St. Louis, MO
Number of Employees
Barry-Wehmiller’s “Truly Human Leadership”
Barry-Wehmiller Companies, Inc., a $1.7-billion capital equipment and consulting services company, is successful in many ways. But the company’s outlook was not always so rosy. When Bob Chapman took over as chief executive officer (CEO) in 1976, shortly after the death of Bob’s father, who had been the company’s CEO, company management and finances were quite challenging. Chapman led the acquisition of a number of small businesses, and he tried to bring them together to operate as one effective entity. From that experience, he was able to see that in order for people to work together and give their best effort to the company’s priorities, they needed to be trusted and empowered. Chapman set out to make this happen.
The “Truly Human Leadership” approach that developed has helped Barry-Wehmiller grow and prosper. The company strives to send its people home safe, well, and fulfilled each day.
Transformative Beginnings Lead to Truly Human Leadership
During his early years as CEO, as he acquired several small manufacturing firms, Chapman focused on what he learned in business school – maximizing shareholder value and profit (Chapman, 2012, 2013a). However, as he took the time to observe the company’s people at work, to sit with them and listen to their concerns, he changed his business-school way of thinking. At one plant, he noticed there was great camaraderie and energy among the workers as they arrived at the plant, but that positive-energy bubble deflated as they started their work. At another facility, plant workers expressed that they felt mistrusted and less valued than office workers because their work began and ended with a bell, and the parts and tools they needed were kept in locked closets, implying the workers might steal them.
Chapman decided that in order to create an environment where people were willing to give their commitment to the organization, they first needed to feel a sense of trust. “To earn trust, we needed to extend trust,” says Chapman. He listened to employees, including blue collar workers, engineers, sales and marketing staff, and administrative workers, and he saw the situation from their point of view. Managers got rid of time clocks, shift bells, and locked closets. They deliberately created a more relaxed and supportive workplace, an environment where people could “fully engage their heads, hearts, and hands,” says Chapman.
Another defining moment in the transformation of Chapman’s leadership mindset came when he and his wife attended the wedding of a young couple. As he watched the father give away his treasured daughter’s hand in marriage, entrusting her to the groom, Chapman realized it was much the same for the thousands of people whose lives were entrusted to him. He realized the tremendous responsibility he had as a leader to take care of and steward the precious lives of those he had the privilege to lead.
Chapman set a priority to develop a leadership approach that would enable people’s work to be in harmony with people-centric values. The drafting of the company’s Guiding Principles of Leadership articulated these values into a vision statement to unite and inspire the growing organization. He called on associates of the company to be involved in developing the leadership approach, which has evolved and is now called “Truly Human Leadership.” Barry-Wehmiller’s Culture and People Development team (traditionally called human resources in other companies) and Organizational Empowerment team worked together and with others over time to develop the principles and the language that would encourage associates to “live out Truly Human Leadership, fostering and celebrating personal growth through meaningful work, thereby changing people’s lives,” says Chapman.
To examine the issue of safety and workers’ compensation costs against the backdrop of a people-centric culture, Chapman asked a group of associates, “If we measure success by the ways we touch the lives of people, how does that relate to safety?” The old goal of “reducing work comp costs and lost time accidents” turned into a new goal: “We commit to sending our friends home safe each day.” The new way of thinking encouraged a different focus, inspiring people to care, rather than informing them about safe practices. It was a transformative moment for the company.
Only when we feel we are in a Circle of Safety will we pull together as a unified team, better able to survive and thrive regardless of the conditions outside.
Fulfillment Through Work
While developing the leadership principles and people-centric goal-setting processes, the company began looking at other areas that aligned with the sense of stewardship for people’s lives. Chapman says the company looked at how work contributes to a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, a joy in working together toward a common purpose, and “. . . an understanding that someone cares what I do and who I am.” This is supported by the company’s leadership principle that states, “Positive, insightful communication empowers individuals and teams along the journey.”
The principles are also reinforced in Barry-Wehmiller University, an internal education institute that includes a three-day communication skills training course focused on nonverbal communication, reflective listening, and effective confrontation. To date, nearly 3,500 associates (about 50% of the company) have participated in the communication course. Sara Hannah, academic director of Barry-Wehmiller University, provides the following description of the course’s powerful effect:
“Associates report that the training and repeated use of these skills at work has enabled them to be not just better workers, but better people. We hear more about how Communication Skills Training impacts life at home—how people feel that they are better parents and spouses as a result of the class. Even customers and vendors report that Barry-Wehmiller’s culture has affected their people and organizations in positive ways.”
