Becoming a Chief Inspiration Officer

Employees want to know they're making a difference in people's lives, says Entergy's CEO. Katrina gave his troops a chance to shine

Wayne Leonard is the CEO of Entergy (ETR), America's third largest electric-utility company, which serves Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Leonard's actions during Hurricane Katrina and Rita offer an inspiring case study for people seeking to improve their leadership communications skills.

In August, 2005, Katrina knocked out power to more than 1 million of Entergy's 2.7 million customers. Approximately 1,500 Entergy employees were displaced, and many of them saw their homes destroyed or severely damaged. One lineman and his friends were caught in rising water. They fled to an attic and used a two-by-four to break through the roof. The very next day, after being rescued, that lineman joined his fellow workers to turn the lights back on for Entergy's customers.

His story wasn't unusual. It was common to see crews working 16-hour days for more than a week, while they were unable to check on their own homes. By the end of the first week, power was restored to 550,000 people. And nearly everyone had power restored by the end of September -- a remarkable achievement by all accounts.


  Within a month of Katrina, Hurricane Rita knocked out power to more than three-quarters of a million Entergy customers. The company was hit by two massive natural disasters in a row, and yet its employees showed devotion, commitment, and a level of team work that would be the envy of any corporation in America.

I believe a key reason behind such intense employee devotion is the company's CEO. Wayne Leonard has consistently cultivated a culture based on a simple mission -- to leave this world a better place than the company found it. In other words, for Entergy employees, their work represents more than a paycheck.

"Our employees know that what they do makes a real difference in people's lives," Leonard told me during a recent interview. "We don't just provide electricity. We cool their homes in the summer and warm their homes in the winter. We allow people to cook their food. We clean the environment and educate their children. We do a lot more than make electricity and money." If Entergy's displaced employees had viewed their role as just another job instead of a mission to provide hope to those in need, its customers might have remained in the dark a lot longer.


  Entergy won numerous awards for its handling of the crisis, as did Leonard himself. It's easy to see why. Leonard wrote a string of emotional and optimistic e-mails to all of his employees in the days and weeks after Katrina. I read more than two dozen of them. The correspondence reflects the power of a mission consistently and passionately conveyed. Here are some excerpts:

"In every man and woman's life, there is a defining moment. It is a brief intersection of circumstances and choices that define a person for better or worse, a life of unfilled potential or a life that mattered, that made a difference. It is true of individuals and it is true of business. We have great passion for the difference we make in other's lives. We provide a commodity that sustains life. But, more importantly, we provide the most precious commodity of all -- hope."

"The task before us is awesome, but not insurmountable. We will be challenged at every turn, but this is what has always defined Entergy. We are at our best when the challenge is greatest…. Our response to this crisis will make the people we call Entergy remembered and revered for all time.... We are bruised, but not broken. We are saddened, but not despondent. We are at that remarkable place in time where the hearts, minds, and souls of the good cross with challenge and opportunity to set the course of history. We define ourselves here and now for all to see, everywhere."

"Future generations will stand in awe at what you have endured and accomplished. Books will be written. Stories will be handed down. Some fall or spring day, the sun will be out, the temperature will be in the 70s, and you'll be sitting on the front porch content with the knowledge that you were not only there, but you stood tall and you didn't break or bend. Maybe it wasn't the life you envisioned, but in many ways it was better. Stronger, more courageous, more selfless than you ever even imagined you might be. You see things like this on television or in history books and ask 'how did they do it?' Now, you can tell them, because you did it. You were in the game. Maybe you were or maybe you weren't a 'superstar' growing up. But I know this. You are now."


  While some leaders motivate by fear and greed, Leonard believes the best motivation is appreciation. "It goes back to whether you believe people are basically good or not, Leonard says. "I know in my heart that people are basically good. People want to know that what they do makes a difference. And in our business, it does make a difference. We need to remind people of that fact and reinforce that message. When you show people that you really do appreciate them, they will do anything in the world for you when times get tough."

Leonard's approach to leadership communication reminds me of a conversation I had with with Intuit (INTU) founder Scott Cook during the research for my book, 10 Simple Secrets. "Your people want to know that their work is adding up to a great cause. They want more than a paycheck," Cook said. "They want to know that they are making a big difference in the world."


  People want more than a paycheck. They want to believe that what they're doing is adding up to a great cause. It's up to you to communicate that vision. If not, how do you expect the get best in people? You can't. Just as Entergy's employees believe in the power of their mission, your employees should be inspired by the true value behind your service, product, company, or cause. Think hard about what you provide. Go beyond the surface. The people who surround you eight, nine, 10 hours a day or more are looking to you for inspiration.

As a leader in your company or industry, it's up to you to craft a bold vision and to passionately promote the vision as something larger than the individual. That's the secret to getting the most out of your colleagues and employees. It works for Leonard. It can work for you.

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