Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, Barry-Wehmiller is a 131-year-old company that specializes in industrial equipment manufacturing and technology solutions. Bob Chapman, its CEO, and Raj Sisodia, co-founder of Conscious Capitalism, collaborated to create this game-changing new book.
Mr. Chapman is not some young, West Coast CEO trying to turn around an old manufacturing company. He’s from St. Louis, has been at the helm of Barry-Wehmiller since 1975, and has led the company from $18 million to $2 billion in annual revenues. He and his team have become experts at identifying failing companies and restoring them to health, a trick of alchemy that they have done nearly 100 times. But as his quote suggests, Mr. Chapman’s success is probably due to his unique (for now) way of looking at things.
Years ago, while attending a wedding, Mr. Chapman watched a man walk his daughter down the aisle and tried to imagine what he was thinking. He empathized with the enormity of the love the man must have been feeling, as well as his hopes that his precious child would be happy in her marriage, and that her new husband would help her fulfill her potential in life.
That’s when it hit him: “My thoughts went immediately to all the people who work for us around the world … and I thought to myself, ‘My God! We have seven thousand people, and each and every one of them is somebody’s precious child. Don’t all the parents of our team members hope and expect us to be responsible stewards of their precious children’s lives?’”
“This book is not about how to fix your corporate culture to make more money. Instead, it challenges you to undergo a fundamental reorientation about business’ role in society, and the immense responsibility placed on the shoulders of business leaders — whether they realize it or not.”
Since then, Mr. Chapman has led a slow revolution at Barry-Wehmiller. He has turned it into the kind of company that deserves emulation not because of its thriving and resilient business model, but because of its fully functioning alternative paradigm.
The Barry-Wehmiller team has identified three keys for their leadership culture: deep listening, authentic vulnerability, and courageous patience. This third item is something you don’t often encounter in books about leadership. Rather than cleaning house at its acquired companies and expecting newly installed leadership to use layoffs and selloffs to turn things around in a quarter or two, Barry-Wehmiller doesn’t fire anyone when it acquires a company. It simply plants seeds of leadership training with the existing team and then wait for those seeds to bear fruit, which they reliably do in about 30 months.
“We encourage people to think about patience in terms of years, rather than months. There are people in our acquired companies who are so broken and carry so much baggage from past experiences that it can take us years to overcome their cynicism and restore their trust. It’s worth the wait, because such individuals often become the most passionate and effective exemplars and advocates for our culture.”
This isn’t just smart business. For the authors, there is a larger context to consider.
“It can be quicker and easier to replace people than to develop them. But the sustainable human solution is not to remove from the ‘bottom’ and add to the ‘top’ (which are highly subjective terms anyway); it is to bring everybody up. At a societal level, that is the only workable answer. Business should not be about elites serving other elites; it should be about giving all of our people ways to develop and express their unique gifts. Every person has such gifts; great leaders know how to uncover them.”
This book is not about how to fix your corporate culture to make more money. Instead, it challenges you to undergo a fundamental reorientation about business’ role in society, and the immense responsibility placed on the shoulders of business leaders — whether they realize it or not.
“We’re destroying people and killing our culture because we send people home after treating them as objects and functions, instead of caring about them as human beings. We want them more engaged because we want them more productive. We want more productivity out of them because that creates more profits and that creates a better future for the company, but we don’t care about them as people.”
The book alternates between laying bare the impacts of unconscious leadership styles that have outlived their usefulness and shining inspirational light on a proven better way forward: “Business is far more than a profit machine. It is a vehicle for self-expression, for dreaming about and creating the future we desire, for accomplishing together what we cannot do alone.”
To say that it is an enjoyable read is an understatement. This is an important book — one that should be incorporated into business school curriculums around the world. Get it, read it, and share it with everyone in a leadership position.
“One great truth that we’ve learned is this: The people are just fine; it’s our leadership that’s lacking.”