Senior leaders have faced some seriously tough questions in the past year, as Covid-19 has complicated even the most routine processes. One of the biggest, and trickiest, questions posed by this pandemic has been: How do we care for our employees?
The answer to that question naturally varies based on a huge number of factors. No two organizations are exactly alike. But there is one common denominator: listening to your people.
“If you’re not listening to your team, they’re going to find somebody that will listen to them.” That’s what Dennis Berger had to say when asked how he has built a culture of caring leadership in his role as Chief Culture Officer at Suffolk Construction.
Dennis Berger, Chief Culture Officer, Suffolk Construction
That was a lesson Berger learned early in his career, as a 23-year-old manager leading a group of Teamsters who were far more experienced.
“To this day, it was probably the toughest job I ever had,” he said. “You’re on a loading dock for ten hours a day, giving direction, leading people. And what I learned was that it wasn’t about me. I needed them more than they needed me.”
Of course, it wasn’t just about the listening. Berger was committed to doing what he could for his team, even if it was a little unconventional.
“The state fair was going on. We were working on a Saturday, and it was the last weekend of the fair,” Berger recounted. “Chet, one of my team members, came to me and said, ‘Hey, I have the kids this weekend and I’d really love to take them to the fair.’ It looked like it was going to be a long day for us, so my mission became getting Chet out of there so he could take his kids to the fair.”
Within a Teamsters environment, Berger couldn’t just choose to send someone home. Seniority was a factor, and Chet was number 25 on the list. That meant Berger had to personally negotiate with the 24 people ahead of him.
“I went to each member of the team. I went to the first one with the most seniority and explained and said, ‘Is it okay if I let Chet go ahead of you today?’ And maybe five folks say no. But everyone else said, ‘That’s fine, go ahead of me.’ Eventually I got to Chet.”
Berger has found that dedication to employees to be just as, if not more important, than it was then. In an industry where skilled labor is in low supply and high demand, attracting and retaining great people is critical to success.
“It’s all about the frontline people, and for us at Suffolk, it’s the tradespeople,” he explained. “We have a lot of bright people that are solving problems every single day, building these massive 50-, 60-story buildings.”
So, how does Berger maintain that commitment to communication and caring as an executive? From the C-suite it is much harder—if not impossible—to be connected with what is happening on the frontlines. Imparting the stakes of that commitment down the chain of command has been a large part of Berger’s strategy.
“That’s one of the things we try to impress upon leaders all the time, is that you have to listen to your people,” Berger said. “Otherwise, they may find an attorney, or they go to Glassdoor, or even Twitter. The stakes were always high if you didn’t listen to your people. Now, partly because of social media, they’re much higher.”
If you’re wondering whether it’s worth hiring an external consultant to conduct assessments and surveys, according to Berger, it makes an impact. Surveys, and more importantly, making sure to ask the right questions on surveys, has been another part of his strategy.
“We use tools like surveys and other ways to stay in touch with what is truly happening at the frontline level,” Berger said. “We do project-level surveys twice a year to monitor and measure how the project teams are doing, exactly what’s going on, what help they need, how they can get better.”
I spent 428 days working at Two Wall Street as a lawyer until 1993, when I started conducting interviews on the front lines of the workplace. That’s when I wrote my first