Every company can name a handful, or sometimes, one person that represents the heart of their organization. Often times it’s not the CEO or a member of the senior executive team. It’s usually someone working hard in the trenches – someone closest to the employees and customers. These people should be honored and cherished.
Link Wilfley is President of A.R. Wilfley & Sons Inc, a fifth generation family business that engineer, manufacture, sell and support heavy duty centrifugal pumps in the most severe pumping applications around the world. Link’s great-great grandfather, Arthur Redman Wilfley started the business with his two sons George and Elmer in the early 1900’s in Denver, 1919 marking the official year. Pumping applications is not a sexy business, but I have learned more about leadership from A.R. Wilfley’s current thirty-six-year old President than most tenured Fortune 500 CEO’s.
Link and I both have eight-year old sons that play on the same hockey team. Our boys get up early five days a week to practice before school. Not many kids under the age of ten show that kind of commitment for the game. But our son’s do. And our alarm clocks go off at 5:00am because of our son’s passion!
If I were ever to have a man crush it would be with Link. He is built like Michelangelo’s Statue of David – having played professional rugby in England and a four-time member of the US National Team. But what makes me admire Link is not his physical strength but his heart-led leadership style and sheer loyalty and commitment to the 150 people that call themselves employees of A.R. Wilfley.
Last month I invited Link and our boys to a Colorado Avalanche hockey game. Not knowing a darn thing about heavy duty centrifugal pumping applications, I drilled him with questions. And what I learned is that his company, like most domestic industrial manufacturers, is challenged with innovation, off-shore competition and efficiencies. After listening intently, I asked Link a direct question, “Have you ever thought about selling your company?”
I shared with Link that if 100 business consultants and analytic experts studied his business model, perhaps 99 of them would recommend him to consider selling – taking the tens of millions of dollars of profit and reinvest in current technologies and new industries.
Link’s answer was only three words, “No Way!” (I left out the middle word to keep this BLOG rated PG!). Conversation over.
A few days later I received a hand-written letter from Link thanking me for taking he and his son Luke to the AV’s game. And then he shared his heart with me. “Tommy, on the cover of this card is a picture of Phu Sinh Truong. Sinh is a Vietnamese gentleman that has worked in our assembly department for 37 years. He has a tremendous story of resilience and perseverance to make it to the United States. I grew up working at the plant alongside him and many others in our company, and they truly do feel like family. You asked me the other day if I would ever sell my company. The reason why I would never sell is because of men like Phu Sinh Truong. It would be disloyal to Arthur, Elmer, George, Mike, Jack, Tony, Chuck, Art, Clint, Sing, Yen, Hung and the hundreds of thousands of family members that have been with us over the past hundred years.”
After I finished reading Link’s words, I closed his card and wiped a tear from my eye. And I said to myself, “Every leader should have that much love and loyalty towards their best people.” And I thanked God that He put Link in my life to teach me this valuable lesson.
[The people and organization in the next part of the story are altered to protect the innocent and the guilty.]
Doreen Westman worked for Change the World non-profit organization for nearly thirty years. Of the tens of thousands of volunteers, staff and participants of Change the World, Doreen was, like Phu Sinh Truong, the heart of the company. Doreen was not the CEO or on the senior executive team – she worked in the trenches closest to the mission of the organization – bringing her best to work for nearly three decades. I once witnessed Doreen walk in a room of four hundred Change the World student participants clapping politely after the founder gave his remarks, but giving Doreen a roaring standing ovation after she was mentioned only by first name. That was the kind of selfless leader Doreen Westman was. She represented the heart and soul of Change the World.
Last year Doreen was fired from Change the World. I have held the position of CEO in past organizations and understand the unfortunate need for layoffs, downsizing and company restructuring. I was not angry to hear “why” Doreen was fired. Organizations need to make hard decisions to survive and thrive. However, I was infuriated with “how” Doreen was fired. After nearly three decades of being the heart and soul of Change the World, Doreen was called into her superior’s office one morning and told, unexpectedly, that today was her last day. She needed to pack up her belongings and she would be escorted out the building. No goodbyes. No thank you. No recognition. No nothing.
I recently wrote Doreen a long letter telling her how I feel about her. I told her that of the tens of thousands of alumni, volunteers and staff members of Change the World, that she was my very favorite. That she was the heart and soul of this remarkable organization. And I thanked her and honored her for giving her life to Change the World’s mission.
It took quite some time for Doreen to respond to my e-mail. Later, she admitted, that she was overwhelmed with my words. Her response was first class. Hiding the pain, she did not say one bad word about the organization that she and I love so dearly. But what Doreen said was something that rocked my heart, “After thirty years Tommy, all I wanted was a goodbye cake. Nothing more, just a cake!”
Every organization has a Doreen Westman and a Phu Sinh Truong. They are the heart of your organization. Identify them. Thank them. Honor them. Value them. Praise them. Protect them. Love them. And if they ever leave your organization, for whatever reason, for heaven’s sake please buy them a damn cake!