‘Your Employees Are Somebody’s Precious Child’
What is great leadership? Bob Chapman has been pursuing this question as the CEO and Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller, an industrial manufacturing conglomerate headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, that was founded in 1885. When Bob inherited the company in 1975, it had $20 million in revenue and a leadership model that fit the times: Rigid, top-down, and driven by financial results and production efficiencies. Over the decades, Bob implemented a strategy focused on acquisitions and a culture he calls “Truly Human Leadership.” That not only drastically improved employee fulfillment—both in the workplace and beyond—but also helped grow the company to roughly $3 billion in revenue.
Bob is a newly elected member of Ashoka’s Entrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur Network, which brings together high-impact entrepreneurs from the business sector with the world’s most powerful social entrepreneurs at Ashoka. We recently spoke about his leadership journey.
Konstanze Frischen: Bob, you’ve built your company, your vision, around the culture of “Truly Human Leadership,” which, at its core, pursues the intent to send people home feeling fulfilled.
Bob Chapman: That's how it began, with that very simple thought.
Frischen: Before we get into the details that describe that culture, let me ask you this—what were the circumstances that led you to come up with this idea?
Chapman: I started my career practicing traditional management, which I learned in business school and experienced in the work environment. The transformation occurred in three revelations. The first was in 1997. We had acquired a company in South Carolina. I flew down there and, on the first day, I was having a coffee in the cafeteria before the office opened. It was March, and in March in South Carolina, everybody bets on college basketball. Everyone was talking about which college team won, they were all having fun. And the closer it got to eight o'clock, I could just see the fun go out of their body. And I thought: “Why can’t business be fun?”
Business could be the most powerful force for good in the world, if only we knew how to care for the people we have the privilege of leading.
Frischen: So what did you do?
Chapman: Well, out of me came this idea of creating some games at work that aligned value creation with fun. My goal was just to have fun, but then, orders also went up by 20 percent! So that was the first revelation. The second was in my church, watching my mentor give a sermon. I remember thinking: “What a privilege it is to be able to inspire all these people to be the person they’re intended to be.” But then it dawned on me that this church only had us for one hour a week. I said to my wife, Cynthia: “At work, we have people in our care for 40 hours a week. We’re 40 times more powerful than our church to impact people's lives.” As I walked out of that church that day, I saw that business could be the most powerful force for good in the world, if only we knew how to care for the people we have the privilege of leading.
Frischen: That's very powerful. What was the third revelation?
Chapman: A few years later, I was at a wedding, watching my friend walk his daughter down the aisle. Looking around, I saw how enamored everyone was, how proud the parents were. I saw people looking at these two young people as somebody’s precious child, about to go into marriage. And I realized that, until then, I always saw people in my organization as functions for my success. They were engineers, accountants, production workers. But that day, my mind went to the thousands of people working for us, and I thought: “That’s not a receptionist, that’s not an engineer, that’s not a salesperson – that’s somebody’s precious child, just like these two young people here.” And I want to be able to say to their parents and loved ones that I’ve been a good steward of the profound responsibility that gives me.
Frischen: You’re evoking family values here, the religious sphere even. I bet you’ve seen it more than once that someone came to you and said: “Oh that’s nice, but we need to focus on making money and being profitable.”
Chapman: First of all, we have outperformed Warren Buffett for the last 30 years. When people say to me: “How do you justify the cost of caring?” I tell them: “How do you justify not caring?” Most people, in most workplaces, do the bare minimum to get by, because they don’t feel valued. According to Gallup, three out of four people in this country are disengaged in what they’re doing. If we had a machine tool in our plant that was only running at 25% of its capacity, we would address it. Why do we accept this with our human resources, our people? When you start genuinely caring for people, when they feel safe, valued, and part of the team, they share gifts they didn’t even know they had. But you need both. You cannot build a caring culture without first providing the safety of a robust business model. The business model comes first, but the culture is what allows it to perform to its full potential.