The company has most recently applied its people-centric principles to the area of well-being. For years, Barry-Wehmiller has offered traditional physical and mental health risk appraisals, biometric screenings, courses, coaching, and incentives through key partner resources. The company also provides tobacco cessation, physical activity, stress management, healthy eating, and weight management programs. The employee assistance program (called the Associate Assistance Program) offers individual counseling (three face-to-face sessions per year) for associates and their family members, as well as trainings on personal finances, relationships, parenting, and life issues. In addition, the company’s retirement plan provider offers tools for managing finances and retirement planning to help reduce financial stress.
A healthcare transparency provider was added two years ago to support wise consumerism when associates access the company’s health plan. Associates and family members are referred to these resources through traditional communication modes but most often through the strong relationships that associates have with members of the local Culture and People Development team.
A year ago, however, the company began moving away from simply offering programs and informing people about their health risks and healthcare costs and toward inspiring and encouraging each other to take healthy actions. Alexis Dendrinelis, Barry-Wehmiller’s well-being leader, says the company is “building a culture of total well-being. It is a whole-person approach supporting balance in the key areas that contribute to living a thriving life—financial, social, career/purpose, physical, and community.” These areas and their relationships, as shown in the graphic below, are directly adopted from the book, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements by Rath and Harter (2010). Using this resource as the foundation, a global vision of well-being was developed by associates in October 2013 to reflect the company’s desired state for all. The vision statement Living Well, Thriving Together captures the message and essence of the company’s desired state for all associates and the lives they touch.
In support of the community involvement pillar of the well-being model, associates are encouraged to go out into the community and make a difference. “It keeps people active, and it builds a deep sense of fulfillment, meaning, purpose, and camaraderie,” says Dendrinelis. A growing body of research suggests community volunteerism may help to buffer emotional distress and contribute to a positive sense of well-being and perceived health in the volunteer (Borgonovi, 2008).
Effects of Culture Transformation
Like other companies across the world, Barry-Wehmiller has been tested financially. During the 2008 economic downturn, Barry-Wehmiller experienced a 40% drop in revenue in its new equipment business. While in the past Chapman may have considered downsizing by reducing the number of employees, his thinking about people had changed. “We wouldn’t get rid of a family member during hard times,” he says. “So, our approach was one of shared sacrifice—each of us taking a little pain so that no one individual or family would be devastated.”
Rather than cutting staff, the company suspended all 401(k) contribution matching and implemented a mandatory furlough. All associates took four weeks without pay to allow everyone to keep their jobs. The company communicated the message via a video in which Chapman shared the current state of the business with associates around the world. Because people could see their leader’s emotion and concern, they were able to believe and accept the message. “I felt proud to be part of the organization, proud of how we responded,” said John Kondratuk, engineering leader.
The company’s leaders were astounded by the loyalty and gratitude expressed by associates. Union workers decided to follow suit and align with the other workers’ sacrifices. When the economic crunch lightened, the company repaid to all associates the 401(k) match they had given up.
The people-centric approach has strengthened the organization’s culture, Chapman believes. He thinks the culture transformation is responsible for the company’s financial success as well. Since shifting the focus away from profits and shareholder value to people and the ways they touch others’ lives, ironically the profits and shareholder value have increased. The effect is systemic, with the results originally seen in the company’s core businesses being replicated over numerous acquisitions and additions to the “family,” including acquisitions in other countries, such as France, Italy, and Germany.
The company’s holistic approach to well-being may translate to beneficial effects on healthcare costs as well. According to results from the ongoing survey of the American workplace and employee engagement by Gallup (2013), among the 22% of respondents who are engaged in their jobs and “thriving” in their lives, health-related costs are 41% lower than among “struggling” employees and 62% lower than among “suffering” employees. Thus far, Barry-Wehmiller compares favorably to national norms in terms of health risk aggregates and healthcare cost benchmarks. In terms of safety issues and workers’ compensation claims, a dramatic drop was experienced after applying a people-centric approach. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) experience rating standards show an industry average of 1.0 (NCCI, 2014). Barry-Wehmiller’s rating, currently .56, is 44% better than the industry average, which means Barry-Wehmiller truly is sending more associates home safe!
