In July 2014, the CEO of Market Basket, a chain of supermarkets in the northeastern U.S., was fired. On the surface, this isn’t particularly newsworthy. CEOs get fired all the time.
But, what happened next inspired a case study that is now taught at MIT.
Unlike most CEO firings, the employees at Market Basket didn’t agree with this decision. And they decided to do something to save their CEO’s job.
The day after Arthur T. Demoulas’ firing, six senior executives resigned and 300 employees protested. Within weeks, thousands of employees were protesting outside several stores.
Three weeks after the firing, the corporate employees at Market Basket issued an ultimatum to the board of directors, demanding their CEO be reinstated. In response, the board issued a memo to all employees stating that anyone who walked out would be fired.
The protests continued. Delivery drivers and warehouse personnel refused to deliver food, so store shelves were nearly empty. Customers and suppliers started joining the protest by boycotting the stores and voicing support through social media.
On August 27, 2014, nearly two months after the firing and in the face of continued protests and tanking business results, the board broke. They agreed to sell controlling interest in the company to the former CEO. Finally, the employees had restored their beloved “Artie T” to his rightful position as their leader.
Why did the employees go to such great lengths at such great risk to fight for their CEO? It was because, by all accounts, Artie T was flush in social capital with his employees. He had formed such a powerful bond and connection with his employees that those relationships yielded fierce loyalty and commitment. When he needed them most, his employees had his back.
According to news reports, despite leading a company of 25,000 employees, Artie T was described as a leader who “knew everyone’s name.” He invested time in relationships, and it was common for him to personally condole employees who lost loved ones and to financially support employees facing tremendous personal difficulties.
Social capital may be the most valuable currency for leaders in today’s business environment. For those unfamiliar, social capital is best defined by Wayne Baker as “resources available to an individual through their relationships to and connections with others.” Social capital can take many forms -- from information and expertise to loyalty and trust.
Artie T had cultivated social capital with his employees for years -- and it saved his job and business. Social capital cannot be created overnight, but leaders can have more starting tomorrow if they intentionally invest in building a connection with employees. Here are a few effective ways to get started:
1. Be accessible.
While leaders may not be able to personally meet and know each employee in the organization, it is important that employees feel connected to them. When there’s an opportunity to be with employees, do it. Create opportunities to do so.
When leaders can’t be with people in person, communicate with them using the plethora of technological tools: blogs, intranets, streaming video, webinars, social media, and any place else where leaders can be available to employees.
Talk about the business. Talk about the future. Talk about leaders’ own hopes and fears. Talk about family. Employees must feel as if they know leaders in order to trust them. And trust is a critical ingredient to creating social capital.
2. Be generous.
One way to create powerful social capital is to use the power of reciprocity. Humans are naturally hard-wired to keep relationships with others in “balance.” When someone does us a favor, we are immediately compelled to return the favor. As a leader, this can be incredibly powerful.
When leaders are kind to employees in ways they don’t expect or exceed employees’ expectations unexpectedly, they make an investment in those relationships. When the company does well, share the spoils with employees beyond what they are promised. Grant them extra time off when possible to be with family or pursue interests. And, most importantly, be generous with leaders’ time, and pay attention to the overall employee experience at the organization.
3. Be consistent.
Market Basket was a family business. Artie T had been a part of the business for a long time. Employees had seen a long track record of behavior and performance. They knew who he was and that they could count on him.
Creating the goodwill and trust that comes with social capital isn’t something that can be accomplished quickly. Just like any relationship, it will take shape over time through consistent and intentional action. It can’t be an initiative, but must be a complete commitment to building and fostering real relationships with employees every day.
If there’s a monthly town hall meeting broadcasted to all employees or they receive a daily “thought from the CEO” email, commit to staying the course with these activities over time -- never skipping a meeting or email. If open books are practiced in good times, then practice the same when times are tough. Inconsistency in leadership behavior creates feelings of uncertainty for employees that make it really challenging to build trust and connection.
Building social capital isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. It will result in a better, more productive work environment for both leaders and employees. And, who knows, someday leaders may need those employees to save their job.
About the author: Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author and consultant. He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. Jason is co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. Connect with Jason at www.JasonLauritsen.com.