“Success and failure are based on who leaders listen to.”
Sadly, Sears is the latest in a string of previously successful companies that have gone bankrupt. Their failure is more painful to me than all of the others. Reason being, when I was a child, it was this time of the year that we either received their large Christmas catalog in the mail or picked it up at one of their stores. We couldn’t wait to go through it, making lists of all the toys we knew were not going to get. That catalog signaled the start of the Holiday Season. Now, Sears is about to become history.
Many articles and books will be written about what went wrong. Some will be true and others will be revisionist. Regardless what slant is taken, Sears, similar to all of the other industry leaders no longer around, waited too long to fundamentally change.
In talking with people who worked within companies that failed, I have developed the following hypothesis: There were always people within the company and frustrated customers outside of it who knew way before the problems started showing up in the numbers that change was needed or that the company was changing in the wrong way. Unfortunately, leadership wasn’t listening to them. Instead, leaders were listening to high-priced consultants.
Employees, especially frontline ones, know when things aren’t going well and will tell you before bad news show up in the numbers. The key for leadership is to go where they are instead of having them come to where you are. For example, when I was running the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of Georgia-Pacific’s Distribution Division, at least once a quarter, I would get up at 4am and go on deliveries with our truck drivers. We would go to a customer location and they would say, “I didn’t make a delivery to them last week when I used to every week, or I didn’t deliver as much to them this week.” They don’t try to be politically correct or throw someone else under the bus.
The same is true with frustrated customers. They will tell you exactly what is wrong with your products and services. To keep my finger on the pulse of customer frustration, I would also sit with customer service at least once a quarter and listen to customer calls. If leadership waits on customer and third-party customer satisfaction scores, it is too late.
Another people source within the company that leadership has to listen to are what I refer to as mavericks. They are the people who can see the future way before anyone else. Mavericks don’t get listened to because they are not good communicators. They always come across as being mad because they are frustrated that other people can’t see what they do. The good thing about mavericks is they will come to you. Normally, they will just show up at your office or corner you outside of your office. One actually cornered me in the restroom when I was at Medtronic. Leaders have to take the time to meet with them and listen to the spirit of what they are saying instead of the words that they are using. Steve Jobs was one of those mavericks, as was Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank.
In closing, Sears hurts. Unfortunately, more hurting will come until leaders start listening to the right people.