Companies become resilient , purposeful enterprises through discovering and living out a telos. From the many years of research on how organizations really work appear three vectors that will bring telos to life: Aspiration, Choice and Embodiment. The third vector, the subject of this post, is Embodiment.
As the traffic slowed to a more leisurely crawl than usual, Elsbeth Martin instinctively tapped the dial to see if the radio could enlighten her with some estimation of when she might arrive at the office. The overnight chill lingered and the morning mist seemed to be thickening, which had an unsettling effect. “Snow,” said the radio announcer, “lots of it.” Elsbeth’s heart sank; it would be one of those days – for much as Vancouver could cope with its rain, snow always seemed to cause near chaos.
As she settled in for a longer commute than expected, Elsbeth recalled yesterday’s conversation with the company CFO, which had seemed more urgent than usual. Revenue was a little soft for the quarter, and she had asked Elsbeth to hold the line on hiring and even reduce some of the part-time headcount that she had called in to support the new brand launch. Elsbeth shook her head at the presumption of such flexibility as to be able to dial up and down her labor costs as if adjusting the volume of a radio. Elsbeth had always delivered what they asked of her, efficiently, quietly, and through the efforts of the remarkable team of people she had assembled over five years running the largest call center in the network.
As Elsbeth stared ahead at the snarled traffic, even the glorious, if somewhat fog-obscured, view from atop the Lions Gate Bridge could not brighten the prospect of the sudden surge in call wait times that would be triggered by the headcount reduction the CFO demanded. Stuck in the swirling snow, something else gnawed at Elsbeth. Unlike the traffic, her mind was now racing on a quite different track, one that had begun with a customer call she had taken just the other day.
As manager of the call center, Elsbeth made it a habit to listen to at least a handful of calls each day. On occasion, after a particularly significant call, she would call the customer back and handle the follow up herself. It was her way of staying in touch and never forgetting the daily experience of her two hundred and thirty associates who were the most personal connection her company had with their customers. On this particular Tuesday, a certain call from four days ago still held her in its grip.
The caller had not been angry, as so many were. Instead, he had patiently asked why the company’s stated reason for being in business was so obviously inconsistent with what they were doing; not only to him, but to the thousands of others who also faced the service cuts to be rolled out over a handful of unprofitable rural markets. The worst part was, he was right. Elsbeth knew it, and it was his final question that haunted her most. If he had asked “What will the company do about it?” the answer would have been much easier. But he didn’t. It was as if he knew she was listening, and asked, quite calmly and personally…
“If your company has no intention of keeping its brand promise, do you really want to give your best years to deliver a lie?”
He had expressed the core issue for her company; if they kept doing business the way they always had, they couldn’t deliver on the new promise they were making. The truth of his simple analysis stung. While the glorious old pines and cedars of Stanley Park hugged the road and offered some protection from the now driving snow, Elsbeth felt more exposed than ever by the stark reality of her situation.
“That call”, as she had come to name it in her own private reverie, had landed in the midst of a number of converging thoughts and notable occurrences. The week before, she had been asked by the CMO to review the new branding work. The work was taking the company back to its roots, but in a new way. In the consumer testing, they had found a growing desire for the business to focus on making a positive difference – to solve a real social problem; to quite simply, “make the world a better place.”
Elsbeth had at first wondered about the naiveté of the agency, but the data was real and very consistent with recent insights she’d uncovered about her own staff. “Not making a difference,” was what the consultants had told her was the biggest reason turnover had accelerated even as working hours and pay improved. Even the CEO seemed to have had some kind of epiphany when he talked about the new brand platform at yesterday’s town hall meeting, where it had been presented.
“Keeping families safe and connected” was the short hand version of the company’s newly formulated purpose, as Elsbeth understood it. It was simple and easy to understand, and after the devastating fire in her parents’ house just two years ago in which they had miraculously escaped with their lives, it certainly resonated as something worthwhile. If the two minutes of wait time that these planned headcount reductions would cause to the distress line had been put into effect a few years ago, her mum might not have made it. But that was an extreme case; far from the average, merely a statistical anomaly. Yet her mother, and everybody else’s too, was far more than a number. Could the company treat them that way? As she cleared the height of land and descended Granville Street towards the south, the sprawling suburbs of Richmond lay ahead, barely visible through the now blowing snow.
What if she took this simple purpose – “keeping families safe and connected” – seriously?
Could the CEO have been right when he said, “Unless we put the purpose first, then we will forever fail to deliver for both ourselves and our customers.” Certainly, it was an easier reflex just to carry out the new request as simply a shift in strategy, and continue to play the part of the loyal foot soldier, just as she would expect of all her peers. But maybe it called for more than that. Did she really want to take the new brand promise seriously, to make it her own, to actually live as if it were true? There might be some unpopular outcomes and yet such a choice would fuel her imagination like nothing before. She could start to envision the ways she might behave and the things she would care about if she herself was wholeheartedly about that simple idea – “keeping families safe and connected.”
Elsbeth was due to meet a group of sixteen employees who she knew were scheduled for a layoff. But now she wondered what she would say. She thought about “that call” and her 11:30 appointment to follow up with the person who made it – what would she say to him? Furthermore, if she was going to offer another point of view on the headcount reductions, what would she tell her CFO?