‘Your employees are someone’s precious child’

by Ana Lopez

What is good leadership? Bob Chapman has pursued this question as CEO and chairman of Barry-Wehmiller, an industrial manufacturing conglomerate headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, that was founded in 1885. When Bob inherited the company in 1975, it had $20 million in revenue and a leadership model that fits the times: rigid, top-down and driven by financial results and production efficiency. Over the decades, Bob has implemented a strategy focused on acquisitions and a culture he calls “Truly Human Leadership.” Not only did that dramatically improve employee satisfaction, both in the workplace and beyond, but it also helped grow the company to approximately $3 billion in revenue.

Bob is a newly elected member of Ashoka’s Entrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur Network, which brings together influential corporate entrepreneurs with the world’s most powerful social entrepreneurs at Ashoka. We recently spoke about his leadership journey.

Constance Frischen: Bob, you’ve built your company, your vision, around the culture of ‘Truly Human Leadership’, which at its core has the intention to send people home with a fulfilled feeling.

Bob Chapman: That’s how it started, with that very simple thought.

Frischen: Before we get into the details that describe that culture, let me ask you this: What were the circumstances that led you to come up with this idea?

Chapman: I started my career with traditional management, which I learned in business school and experienced in the working environment. The transformation took place in three revelations. The first was in 1997. We had acquired a company in South Carolina. I flew there and on the first day I had coffee in the cafeteria before the office opened. It was March and in March in South Carolina everyone bets on college basketball. Everyone was talking about which college team won, they were all having fun. And the closer it got to eight o’clock, I watched the pleasure just leave their bodies. And I thought: “Why can’t entrepreneurship be fun?”

Frischen: So what have you been up to?

Chapman: Well, from me came the idea to create some games at work that aligned value creation with fun. My goal was just to have fun, but then orders also increased by 20 percent! So that was the first revelation. The second was in my church, watching my mentor deliver a sermon. I remember thinking, “What a privilege it is to be able to inspire all these people to be the person they are meant to be.” But then it dawned on me that this church only had us one hour a week. I said to my wife, Cynthia, “At work we have people under our care 40 hours a week. We are 40 times more powerful than our church to impact people’s lives.” As I walked out of that church that day, I saw that business could be the strongest force in the world if only we knew how to care for the people we get to lead.

Frischen: That’s very powerful. What was the third revelation?

Chapman: A few years later I was at a wedding and my boyfriend saw his daughter walking down the aisle. When I looked around, I saw how in love everyone was, how proud the parents were. I saw people looking at these two young people as someone’s precious child about to be married. And I realized that until then I always saw people in my organization as functions for my success. They were engineers, accountants, production workers. But that day my thoughts went to the thousands of people who worked for us, and I thought, “That’s not a receptionist, that’s not an engineer, that’s not a salesman – that’s someone’s precious child, just like these two young people here.” And I want to be able to say to their parents and loved ones that I have been a good steward of the deep responsibility that gives me.

Frischen: You evoke family values ​​here, even the religious atmosphere. I bet you’ve seen someone come up to you on more than one occasion and say, “Oh, that’s nice, but we need to focus on making money and being profitable.”

Chapman: First of all, we’ve outperformed Warren Buffett over the last 30 years. When people say to me, “How do you justify healthcare costs?” I tell them, “How do you justify not caring?” Most people, in most workplaces, do the bare minimum to make ends meet because they don’t feel valued. According to Gallup, three out of four people in this country are not engaged in what they do. If we had a machine tool in our factory that was only running at 25% of its capacity, we would tackle it. Why do we accept this with our human resources, our people? When you really start caring for people, when they feel safe, valued and part of the team, they share gifts they didn’t even know they had. But you need both. You can’t build a culture of care without first providing the security of a robust business model. The business model comes first, but the culture enables it to reach its full potential.

Frischen: Changing a culture starts with leadership. What do you define as good leadership?

Chapman: There’s a horrible word people use: Management. You should never use it. Management means manipulating others for your success. Leadership, on the other hand, means the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you.

Frischen: How do you manage them?

Chapman: The basis of caring is empathic listening. The most powerful, transformative thing we learn is how to listen to people, not to judge them, but to listen to them and validate them. The second thing we learn is how to recognize and celebrate people. When raising children, if you don’t celebrate what they do well five times more often than tell them what they can do better, it’s hard for them. So we ask ourselves, “How do you let people know, in a thoughtful, appropriate, and timely manner, that what they did matters?” And the third crucial element is fostering a culture of service: taking every opportunity to serve others. We teach people how to move from a me-centric world to a we-centric world, where we genuinely care about each other. These are all skills that we can learn.

Frischen: Speaking of teaching, you compare leadership to parenting. Many parents in the US, out of concern for their child, would encourage a career that leads to economic security rather than fulfillment. Do you see a tension between the culture you shape, aimed at meaning and happiness, and the economic reality in this country?

Chapman: Barry-Wehmiller works with 12,000 team members around the world, and I think it’s a universal truth that people just want to know they matter. It’s not an economic problem, it’s not about more money or better fringe benefits or more free time. The industrial revolution brought about economic prosperity and we thought that was the key to happiness. But now we have the greatest economic prosperity in the history of the world, and yet we have the highest level of depression and anxiety we’ve ever had. Why? It’s because we don’t know how to take care of each other. We have a society where success is defined as money, power and position; not fully share our gifts in the service of others. But if we taught people to genuinely care about them, we could heal the brokenness in this world.

Frischen: Your mission extends far beyond your company. One of your goals is to transform the education system. Do you want to intervene before people reach the labor market?

Chapman: Yes. We have our Leadership Institute with 60 team members, where we learn how to care for others. But why do we need to fix adults? It’s because our education system only teaches academic skills, not human skills like empathetic listening. We must learn what it means to care, rather than use. So we’re piloting Charlotte Latin, the top private school in North Carolina, where we teach these skills from kindergarten through 12th grade. And we helped launch the Humanistic Leadership Academy, where we partnered with business schools and organizations like the UN and Ashoka on this question: how can business schools teach leadership, rather than management? We have developed a curriculum and our goal is to train at least 5,000 professors from around the world over the next five years in how to teach and empower students to become humanistic leaders.

Frischen: You argue against the word ‘management’. You also refer to employees as “people in your care,” and your company calls its acquisitions “adoption.” Why is that important?

Chapman: Words are incredibly important. Name someone who wants to be managed. So why do we call people managers? We need people to see themselves as a coach or leader, not as a manipulator of others for financial success. We have inhuman terms to describe what human organizations should be. And until we change the language, it’s hard to change the behavior.

Frischen: How does this message resonate with other CEOs?

Chapman: I once dined with a very wealthy gentleman, who came out to hear me speak. He runs an organization with a hundred thousand employees and I asked him what he was most proud of in his life. He said, “I’m known for my $120 million gift to my alma mater, but what I’m really proud of is my athletic scholarship program for minority students.” I asked how many students he helps each year, and he told me five or six. So I said, “You’re telling me you’re really proud of five or six students, but you don’t care if a hundred thousand people walk into your office?” And this fine gentleman leaned back in his chair and said, “I never thought about that.” So here’s what I tell people: The greatest act of charity isn’t the checks you write. The greatest act of charity is how you treat the people you get to lead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can learn more about Bob Chapman’s philosophy through his blogging And his bio. You can read more about Ashoka’s Entrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur Network here.

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