Last week I received a call from prospective client who was struggling with a high staff turnover. He pleaded with me to help him stem the outflow. He is a small manufacturer that sells his products largely through distributors. I arranged to visit his offices in the Eastern suburbs the next day.
As I pulled into his carpark it wasn’t hard to spot his Porsche parked next to the front door. Upon entering the building it looked as though the premises hadn’t been renovated since 1975. The office administration area was dark, cramped and gloomy. The prospect jovially came out to meet me and took me through to his light and spacious, palatial office. His working conditions were quite unlike those of his employees. We had coffee delivered fresh from his personal sparkling new Nespresso machine and discussed his issues. He then took me on a tour of his plant.
The only word to describe his factory is “Dickensian”. They were without doubt some of the worst working conditions I’ve seen in an engineering based site. He took me into the grubby “workers canteen” where he left me to chat with some of his staff over a tasty brew of International Roast.
The reasons for his staff turnover were obvious. His staff were not being treated with respect, working conditions were terrible, and were exacerbated by his employees seeing how he flamboyantly spent his working day compared to them. He was rubbing their noses in it from the moment he turned up in his shiny, new Porsche.
This got me thinking about leadership and “the prestige factor”. Many of us seek to surround ourselves with prestigious (and usually expensive) brand names; we send our kids to the “right” schools, live in the “best” suburbs, drive expensive European cars, drink French champagne, and on holidays visit brand name resorts in exotic locations (with branded t shirts to wear when we return). Why do we do this?
Often the prestige items are high quality items of course, but more often than not our Western aspirational and competitive culture denotes these items as status symbols that when displayed somehow set us above other mere mortals. But is displaying success in this way detrimental to leadership?
I have read many biographies of great leaders, and something they all have in common, and is often commented upon by those who knew them, is that they were “one of the men”. This is particularly so with great military leaders, who lived with the men, ate and bunked with their men. They did not set themselves apart from, or more importantly, above their charges. Sir John Monash and Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop are two excellent examples.
In the modern workplace the same applies. Many times I’ve seen an MD with the latest greatest Sony Vaio notebook, while his staff, who arguably use their PCs more, are relegated to ageing, slow, often refurbished clunkers. I argue that if it’s good enough for the MD, it’s good enough for the employees, or vice versa. True business leaders shun the baubles of power. They work in the same conditions as their teams and with the same equipment. The moment a leader starts to prop their position up with prestige tokens they run the risk of losing the respect of their teams, and with that loss of respect will go leadership.
This is not to say we shouldn’t strive for and enjoy the luxuries of life, but in doing so don’t rub your lesser-paid employees’ noses in them either. After all, it is their sweat that’s paying for them.