Bob Chapman on Why Everybody Matters
Bob Chapman is the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and the author of a very good book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family. The heart of Barry-Wehmiller’s vision, is to use the power of business to build a better world.
In this interview, Bob and I discuss:
- “Conscious capitalism” and how it can build better organizations AND hugely successful organizations
- How a wedding turned Bob’s world upside down and changed his approach to business
- His definition of responsible freedom and how it impacts the workplace
- Three powerful questions that define “visioning”
Bob Chapman outlines how to more deeply engage your people with their hands, heads and hearts by allowing them to be a part of the process of creating their own future. Tune in to learn more about how to create a powerful sense of purpose and collective efforts.
If you are strapped for time, download it as a free podcast on iTunes and listen later or scroll below for extended notes. I apologize to you (and to Bob!), there are a few small audio issues, but he’s a great interviewee, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it nevertheless.
Listen to my interview with Bob Chapman.
Michael: So way, way, way back in the distant past, and I’m talking now early 2010, in one of the early days of doing this Great Work podcast I had the opportunity to interview a man called Raj Sisodia. He had just put out a terrific book called Firms of Endearment. And not only that, I loved the title of that book. I mean, it’s so clever. But it was really the first time I had stumbled across this concept of conscious capitalism and it grabbed my fancy. This is this idea of capitalism showing up as a force for good in the world, operating not just as a successful business but recognizing the humanity of the people in the organization and contributing to a better world, not just a better bottom line. And Raj has gone on to write a book called Conscious Capitalism, which is terrific, and has actually been the co-author of the new book from my current guest, Bob Chapman.
Bob Chapman is the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and his very good book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, is what we’re going to dig into right now. So I’m excited to be talking to you about Bob. Now, let me give you a sense of Barry-Wehmiller, because maybe, like me, you may not have heard of this organization. But actually, it’s intriguing. It is a $2 billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting company, so it is a combination of almost 80 acquired companies spread among 10 operating companies with more than 9,000 team members around the world.
And the modus operandi, the heart of Barry-Wehmiller’s vision, is to use the power of business to build a better world, so really strongly aligned with the conscious capitalism piece. And you know, we may have heard of other organizations kind of, I’m going to say, more glamourous organizations like the Googles of this world, the Silicon Valley, where you know, it’s kind of young, hip guys and gals doing cool stuff. This is what you wouldn’t probably call not necessarily a glamourous industry. It’s manufacturing. It’s about automated packaging and corrugating equipment, even machines that manufacture toilet paper.
So it is intriguing for me, and I’m excited because I really did enjoy the book, to dig into this, a traditional sector, manufacturing, to find out how the force of conscious capitalism can not only build better organizations but actually hugely successful organizations. So this is a long introduction. Perhaps it’s because I’m excited. So, Bob, welcome to the conversation.
Bob: It’s good to be here. Thank you.
Michael: My pleasure. And, Bob, I mean, I’ve already talked a lot, but do you want to give people a quick sense of your journey that has taken you to becoming the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller?
Bob: Well, I mean, I began in the career of accounting with Price Waterhouse and I was asked by my father to join the company in 1969, really under the guise of simply he wanted something, somebody he could trust. So I began this journey in 1969 and worked with my father for six years in a very challenged, small—I think it was a $16 to $18 million business back in the ‘60s. A 100-year old business, making machinery for the brewing industry. And so, I began with very traditional concepts that I had learned in my education in accounting and in my Master’s in business from Michigan, so I began with very traditional thoughts and tools that were given to me through my education, and then I entered a business that was very broken with not very good technology and not much future.
So that’s how my journey began. And again, I worked with my father until I was about 30 when he suddenly died of a heart attack. And so, in 1975, I became CEO of this $18 million, kind of struggling, hundred-year old business with not much of a future, and I began to deploy ideas. Again, traditional ideas that I had learned, you know, through both my education and my observations when I was in public accounting. So that’s how we began. We began with a very broken, challenged company, and with a desire to kind of create a future. And it was all around product and profitability. It was not, as I quite often said, I was—in my education, when I look back at my education, it was always about me and my success. It was never about the lives that I would touch in my journey to what I call true success. It was about really finance, money, power, and position. That’s the way I was educated, that’s the world I saw, and that’s the way I began my journey.
Michael: And money, power, and position are seductive, you know? They are influential things, so I’m curious why you changed your mind, why you changed your approach, because the way you do things now feels a little counterintuitive to many of those more traditional MBA-driven strategies and tactics. What shifted things for you?
