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B2B Brands: Empathic Leaders, Engaged Employees Critical to Brand Promise

By Ryan Rieches

Of all the examples leadership expert Simon Sinek offers in his latest book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, the story of Bob Chapman delivers an important insight for B2B companies: When leaders consider employees as important as numbers it can make their companies more successful. Why? Without coercion or pressure, employees who feel valued and empowered are proud of their work and happy to help one another.

As CEO of St. Louis-based manufacturer Barry-Wehmiller, Chapman is known for buying distressed companies. His turnaround plans include fixing the balance sheet and employee morale. When Barry-Wehmiller bought HayssenSandiacre, for instance, he learned that beaten-down factory employees at the packaging equipment company didn’t feel trusted by management. They had to wait for bells to take coffee breaks and ask for permission to use pay phones if they needed to make a call. Spare machine parts, meanwhile, were locked away to prevent theft.

Chapman removed the time clocks, the pay phones, and the bells. The parts cages were unlocked. He understood, Sinek writes, that to earn trust, he had to extend trust. What happened? This company didn’t just become a happier place; it became a more productive one. Employees, more committed and engaged, took better care of machines and became more willing to help one another solve problems. This helped contribute to revenue growth that helped turn around HayssenSandiacre.

By providing a safe and supportive environment, leaders can generate a ripple effect throughout their companies. In Sinek’s view, despite their Alpha status, leaders have to be willing to eat last. (The book’s title was inspired by the unwritten U.S. Marine Corps protocol of always allowing the most junior recruits to eat first, while the senior officers take their place at the back of the line — a symbolic affirmation that great leaders know when to sacrifice their own comfort for the good of those in their care.)

This approach applies not only to the military, where chain of command is paramount, but to leaders in all industries and, in my view, specifically to those who lead B2B brands. It’s relatively easy for retail consumers to switch brands — dropping Verizon for T-Mobile, say, or forsaking Starbucks for another gourmet coffee purveyor across the street. But the B2B ecosystem is often built upon long-term relationships, multi-level decision making and extended sales cycles. Almost invariably, the relationship between buyer and seller becomes invested with significant element of trust, and any breach in that trust can have disruptive consequences that defy quick fixes.

As critically important as it is for a B2B company to exude a high level of trust to its customers, it’s not something leaders can dictate or implement through instruction. It can only flourish in a work environment created by inspired leadership. Sinek calls it a circle of belonging or safety, in which leaders, who don’t have enough time to give to everyone, entrust lieutenants to care for others. Managers who know they are looked after will have the confidence to provide supportive leadership to people who work under them. Thus the circle expands to team members at all levels. They, in turn, will invite in customers, suppliers and business partners and do everything possible to make them feel safe, too.

And yet, organizations that consistently inspire employees to truly commit themselves are in the minority. According to the Deloitte Shift Index, 80 percent of people are dissatisfied with their jobs. This lack of satisfaction connects directly to business results, because customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.

So how does a B2B leader connect hearts and minds, transforming people into empowered brand ambassadors driven by a sense of greater purpose? According to Sinek, while relatively few people and organizations can explain why they do what they do, all great and inspiring leaders and organizations think, act and communicate in the exact same way — from the inside out.

Put another way, you can’t build a great B2B brand externally if you don’t have employees who live the brand promise internally. An effective leader exemplifies that promise, “walking the walk” and inspiring others to join in deeper brand engagement. As social animals, people don’t just want to live for a paycheck; they want to be part of a common purpose and believe they can create change.

Our research confirms that what employees want most of all from a company is a clear sense of purpose and direction for the future. This purpose or vision not only must be articulated but personified. It must be lived on a daily basis and woven through every aspect of a company’s existence. Sinek observes that when leaders talk about what they believe and why, they attract people who buy into what they believe. What a leader does simply serves as the proof of what they believe. That holds true whether you’re a Marine commander taking up the rear of the chow line or a B2B company chief who does away with time clocks, break bells, and locked cabinets.

Creating a culture of trust and engagement starts at the top.