When I took over the business unit, the Teamsters were trying to organize a union in the Operations area. I met Bettye when I held the small group sessions in Operations. Our first impressions of one another were not positive. The Teamsters were organizing a union in her department, and my job was to defeat the union. I suspected her of being one of the leaders of the union effort.
The people who worked with Bettye were led poorly. The organizing effort was their cry for help. I began to understand Bettye. She was unhappy, and she worked in a demoralized department. Changes were being forced upon employees that made no sense to them, and the employees were not being listened to.
I got to know Bettye. She was a stately black woman with a loud voice and a great sense of humor. Bettye was down-to-earth, and she asked tough questions. She cared about people and was not intimidated by me. Soon my first impressions changed; I liked her.
After several months, the Teamsters gave up. Bettye’s department—Field Services—was redesigned, delayered, downsized, and the people operated as a self-managed team. The people in Bettye’s department, who led the organizing drive, were now leaders in our move to employee involvement and were involved in all aspects of these changes.
I asked Bettye to be part of a presentation on employee involvement to a small group of senior managers that would be held at a local hotel. When it was Bettye’s turn to speak, she stood up and said, “My name is Bettye, and my knees are shaking.” Five minutes later she was in total control of the room. I think this shift happened when she asked Bruce Gensmer what he did all day long. He was startled and began to laugh. Bettye voice grew stronger and her confidence grew. She began to have fun.
Over the next few months, Bettye and I developed a good relationship. One day I invited her to lunch and told her about some problem I had with my plan for a vacation. This vacation problem was the big issue in my life at the time. She listened with interest and then told me how she was raising four children without a father in south Minneapolis. She described how she tried to protect her children from gang influence and how she raised them to value work, education, and concern for others. I felt about two inches tall. How could I work one hundred and fifty feet from someone and have no idea what her life was like? How could I assume that she could relate to my vacation problem or that I could relate to her life? How could I be so oblivious to the challenges my co-workers faced?
Several months later at Christmas time, Bettye and I went to lunch again. She told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that she and her children had a monthly roundtable where they discussed issues and made decisions. The discussion that past month was whether to use their available money to either get their car fixed or to buy Christmas presents. The younger kids wanted Christmas presents. The older kids realized the importance of a car in the wintertime and reminded the younger ones of how cold winter was. The consensus was to get the car fixed.
Bettye described how the last time the car broke down she had traveled by bus to take the kids to the babysitter and to get to work. That reminded me of the story of a senior executive who rushed into a 9:00 a.m. meeting, out of breath, and exclaimed, “I’m sorry I’m late. The nanny was sick, and I had to get the kids ready for school.” He realized his audience, looked up and said, “I’m sorry, all of you have to do that every day.”
I was paid four or five times more than Bettye. David Cox was paid five or six times more than me. I sat about one hundred and fifty feet from Bettye. David Cox sat about one hundred and fifty feet above me. I wondered if his world was as far away from mine as mine was from Bettye’s. I wondered if he was as unaware of the differences between his life and mine as I was of Bettye’s and mine.
This is excerpted from my e-book, Value Driven Leadership: A Story of Personal and Organizational Transformation available at Amazon.com