The Ability to Unleash Ability

We have discovered that people have incredible potential.

If you know Barry-Wehmiller’s story, you know that we suffered a tremendous financial crisis in the late 1980s.  The challenge caused us to reinvent our business model, ultimately turning our business around. We learned a great deal from the experience. Since then, we have acquired a number of companies facing similar financial distress. Why? Our strategy is to buy businesses to which we know how to add value. Because of our experience we are confident we can help them flourish.

People are capable of incredible things. Click To TweetHowever, when you buy a distressed business, there’s a natural assumption that there must be something wrong with the people in the business.

I recall a meeting a few years back with a group of people in the Customer Service department of a recently acquired business. This struggling business had the slogan “Committed to Our Customers’ Success” on a sign on the front door.

I asked the leader of the Customer Service department what I would find among his team members. He replied, “A group of pissed off people.” How can a company be committed to its customers’ success when the team members servicing those customers are pissed off?

The fact is that when a business is struggling, a great deal of pressure comes to bear upon the Customer Service department. The team members there field the phone calls of disappointed customers who can’t get what they need from the business. This was the case with the Customer Service team. The leader went on to say what he thought I wanted to hear. “It’s kind of a dysfunctional team; we probably need to address some people issues and reduce some headcount.”

Instead, we implemented our simple motivational game for the team members and began celebrating daily and weekly team and individual wins. The performance of the team turned around over night, but more incredibly, the culture of the team changed. Results jumped beyond the goal we had set and lasted for 13 straight weeks.

After 60 days of playing the game, I asked the team how they felt about it. Tears streamed down the face of one associate as she relayed the experience of her teammate giving her an order so that she could achieve her daily goal and “win the game” that day. A wonderful sense of camaraderie emerged, brought about simply by the experience of winning together.

In awe of the dramatic change in performance and culture on this team, I asked the team leader, “Now what do you think about this group of people?” He said, “I never would have thought they had it in them.”

The truth is they had it in them all the time. What was lacking was the right leadership to bring out the very best in them.

We have experienced this lesson again and again and again. People constantly wow us with their ability to respond to great leadership.

The next time you encounter a group of underperforming people and think the problem lies within the group—that there’s something wrong with them or that a change in people might be necessary–take a look in the mirror.  It’s more likely that a change in leadership is needed. People are capable of incredible things; it’s our leadership that fails to help them rise up to their true capabilities.

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $3+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 12,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.


  • allison says:

    Caring leaders most definitely make a difference. Also, that being said, it is okay for tough love to be part of the care package. 🙂 An intuitive, attentive leader will see what soil is best for the seed being planted. Specifically, some people are just in the wrong location for their needs and talents. PneumaticScaleAngelus is wonderful about helping people grow and show where they can shine the brightest. Barry-Wehmiller companies are quite the chain links of success and self-reflection for their team members and leaders. Thank you for the wonderful opportunities. Hard work and true respect for humanity have to be main ingredients for successful growth. These are the ultimate “plant food” for a fertile crop…people.

  • Elias Huch says:

    If Leaders took the time to do this every day we would all have a much better opportunity to increase our potential and reach our goals! Great post Bob!

  • Bill says:

    If you wake up and you’re working for a company that has a bad attitude towards customer service you might be tempted to leave that company to look for a company with a better culture. However you might find that you end up in the same situation at a different office. It’s a much better thing to do to ask, “What can I do to change this?” In the end, a company’s culture is made up partly of you.

    I like the blog’s positive attitude toward change and faith in people.

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