Authors: Dave Esler and Myra Kruger
Title: The Pursuit of Something Better
Paperback: 276 pgs
Publisher: Esler Kruger Associates, Inc.
Genre: Business book/business ethics
The Pursuit of Something Better tells the story of the transformation of U.S. Cellular from a thoroughly ordinary company—ranked eighth in its industry and in danger of extinction—into an organization that is loved by employees and customers alike, and a proven winner by every measure.
Even more impressive is how this transformation took place. U.S. Cellular focused on the “soft stuff” so often discredited by conventional business wisdom; values and heart; inspirational and empowering leadership; motivation by values, not fear; ethics and integrity and an insistence on always doing the right thing. Most of all, U.S. Cellular thrived by obsessively putting the customer, and the quality of the customer experience, first.
The Pursuit of Something Better is also the story of Jack Rooney, the unconventional CEO who had the vision to see the limitations of the traditional business model a decade before it imploded, and the courage to replace it with something much, much better.
This book tells two stories. One is about U.S. Cellular, a mid-size wireless telecommunication provider, and Jack Rooney, its CEO. U.S. Cellular has thrived playing underdog in an industry of heavyweights because of Rooney’s contrarian commitment to a corporate culture driven by old-fashioned, but rarely actualized values: customer focus, respect, ethics, pride. This story is compelling in its own right, a corporate Seabiscuit parlaying a humble pedigree into against-all-odds success.
The other story is bigger than that. It is the even more unlikely discovery, after (in our case) nearly four decades of looking, that there is a better way to achieve great results than the conventional, numbers-first, just-the-results-ma’am school of American business.
Many executives, consultants, and (especially) employees have long suspected that there had to be something better than the traditional model, a way of tapping into the emotional commitment of employees instead of alienating it, an approach that would take seriously the unintended old joke, repeated in too many annual reports to be funny any more, that “people are our most valued asset.”
There have been occasional sightings of such an animal, tantalizing in their promise, but these have always remained isolated, easily explained by special circumstances: Herb Kelleher’s charisma at Southwest Airlines, for example, or the unique vision and exquisite timing of Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. Clearly such miracles are not replicable, and so hardly anyone bothers to try.
For us, the pursuit of this better way is grounded in experience. Each of us had the rare opportunity, early in our careers, to see close up the potential of the unleashed human spirit to transform organizations. Those experiences were both blessing and curse: blessing because now we knew the possibilities; curse because, in the decades since, our search for a similar situation began to seem like the nineteenth-century obsession with discovering the Northwest passage. We were convinced it must be out there somewhere, but it proved almost impossible to find.
Meanwhile, we talked to people. We have consulted to corporations and non-profits and government and educators since the 1970s, and in that time, we have surveyed more than a million and a half employees. We have had one-on-one interviews with thousands of leaders. The evidence has always been overwhelming that at some basic level, all of them are looking for the same things from their jobs: respect and dignity; some indication that they are valued as individuals, not just as hired arms or backs or brains; the belief that they are engaged in an ethical pursuit for an ethical organization; and a sense that they are contributing to a purpose higher than enriching their bosses and owners. This has never changed. When employers persist in acting as if the employee relationship were purely an economic negotiation, those core desires go beneath the surface, buried in apathy, cynicism, and rage, but they never disappear.
We found, over the years, many people who agreed with us. Some of them have been corporate executives. Very few of them, however, have ever been in a position to bring those beliefs to fruition. The stars never seemed to be aligned just right—the economy turned bad, a supportive CEO took early retirement, an unexpected merger introduced unsympathetic ownership. Always something. We even had a promising situation evaporate when the prospective change agent dropped dead in his office, at least thirty years too soon. At one point, the only way we could keep this dream alive was to form a group of like-minded believers—leaders from some of the country’s most respected companies—that we called the “consortium,” a kind of underground cell dedicated to sharing intelligence and shoring up member morale.
We had almost given up by then. No Northwest Passage. No white whale, either. Just more and more dispirited employees telling us how much they hated their jobs and their bosses. Then, nearly fifteen years ago, we met Jack Rooney, and his story and ours intersected, with U.S. Cellular as the place where we all finally got the chance to explore our dreams.
Rooney would be the first to reject the notion that there is anything special about him. He is a humble man, with little of the slick sophistication common to boardrooms (although that in itself qualifies as “special”). U.S. Cellular was a very ordinary company. Its founders and principal owners, Chicago’s Carlson family, wanted to build it into a premier wireless communication company, and they were open to Rooney’s ideas on accomplishing that mission. Beyond that willingness to look beyond the tried and true, the company had no unusual blessings that defy replication.
That openness to change and wholehearted support by the Carlsons throughout the process has paid off spectacularly. The company’s success demonstrates convincingly what we have long known: that there is a better way; that bigger, better, and more lasting results can be achieved by overturning some of the most sacred tenets of the conventional business model; that putting people first works best; and that anyone with the will and the heart can do it.
Dave Esler and Myra Kruger combined their 30 years of corporate communications, human resources, and consulting experience as Esler Kruger Associates in 1987. Their consulting firm focuses on culture change, organizational surveys, and executive counsel on effective leadership. They are based in Highland Park, Illinois and can be reached at www.eslerkruger.com.