I arrived for work at a large paper mill (much like this one) in mid 1990. I found nearly 1000 people working together toward common goals, respectful of each other and generally having a good time. The mill was performing at the top of its class, and its owners could not have been more pleased.
Only seven years earlier, the scene would have been very different. The mill had survived a months-long strike, and tempers were still raw. Managers and line workers were leery of each other and at odds much of the time.
Then Dave Spence arrived as mill manager, and began a healing process that would dramatically reshape the culture of the mill - and its business results. By the time I joined the organization seven years later, the transformation was complete.
Dave did many things to transform that culture, but what I remember best were his listening meetings.
About half of the mill employees worked Monday through Friday during the day. The other half rotated through shifts in order to keep the mill running 24/7. The employees worked in crews of between ten and 20, each crew running or maintaining a part of the mill for their tour of duty. Each crew had a supervisor, and there were two further layers of management between the supervisors and Dave.
Dave began meeting with a different crew for an hour every Tuesday afternoon. Dave and his HR manager were there, but none of the managers or supervisors between him and the crew. Dave simply asked, "What do you want to talk about?" and then waited.
For the first few months, no one said anything in these meetings. Dave thanked each crew at the end of the meeting and they went on to work. Eventually, folks started speaking up. They would talk about issues on the crew, issues with their supervisor, questions about the mill, questions about the company, and many other things. Dave would ask questions to clarify the issues and the HR manager wrote it all down. Dave listened and asked questions, but was careful never to make a decision or take action based on what he heard in these meetings. That was the supervisor's job.
After each meeting, the HR manager sent the notes down through the chain of command to that crew's supervisor. It was his job to respond to the crew's concerns. He could take action, or decide not to take action. Either way, he was expected to tell the crew what he had decided and why. And he was expected to report to Dave how he had responded to the crew.
Slowly, crews and supervisors began talking to each other directly. Smart supervisors figured out that they might as well listen and respond to the crew routinely. Every supervisor preferred reading in Dave's notes that his crew thought he cared about them and was working to help them succeed, and most did their best to earn that praise. By the time I arrived, as one of Dave's direct reports, the listening meetings rarely turned up any negative surprises. Instead, the crews mostly wanted to make suggestions about the larger business.
I took away these lessons from Dave's listening meetings:
When seeking to change a culture, listen to more than just your direct reports. Find ways to hear directly from the front line.
At the same time, don't undermine the authority of those who report to you. Notice that Dave was careful not to take action or make decisions based on what he heard in these meetings. He focused on being a careful and accurate listener, and then on expecting a reasoned response by the supervisor.
Become the change you want to see in others. If you want your folks to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, model that behavior yourself.
Be persistent with a change you believe in. Dave sat through months of meetings in which everyone just glowered at him. But he kept on paying them to show up and he kept on giving of his time and ears. And it eventually paid off.
Listen and you can change the world. Dave made no statements in these meetings. He just asked questions, and then waited. In fact, in much of Dave's work, he led through questions. Truly open questions can change people and cultures, where declarative statements cannot.
Photo by Jan Tik