Few of us can say our employees would go on strike or lead protest rallies if we were ever fired. In the case of New England supermarket chain, Market Basket, that’s exactly what happened when CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas, was dismissed by his board. In retaliation, customers shopped elsewhere and taped competitors’ receipts to the Market Basket storefront window while vendors stopped deliveries, letting supplies run low. Even local politicians felt compelled to choose sides. When I heard about this story, I asked myself, “What type of leadership behavior inspires such fierce loyalty?”
You don’t have to look hard to find the answer. Much has been written about Market Basket and business schools are turning to this story for teaching moments. According to many accounts, Arthur T. Demoulas, or “Artie” as he is better known, created a caring culture with customers and employees alike. He fought for fair wages, bonuses and retirement plans, even during economic downturns. He could recall names, birthdays and anniversaries of all his employees. One store manager remembers receiving a call while his daughter was in the hospital. Artie asked him if he was sure the hospital could provide the best care for her and asked, “Do we need to move her?” A statement that spoke volumes about a personal connection to his employees.
My Dad owned a small grocery store where I grew up in Pittsburgh. His favorite part of the job was visiting with his repeat customers from the neighborhood. He was not only part of the community and a contributor to it, he was like family to many of his loyal customers. The loyalty that formed over the years was based on a mutual caring of one another. Whether I realized it or not at the time, I was taking in these observations at my Dad’s store, which would later influence how I interacted with my employees and customers. I like to think I was honoring his spirit of community by creating a similar culture of my own when I was the CEO at Prologis.
Leadership qualities that I observed in the Market Basket story and in my Dad’s store boil down to a couple of simple but critical rules every leader should aspire to model:
Get to know your people
Leadership of yesterday was about command and control. Today, leaders who inspire loyalty get out from behind their desks and strive to know their people. I often would have lunch in the cafeteria so I could talk to employees and learn more about who our company was from the inside out. Abigail Phillips at Entrepreneur says, “Ask employees about members of their family, what they enjoy doing outside the office and the parts of their role that they like or dislike the most. Demonstrating an interest in your employees as people, rather than as cogs in a machine, will ensure that they feel valued.”
Show your employees you care
Some leaders worry that showing concern or expressing sentiment somehow jeopardizes their ability to lead. I couldn’t disagree more. One of the reasons I enjoyed lunching with my employees was that I learned what was important to them in and out of the office, which deepened our connection. I was later able to show my interest and build relationships by asking about employees’ lives or following up on feedback they gave me about their jobs.
One of the facts that continues to resonate with me is that people spend the majority of their lives at work. So why wouldn’t a leader try to build a culture where people feel a connection?
Ask yourself if you have created a caring climate with your employees. Would they protest on your behalf?
Not all of us can be Artie, but we sure should try.