Transforming a call centre from a “white-collar sweatshop”, racked by dishonesty and corruption, into a place where people would want to work was the objective of Manager A when she was appointed to manage it. The Legitimate Leadership methodology helped her to achieve that objective.
The Legitimate Leadership methodology proved particularly applicable in this low-paying, low-margin call centre business. Low remuneration typically makes motivating employees, and retention of employees, difficult. Other ways have to be found to inspire them to deliver.
Manager A, who had had previous experience with the Legitimate Leadership Model at a large South African credit control company, joined the call centre business in 2003, as a senior operations executive.
At the time the business employed about 600 people and it had one call centre near Johannesburg.
10 years later the call centre business had grown to about 2,300 employees and was operated nationally from branches in Johannesburg and six other cities in South Africa. Its revenues had more than quadrupled in the period.
“So as a business it has been hugely successful,” says Manager A. But “successful” was not what would have described the workings of the business when she arrived in 2003.
She found very little trust in management by the employees in the business.
“In fact management was considered to be dishonest by many of the call centre agents. This was because it was rumoured (we never proved it) that managers were, for example, ‘selling’ jobs and firing those who didn’t pay the bribe. The bribe was a portion of an employee’s salary for the first few months of employment. If he or she didn’t pay up, the managers would find a way to fire them.
“There was management by fear. If you were disliked by a manager or you spoke against one, or stood your ground on any issue, the managers would intentionally give you a computer that didn’t work properly or a broken headset. So you wouldn’t be able to achieve your productivity targets … and they would fire you.
“With everything based on fear, the management culture was to do what managers told you to unconditionally. If you didn’t, you were fired.
“This method of management was maintained via the use of disciplinary process – subordinates were given warnings for everything that they did wrong. One agent who was leaving as I arrived showed me a lever arch file full of warnings that she had received in eight months!
“Staff turnover, which wasn’t really recorded, was huge – around 80% per year.
“But as there wasn’t real process, no one knew who came or went. Managers would manipulate the situation – if a person left they would not necessarily take that name off the payroll, but they would change the account details to their own for a few months.
“The lack of process allowed managers to act like little dictators. They could do whatever they wanted because there was no way to control them. And the staff wasn’t being measured properly so no one really knew whether they were performing or not.
“There was also considerable use of incentives – but incentives were abused. Managers might ensure that an agent got enough work to earn the incentive, but then the agent would have to pay a portion to the manager.
“People were also taken on long incentive lunches– a whole restaurant would be booked out for the afternoon with 50 people. These meaningless lunches were being held because managers couldn’t get staff to perform.
“The lunches might give the agents a short-term boost but most of all they made them more aggrieved because the large amounts spent on them were compared with their low salaries. Also, we lost an afternoon’s productivity. I stopped the lunches – I replaced them with more meaningful rewards and recognitions for agents who worked well.
“Within the call centre, the conditions were extremely cramped, overcrowded and stuffy. And one of the first things I asked for was installation of air-conditioning. But the only way I could sell this to top management was by suggesting that the result would be fewer agents who would fall asleep after lunch.
“The facilities were of bad quality. For instance, the bathroom facilities were very poor and the canteen was basically a little tuck shop. This was a sweatshop of a white-collar variety.
“Also just as I arrived, the medical aid scheme was cancelled because management had become tired of staff complaining about its quality and problems with it. So they decided to just cancel it.
“Actually the cancellation didn’t happen because I stopped it – I invited brokers in and fixed it. If the medical aid had been cancelled, that would have taken the call centre a step back.
“In recreating a more normal workplace, I did have to introduce discipline. This was because although there was a regime of fear, people had found all sorts of ways to cheat the system. If you could use the lack of process in your favour, you did.
“Timekeeping and issues of time and attendance were a huge problem. Employees could come and go unnoticed because there were so many people. Management couldn’t really control the situation – they did not have the tools to do the job.
“I had fingerprint access control installed so that managers wouldn’t have to spend their lives trying to figure out whether staff had pitched up or not ; or whether they had come on time or not; or whether they had sent someone else in their place who pretended to be them.
