Chesapeake CEO: To have a great workplace, run a great business

Much of the talk about creating a great place to work centers on things like employee morale and benefits. But the sharks are circling. First, be a place where great ideas rise, a new CEO says.

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Is your organization a great place to work? Congratulations! But here’s a cold cup of reality in the face.

Activist investors such as Carl Icahn don’t care how chipper your staffers feel as they arrange their desktop toys or drop off their kids at the onsite day care.

“Carl Icahn does not care if it’s a great place to work,” says Robert D. “Doug” Lawler, president and chief executive officer of Chesapeake Energy. “Carl Icahn cares about green money.”

If you don’t tend to business, Icahn could swoop in, taking your business decisions out of your hands, Lawler says in a Ragan Training video, “Taking the reins as a new CEO: The vital importance of proactive internal and external communications at Chesapeake.”

His words are a reminder of what’s at stake in the grow-or-die atmosphere of today’s big business. The talk also is noteworthy coming from the head of a company that is praised as a great work environment.

Lawler offers reminders of the role communicators play at a time when organizations are navigating shark-filled waters.

In a video that affords a direct glimpse of a new CEO’s vision, Lawler tells why it’s essential to create a workplace where the best ideas rise to the top. After all, the bosses don’t have all the answers.

Helping ideas ascend and take shape

“How do those ideas flow up?” Lawler says. “The leaders don’t have all the ideas. They’re never going to have all the ideas. Managers don’t have all the best ideas. Ideas of the people: How you capture them and bring them forward and act upon them is very essential.”

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “Taking the reins as a new CEO: The vital importance of proactive internal and external communications at Chesapeake.”

Every employee has thoughts about how to save money and improve processes, Lawler says, hinting at why many organizations are adopting social platforms internally. The key, he says, is how organizations identify and enact those ideas.

To many, Chesapeake occupies an enviable rung in the booming industry of petroleum production from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., and the 11th-largest American producer of oil and natural gas fluids.

Its 11,000 employees harvested revenue of $12 billion in 2012, and Chesapeake ranked 18th on Fortune’s 2012 list of best places to work.

Lessons of the S&P 500

Lawler warns of the risks of resting on past accomplishments. He showed his Ragan audience a chart with three lines representing the performance of Chesapeake, its peers in the industry, and the S&P 500.

Though share prices alone aren’t the most important indicator for a company, they offer lessons. If the industry lags behind the S&P 500, that reflects external factors, from the falling price of energy to foreign influences, Lawler says. But the lag of Chesapeake’s stock prices behind its competitors’ represents differences in strategy, spending habits, and how well the companies are operating.

Lawler says he showed the chart to his staff and asked: “Does that curve represent you? Does it represent the talent in the room? Does it represent the talent in the field? Does it represent the quality of the assets that have enabled the company to grow at that rate to be that size?”

The chart provides “a significant case for change,” he says.

Lawler called for a redefinition of what makes a best place to work, telling his audience of communicators to focus on being a best-in-class organization.

Such firms are more competitive and attract top employees, he says. They focus on training and learning. They offer advancement opportunities to employees with good money-saving and business-improving ideas.

Be a great business first

To be a great place to work, “we have to maintain being a great business first and foremost,” Lawler says.

Great people and great assets should prevail, and “if we’re not producing great results, you have to question, well, are we strategically oriented properly?” Lawler SAS. “Are we communicating strategic metrics that are the most important?”

This is where communicators—and the executive in particular—must share the strategy so that companies aren’t following a path that no longer leads to success. Lawler says he held eight town hall meetings to take his case to the employees, focusing on the “core values” essential for success. These meetings were also live-cast online.

Organizations have three kinds of people, Lawler says. The victim can tell you all about problems but has no solutions. The manager does exactly what you expect but shows little initiative. By contrast, he says, the “change leader” strives for innovative solutions, saying, “I’m going to drive for a better result, a better outcome, because I was involved.”

Which raises the question: Which of these mindsets are you fostering in your organization?


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