Frischen: Changing a culture starts with leadership. What do you define as good leadership?
Chapman: There’s this horrible word people use: Management. You should never use it. Management means the manipulation of others for your success. Leadership, by contrast, means the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you.
Frischen: How do you steward them?
Chapman: The foundation of caring is empathetic listening. The most powerful, transformative thing we teach is how to listen to people, not to judge them, but to listen to them and validate them. The second thing we teach is how to recognize and celebrate people. In raising kids, if you don't celebrate what they do right five times more than telling them what they could do better, it's difficult for them. So we ask ourselves: “How do you let people know, in a thoughtful, appropriate, timely way, that what they did matters?” And the third critical element is fostering a culture of service—seizing every opportunity to serve others. We teach people how to move from a me-centric world to a we-centric world, where we genuinely care for each other. All of these are skills we can teach.
Frischen: Speaking of teaching, you compare leadership to parenting. Many parents in the U.S., out of care for their child, might encourage a career that leads to economic safety rather than fulfillment. Do you see a tension between the culture you are shaping, with a focus on meaning and happiness, and the economic reality in this country?
Chapman: Barry-Wehmiller operates with 12,000 team members around the world, and I find it's a universal truth that people simply want to know they matter. It's not an economic issue, it's not about more money or better benefits or more time off. The industrial revolution created economic prosperity and we thought that was the key to happiness. But now we have the greatest economic prosperity in the history of the world, and yet, we have the highest level of depression and anxiety we have ever had. Why? It’s because we don't know how to care for each other. We have a society where success is defined as money, power, and position; not sharing our gifts fully in service of others. But if we taught people how to genuinely care, we could heal the brokenness in this world.
Frischen: Your mission extends far beyond your company. One of your goals is to transform the education system. Do you want to intervene before people reach the job market?
Chapman: Yes. We have our Leadership Institute with 42 team members, where we teach how to care for others. But why do we have to fix adults? It’s because our education system is only teaching academic skills, not human skills like empathetic listening. We need to teach what it means to care, as opposed to use. So we have a pilot underway with Charlotte Latin, the top private school in North Carolina, where we teach these skills from kindergarten to grade 12. And we helped launch the Humanistic Leadership Academy, where we’re bringing together business schools and organizations like the U.N. and Ashoka around this question: How can business schools teach leadership, instead of management? We’ve developed a curriculum, and our goal is to train at least 5,000 professors from around the world over the next five years, on how to teach and empower students to be humanistic leaders.
The greatest act of charity is not the checks you write. The greatest act of charity is how you treat the people you have the privilege of leading.
Frischen: You argue against the word “management.” You also speak of employees as “people in your span of care,” and your company calls its acquisitions “adoptions.” Why does that matter?
Chapman: Words are incredibly important. Name anybody who wants to be managed. So why do we call people managers? We need people to see themselves as a coach or leader, not as a manipulator of others for financial success. We have inhuman terms to describe what should be human organizations. And until we change the language, it’s hard to change the behavior.
Frischen: How does this message resonate with other CEOs?
Chapman: I had dinner once with a very wealthy gentleman, who came out to hear me speak. He runs an organization with a hundred thousand employees, and I asked him what he was most proud of in his life. He said: "I'm known for my $120 million gift to my alma mater, but what I'm really proud of is my minority student athletic scholarship program." I asked how many students he helps each year, and he told me five or six. So I said: "You're telling me you're really proud of five or six students, but you don't care about the hundred thousand people who walk into your offices?" And this fine gentleman leaned back in his chair, and he said: "I never thought about that." So this is what I tell people: The greatest act of charity is not the checks you write. The greatest act of charity is how you treat the people you have the privilege of leading.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. You can learn more about Bob Chapman’s philosophy via his blog and his bio. To learn more about the Entrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur Network, E2, contact Njideka Harry.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.