“The staff had been paying back the distrust and alienation in kind. We had break-ins which we believed were the staff returning to steal equipment after hours. But mostly, I think, it was out of revenge – by people who felt they had been cheated, who hadn’t been paid an incentive, or for whom a notice period wasn’t adhered to.
The Role of the Legitimate Leadership Model
“Because of my past experience with the Legitimate Leadership Model I believed that if you treat people in the appropriate manner, according to Legitimate Leadership principles, you could achieve a much more engaged workforce – people who are willingly more productive. And you would not then have to run the workplace with controls, fear and disciplinary process – because then you get people to do their work because they want to do it, and to be there.
“The work is also then much better in terms of both quality and quantity.
“And obviously things like staff turnover improve. And if staff turnover falls and you retain your better quality people, because they’ve been in the job for longer, they are more experienced and they become better at what they do.
“So it’s purely a business thing – about getting the best possible level of work from employees, for the business. Legitimate Leadership does indeed change your way of thinking and your way of running things, but the motivation is primarily about the business and not about philanthropy.
“Yet, although Legitimate Leadership isn’t philanthropy, it is nice to see a business grow and create more jobs!
“Ultimately Legitimate Leadership is about getting your business to run better without investing in any other way. Many managers think that you have to spend a fortune on incentives and raising salaries – but those things are not necessary. And those were things that this business could not afford.
“It was a small business (then) making a very thin margin and it couldn’t invest in fancy offices and Google-like spaces and facilities.
“In any case, spending money like that often doesn’t work. The way to get people to come on board is to introduce Legitimate Leadership and people will work without you having to give them more money or having to stand over them with a whip.
“We started the Legitimate Leadership process with a leadership audit of all managers, including the supervisors. I remember that the trust levels were so low that we had to give the employees envelopes in which they sealed their answers – they were terrified of being victimised by managers if they spoke out.
“I also restructured the management and got rid of a lot of people – some critical changes at the top and among the agents was absolutely necessary. We had to have a cleanout because some of the people were just not right and because there were some people who just didn’t get it.
“We then did two-day Legitimate Leadership workshops for supervisors and management – first in the Johannesburg office and later in other branches. We said they had to get on board because we don’t do it in any other way.
“Eventually, we decided that Legitimate Leadership training was not just for managers but also for the agents. For them, we held a number of Grow to Care workshops.
“We also repeated the leadership audit a number of times. This was very useful in finding out the quality of the first line managers because the agents gave the most detailed and specific insights on what should be changed.
“A person might choose not to change but he couldn’t say he didn’t know what had to be changed.
“Wendy Lambourne also ran Trust in Management workshops for the top team. Wendy also did a workshop of the senior managers in the controlling business which looked at the real issues that people faced and asked what we would do if we dealt with them in a way consistent with Legitimate Leadership as opposed to management expediency.
“We didn’t saturate the company with workshops but we constantly spoke about Legitimate Leadership, and we lived it. I absolutely insisted on it – I drove the behaviour change.
“Some agents proved very obdurate and difficult to deal with despite changes in the attitudes of management and other agents. Those agents – a small group of older people – persisted in behaving contrary to what we were trying to achieve. I think this was because we had such a young management and the older group wanted to make it difficult for them to follow through. Some of them had to be dismissed.
“Everywhere I went, in every conversation or meeting I had, I said ‘this is how we do things’. I communicated that that’s what my expectation was and if a person’s leader wasn’t living those values then I should be told because that was the way things must run.
“I also ran mentorship groups where I had meetings with young managers who we were developing. In these I spoke to them about leadership in a general way, but I also drove the Legitimate Leadership message.
“Although we haven’t had any workshops on Legitimate Leadership in the past few years, the culture seems to be embedded and self-sustaining.
“We managed to grow individuals who came into the business from very low level jobs into senior management jobs. The whole mindset was that if you applied Legitimate Leadership thinking you could get people to achieve their full potential – that even though a person’s educational background might be lacking, by us leading them in this way, the potential that was under the surface could be extracted.
