In Praise of Average Joes

It has been 18 years since I dwelled in the corner office of a corporation and slugged it out in the combat zone of profit and loss. Conventional wisdom might say I am out of touch. On the contrary, from up here in the clouds everything is much clearer. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the leadership principles that worked for me as a CEO continue to apply to the current era of light speed communications and decision-making. The times have changed, but the tools that determine success or failure have not. Companies, large and small, cannot survive without great leadership, sound strategy and flawless execution. Those that thrive, go a step further; they worship innovation and promote healthy cultures.

Indeed, there are plenty of sub-segments of these key success factors such as creativity, teamwork, and recruitment. But the resource that continues to be overlooked by CEOs and Boards is the organization’s Average Joe and average Jane. Joe and Jane represent the majority of the work force. Because they aren’t categorized as whiz kids or water walkers, it’s easy to take them for granted. Do not take them for granted. Applaud them. Nurture their talent. Listen to them. Take pleasure watching them make a difference. These individuals are the hidden MVPs of the organization.

Here are 5 hall of fame examples that I’ll never forget from decades ago at Jacobs Suchard North America (maker of Toblerone, Suchard, Côte d’Or chocolate, and Nabob and Jacobs Coffee):

  1. Ronnie, a union employee, promoted the culture of teamwork and inclusiveness. He never missed the company Christmas party or the summer social event. Ronnie was an organizer - a leader in cultural development. He refused to be blocked by the brick wall that separates management from union in most companies. In fact, it was Ronnie who took a sledge hammer to that wall and turned it into rubble.
  2. Bruce, a Marketing Manager who struggled with detail, flourished as a creative resource. Bruce masterminded the sponsorship of a huge charitable event – The Man in Motion World Tour. When paraplegic athlete Rick Hansen returned to North America after wheeling around the world in support of a cure for spinal cord injuries, Bruce’s promotion increased our coffee sales by 3 share points – in hard cash, that was several million dollars at the bottom line.
  3. Gary, an ex-marine middle manager in the sales department looked beyond conventional distribution channels to drive our Toblerone Chocolate business. He identified the link between the brand’s Swiss heritage and that of the chicken restaurant chain, Swiss Chalet. Gary's idea of a free Toblerone with Christmas meals increased sales by millions of bars . . . and the offer continued for 6 years after that. For the record, Kraft, who now own Toblerone, likely have a Gary in their stable, but have failed to unleash his talent. That might explain why Swiss Chalet has switched to the Lindt brand.
  4. Paul, a salesman in an outback territory, was the sales department’s answer to Ronnie. Paul wore the company colors on the job and off the job. A CEO couldn’t ask for a better soldier in the battlefield. Paul set the values example for every employee. He laughed a lot and made hard work fun. That’s important , especially when a business slips into an economic downturn.
  5. Gail, an accounting clerk, inspired people like no other. Each year, a group of employees partook in a one-week Outward Bound team-building excursion. Though Gail was fighting breast cancer, she volunteered, claiming she was well enough to endure the hardships of mountain wilderness. As it turned out, on the final day, the ten women on that expedition hauled Gail to the top of the world (the peak) on a stretcher. She asked them to keep the secret. Within the year, Gail was gone and ten years later, one of her team mates shared her story.

No one is an average Joe. Not Ronnie, not Bruce, Gary, Paul or Gail. These folks are an organization’s most valuable players, the unsung heroes. Leaders ought to treat them as such.

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