It was 1986 in Roanoke, Virginia, and the flood gates were getting ready to break. Literally. I worked downtown at a bank, and I looked out the glass doors and saw the pouring rain that had been pounding us for days. Suddenly, I saw panicked managers trying to sandbag the main branch’s glass doors – while standing waist-deep in water. The Roanoke River had crested 17 feet over its banks and rushed the downtown area.
The Roanoke flood put cars in trees, took away homes and filled our Main Street bank basement. Why do I mention the bank basement? Well, because it housed our customer’s safe deposit boxes. Even after the waters receded, the basement was filled with river mud. A few days following the flood, customers who had faithfully stored their antique watches and bonds and special papers in a place they trusted had to come and see what was left of their treasures. Top executives sand several volunteers (I was one) set up chairs in the Main Office and took people down to their boxes one by one. We brought in breakfast and lunch to those waiting, and our bank presidents served them.
Pulling out the safe deposit boxes as if they were small caskets, we put on gloves and withdrew mud-covered antique jewelry, destroyed priceless pieces of literature, and bonds that were literally dissolving (the pollution in the river caused us to wear rubber boots when cleaning or the water ate through our clothes). We were prepared to handle the deserved wrath of our customers, but amazingly they were polite and grateful. I’m sure many were simply glad to be alive, but I think a big factor was the presence of bank executives who stood beside them with river mud on their pants and dirt on their faces. They showed true compassion, but most of all they were there, walking through the mud with each and every customer.
I’ve dealt with many leaders that want to demand change, that want to get their employees to put in extra effort during a tough time, but don’t want to be there when it happens. I remember working with one call-center client that needed to have a large number of customers called who now had account issues due to a badly handled merger. To accomodate this need, leaders created an after-hours call center “party” (believe me, there were no clowns) where all employees were to be on hand to proactively call these customers.
The after-hours call night was, surprisingly, something people wanted to avoid. Leaders were sure the free pizza would create a stampede of involvement. The call-center CEO heard rumors that many would not attend, so he sent out an e-mail saying that if they would attend, he would attend and he would make customer calls with them. He also promised them a big surprise.
The CEO did attend. He kicked the session off with lots of energy, ate some pizza, and he left without making one call. Surprise!! Needless to say, employees never trusted him again.
Leaders, if you want to see change in your organization, ask yourself – “Am I leading this change? Are my employees seeing any change in me?” If not, then get in the game. Change is meant to be led, and must engage the heart, the mind, and the feet. And that includes your heart, mind and feet.