Corporate Cultures

Make Time for Sergeants

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

It's an axiom of military lore that generals plan the battles but sergeants run the army. There's a corollary in the corporate world: executives plan the strategies but middle managers make the company run. 

The larger the company, the more dependent it is on how its middle management performs. Top executives simply can't be everywhere and oversee everything, so they must rely on managers and supervisors to be their eyes, ears, arms, and legs in other words, to get the job done. 

This places enormous responsibility and power upon the mid-level management ranks. They can make or break a policy initiative within a company. They can be a porous layer, allowing free flow of information between senior management and the rank-and-file employees, or they can close ranks into an impenetrable barrier. They have many varied and subtle ways to resist directives they dislike or don't understand, as every casino executive knows. 

When it comes to building and shaping a desired corporate culture, getting the buy-in and enthusiastic participation of the middle managers is an absolute essential. Without it, the cultural initiative will run into a stone wall. Many top executives the authors have worked with have expressed frustration in getting their vision for their company understood by line-level employees. 

The key is to get the middle managers involved in the process of building the cultural initiative, to make them your partners in the enterprise. When they invest their own ideas and energy into formulating the initiative, they are "buying-in," acquiring emotional equity in the culture. With a stake in the success of the cultural initiative, they will be more diligent and enthusiastic in support of it. 

For one Gulf Coast casino, a strong corporate culture supported wholeheartedly by middle managers helped make the difference between survival and failure. Biloxi's Treasure Bay Casino was in real jeopardy of becoming a victim of the competitive shakeout in the overheated market. The casino sought Chapter 11 protection. In many situations, this would be a signal for employees to abandon a sinking ship. Not so at Treasure Bay. 

The charismatic CEO of Treasure Bay, Bernie Burkholder, inspired confidence and loyalty among his employees. Even while struggling to meet the challenges of bankruptcy, he launched a systematic process to reinforce the corporate culture so it would withstand the uncertainties of the circumstances. His vision was deceptively simple: lead by example and live the values of the company with total commitment. 

Burkholder began by calling his senior managers into a room, spelling out his vision to them, and enlisting them in the cause. He made it clear that everyone was equal in the organization, and everyone was, literally, in the same boat. He insisted that he and all of them no matter how busy or stressed commit to spending a specified amount of time each day on the casino floor, talking to middle managers and employees and hearing what they had to say. He urged his top executives to pass the habit down the line to managers and supervisors. 

In Burkholder's view, it's not enough to tell the senior managers to tell the middle managers to tell the employees what's expected. "I have to follow the process personally all the way to the employee on the floor," he says. "I have to act the way I expect them to act." 

True to his word, Burkholder personally attended every session when the cultural initiative was introduced to middle managers and employees. He asked their views and heard their opinions. He listened to them. He made it clear to them that their views were valuable. He also made it clear that he expected full support for the cultural vision; anyone who didn't believe in it should seek employment elsewhere. 

Burkholder personally attends every orientation for new employees, not content with the expedient of appearing by videotape. "I need to be eyeball-to-eyeball with them," he says. "I have to live the values I preach. I have to be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. It takes the same kind of commitment you make to doing exercises; you have to do it everyday, even when you don't feel like it, for it to do any real good." 

He flattened the organization to remove as many layers as possible between him and the line level employees. He started the First Mate program to get employees involved. Twenty-five First Mates were nominated from the ranks of line level employees by their peers to be cultural leaders. They meet once a month, with Burkholder chairing the sessions. It's a two-way communication link between Burkholder and the hourly workers. Burkholder says, "Communication is like radar; if you don't hear a return signal, it's not working." Middle management and senior executives are encouraged to sit in and observe. 

The proof of his commitment and discipline to a culture based on values is that Treasure Bay has one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the market. At middle management meetings, when a show of hands is requested for all those who have been with the company "since Day One," 90% of the room will raise a hand. 

"We have the strongest corporate culture of any casino on the Gulf Coast, bar none," Burkholder claims. The result: Treasure Bay emerged from Chapter 11 in July of this year and now is a healthy contender in the country's fastest-growing gaming market. 

By necessity, you must entrust the day-to-day details of running your company to your middle managers. For your cultural initiative to reach the rank-and-file, it's important first to spend time with your middle managers, to persuade them of your commitment to a clear vision and recruit them to your quest. Then, as Col. William B. Travis did at the Alamo, you have to draw a line in the sand and ask, "Who stands with me?" When you have the commitment of your "sergeants," you can count on your outfit being run the way you want it to be.

(This article appeared in the December 1997 issue.)