Positive people and positive responses: the heart and soul of any team

John Cassis
President, The Cassis Group
Orlando, Florida
Speaker, 2008 APWA Snow Conference

Editor's Note: John Cassis is the Opening General Session Speaker at the 2008 APWA North American Snow Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. His session is called "Catching a Second Wind" and takes place at 3:45 p.m. Sunday, April 13 at the Kentucky International Convention Center. For more information on the Snow Conference see pages 13-16 or visit our website at www.apwa.net/snow.

The great historian Arnold Toynbee was once asked if he could condense all of history into a few sentences. He replied he could do it in two words: "challenge and response." So it is with our lives. It is filled with everyday challenges and our responses to them.

I was traveling to Toronto going through Customs. There was a delay and the Customs officer decided to tell me a funny story. One day a man came through with his small son. He asked the man if he had anything to declare. The man said "no" with a suspicious look on his face. So the officer followed with, "Do you have any cigarettes to declare?" The man said "no." The officer asked, "Any alcohol?" Again, the man said, "no." At that point, the man's son shouted enthusiastically, "But he's getting warmer, huh Daddy!"

Some responses are better than others!

A man had successfully run a neighborhood grocery store for many years. But then one day progress arrived. Two new—and much larger—stores would open on the same block. They would offer bigger selections...specials...sales. "You had better sell!" his friends and family cautioned. Others were less kind: "Don't you know anything about business at all? Get out now, before you lose everything." The man did not believe in giving in to competition or criticism. So, when the big day came and the larger stores opened, the small-time merchant made the best of this situation. Each of the larger stores posted huge banners—one at the front of the block and one right behind the man's store. The banners trumpeted: "Grand Opening Today!" The merchant posted his own banner sandwiched between the signs of the two large stores. His simply read: "Main Entrance!"

Positive responses and positive people often cope better with the grit and grind of everyday living.

In Stuart Crainer's book The 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made he tells the story of Malden Mills, which is the perfect example of excellence of character. In an age of diminishing loyalty and relentless downsizing, it stood for traditional corporate values. Loyal employees worked alongside trusting management. Customer retention and employee retention both registered a staggering 95 percent. The company, based in Lawrence, Massachusetts, had remained steadfastly—some said foolishly—loyal to its home base. Then on December 11, 1995, a fire ripped through the company's factories, leaving more than a dozen people hospitalized and the company, it seemed, in ruins.

Malden Mills chief Aaron Feuerstein, the grandson of the company's founder, immediately announced that even with no production capacity and no immediate hope of producing anything, he would continue to pay the company's 2,400 employees and pay their health insurance. It was estimated that paying the company's employees for 90 days and their health care for 180 days cost Feuerstein $10 million. His decision appeared to be bad business at the time, even though it was highly moral.

In the end, Malden Mills was back to virtually full capacity within 90 days. A total of $15 million was invested in a new infrastructure. The committed and grateful workforce performed so well that productivity and quality shot up. Before the fire, 6 to 7 percent of the company's production was "off quality"; that number was reduced to 2 percent after the fire. Feuerstein said the company's employees paid him back nearly tenfold. Feuerstein's act was one of loyalty, honesty and morality—old-school thoughts that are still relevant in today's world.

Positive responses and positive people with moral integrity are the heart and soul of any team. Ohio State University did a study and found 50 reasons why people lose their job. The first 15 reasons had nothing to do with job skills or expertise...but they all had to do with attitudes and our ability to get along with other people.

In the 1980s I worked for a hunger agency called World Relief. I visited a hospital in Calcutta, India which was run by an extraordinary leader, Mother Teresa. She was humble, but had a powerful presence. The two most important requirements she demanded from her staff were a joyful attitude and a loving commitment to those they served.

Today more than ever we need to produce an environment driven by positive people with inspiration, commitment, loyalty, integrity and joy-filled passion. Albert Schweitzer once said, "Sometimes your light goes out, and sometimes your light is blown into flame again by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light."

The challenge we each face every day: Do we light up people's lives or do we blow out their light?

See you in Louisville. Hopefully, there will be no snow!

John Cassis can be reached at johncassis@comcast.net.