Bob: Well, the biggest thing that shifted things for me, there were several events, but the most significant in my time that I’ve got a chance to share this journey, I would say to you that the pivotal point that touches people the most profoundly in my journey was the time I was at a wedding. And basically, it was a typical wedding. A friend of mine was walking his daughter down the aisle in a very nice wedding, and as usual in a wedding, everybody was ooing and ahing about how precious the bride looked and how proud the father was. And as he walked his daughter to the altar and he took the hand of his daughter, and he said, “Her mother and I give our daughter to be wed to this young man,” and then he goes and sits down next to his wife and they hug each other. Now, as I always say, the father says what he says in presenting his daughter to this young man in front of all their friends and family, but that’s not what he wanted to say; that’s what he was told to say at the rehearsal.
What he wanted to say is, “Look it, young man, her mother and I brought this precious, young lady into this world 20 years ago and we have given her everything we can possibly give so she can live a life of meaning and purpose, and we are now trusting that you, young man, will allow her to continue to be the person she’s intended to be, strengthened by the harmony of your marriage, and that she will be good to you and your purpose and you will be good to her. Do you understand that, young man?”
That’s what every father wants to say as he takes this precious life that’s been so unbelievably meaningful to him and his spouse and basically allows his daughter, their daughter, to join hands with this young man. And that moment amazes me. My mind went to a totally different place, and I can’t explain why, but all I know is that moment I said to myself, “Oh my God, all 9,000 of our team members are somebody’s precious son or daughter.”
I was taught and I behaved on the theory that people were functions: you’re an accountant, you’re an engineer, you’re a salesperson, you’re a production team member, you’re a shipping department team member. You’re not a human being, you’re a function and you function for my success or the success of the organization. I was never prepared to understand the impact my journey would have on other people’s journeys or their life.
And that day, at that wedding, when the focus was on how precious somebody’s daughter and son are in a wedding, I came to the conclusion that business could be the most powerful force for good in the world. It changed everything for me. It turned everything I thought I had learned and experienced upside-down, because all of a sudden I saw a higher purpose for business organizations. It’s not—and some people like to say, “Bob Chapman cares more about people than profits.” That’s not the way. It’s in harmony. The two need to be in harmony.
In other words, we need to create value, but why can’t we create value for all stakeholders? Why can’t we focus on the impact? And I always—there’s an expression that you’ve heard a million times: “We need to get the right people on the bus.” I don’t agree with that. I believe we need to build safe buses, which is the business model. Safe buses, and then we need to train drivers who are leaders to drive safely who know where they’re going, which is the vision for the organization. And then anybody that gets on the bus is going to get to a good place together with their colleagues. So to me, caring; to me, leadership is the stewardship of the lives of the people whose lives are entrusted to us. Just like parenting, it’s identical.
Michael: So I mean, there’s a number of kind of provocative things that you say and I almost don’t know where to start because there’s so many threads I want to pick up from this wonderful story. But one of the first ones I want to pick up is this idea of the bus and getting people on the bus. And you know, you got to get the right people on the bus, as the Jim Collins book tells us.
But one of the things that you say in your book is if they’re on the bus, they’re the right people. So how …
Bob: I basically say, basically, people have amazing potential when you put them in an environment and you give them responsible freedom.
Michael: Got it. So if it’s not working …
Bob: And give them the tools. I use the expression, “Ordinary people do extraordinary things.”
Michael: Yeah. So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about responsible freedom. You know, one of my mentors is a guy called Peter Block, a great thinker in this world of stewardship in our organizations and allowing people’s humanity to be present in our organizations. And I once heard him say many years ago, and it’s a phrase I love, he saw his job as giving people responsibility for their own freedom. And I love that you echoed that phrase in the book about responsible freedom. What do you actually mean, though, by responsible freedom, Bob?
Bob: Well, let me go back one step, because the foundation of that thought comes from parenting. Cynthia and I were blessed with six precious lives that we were stewards of, which is our children, and we took that very seriously, and we would go to programs to help us become better stewards of those lives. How do you parent and how do you care for those precious lives that came through birth, adoption, second marriage, etc.? And one of the things that we learned in parenting is giving our children responsible freedom. It doesn’t mean giving them a bicycle and sending them on the highway and letting them ride.
Responsible freedom is a progressive sense of responsibility, so as they enter the world they can accept that responsibility and pass it on to others. And the same thing in business. You know, I thought; I took management classes, took management, got a management degree and got a job in management, so what did I try and do? I tried to manage people. I thought my job was to get smart, get better experience, better education, a better job, so I could tell people what to do. It never occurred to me that my responsibility was to create an environment where people could discover their gifts, develop their gifts, share their gifts, and be appreciated for their gifts. And as I said to you, everything has just been the opposite of what I thought. I thought my job, management’s job, was to tell people what to do.
