The CEO speaks through a megaphone: Your attitude affects employee morale

Once upon a time, about 18 years ago, my company was going through a very difficult period.

We were about to lay off 20 percent of the team. We were losing money. I was close to being clinically depressed. While she never admitted it, I am quite sure my wife, Laura, was about ready to get rid of me as well.
Suffice to say, 1996 was not my best year. I really did think I was holding up pretty well. I made it to work every day. Then I went straight to my office, shut my door, and effectively shut out my team. I either blew off our meetings, or I attended them but was disengaged.
Then one day, my TEC chair, Jutta Parsons (one of best TEC chairs of all time), came in for our 1-2-1. The first words out of her mouth were, “John, what the hell is the matter with you? You’re destroying the culture in your own company. Don’t you realize the CEO speaks through a megaphone?” (Jutta was never known for beating around the bush.)
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“John, the minute you drive into the parking lot, you are ON STAGE. People are watching your body language, the words you use, even how you walk. Right now, when things are down, 80 percent of your job is about showing up. And not just walking in and closing your door. But showing up with a positive attitude and a vision for the future. If you can’t do that, you’re better off staying home!”
Talk about tough love. I made the decision that day: If I was going to show up for work, I was going to show up positive, upbeat and thinking about the future.
People who know me know I leave a fun, topical, outgoing voicemail message every day. If you want to hear today’s message, just call (262) 389-8000.
I started doing this the day after my meeting with Jutta. I change my message the first thing in the morning, and by recording an upbeat message, I start the day on a positive note both for me and for everyone who hears my voicemail.
I picked up a client for lunch recently. Paul was worried about a drop in sales. He wasn’t sure if it was a temporary setback or a much deeper issue. He got into my car and stared out the window as we drove out of his parking lot. Just before we pulled out, two of his production employees on a lunchtime walk waved at him.
Paul just stared right through them.
“Paul, did you notice your two guys who waved at you?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, that’s Pete and Jim. They spend their lunch hour walking around the plant. They’re setting a good example.”
“Did you notice they waved at you?” I asked again.
“I guess I didn’t notice.”
“Well, I guarantee they noticed you didn’t acknowledge them!”
My client can take a lesson from Jim Wessing, CEO of Kondex, a manufacturing company in Lomira. Kondex has one of the best corporate cultures of any business I know. And it all starts with Jim.
When he walks the floor, as he does often, he not only greets each Kondex associate by name, but he knows their kids’ names, and often their grandchildren’s names, too. Kondex encourages innovation, family and fun!
They have a highly engaged team. And I have never seen Jim have a down day.
I realize it isn’t easy to be positive, grateful, and engaged every single day – especially when things aren’t going well. But YOU’RE THE CEO. IT’S YOUR JOB.
If you need somebody to talk to, join TEC, or get a dog. But don’t bring your worries and your attitude to the office. And unless your spouse is a saint like my wife, you’ll want to remember to be positive and grateful at home, too.
Remember, you are the megaphone. Loud and clear!
John Howman, a serial entrepreneur, business and community leader since 1983, has led a variety of businesses, from technology to consumer products companies. He leads two groups for TEC, a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display