Honor Your Unsung Heroes by @JohnRichardBell

Monday, February 10, 2014

Today's guest is John Bell, former CEO of Jacobs Suchard's North American business. 

The times have changed, but the business tools that determine success or failure have not. Companies, large and small, cannot survive without great leadership, sound strategy and flawless execution. Those that thrive go a step further; they breathe culture.

Indeed, there are plenty of sub-segments to the success factors I have identified. The untapped resource is the organization’s “Average Joe.” Average Joes are the majority of most work forces. Because they aren’t categorized as whiz kids or water walkers, it’s easy to take them for granted. Do not take them for granted. Applaud them. Nurture their talent. Listen to them. Take pleasure in watching the difference these unsung heroes can make.

In my years as a CEO, I worked with several unsung heroes. Here are the stories of five of them:

Ronnie, a union employee, never missed the company Christmas party or the Summer social event. Ronnie was an organizer - a leader in cultural development. He refused to be blocked by the rock wall that separates managements from unions. This guy took a sledge hammer to that wall and turned it to rubble.

Bruce, a Marketing Manager who struggled with detail, flourished as a creative resource. Bruce masterminded the sponsorship of a nationwide charitable endeavor. When paraplegic athlete Rick Hansen returned to Canada after wheeling around the world, Bruce’s promotion increased our coffee sales by three share points – in hard cash, several million dollars in profit.

Gary, an ex-marine middle manager, looked beyond conventional channels to drive our Toblerone Chocolate business. He identified the link between the brand’s Swiss heritage and that of a large Canadian restaurant chain, Swiss Chalet. Gary sold the idea of a free Toblerone with turkey meals. Sales increased by millions of bars . . . and the offer continued for six years.

Paul, a salesman, was the sales department’s answer to Ronnie. Paul wore the company colors on and off the job. A CEO couldn’t ask for a better soldier in the battlefield. Paul set the values example for every employee. He laughed a lot and made hard work fun. That’s important, especially when a business or industry slips into an economic downturn.

Gail, an accounting clerk, inspired like no other. Each year, a group of employees partook in a one week Outward Bound team-building excursion. Though Gail was fighting breast cancer, she volunteered, claiming she was well enough to endure the hardships of mountain wilderness. As it turned out, the ten women on that expedition hauled Gail to the top of the world (the summit) on a stretcher. She asked that they keep her secret. Within the year, Gail was gone. Ten years later, one of her teammates tearfully shared her story with me.

No one is an Average Joe. Not Ronnie, not Bruce, Gary, Paul or Gail. These folks are a company’s most valuable players, the unsung heroes. Every leader ought to treat them as such.


JOHN BELL is the former CEO of coffee/confectioner Jacobs Suchard’s North American business, now part of Kraft Foods. After Kraft, he became a strategy and branding consultant for several of the globe’s most respected blue-chip consumer goods companies. Now retired, he is a contributor to Fortune and Forbes and also writes a blog, In The CEO Afterlife, where he reflects on leadership, branding and life. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRichardBell.

Think Splendid will be offering insights and perspectives from Splendid Guests for the months of February and March while I am working in Africa

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