Yesterday, I had a long talk with my old friend (and constant source of leadership inspiration), Dick Nettell. Dick had a long and storied career at Bank of America where his results and style were legendary. I mentioned in an earlier post that he’s in the process of writing a book, and he’s told me that I’ll be getting the rough draft, soon. But in the meantime…
…Since I wrote about Dick as a semi-anonymous example in The Radical Edge, I thought I’d take those words out into the full light of recognition. Here, then, is the passage from the book. Here’s Dick Nettell, Extreme Leader:
The best Extreme Leader that I’d met in my years of doing this work was a mid-level vice president at a formidable national bank. When I first met him, Dick was running the check processing operation in the bank’s corporate facility. It was the closest thing a bank has to a manufacturing operation and it had an ethnically diverse, primarily blue collar employee base. Touring me around the facility, Dick beamed with pride and enthusiasm as he regaled me with story after story of unprecedented productivity increases and skyrocketing employee morale.
It occurred to me as we talked that Dick rarely used the pronoun, “I,” as in, “I’ve done this; I’ve accomplished that.” In fact, the word “we” didn’t come up that often, either; instead, he told me story after story about individual people and how they’d risen to conquer one enormous challenge after another—and he told many of those stories with the hero standing right there. Some appeared embarrassed by the spotlight, but every one of them, without exception, expressed some variation of a glowing “thank you” before scurrying back to work.
It’s not as though Dick didn’t have an ego. He could puff out his chest along with the best of them, but he saved that for the appropriate time—usually after dinner and more than a few drinks—and always tempered his boasting with a good shot or two of self-deprecation. Moreover, he always brought it back to one central theme: his deep gratitude for his employees’ spunk, imagination, personalities, and drive. I remember getting the distinct impression that he was in awe of their accomplishments, and in retrospect, I could see that he was, indeed—to use the word of the hour—fascinated with them.
Simply put, Dick loved the individuals on his team— even the ones he eventually had to let go.
Several years later, after his promotion to senior vice president (which was essentially deity status at the bank), surviving a merger, and moving to another division, Dick was charged with conducting what some euphemistically call a “reduction in force.” Over a 12-month period, he culled his division from 1,500 people down to 175—mostly through outsourcing. During that same period, however, employee satisfaction percentages went from the mid 70s to the high 80s, raising steadily all throughout the process. That was—how you say—counter-intuitive. And it wasn’t because the survivors were happy to still have a job (which they were), but anyone who’s ever been through a layoff will tell you that the event is usually characterized by increased stress, cynicism, and even paranoia. That was not the case in Dick’s domain.
When I asked him how he accounted for the amazing spirit and morale even as people were jetting out the door, he said, “Two things: I kept everyone involved and I continued to let them know I cared—every freakin’ day.” Although, to be fair, being the potty-mouth that he was, Dick’s language was a bit earthier, a bit more colorful.
He didn’t say freakin’.