Today I want to share another example of the transformation that can happen when a business leader swims against the tide and employs the “soft values” of love, compassion and kindness in the workplace.
Let’s go back to 1972, to the Pittron Steel mill in Glassport PA, a massive foundry that covered seven blocks along the shores of the Monongahela River. This was well before business analysts started measuring “employee engagement,” when workers toiled in an authority-driven management structure.
That year, Pittron was racked by labor strikes, fueled by generations of deeply engrained disdain between management and labor unions. It was ugly and there was no end in sight. A man named Wayne Alderson – a decorated WWII veteran who was badly injured in the war – worked in the mill’s finance department until he became VP of Operations and was called to lead the organization during an 84-day bitter strike.
Alderson took on the challenge and presented his plan to the mill’s owner, who replied, “No, I don’t think your plan will work.” His response: “Well, look, nothing else has worked. Let me try it, and if it doesn’t work you can fire me.”
Alderson’s approach was simply to demonstrate to the people at the plant that he cared about them … that he valued them. His mantra was that he would treat them with “love, dignity and respect” and he did some very simple things to show it.
He started by cleaning the windows and painting the foundry to show he cared about the work environment. Then, to further demonstrate care, at the end of each shift – three a day — he’d walk out to the gate and greet each worker as they left. Think about the courage this takes: you’re the boss at a grimy steel mill, where guys have just worked eight brutal hours and they hate your guts. There you are in a suit, saying “thank you” and extending a hand of gratitude. He said it took about two weeks for people to start looking up and acknowledge him. Then, over time, he learned his employees’ names, he learned their wives’ and kids’ names, and took an interest in their well-being. He’d ask about an ill relative or how a child did on a big test.
He reached out to the union president, who was a crane operator and he offered him an office in the building – as a show of respect. He went down to the plant floor and found the dirtiest job there was – jack-hammering steel off equipment – and he took off his coat and worked alongside the men for a while. When he set the hammer down, he said, “Wow, you guys earn your money. Thank you.”
Now, make no mistake, Alderson was a no-nonsense guy. He knew they were there to accomplish something. And that’s often the push-back against “soft values” like kindness, compassion and respect: “We’ve got work to do.” But you can set the highest standards imaginable, you can hold people accountable to those standards, and you can discipline people – even fire them if you need to – but you can do it with compassion and kindness. People will respond better to you when you do.
So what were the results of Alderson’s actions? They were quite astonishing actually – one of the greatest turnarounds in the annals of corporate history. In 21 months, sales went up 400%. Financials went from a deficit of $6 million to a profit of $6 million. Workforce grew from 300 to 1,200. Productivity rose 64%. Labor grievances when from 12 per week to 1 per year. Chronic absenteeism, running 20%, dropped to less than one percent. The quality of the product was the best ever, and the safety record was outstanding.
THAT is the power of treating people as people – with love, dignity and respect