One of the most challenging situations a business executive can face — though it’s also an incredible opportunity—is taking over the leadership reins of an existing organization.
Through an optimistic lens, it’s a chance to either move a struggling business to firmer ground or elevate an already successful organization to new heights. And while those are two very real possible outcomes, the work it takes to make them a reality can also seem daunting.
A little over a year ago, I was faced with such a situation. After two decades working as an executive in the logistics space, I took the chief executive officer position at Xpress Global Systems (XGS), a trucking company with a national footprint and a focus on the flooring industry. I was hired to help turn XGS into the best, most productive, version of itself.
Over the past 12 months, we’ve experienced success after success, acquiring three peer organizations and expanding into multiple new markets. However, the thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to achieve all of these wins while being named a Best Place to Work (based largely on employee surveys) in our home market. Our team truly enjoys the work we do, and we celebrate our successes as collective victories.
If you’re an executive who has recently arrived at an impasse similar to the one I was at a year ago, nothing will pave the way for good fortune more than turning to your workforce first and finding ways to empower them to excel at—and find fulfillment in—their jobs. Here are the three main areas I put my attention on as soon as I joined the XGS team. I am convinced that by doing so, we were able to radically compress the success curve.
Hopefully, you can too.
1. Become an Employer of Choice
This has always been the case, but especially during the Great Resignation, it’s nearly impossible to keep good employees from seeking greener pastures unless you offer the very basic variables contributing to worker contentment. What I mean by that is competitive wages, flexible hours, a good benefits package and a paid time off policy that allows your staff the chance to periodically unplug from work.
According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, in 2021 the number one reason people left their previous jobs was because they felt their pay was too low. Inflexible hours was also a Top 5 reason workers quit, and immediately following that were benefits packages that were viewed as unsatisfactory.
If you want to have a steady and satisfied workforce that is able to channel its energies toward tasks, you’ve got to take these matters off the table as reasons your people will quit. If your staff feels like they are well-paid, that they have good benefits, and that they have an acceptable degree of flexibility to manage non-work related matters that life throws at them (like family emergencies and child care disruptions), the reasons they have to leave your business for alternative employment opportunities become fewer and farther in between.
Addressing these topics is the first step to becoming an employer of choice. And when you’re an employer of choice, your hiring endeavors are focused on adding team members who can help your business level up, rather than constantly having to backfill positions as disgruntled employees leave for new jobs.
2. Put an Emphasis on Two-Way Communication
One of the first things I did at XGS was to survey our employees so the leadership team could get a better understanding of how the staff felt about their work and the company as a whole. As a new-to-the-organization executive, this proved immensely insightful. Sifting through survey responses, I was able to get a solid handle on engagement levels across the company and understand more deeply the negative issues that needed to be remedied immediately. Also, I was able to better understand what we were doing well, so we could double down on those areas or replicate them company-wide.
I believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that had I simply stood in front of the team during an all-hands meeting and spouted off about what I wanted done (the focus being me, my, mine) without first listening to the XGS workforce, we would have stumbled out of the gates and likely still be limping along. I was the new guy and I needed to be the one asking questions first.
In the months that have passed since conducting our initial survey, we have put increased emphasis on nurturing regular two-way communications channels all across our company. By doing so, there are clear expectations about what we’re trying to achieve, who is responsible for what action items, and how people feel about the work for which they are responsible. There is an old saying that “to be clear is to be kind,” and while that is very true, I also believe that clarity is a key driver for business success.
3. Remove Barriers to Success
One of the many downstream benefits of surveying your workforce and regularly following up with them is being able to clearly understand what barriers exist across your company that keep you from reaching ultimate success. A chief goal of a manager at any level is to tear down impediments that keep your team from doing the job you hired them to do. It’s the worker’s job to execute on the deliverables expected from them, but it’s your job as a leader to create unencumbered lanes so all your team has to do is the job ahead of them.
When you are able to make red tape disappear, remedy operational redundancies, and eliminate unnecessary efforts across your business, what remains is a clearer path to productivity and growth. From my experience, an additional byproduct of removing barriers is that your workforce will be much happier. Show me an employee overburdened by ticky tack to-dos and I’ll show you a frustrated employee. Conversely, a worker free to work usually achieves more, and an employee racking up achievements is usually very happy.
4. Stabilize, Communicate, Empower
When you’re a newcomer chief executive at a legacy business, you’ll be inheriting many positive attributes as well as negative ones. And even though you didn’t play a hand at creating the good or the bad, you’ll be responsible for everything—on Day One.
The fate of your tenure will be tethered to what your staff will be able to produce, so doing everything you can to help them deliver their best efforts is the most important thing you can do. Focus on stabilizing your workforce, establishing and maintaining clear lines of communication (acting on what you learn), and empowering your human resources to focus on their work and nothing but their work.
I can’t guarantee your success if you follow my advice — there are many other things to consider—but I can guarantee that you’ll set yourself up to do very well.