Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Who is Ernest Brown? And why should we care?

Last week when I was driving along the intersection of Broadway and West End I stumbled upon this sign. As I was sitting at a red light reading it, a couple of thoughts popped into my head...
1. Who is Ernest Brown?
2. What did Ernest Brown think when he drove to work one day and saw this sign?
3. Whose idea was this?

I could only imagine that Ernest felt like a million bucks as he drove into the parking lot. After stopping in and asking about Ernest I came to find out that he was one of the first African American car salesmen in Tennessee and that he now works in the showroom helping people decipher their owner’s manuals. And it was the CEO that decided to put those words of appreciation up for Ernest.

So this got me thinking…

What should a leader’s role be in appreciating employees? Should they be the ones doing the appreciating or should this task be handed down to someone else altogether? Furthermore, why should we even take time to appreciate and value the work that others do? It is their job after all. I think one of the many challenges today in the workplace is that many people feel undervalued and underappreciated for the amount of time, effort and work that they do. And more often than not these feelings seem to be directly related to job satisfaction. So shouldn’t this be a priority for leaders?

McClelland’s needs theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs both talk from different perspectives about what people really “need” to achieve self fulfillment. Even though the need for appreciation isn’t explicitly stated in these theories I think if we read between the lines this need is clearly shown. I imagine all of us can think of a time where we could have really used a word of affirmation from our leader. So why are the simple words, “thank you” or “nice job” missing from many leaders vocabulary? Have we have lost sight of the value of a sincere compliment? In our text DePree states, “Leadership is a position of servanthood…Without understanding the cares, yearnings, and struggles of the human spirit, how could anyone presume to lead a group of people across the street?” (The Attributes of Leadership: A Checklist, 1992) Many times I think we take the term servanthood and servant leader to mean something extreme. But, I think in this case and as mentioned in many other articles this type of servanthood is based more around empathy, appreciation, and empowerment than anything else.

Some of our texts debate the importance of the leader’s role in being a cheerleader for the company. While I don’t think in any way that managers, CEO’s, or any other leaders should get out their pom-poms; I do think that to some extent all employees/followers need to know that their leader believes in them. Showing appreciation is one way that leaders can help their followers and themselves. Once leaders begin to build rapport with their followers their referent power grows. This gives leverage to the leader so that they can more easily motivate and mobilize their followers towards their collective purpose (Power, Influence, and Influence Tactics, 1993). We are all much more likely to follow someone that we believe, believes in us. There is power in followership. Geneen states, “Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and action…So, far as I can see, the best way to inspire people to superior performance is to convince them by everything you do and by your everyday attitude that you are wholeheartedly supporting them” (Leadership, 1998).

This simple, but positive example of a leader appreciating their employee is powerful. In today’s culture of job uncertainty and dissatisfaction it’s important that leaders in society, business, and government take time to appreciate, nurture, and motivate those below them.

After all, there aren’t many Ernest Brown’s of the world that have worked for a company for 44 years.

As leaders and followers, maybe it’s time we all took a good hard look at how we appreciate and value those important to us.


  1. Interesting topic. I read about leadership development over the summer for my internship and there is a lot of information that supports your post. Hewitt (HR consulting firm) does a study every one or two years (can't remember) ranking which companies are the best for leaders.

    Basically, the top companies had a serious executive committment. The study broke down what percentage of the time the C-level executives, the board, and senior management spent developing people within the company. The top companies devoted more time towards directly developing people than the lower ranking companies.

    It makes sense. I know a manager of 50 people who committed to traveling to meet with each employee every month for 2 hours for coaching and development. Those people don't leave and the manager was a rockstar, so much that he went on and started his own company.

    Just imagine if you worked for someone like that, you might follow the manager to his new company too.

  2. By the way, I forgot to put in perspective how much time coaching and developing a staff of 50 @ 2 hours per person really is.

    That's 100 hours a month, meaning that he averaged around 25 hours a week coaching, developing, mentoring people who worked for him. That's a lot of hours to commit to on top of your other roles.

  3. It is an interesting topic and timely for both leadership and followership issues. This blog raises inferences for me about Ernest Brown's own leadership as well as followership roles at Beaman and management's creative recognition of both.

    Certainly over 44 years, Mr. Brown served his customers well, and this service orientation likely became part of the positive image customers had when thinking about where to go to purchase and service cars. Citing the same DePree notion about leadership as servanthood, I assume that Mr. Brown had a consistent customer-serving orientation and that his "serving" actions created a huge customer following as well as respect among his colleagues. In other words, Mr. Brown was a sales leader. Sales leaders who positively impact the bottom line are often very visible and appreciated while they are producing. This I know from first-hand experience.

    Further inferring from Kelly's writings about effective followers, I imagine Mr. Brown was one who managed himself well, was committed to Beaman, and was competent, honest and credible. (In Praise of Followers, 1988.) In other words, in the best sense, he was also a true follower.

    How efficient of management to keep Mr. Brown involved with the people who drive the business--the customers--even after he had no direct responsibility for sales. It takes vision and creativity to find new ways to engage a "retired" sales person. This imaginative thinking, cited by Geneen (Leadership, p. 14) allowed management to see his value and place him in a new role. Continuing with Geneen's view, this leadership characteristic is often lacking in large American corporations.

    As for me, I think the Beaman folks "get it" by keeping a valued employee creatively and effectively engaged adding customer value. I've got a little "ding" in my car and will now go there for my first repair estimate. If Beaman can be trusted with Mr. Brown, perhaps they will be honest and fair about fixing my car. I hope Mr. Brown will be there. I'd like to shake his hand.


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