DEANS OF BUSINESS

What makes a great place to work?

Posted Jan. 20, 2012, at 7:46 p.m.

We all have seen businesses recognized as a “great place to work.” We have heard people say, “they take good care of their employees.” There are contests, checklists, questionnaires, surveys and many other methods used to determine which businesses receive “great place to work” recognition.

What lies underneath are “great benefits,” “good training programs” and so on, but what are the intangible characteristics, the deep-down reasons we like or dislike a place of employment?

Many years ago I discovered a few of those deep-down reasons. After having lunch with the man who was chairman and CEO of Continental, which was the nation’s largest airline at the time, I was asked to provide my feedback directly to him.

Continental had acquired Eastern Airlines and People’s Express and he wanted to know what was wrong and what was right at the Newark, N.J., hub, the old home of People’s Express and the new Continental hub. What I discovered was there was nothing right and just about everything else wrong. The one thing that was just an overwhelming finding was bad attitude. The second was bad facility or poor image.

Before these acquisitions, Continental had a reputation for great service and friendly people. That reputation was being trashed by the bad attitude of its new employees in the media center of the world, the New York market.

There were two outcomes of my report back to the chairman. First, Continental committed to its largest facility improvement in its history at Newark airport. Second, it launched a major attitude reversal program ranging from new uniforms to new benefits, training and salary structures. It launched a new slogan, new internal incentive contests and more.

A few years later, Continental was recognized for five consecutive years with the No. 1 ranking in customer satisfaction.

Why?

Leadership listened and acted. Leadership understood the value of great employee attitudes in the service sector. Leadership realized your image in a major media market is your image, irrespective of where else you are on Earth. Most important of all, leadership understood the employees’ attitude at the points of encounter with the customer is a single most important attribute to success.

Continental went to the extreme of inviting in leading fashion designers and teams of employees to work together to design and select their new uniforms.

Continental recognized that a positive attitude, listening and involvement make a great place to work for employees. It is sad for me, a loyal Continental customer, to note this wonderful airline recently merged with United and has been absorbed into a very different culture.

In addition to a receptive environment, listening and involvement, great places to work have another extraordinary commonality, called “atmosphere.” Atmosphere is the result of leadership attitude, policies and daily practices.

During my career, I have worked for, consulted with and observed many companies and institutions. I’d like to comment on a few very positive examples which demonstrate great atmospheres.

One is Nestle, where I worked for a good portion of my career. The atmosphere was as clear as the Swiss Alps mountain air. It included investment in educating its employees, investing in its systems to be flawless, a total commitment to quality, and instilling a positive attitude which was backed up with positive motivation.

Another is L.L. Bean. I have never met anyone at a “point of encounter” that does not generate an extraordinary attitude toward the customer and other associates and is not proud of the brand. There is an atmosphere of pride in product, service and workplace.

Another example in Maine is The Jackson Laboratory, a company with a global reputation for product and service excellence, one that strives for quality at every level and in every process. Equally impressive is its dedication to employee education and well-being. The result is openly observable, a motivated, positive atmosphere.

There are many other examples within Maine and all can’t be mentioned.

I would like to point out another item which in addition to attitude and atmosphere ties together the intangible definition of a great place to work. This is being part of a team. A number of organizations observed in Maine are clearly in this category.

Hollywood Casino in Bangor is one such example. Having spent a good portion of my career in the hospitality and gaming industry, this Penn National Gaming operation demonstrates team spirit that results in an extraordinary customer experience, Hollywood Casino’s meticulously clean facility and employee professionalism are to be admired.

Great places to work exhibit a proactive, positive, customer-centric attitude, a positive, healthy atmosphere and team orientation and focused leadership. Make your place of business a great place to work.

Ronald A. Nykiel, dean of the College of Business at Husson University, has a number of books on travel and tourism marketing and served on a presidential commission on travel and tourism, the Board of the United States Travel Association, and on a governor’s revenues forecasting commission.

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