Leadership Models and Concepts
Right Boss, Wrong Company Betty Kesmer was continuously on top of things. In school, she had always been at the top of her class. When she went to work for her uncle’s shoe business, Fancy Footwear, she had been singled out as the most productive employee and the one with the best attendance. The company was so impressed with her that it sent her to get an M.B.A. to groom her for a top management position. In school again, and with three years of practical experience to draw on, Kesmer had gobbled up every idea put in front of her, relating many of them to her work at Fancy Footwear. When Kesmer graduated at the top of her class, she returned to Fancy Footwear.
To no one’s surprise, when the head of the company’s largest division took advantage of the firm’s early retirement plan, Kesmer was given his position. Kesmer knew the pitfalls of being suddenly catapulted to a leadership position, and she was determined to avoid them. In business school, she had read cases about family businesses that fell apart when a young family member took over with an iron fist, barking out orders, cutting personnel, and destroying morale. Kesmer knew a lot about participative management, and she was not going to be labeled an arrogant know-it-all. Kesmer’s predecessor, Max Worthy, had run the division from an office at the top of the building, far above the factory floor.
Two or three times a day, Worthy would summon a messenger or a secretary from the offices on the second floor and send a memo out to one or another group of workers. But as Kesmer saw it, Worthy was mostly an absentee autocrat, making all the decisions from above and spending most of his time at extended lunches with his friends from the Elks Club. Kesmer’s first move was to change all that. She set up her office on the second floor. From her always-open doorway she could see down onto the factory floor, and as she sat behind her desk she could spot anyone walking by in the hall. She never ate lunch herself but spent the time from 11 to 2 down on the floor, walking around, talking, and organizing groups. The workers, many of whom had twenty years of seniority at the plant, seemed surprised by this new policy and reluctant to volunteer for any groups. But in fairly short order, Kesmer established a worker productivity group, a “Suggestion of the Week” committee, an environmental group, a worker award group, and a management relations group.
Each group held two meetings a week, one without and one with Kesmer. She encouraged each group to set up goals in its particular focus area and develop plans for reaching those goals. She promised any support that was within her power to give. The group work was agonizingly slow at first. But Kesmer had been well trained as a facilitator, and she soon took on that role in their meetings, writing down ideas on a big board, organizing them, and later communicating them in notices to other employees. She got everyone to call her “Betty” and set herself the task of learning all their names. By the end of the first month, Fancy Footwear was stirred up. But as it turned out, that was the last thing most employees wanted. The truthfinally hit Kesmer when the entire management relations committee resigned at the start of their fourth meeting. “I’m sorry, Ms. Kesmer,” one of them said. “We’re good at making shoes, but not at this management stuff. A lot of us are heading toward retirement. We don’t want to be supervisors.” Astonished, Kesmer went to talk to the workers with whom she believed she had built good relations. Yes, they reluctantly told her, all these changes did make them uneasy. They liked her, and they didn’t want to complain. But given the choice, they would rather
go back to the way Mr. Worthy had run things. They never saw Mr. Worthy much, but he never got in their hair. He did his work, whatever that was, and they did theirs. “After you’ve been in a place doing one thing for so long,” one worker concluded, “the last thing you want to do is learn a new way of doing it.” Case Questions
1- What factors should have alerted Kesmer to the problems that eventually came up at Fancy Footwear?
2- Could Kesmer have instituted her changes without eliciting a negative reaction from the workers? If so, how?