How one small realization radically influenced the leadership style of FHI’s CEO.
In this age of pervasive workforce shortages, many business leaders are paying more attention to their workplace culture. These underlying mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors form the foundation of how your team works and interacts day in and out. Organizations with healthy, inclusive, and adaptable cultures are increasingly understood to deliver a strategic and competitive advantage, both for operational performance and to attract the best talent.
For many years, I firmly believed that leading our operations with a “Business is Family” mindset was one of the paths to success. To me, that mentality created the underpinning of a high-performing culture that prioritized care and compassion. While both qualities are key aspects of a great work environment, my treating employees like family wasn’t impacting our family-owned business’ performance the way I expected. Instead of growing, it was stagnant.
Determined to figure out why, I sat down with my executive coach, Raymond Gleason. Raymond lobbed a question that hit me square between the eyes: “What is the major difference between a family culture and a business family culture?”
This stopped me right in my tracks. I was stumped. To me, family culture and business family culture were one and the same.
After an uncomfortable reflection, struggling to find an answer that never came, Raymond shared the difference. “The relationships with your business family are conditional. The relationships with your actual family are unconditional,” he explained.
With my abundance of heart, I was failing to distinguish the difference between a business family and a personal family — the one you go home to at night. I was mistakenly treating business family relationships unconditionally like I would with my personal family.
In retrospect, that lack of differentiation on my part was only fostering a nice, friendly, caring culture. A great thing to be sure. But Raymond’s observation made it clear that by continuing with that style of leadership, our business had no chance to achieve higher performance.
Why is this the case? Effective leaders help create a high-performance culture, positioning the organization to successfully pursue its vision. Treat a business family unconditionally and the emphasis on relationships becomes paramount — overriding emphasis on performance.
Putting performance on the back burner, even unconsciously, is what happens when a workplace culture treats team members unconditionally. Instead of shouldering responsibility and expecting accountability, leaders morph into parental figures or trusted siblings.
In conditional leadership, you recognize that employees are hired and retain their jobs based on the condition they will perform to a certain standard or level. This is the primary hiring objective. The decision to hire a new employee or retain a current one should never be based on the condition of building a lifelong relationship. Save that for marriage — not a job candidate.
How do you know if you’ve allowed an unconditional mindset to take priority over conditional leadership? In my opinion, there are three key signs:
If you recognize your leadership style in one or more of these scenarios — and your operational performance is not where it should be — then it’s time to embrace the discomfort and charge through it toward truly transformational leadership. Handling situations like these with care and compassion helps position company culture toward the primary goal of high performance, with positive relationships a key, yet secondary, benefit.
When I transitioned my theory of leadership to the “conditional versus unconditional” perspective, I followed four maxims.
A key leadership skill is knowing how to communicate with your team. You need to teach people the principle of “conditional versus unconditional.” Articulate your perspective on your business family and how it differs from your personal family. Share this first with your current team members, then with your job candidates.
For me, it looks like this: When I start getting to know someone new to my direct team, I am intentional about sharing my perspectives on leadership theory and culture — as well as the journey I took to reach this realization (as I shared above). That leads to an informal, yet purposeful, conversation about conditional versus unconditional leadership. I believe when a team member hears me recount my personal path to understanding why this is important for our business’s success, it makes it easier for them to appreciate the concept.
Unfortunately, effective leadership isn’t all about relationships. You also have to drive results for your business and answer to stakeholders. This means expertly facilitating resource management and staffing, as well as being able to prove that your employees are pushing the business forward.
Create documentable, observable, and trackable success measurements for each position. Specificity drives accountability. If you do not have this in place, consider involving the person in each position to help create them. Objective conversations around performance are less personal.
At FHI, it was important to adopt a more metric-based approach to both quantify and improve performance. At the same time, I wanted to convey that this shift did not mean eliminating our culture of caring about people. I introduced the measurable accountability concept at an offsite meeting with our leadership team so as to have their full focus and eliminate daily interruptions. That made it clear that this was really important.
During that session, I shared experiences in which I had previously struggled to address underperformance with people whom I cared about deeply. But I also described how my reluctance to do so was ultimately a disservice to the organization as a whole. Then I explained my concerns about how our culture — and our business — was at risk if we continued approaching relationships unconditionally and allowing the preservation of harmonious relationships to usurp performance.
Walking my leadership team through the rationale in a distraction-free environment really helped them understand and embrace our new approach.
When you must part ways with someone who has become a friend, you will have to accept that the relationship likely will be affected for a long time. That reality can be hard to swallow.
I’ve had to do this more than once, and I can assure you it is never pleasant or comfortable. For example, FHI previously had a team member whom I had known since the very early days of the company — even before I joined the business. As I came on board and advanced through different roles, this person was always tremendously supportive and gave me valuable advice and guidance.
By the time I reached the executive level, this colleague was leading a business unit with limited success. From a measurable, objective perspective, the unit never produced the type of financial results that were expected. After several meetings and discussions about how the company could provide more support with no results, I began to lose confidence in the person’s ability to oversee the execution of the business unit and generate profits.
Everyone really liked this person and we had a meaningful history. But ultimately, when evaluating the situation through the conditional leadership lens and having the documented performance measurements in hand, it became obvious that we needed to end our professional relationship. It was a very difficult day, but ultimately — after some time, awkwardness, and adjustment — our personal relationship has continued and remains both positive and congenial.
Your heart must continue to beat strong for the people in your organization. If you want to be more than an autocratic leader (and you should, then it’s a necessity to really care for the people you lead. Forget this and you’ll become leadership toast. Placing a high emphasis on performance does not undervalue the time you invest in connecting with people on a heart level.
Again, as a business family culture, we care about each other. And we care enough about each other that we want everyone to get better together — even if that means challenging each other with the same degree of passion. This is a key component of the message about conditional versus unconditional leadership and one that I continue to evangelize. Like many strategies in a leader’s arsenal, over-communication of essential values and their importance to the business drive a better understanding of your thinking and decision-making process.
As a CEO who has put this perspective into practice, it’s amazing to experience the beauty of a high-performance culture. You will find your team accomplishes goals more frequently, and when they don’t, the performance spirit of the organization finds a way to improve without finger-pointing.
Unexpectedly, in a high-performance culture, you’ll notice people move closer to each other with care and respect for one another more than in a culture that overemphasizes harmonious relationships. Hire and retain your team based on the condition that people perform to clear standards, and your business family just may bring you many of the joys of your actual family.
Ryan Wall is CEO of FHI, which was founded by his parents — Chuck and JB Wall — in 1991. With the creation of FHI, Chuck and JB pioneered the professional unloading industry. With a reliable and professionally trained workforce, FHI quickly fulfilled Chuck’s vision by bringing new levels of productivity and transparency to carriers, vendors, and distribution centers.
After 25 years of transportation and distribution of grocery merchandise, Chuck passed the baton to his son, Ryan in 2014. Prior to his current role, Ryan held administrative, operational, HR, and leadership development duties within FHI. As CEO, he lives out a passion for service that creates memorable and measurable differences.
Three decades later, the spirit of “finding a better way” continues to evolve at FHI, inspiring FHI’s current service offerings: FHI NOW, FHI Distribution, FHI 3PL, and FHI Logistics. FHI remains committed to service that makes a memorable and measurable difference by contributing resources that make supply chains stronger. For more information, visit www.fhiworks.com.
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