And we all know, in raising kids, that that’s not the way to raise your kids. It’s to teach your kids to make good decisions because they’re going to out in life and they’re not going to have you to protect them, and you want kids to have the foundation to make responsible decisions. It’s the same thing. I found that parenting and leadership is identical. It is the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you, whether through birth or through employment. This is somebody’s precious child that you’ve been given the opportunity, and you need to care for them. And caring, like parenting—and again, that’s part of responsible freedom—is not being nice, it is preparing, you know, and allowing them to be who they’re intended to be towards a common vision and so that everybody can play their role.
So we have found that when you get people—when you trust people and you believe in the goodness of people and you give them—you share the vision of where you’re going, and then you engage them in realizing that vision and encourage them along the way, it’s the same thing as raising kids. You know, that’s what we do. And so, that’s what we call responsible freedom, is that we start with a foundation of trust. We develop and share with them the vision of where we’re going, and then we give them an opportunity to own their piece of that vision and go out and encourage them along their journey to realize the vision.
Michael: So let’s talk about the visioning. And you know, the second half of the book, I like the way that you set out the book because the first half is basically, “Here’s the journey. Here’s where I started. Here’s where I got to.” And then the second half is the playbook where you actually say, “So here are some of the foundational things we do at Barry-Wehmiller that make us the success that we are.” And the very first chapter of the playbook is about creating the vision. And you know, I’ve done enough work in enough organizations in various roles to know most organizations’ visions are empty, jargon-filled, laminated objects of uselessness. You know, they don’t inspire, they don’t engage. It’s tokens and wallpaper more than anything else.
But clearly that’s not the case at Barry-Wehmiller. So I mean, I guess there’s two questions here. What’s the process for creating a vision and keeping it alive? And connected to that, how do you actually get people to engage in a vision rather than go, “Yeah, that’s Bob and the senior leadership team making stuff up again. They have no real idea. We’ll just carry on with the real world where we work”?
Bob: You know, it’s all pretty easy. I always say, “How do you know what to do today if you don’t know where you’re going?” And so many people I find in business just come in and do their job. And remember, you have to go back to the statistics I quote: 88% of all people in this country feel they work for an organization that does not care about them, and 3 out of 4 people are disengaged in what they’re doing. So, and why? Well, because they come in and do their job. They get ten things right and never heard a word and get one thing wrong and get their ass chewed out. And so, all you’re trying to do is go in and do what it takes to keep your job, okay? And to stay with an organization because you don’t feel safe.
As Simon Sinek said, there’s no circle of safety anymore, we’re almost… defending ourselves within the organization so we don’t get laid off, you know? And so, we have this insecure environment where there’s layoffs, downsizings, firings, and so it’s very easy to go into an organization and say, “Let’s create our future together. From the experiences of the past and the awareness of the markets we serve and our desire to create a better future for all stakeholders, how can we do that?” And it’s amazing what people will do and share in that vision.
This began in our consulting business. The idea first began because we did kind of incremental budgeting. “This year we made a million. Next year we’re going to make a 1.2 million,” and you know, just kind of incremental thinking. And we stood back one day and we said, “Wait a second. What if our only limitation for growth is our ability to find talented people and to integrate them thoughtfully into our organization? Because there will be unlimited demand for competent, thoughtful people.” And we went back and said, “Well, what would that look like?” And we said, “Oh my God, that would be 15% of your growth. We could find the people and integrate them.” And the people stood back and said, “Well if that’s true, then where are we going to grow? What product lines? What customers?” And we got people to share with us what they thought we would achieve if we gave them this potential and it became known as visioning.
And let me summarize visioning in this way. Where are you going? Why do you want to go there? And when you get there, why will you have taken your people to a better place? And when we all agree on what the future looks like, then we know we’re going to New York, we know we’re going to San Francisco, we know we’re going to Miami. Now how are we going to get there? And it makes everything really clear, and when you engage people in that process, they own the journey. They walk into work inspired because they know where they’re going and they know their piece of that. It’s amazing, the power of visioning to get engagement, contribution, fulfillment, because instead of coming in and just doing your job, you now see where you’re going and how your piece fits into the play pattern.
It’s a power. I don’t know how you run an organization without a vision. I can’t even imagine. It’s kind of like driving a car with paper over your windshield.
Michael: Blindfolded. Yeah, exactly.
