The newly-appointed CEO to a giant retailer sat down with his executive team to go through the finances of the group. Pouring through the budget, they came upon a line item with a large associated “expense”. The CEO questioned the number and the finance chief responded: “Shrinkage is included in the budget for theft. Our percentage happens to be the best in the industry”. The CEO responded: “Does this mean that we are employing dishonest and untrustworthy people?” There were polite coughs in the room and another executive responded: “It is human nature”. The CEO then said: “It is human nature when no sense of ownership is present. When you feel you own something, you don’t steal from yourself”.

A month or two later, the CEO happened to be walking through one of the branches when a cashier came over to him and asked to speak to him. He smiled, nodded his head and they sat down. “Sir”, she began nervously, “I wanted to talk to you because I stole ZAR 694.00 from you today. I feel very bad and I want to make it right”. The CEO was surprised and responded: “That’s not good. How did you steal the money?” “Well”, she said, “my uncle came into the store to shop and, when he had finished getting all his shopping items, he came over to my till and gave me a fierce look. So, I didn’t scan all the shopping items and he went away pleased”. “Why did you not tell your manager?” the CEO asked. “Because I can’t speak to him – he doesn’t listen”, she responded.

The CEO thought for a minute or so and then asked: “How are you going to make this right?” “Well”, she said, I have been thinking – do you know how the banks feed you into one row and give you a number and then an electronic voice calls out your number and you have to proceed to the teller that the computer assigns for you? I think that our shops should implement this system, then my uncle can’t choose to come to my till and I will also pay back the money”. The CEO thanked her for her honesty and the executive team implemented the queuing system throughout the country. They saved ZAR 40 million in the first year.

System changes can make huge impacts on company profit and sustainability, but we have to learn to listen, no matter the respective leadership levels that you occupy, to hear the ideas that arise from the employees of our organisations. Leadership presence is not a “snooper-vision” exercise to check out that which is going wrong. Presence is rather an emotional connection with employees that gets established as leaders engage authentically. This kind of connection demonstrates care and is expressed with empathy. It is demanding on adherence to performance standards, but it is also understanding of the human condition.

Leaders – listen authentically. Connect meaningfully with your employees. Live out the passion of your business with them. Find ways to connect the dots between “where we are going” with “what we do and how we behave”. Extend trust to your people – they will respond with loyalty.

By the way and just to finish the story, the retail cashier over the years has been promoted a number of times and is now just about ready to become a store manager in one of the larger branches.

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