Be Human First

Be Human First

Greg McKeown is a LinkedIn Influencer

Author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Source: Greg McKeown – LinkedIn

I was recently driving a hybrid car I had just rented from Hertz. I was in heavy snow on the highway in Utah. Suddenly, the dashboard started flashing “Service Power Steering Assist” and the power steering stopped working. Then within a few seconds there was another flashing message, “Service Brake Assist.” The brakes were no longer working properly. With huge pressure on the brake, I was able to slow down and, rather miraculously, get off the highway safely.

Sitting in the stationary car I watched the car-equivalent of a PC’s blue screen. One “service” message flashed after another. The car’s functions shut down one by one until I was unable to either turn the car fully on or fully off.

With 30 minutes to get to a conference where I was a speaking, I called Hertz’ emergency roadside assistance. I was just simple enough to believe they would care because I was, you know, a human who could have been really hurt. Alas.

Despite repeated attempts at explaining the situation I was given only the policy answer: we will pick you up in a while (can’t promise you when) and bring you to the airport to exchange the car. Miss your keynote? Too bad. Miss the appointments after that? Not our problem.

I asked them to bring a replacement car to the conference center. “Sorry sir, we can’t do that.” I hung up. I abandoned the car. I got a taxi. I made it to the conference on time.

A couple of hours later Hertz called to say they had changed their mind. They could bring me the replacement car. But why did it have to be such a dehumanizing process? Is it inevitable that as companies scale they become less human?

Be Human First

As I was reflecting on this experience, I read Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao’s new book, “Scaling with Excellence” where they share an even more shocking customer service experience. It happened to a colleague (of mine and theirs) from the d.School at Stanford, Perry Klebahn.

Perry and his wife Annie, “had a distressing experience on June 30, 2012, when they sent their ten-year-old-daughter Phiebe on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Chicago–with a transfer to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for summer camp. The Klebahns paid United $99 extra to look after Phoebe because she was traveling as an “unaccompanied minor.” No one showed up in Chicago to help Phoebe with the transfer. United outsourced this service, and the employees ‘forgot’ to show up. Although Phoebe’s plane reached Chicago on time, she missed the connection. This happened even though she repeatedly asked United employees to help her. They simply told her to wait. They refused at least three requests from her to use a phone to call her parents and the camp to tell them about the glitch.

“When Phoebe didn’t reach Grand Rapids, camp officials made frantic calls to Perry and Annie, who then sought help from United Airlines. Perry and Annie manned different phones and each begged multiple employees to help find their daughter–but all refused to help. Finally, an employee in Chicago told Perry that she was going off her shift and didn’t have time to help. Perry asked her if she was a mother. She answered yes. Then he asked ,”If you were missing your child for forty-five minutes, what would you do?” That question provoked her to act, and she found Phoebe within fifteen minutes. In her role as a United employee, she wouldn’t help; she did the right thing only after being reminded of her role as a mother.”

And really that is the point: we need customer service people to be people.

Scaling Up Humanity

Here are five ways to rehumanize the work place as we seek to scale.

1. Stop talking about “the business.” I have spent years listening to people talk about “the business wants” or “marketing is going to do X” or “HR is rolling out Y.” But this type of language is dehumanizing because you can’t persuade or influence “an organization” you can only influence a person. By using a name you remind people of how to have a conversation to address concerns or make improvements.

2. Go WAY beyond your “open door policy.” Every CEO I work with says they have an open door policy. But in practice this is nowhere-at-all-not-even-close-to-enough. In one actual case, out of the thousands of employees only about 30 people came to speak with the CEO on a routine basis. It’s not surprising. There is just too much risk involved. We need to be out among the people, listening, helping and serving. Not five percent of the time but 50 percent of the time.

As Bob and Huggy write, “This is the most important thing that we learned. The one to keep in mind every day if you are bent on spreading excellence to more people and places: Those who master what venture capitalist Ben Horowitz calls ‘the black art of scaling a human organization’ behave as if they are fighting a ground war, not just an air war.”

3. Remember smaller teams = better results. One of the ironies of scaling larger human organizations is that smaller teams are better for humans. The complexity of human dynamics are such that beyond a certain size we can no longer maintain them properly.

4. Stop the bad (rather than push the good). Because “Bad is stronger than good” we can make more progress by jettisoning the practices that hold teams back. As Bob and Huggy put it, “Subtract bad behaviors rather than adding new behaviors.”

5. Be human first. Electronic Arts’ clever value, “Be human first” sounds a little odd: “Humans: please be human.” (also see Stan Slap’s book “Bury My Heart in Conference Room B” where he implores the reader to “Be human first. A manager second.”). But the corrosive power of large corporate hierarchies does seem to numb human sentiment. I have seen managers do things at work they wouldn’t dream of doing to their own friends. I have seen employees do things they wouldn’t dream of doing to people they met on the street.

In large organizations, anything less than the disciplined pursuit of the humane will lead to the undisciplined pursuit of the inhumane.