Bob: Yeah, right. I mean, if you don’t know how you’re going, how do you know what to do? How do I make a decision today if I don’t know where I want to be three years from now? We need it in our personal lives and we need it in our business lives. Too many people just walk in and do what they’re told to do and do what it takes to not get fired.
Michael: And you know, I can hear you thumping the table wherever you are, so I love that. You know, making the point. Here’s where the metaphor breaks down slightly, where you’re going. You know, are we going to New York? Are we going to San Francisco? The thing is those are set destinations which people can kind of find on a map. Part of the challenge with visioning is these aren’t set destinations. These are destinations created by our imagination and our courage. And you know, I’ve read the research that shows that, on balance, people will choose the smaller, safer option rather than the more bolder, courageous option. It’s just almost a cognitive bias that we have. So my question for you is how do you hold the space for people, just as the story you told with the consulting group, to be more courageous, to think not about, “What’s a 20% grow” but, “How do we 10x this business?” to use another phrase that’s around there. How do you give people the space for the courage and the imagination?
Bob: Well, good question. When we first did this in our consulting business, it scared the partners of our consulting business because when we articulated what could be, it scared them. Because they were afraid. And why? Why would it scare them? Because they were afraid that we were going to hold them to them to it in the conversation. “If you don’t do that, we’re going to fire you,” you know? In other words, “Oh, don’t put those kind of goals out there.” I mean, these are things that they didn’t know how to play safely, and they thought they might get hurt. When you create the playing field, you say, “Look, a vision is a vision. It is what we think we could do given the responsible freedom to do it.”
And what you need to do is you need to encourage them. Why would you tell people what they can’t do? Why wouldn’t you encourage people? Because people, to do this, and to do it fully, people need to feel safe, okay? It’s okay because, “Look it, if I put out a vision and I miss it, I don’t get my bonus or I don’t get a raise or I get fired, well yeah, sure I’m going to hold back because, you know, I don’t want you to hold me against a standard like that.” So the key is to create that sense of safety, which creates that sense of, You mean, we could do this if we all came together? And again, the process is so powerful because it’s what they believe they can do, not what you tell them we need to do to get our share price up. And I personally believe if you create the right environment, people’s vision will be more powerful than your expectations.
Michael: I want to tie it back to the responsible freedom piece, because as I read the book, I saw that under responsible freedom there were three attributes. One is getting people to share their gifts, so kind of showing up as fully human and fully contributing. The second piece was a bias to action, so it’s like, you know, get things done rather than procrastinate. And the third piece was accountability. And can you make the link for me about how do you help people be courageous, swing for the fences, imagine all that’s possible, make it safe for them so it’s like, “We’re not going to fire you if you don’t get to that vision,” but still have a culture of accountability? How do those fit together?
Bob: Well you know, I think the other piece of the book you got to understand is a key element of our leadership style is trusting in the goodness of people. And if you trust in people, you got to give them room to be wrong, okay? And what we want to do is we want to allow people to flourish. We want them to see their ideas, their ideas, be incorporated into the vision and their sense of joy of achieving that. And then we have what we call self-monitoring, and we have what we call self-governance. If you’re going to create this vision and you’re going to actualize that vision, you got to do it in a responsible way.
You can’t put at risk the organization. So there’s—you know, everything in life is a balance, right? If you’re going to swing for the fences, and a bunt would get somebody in and you got a higher probability of a bunt, swinging for the fences is not necessarily what every batter should do when he comes up to bat. Sometimes a bunt is going to score the one that wins the game.
And so, I would say to you that you got to—what you’re doing is you’re transforming the power of the organization to the people. They own it. They realize it. They walk in every day knowing how their position fits into the overall piece. And you know, the greatest—we know a team beats an individual every day.
So you’re trying to create that individual creativity, linked together with others to create the vision, and one person encourages the other person. So what we’re allowing people to do is to thrive, okay? We’re not telling them what they can’t do, we’re trying to create an environment where they can share what they think they can do. And if people—can you imagine? Do you think you’re going to be more motivated to achieve a goal that I set for you or a goal that you set for yourself, okay?
Clearly, if you own the goal, your ownership of that is going to be key. So I would say to you, let me tell you something: we’ve been doing visioning for about 15 years now. It is the most powerful leadership tool we have because it engages the hearts. There’s another expression that I absolutely love I’ve learned along this journey. We’ve paid people for their hands for years and they would have given us their heads and their hearts for free if we had just known how to ask them.
And visioning is asking people for their heads and their hearts and connects them to their hands. Instead of just doing what you’re told, you’re allowed to be a part of the process of creating your own future, and that’s a powerful motivator.
