“The service structure puts the frontline workers on center stage as the top performers,” Colleen Abdoulah, retired CEO of award winning WOW! (NYSE: WOW), explains her philosophy about corporate structure. “They’re who the audience comes to see. And all the rest of us, from the CEO to the vice presidents, ….to legal—we were all there in the background, helping put the concert on, helping our front line perform. So by structuring it that way, you take away the hierarchy, the bureaucracy, the power-based model that so many corporations exist on, and you put the power and the emphasis on the front line, the people dealing with the customers. They’re the ones the customers talked to all the time, not me.”
Abdoulah knows that prioritizing frontline workers communicates the message that “your job matters” or that “we can’t achieve our Mission without your help.” Sadly, many leaders decide their job description precludes the notion of spending precious time with employees who may report several levels below them on the organizational chart. Of course, it’s not easy. Time becomes increasingly scarce as one moves up the managerial ladder. However, Abdoulah put aside the temptation to fill her calendar exclusively with investors, c-suite executives and other corporate titans, prioritizing time for her front-line workers, the performers! In fact, she required that all employees, who did not have direct-line exposure to the end customer, make the time on a quarterly basis to interface directly with customers.
Terry, a technician who’d been slouched over in his seat, tilted his head back, scowling, and let “oh sh?t” slip from his lips when his name was announced on a hot muggy summer morning, learning that Abdoulah would ride along with him on his daily routine of trouble repairs and installations. Later, dressed in jeans, a WOW! T-shirt and boots, Abdoulah told Terry “I’m here to help. Don’t treat me like the CEO. I’m to be your assistant. I want to learn from you. I want to observe what you go through during your day. So put me to work.”
Toward the end of their day together, after carrying ladders through back yards, drilling holes to route cable from one room to the next and dining on fast food between appointments, Abdoulah recanted the hilarious exchange she had with one customer who asked “how long you’ve been doing this [installation work].” Abdoulah replied “to be honest, I don’t really do this. I’m the CEO of the company, and I’m out to help our employee and learn what goes on in the field.” In response the customer summoned her husband to join the conversation, who, upon hearing that Abdoulah was the CEO said, “that explains it.” Confused, Abdoulah sought to clarify- “explains what?” The man tried to clear things up, “we’ve been commenting all day while you’ve been here that this is such a great company. Everybody is so knowledgeable at what they do—that is, except you.”
“Well,” Abdoulah told me, chuckling, “we all had a good laugh. But I’ll tell you we have a WOW! A Friend referral program, and we must have gotten three or four referrals from that woman.”
Abdoulah’s leadership philosophy and its resulting corporate culture generated much more than a handful of customer referrals. During her tenure as CEO WOW! grew from $200 million in revenue to over $1 billion, becoming one of the ten largest cable operators in the United States. Abdoulah attributes the growth to, among other things, an exceptional, customer focused workforce that provided a differentiated customer experience. J.D. Power and Associates validated WOW!’s ability to deliver an exceptional customer experience, recognizing WOW! with seventeen first place rankings in its consumer studies of telecom companies.
Making WOW!’s front line workers a top priority on her calendar as well as on the calendars of all WOW! executives demonstrated Abdoulah’s commitment to WOW!’s mission of providing a differentiated customer experience. In demonstrating her commitment to the organization’s mission and resisting the often-seductive temptation of secluding herself and her calendar among other executives and investors Abdoulah’s actions communicated to front-line workers that “your job matters,” or “the orchestra cannot perform without your contribution.”
Abdoulah’s leadership style certainly “fused” together WOW!’s employees, who together built a national powerhouse. Truly a masterful performance by Abdoulah’s “orchestra” that left the audience wanting more!
By Dudley Slater, co-author, with Steve Taylor, of Fusion Leadership Unleashing The Movement of Monday Morning Enthusiasts.