This year has been full of terrible news on the toxic company-culture front. It started with an ex-Uber employee named Susan Fowler, who detailed allegations against CEO Travis Kalanick, and the abusive culture he epitomized. After some corroborating accounts and not-incidental descriptions of other possible ethical violations, he was fired.
Then this weekend, Social Finance, Inc. CEO and Co-founder, Mike Cagney was dismissed following a lawsuit that included lurid descriptions of sexual abuse in the office.
SoFi and Uber, not incidentally, are successful, growing and world-changing companies.
Is there a pattern here? Must we permit our captains of industry to act like overgrown Captain Underpants?
To answer, let me introduce Bob Chapman, who runs what you'd call an old-line company. It make machines that serve the paper, plastics and packaging industries. Not many people have heard of Barry-Wehmiller, unless you're in those specialized industries, and from its cyclical background and all-American image you'd expect a sleepy, contented company.
Instead, you find one of the most passionate environments on how companies should act inside their four walls. It has a culture so positive that one of its divisions, alongside engineering and project management, is a consulting outfit that helps others adopt a philosophy of healing and helpfulness toawards their own employees. To put it mildly, the culture there is passionately caring.
This comes from Chapman himself, who took over as CEO as a young man and who is probably the most lively advocate for positive company culture you will ever encounter.
He literally wants us to care for our employees, associates and team members with the burning concern of a parent.
This is an almost impossible standard. Care for employees as if they were our family?
This idea unfolded while Bob was a guest at a wedding. Most wedding participants are thinking about adjourning to either the bar or the bed, depending on their role in the proceedings. But Bob shows himself as that rare entrepreneur who obsesses about making things better all the time.
As Bob tells it in his book, the vision came from taking the point of view of a bit player in the ceremony--the bride's father--and putting him front and center.
Chapman imagines the father thinking that the groom better take care of his new wife, and permit her to be all she was meant to be. In his book, he tells how he jumps from this unsurprising observation, to his obsession with his company:
"My thoughts went immediately to all the people who work for us around the world--all those precious people whose parents also want them to have the opportunity to discover, develop, share and be appreciated for all their gifts and to live lives of meaning and purpose. 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 can be laughed off as an idle thought, except for what Chapman did next: he announced a laughably audacious goal: to heal the world. So he set up a leadership institute, whose mission includes the understanding that everyone deserves the chance to return home from work each day feeling fulfilled by the work that they do.
Why It Matters
Aside from the natural contrast between Mr. Chapman and the unsavory news coming from CEO-land, this speaks to me in my work as a turnaround expert and company coach. Too many of our stakeholders--often in boards of directors or other positions of authority--think of people as measures to be diminished, or costs to be reduced. That approach is ineffective, and also leaves bitterness and pain. A better approach, in my world, is to create teams to focus on core products and core customers. This is both a workable strategy, and a way to challenge people to become leaders.
To be honest, my approach is limited, because we touch only one leadership team at a time.
But Bob Chapman's breathtaking goal is to heal the world. He's got a mission, one we must all join.