And it’s a powerful sense of purpose and collective efforts. People come together secure because it’s the collective thoughts that create that vision. So rather than imposing things on people, we allow people to say to us, “What do you think you can do to create a better future?”
And again, it’s powerful because it gives people—you know, they’re not—again, the gentleman that once said to me, “Before Barry-Wehmiller owned our company, I came in, I was told what to do, I wasn’t given the tools I needed to do it, and I got something wrong and I got my ass chewed out, and I went home at night and I didn’t feel good about myself. Since I was allowed to contribute, I feel ownership. I feel a sense of responsibility. I feel a sense of encouragement, and when I go home at night I feel better about myself because I felt valued.”
That’s one of the things visioning does that is just priceless. People want to desperately know that who they are and what they do matters, and when the process of leadership allows every person to understand the value they bring to the organization and to help shape its future, you’re unleashing the human potential. And when you do that, get out of their way.
Michael: And you know, the connection I would want to make, and you made the point but just let me emphasize it, is within the process of visioning, it has its foundation in what you call the ten commandments of truly human leadership, which is you’re fundamentally remembering that all these people, all the 9,000 people at Barry-Wehmiller, are in fact people, not cogs in your machines.
And whilst you say the visioning is that fundamental tool, I would say it has to rest on that foundation of truly human leadership to really make it happen.
Bob: Right. I was interviewed by some organizational development professors a few years back and after a two-hour interview the professor said, “You’re the first CEO I’ve interviewed that never talked about his product.” And I said, “I’ve been talking about our product for the last two hours.”
Our product is our people. I won’t go to my grave proud of the machines we built. I’ll go to my grave proud of the lives we’ve touched. You know, whatever your economic model, whether it’s cell phones or packaging machinery or restaurants, really that’s just the economic model, but our product is the lives of the people who are shaped by the environment in which we create, where they can, again, discover their gifts and share their gifts and be appreciated for their gifts. I want to emphasize how dramatically. One of the most important classes we teach in our university, in our internal university, to help people become leaders, is how to let people know they matter. We call it recognition and celebration, how to let people know along the journey that they matter. And when you do that, it is unbelievable the gifts that people will share with you that they didn’t even know they had and the joy they will get in being appreciated for whatever those gifts are.
Michael: Well, Bob, let me recognize and celebrate you. You’ve done a marvelous job being one of the catalysts for making Barry-Wehmiller a force for good in the world. I know part of your—I guess it’s your tagline or your vision, “We’re BW, Barry-Wehmiller, BW, Better World.” And clearly, the stories you tell in the book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, is really inspirational. And you know, we’ve been talking for half an hour. We’ve barely touched on the things I wanted to talk about. I wanted to get into the truly human leadership, ten commandments. I wanted to talk about the leadership checklist. I wanted to talk about your principles of leadership. I was curious to explore how you teach people in your universities when you’ve got that human centred. So, and I’m saying all of that just to say to the folks who are listening in, if you’re curious about this you’re going to need to pick up this book because the details are there.
Bob, for people who want to find out more about the book or more about you, where should they find you on the web?
I think the message that I would like to leave with you and very much appreciate your interest in the book, our message, clearly business could be such an incredible, powerful force for good. The biggest—people ask me all the time, “What one thing can I take away from this?” And I said, “Simply to care.” And care, as we know in parenting, care is not just being nice, it is making sure people are safe, healthy, and fulfilled. That is caring. We need a good business model and we need a good culture, and somebody once said that culture trumps strategy all day long and I say, “No, no, they need to be in harmony.” We need a good culture that allows us to realize the potential business strategy, but one without the other is not going to work.
You need both, and if we could do this, because the biggest learning I had was through our leadership practice and the feedback we got is that, “It never occurred to me the way we ran our enterprises, our businesses, our restaurants, our organizations, would impact the way people live.” But we know for a fact now having done this for ten or fifteen years, 90% of our feedback is how our leadership affects people’s marriage and affects the way they raise their children.
Because where did our leadership principles come from? They came from being good stewards as parents. And parenting and leadership is identical. It is the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you, actualized through caring, and the most positive way we can show we care is to listen to people. Empathetic listening is key.
None of these things I learned in my education. None of these things were tools I could have used earlier in my career. They all came to us through a series of revelations or awakenings. And so, we feel a calling to share this because we’ve been given the gift of a style of leadership that we think could reduce the amount of conflict in the world, could improve the marriages in the world, and therefore improve the children raised in these marriages in the world. So business could be the most powerful force for good if they simply cared for the precious lives of the people that have been entrusted to them.
Michael: Bob Chapman, thank you very much.
Bob: Thank you for the opportunity to share our calling.