Explaining the Effects of Truly Human Leadership
The Barry-Wehmiller leadership culture has drawn the interest of organizational behavior scholars Christopher Long, PhD, and Markus Baer, PhD, who completed multiple years of research to better understand and explain the unique effects of this leadership message. Their research demonstrated a strong connection between feeling a part of the culture and five core elements linked to well-being (Long & Baer, 2013):
Purpose in life
There is truly something unique happening at Barry-Wehmiller. The organization is able to combine these five elements into a culture with significant benefits validated through research. Most notably, associates who feel a part of the culture are more likely to exhibit perspective taking and personal initiative and to define themselves as a leader.
These research outcomes align well with Barry-Wehmiller’s guiding principle that every associate has the opportunity to positively impact the lives of others and to be a leader in the organization. Author Simon Sinek (2014) has also analyzed Barry-Wehmiller’s approach to leadership and its positive effect on associates. Sinek suggests the company has created a work environment and company culture that, biologically, gets the best out of people (p. 15). The more we trust that the people to the left of us and the people to the right of us have our backs, the better equipped we are to face the constant threats from the outside together.
The Partnership’s collaborative research examining employers’ perceived organizational strengths for reducing distress and building resilience also suggests that people-centric, values-based leadership builds healthy work cultures (Spangler, Koesten, Fox, & Radel, 2012).
Only when we feel we are in a Circle of Safety will we pull together as a unified team, better able to survive and thrive regardless of the conditions outside.
Sinek further describes the biological mechanisms around Truly Human Leadership’s effect as “four primary chemical incentives in our bodies (p. 38)” that have evolved to drive people toward survival and ultimately, toward cooperating and working well together. (Biological Behavior Drivers; Sinek, 2014, p. 38)
Endorphins and dopamine (“selfish chemicals”): Drive us where we need to go as individuals — e.g., to find food, build shelters, invent tools.
Serotonin and oxytocin (“selfless chemicals”): Strengthen our social bonds — to cooperate, trust one another, remain loyal, ensure survival of our progeny.
Summary and Suggestions for Employers
On his leadership blog, Chapman (2013b) comments on a 2013 Gallup poll of 155 countries that concluded that the number one determinant of happiness is a good job. To him, that means “. . .work that is meaningful and done in the company of people we care about.” Chapman and his leadership team have dedicated themselves to providing meaningful work and caring environments to their associates on a daily basis.
Chapman has empowered all associates to live out the Barry-Wehmiller principles and share the Truly Human Leadership message. Other employers considering adoption of people-centric leadership should consider the following recommendations:
Create people-centric traditions; celebrate overcoming challenges together, publicly and regularly. Reward cooperative successes.
Establish specific language expressing the people-centric values, ethics, vision, and mission; make these explicit through the company’s website and during all company meetings.
Work together to establish organization-, team-, and individualbased goals; review the goals regularly.
Provide training in basic communication, and reinforce concepts through regularly scheduled communication channels, including face-to-face meetings when possible. Even if electronic delivery is required, a facial image may be helpful.
Provide resources (e.g., employee assistance programs or community offerings) to help employees with performance issues that might be related to distress or mental health conditions.
Ensure that company leaders embody the established values and expect the same integrity of all associates, clients, and vendors.
About Barry-Wehmiller Companies
Barry-Wehmiller is a diversified global supplier of manufacturing technology and services across a broad spectrum of industries, predominately producing machinery for packaging and shipping.
Nancy Spangler, PhD, OTR/L is a consultant to the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.
Last Updated: January 2015
Borgonovi, F. (2008). Doing well by doing good. The relationship between formal volunteering and self-reported health and happiness. Social Science, 66(11), 2331–2334.
Chapman, R. (2012). Truly human leadership. TEDx Talk given at Scott Air Force Base.
Chapman, R. (2013a). People-centric leadership. Keynote to the Institute for Healthcare Consumerism.
Chapman, R. (2013b). Reflect, recharge, resume. September 25, 2013 blog.
Gallup. (2013). State of the American Workplace Report.
Long, C., & Baer, M. (2013). [Antecedents to and consequences of employee psychological well-being.] Unpublished raw data.
National Council on Compensation Insurance. (2014). ABCs of experience rating
Rath, T., & Harter, J. (2010). Wellbeing: The five essential elements. New York: Gallup Press.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last. New York: Penguin Group.
Spangler, N. W., Koesten, J., Fox, M. H., & Radel, J. (2012). Employer perceptions of stress and resilience intervention. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 54(11), 1421–1429. doi:10.1097/JOM.0b013e3182619038