
- Pair up people who don’t know each other well enough.
- Get them to introduce themselves. Ask them to answer a few simple, light, fun questions you’ve prepared: favorite movie, something that makes them proud in their family or hobby world. That and coffee break the ice.
- Then, get each person to ask their partner for something the company can do to make them feel more included, do their best work or contribute their genius.
- They write each other’s responses on a card, without using names.
- The leader gets the cards.
- After reviewing, the leader takes the top action from the list and makes it the Get ‘er Done Teambuilding Action of the Week. Perhaps the leader sets the example.
“Now, kiddo, is that something you can do?” Ralph asked.
I said, “Well, Ralph, the first couple of times, I’m going to have my CEO-clients facilitate this. If it works for them like you say, I’ll do it myself.”
“That’s genius, Mark! You’re delegating like a true turnaround genius,” Ralph quipped.
Yes, folks, you can trust this ol’ Tennessee woodsman’s wisdom. Simple little things like this can make a difference in just 15 minutes a week.