Extravagant Love!

During my professional career, I never heard the word love professed at the office except in a somewhat negative context. “I would love it if it was Friday.” Or, “I’d love to see Robert finally get fired.” But hardly ever, “I love that man.” Occasionally, executives proclaim how much they love their customers, but seldom will they pronounce their love for their employees. In fact, quite the opposite, as most corporate cultures operate on the antithesis of love.

Organizations live by the rules of the jungle. The reality they exist in is one of dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, kill the competition, crush the new entrant, fire employees in the bottom five percent, make more money at nearly any cost, or bleed suppliers until they are on the verge of bankruptcy. There’s little room in love for a world like that. Every so often, though, an exception will appear, as it did in my career in the early eighties. I experienced something altogether different. I saw the power of love work its magic with employees at Reading & Bates Drilling Company.

At the time, I was a recent arrival as head of HR for this offshore drilling company. It was 1982, long before the age of the Internet, which meant we often communicated by Telex—the common form of messaging with overseas employees. One morning I received a Telex from the area manager for West Africa. He related that one of the drilling rig employees had been injured and needed medical treatment, and West Africa’s facilities and healthcare professionals, a place not known for premier medical care, would not be acceptable. The manager asked for approval to charter a private jet to take him to London.

The decision was an easy one for me to make. I thought, “A private jet, you’ve got to be kidding.” Since the injury wasn’t life threatening, I couldn’t see how we could possibly justify the expense. With no regret, I returned a Telex instructing the manager to use a commercial flight for transporting the employee. I felt good about saving the company thousands of dollars by putting a stop on what I thought was an unnecessary, and large, expenditure. Isn’t that what executives are paid to do? Love the money more than the people? But, apparently, I didn’t understand this company’s culture and was about to get a lesson in company values.

The CEO and my boss, Bill Kent, had an open door policy. Anyone in the organization could call, write, or Telex him and he would respond. In this case, the area manager sent a Telex directly to Bill complaining that “your HR guy has refused my request to airlift an injured rig hand to London by private jet.”

Bill showed up in my office shortly thereafter. “Do you understand who earns the money so you can be paid every month? It’s the rig crews. They are the life blood of the firm. People like you are a dime a dozen. I could find your replacement in a week. I want you to understand when an employee working on our rigs needs something, they will get it. We love these people. Not only am I authorizing the charter jet to London, we will pay for the family to go to London to be with him. Do you get it?” He was angry, and I was embarrassed.

Thinking his next sentence would be to fire me, all I could say was, “Yes sir.” Bill left my office, slamming the door behind him. I approved the private jet.

He didn’t just teach me about that company’s values. I thought, this was an extravagant gesture, but later concluded that it was an act of extravagant love for the employee and his family. He showed me tough love and forgiveness, all in the same breath.

Not only did I not get fired, I stayed for seven more years. I learned what was a valuable life lesson and over time came to appreciate what it meant to love your employees. Employees of that firm knew they would be treaty fairly based on their particular circumstances. The company policy manual was extremely brief, leaving little for managers to hide behind. Virtually all decisions were based on merits, not rules in a policy manual. This came as a shock to me, particularly after having worked with a company like Exxon, whose policies filled the equivalent of an encyclopedia set.

These values came with bottom-line benefits as well: lower turnover than the rest of the drilling industry, high trust levels, tremendous employee loyalty; the firm’s people loved the firm because the firm loved them. There was no executive turnover in the seven years I was there. And this was the same firm that created a job for me when mine had been eliminated (see blog entry, Integrity Squandered). Love is contagious. The love you give will come back to you in multiples.

But a loving culture is hard to establish if there is already a strong culture in place. For Reading & Bates, the culture was driven by Bill Kent. He was passionate and relentless. His love for his employees was coded in the company’s DNA, something I got to witness firsthand, for which I am still grateful. I know that approaching any situation with an attitude of love and forgiveness always results in better outcomes.

I thought of Bill Kent when I appreciated a recent instance in politics in which an expression of kindness crushed the opponent. Kindness is so unusual in politics that it made the papers, You Tube, Facebook, and most other popular media. In the October 9, 2013, edition of the Washington State newspaper, The Examiner, I read the following:

“It appears that Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. is sticking to the bipartisan charm that heavily boosted his approval ratings in his re-election campaign.

During the end of his debate with New Jersey Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono, the debate moderator asked each candidate to say something nice about their opponent. Buono took the opportunity to ding Christie for his appearances on late night television.

‘Well he’s good on late night TV, he’s just not good for New Jersey,’ she said as the crowd cheered.

Christie replied seriously, praising Buono for her public service.

‘She’s obviously a good a caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service in the state and she’s dedicated a lot of her life to it,’ Christie said. ‘And while we have policy disagreements, Christine, I would never denigrate her service and I think we need more people who care enough about our communities to be able to stand up and do the job that she’s done over the past 20 years,’ he said.

Although Christie is currently under the cloud of “Bridgegate,” I thought this was an example of real class.

It’s such a simple business idea–treating people with love, respect, and forgiveness. Kindness is so powerful. I can attest to the fact that extravagant love works for all relationships. I wish I had learned the lesson much earlier in my life.

Doug Gehrman teaches transformational leadership at Houston Baptist University. He had a 40-year corporate career in energy and financial services. He can be reached at dbgehrman@hotmail.com.