CEO discovers that employees want to know what kind of person he is

A motorcycle changed the way employees perceived CEO Henry Herington and altered his “entire perspective” on how to communicate with them. He’s following “Murray’s Manifesto.”

A couple of years ago I wrote “Murray’s Manifesto,” which claimed that the only thing employees want to know from the CEO and other top execs is:

They want to know what kind of people they are working for.

Let me repeat: They want to know what kind of people they are working for.

That’s all they want to know: What kind of people they are working for.

But that’s a lot: They want to know how smart are the people they’re working for. How honest. How empathetic. How interested in new ideas. How down to earth. How consistent. How careful. How generous of spirit. How forward-looking. And how committed to the welfare of the employees.

“That is so true,” wrote a commenter, “I wish my boss would read this.”

Of course, if the bosses read my blog, Writing Boots, I couldn’t say half the stuff I do there. But one boss discovered my principle without my help. CEO Harry Herington was interviewed for a Sunday installment of the weekly “Corner Office” Q&A in The New York Times business section. The chief of the online services firm NIC Inc. talks about how a motorcycle changed the way employees saw him and changed his “entire perspective” on how to communicate with them.

Shortly after Herington bought a Harley, the company was organizing a conference of its general managers.

“So I had 200 employees in Oklahoma City for a marketing conference and I thought, I’ve got this brand new motorcycle. It’s about a six-hour drive from our headquarters near Kansas City. I decided to ride the motorcycle to the conference.

So I pull up and I’ve got all my leathers on. I walk in carrying my helmet and everybody’s dumbfounded. I became the buzz of the conference. The next thing I know, everybody’s out looking at my bike. I had so many fingerprints on it because the employees were just swarming this bike. They thought it was the coolest thing.

I started riding it to our offices in different states. I’d take everyone to dinner, and they would ask me why I bought a motorcycle, and then we would start talking casually about the company. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a very comfortable, easy setting.’ I started getting phone calls from my general managers in different cities, saying, ‘We want you to come visit us on the motorcycle. The employees think this is really cool.'”

So he started an “Ask the CEO” forum—you know, the kind where nobody says anything except the Eddie Haskel jagoff who wants to prove how smart he is. Except, in Herington’s meetings,

“They were asking me all sorts of personal questions, and it kind of got everybody’s guard down, so they felt more comfortable.

I had expected people to ask me about our five-year strategy. But I started getting questions like: ‘Where did you go to school?’ … ‘Why did you get into law enforcement?’ ‘Why did you leave law enforcement?’ ‘How many kids do you have?’ I’m on Facebook a lot, too. So people would say, ‘I see that you like to wear pink shirts when you play golf. Why?’

I would say, especially early on, 80 percent of the questions were personal and 20 percent were about business.”

Why?

“They want to trust the leadership. They want to trust that you’re making the right decisions. And it’s not so much whether you’re making the right decisions as far as strategy. It’s more, can they trust you to come up with the strategy, and to make the right decisions when issues come before you? They want to know the person. They want to trust the person. That was interesting. That really changed my entire perspective. …”

Damn right, Harry Herington.

In Murray’s Manifesto, I addressed communicators whose job it is to be the metaphorical motorcycle that invites employees to see executives as people:

If you can convince your employees that the people who run the organization are solid human beings who care about what they’re doing … well, that’s a team employees will find a way to help.

And if you lack the communication ability to get that across (virtuous executives not included)?

You’d better dance fast.

David Murray is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day and blogs about the communication life at Writing Boots. He recently helped Lt. Col. Mark Weber write the memoir “Tell My Sons,” due out in June, from Random House.

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