I've argued for years that even the most wonderful morale-boosting initiatives spawned by corporate head offices are worthless if local managers are jerks. And, I still hold that contention. My theory was set in the belief that corporate decisions benefiting employees are generally good for business.
But what happens to the business when the decisions taken on-high are simply wrong? Bad decisions by corporate bosses can wreak havoc on the entire corporate family, driving down morale at all levels. By bad decisions I mean those that are restrictive, controlling, and of the "We're smarter than you" variety. No matter how hard local managers try, their good work is shot to heck if their corporate bosses are so far removed from the action they no longer understand the heart and soul of employees.
Back to my original theory: when corporate and local store bosses each treat employees well, the working world becomes a better place. In this scenario, local managers will willingly represent company interests (assuming you hire smart, well-intentioned managers who operate on the happier side of life). Voluntarily loyal managers are trustworthy, hard-working, and most important of all, they create cultures employees love. And when employees love their jobs, they perform well.
Case in Point: Market Basket
Take the Market Basket example of ups, downs, then ups again (you can follow the whole saga here), all because of one person, Arthur ‘Artie’ T. Demoulas, the CEO. Market Basket, a family-owned supermarket chain in the northeast U.S, operates some 70-plus stores. Artie was the company's CEO until relatives thought he was being too flippant with company funds. Basically, he treated employees well, not only by being a nice guy, but by sharing profits.
So, greed being what it is, other family members tossed Artie out of the organization so they could run things their way. That decision didn't work out so well. Their employees immediately revolted. Shipping companies refused to deliver goods. Customers shopped elsewhere. The new, less friendly bosses threatened to fire any workers who took part in We Want Artie demonstrations.
Fast forward a few months and the company unravels. Store shelves are empty. Revenues dropped to disastrously low levels. The damage was done. Market Basket employees relished sweet freedom under Artie and had no intention of working in less friendly environments.
And that, incidentally, will be tough for them in future jobs because, dare I say, most corporate bosses are not like Artie T. They may start out like Artie, but over time, when organizations grow, they have no choice but to become distant from reality and see thousands of employees as ‘human capital’ - cogs in the wheel of profits. That’s why, to remain in touch, bosses must deliberately and actively seek out employee needs and wants.
Artie T, to the Rescue
Along came the white knight, Artie T, who through a complicated financial plan to raise more than $1.5bn is in the process of taking control of the organization once again. Much like Dorothy entering Oz in the 1939 movie version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, the scene turned from black and white to a beautifully colorful landscape. Deliveries kicked up, employees returned to their jobs, and life returned to happier days of yore. (Sure, the deal is not yet finalized and the company stands to be saddled with large debt, but change is on the horizon.)
A side note: bad times will come again. No company can stay in peak form forever. Some sort of internal or external variable will ultimately stir things up. Regarding employees, you'll always have those pockets who either don't see how lucky they are to work in a place where corporate initiatives favor their health and well-being, or, they're just hard wired to be grumpy. Too bad for them. Must be a miserable place to live, to constantly be looking for things that are wrong, not things that are good.
A Brighter Future
Market Basket is on the upswing. Some analysts wonder if it will ever return to the glory days because the damage incurred during those few months that Artie T was away - not to mention the debt it is now saddled with - may have been too intense. That's a tough predicament. I'd wager, though, Artie doesn't intend to let the operation fall apart. Too many families would be tossed in the streets. He wouldn't stand for that. His philosophy is a moral obligation and social responsibility to provide an honorable workplace. That’s nice.
I hope other corporate bosses begin to understand these nuances. People are your most important competitive edge. Make them happy and the rest is easy (or easier). Business schools for years will tear this case apart, planting seeds of hope in future generations of company bosses and employees.
Thanks for listening.
“Market Basket is a place where respect, honor, and dignity is a way of life.” - Arthur T. Demoulas