“An example was a particular branch manager. She started her career as a cleaner; she became a call centre agent; then she progressed to a supervisor; then to branch manager. She is in that position today.
“In another case, a security guard progressed to become the logistics manager.
“The current branch manager in another town joined the business as an agent. He didn’t have anywhere to stay there, and no transport, so he rented a flat within walking distance of the office. From his small salary, he bought some food for himself and sent a little money to his family. He slept on the floor of the flat, under a blanket. He was later promoted to supervisor, and eventually to branch manager.
“Then we had another person who joined as a call centre manager and today sits on the executive committee of the company.
“We didn’t give any of these people anything for free. They weren’t given fancy training courses; they had to work their way up. They were just given the Means, Ability and Accountability. We taught them to think the Legitimate Leadership way and then they had to get there by themselves, with no special favours.
“I think you unleash their intent. Because of the way they were treated, they returned the same behaviour.
Learning and Development
“We introduced a bursary scheme in which we support employees’ children’s schooling fees. We don’t pay all the fees, we pay a portion if the child is doing well enough.
“One of our agents who had been employed for about 13 years in the Johannesburg call centre benefited from this. She told me that two of her children had used the bursary scheme and that the company had changed her children’s lives because her son carried on to university and was (at that time) studying for a masters degree. And her daughter had just matriculated and was proceeding to university. She made that happen on a salary of around R8,000 ($750) a month, with some financial support from the company and an environment where learning is encouraged.
“This agent told me that no matter what happens, she will never work anywhere else. Bear in mind that call centre work is hard, sitting on the phone every single day! But because of the change it made in her life, she is loyal.
“We say to people ‘you have the right to progress and we think you can progress’. And they say ‘this company tells us that we can do this’, and they go out and do it.
“Learning and development is a big thing, driven throughout the business. We do learnerships so that employees can be certified as call centre agents. Our management get formal training through the company.
“The bottom line is that the business is no longer a sweatshop even though the salaries are still low.
“And our staff turnover rate has come down a lot. It now hovers around 35% per year. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes down. But that is a very good rate for call centres, where a 75% rate is the norm in South Africa. And in places like India, the turnover rate is over 100%.
“To us a staff turnover rate of less than 40% is acceptable because we know that people work in call centres as a stepping stone, which is fine.
Helping each other
“Probably because of African culture, there is a culture in the call centre that people help each other. This was not something which was started by anybody in particular, and it wasn’t even discussed.
“For instance when someone dies, employees contribute money to the family for their support or for the funeral. I faced some resistance to this from other employees who come from more formal environments and who wanted the company to institute a funeral policy, which we did.
“But even after the funeral policy was instituted, employees didn’t stop with the collections when someone died. So to this day when someone dies, someone somewhere will start a collection and the family will end up getting some money – often R2,000-R5,000 ($180-$450).
“The collectors know who will contribute and who won’t. Some people don’t want to be part of this and they are not approached. But the collectors always come to me, for instance.
“Recently one of our white managers, a big, nice man who was well loved by the staff, died from cancer, six weeks after it was diagnosed.
“I wondered what was going to happen because this was the first time a white manager had died – many staff members of other races had died over the years.
“But staff members came to my office to collect money, just as they did for anyone else. And they held the same memorial service that they would have held for everyone else. They phoned his young widow, who arrived with her parents. They handed over their collection there.
“Some of the staff members also attended the funeral at the white Afrikaans church. Always a contingent of staff members and management will go to funerals, but before it was in the black community. Now it has crossed over – it is no longer a matter of race.
“Another supportive practice has unfortunately died down a little in the past few years. At Christmas employees would have a wish list thing – some employees would make a wish on behalf of another employee who was having some difficulty. We, the management, wouldn’t necessarily know about this because employees don’t always share their difficulties.
“But they would hold an event at which staff members came forward and told stories about colleagues who were living on the street, had lost their houses, etc. In one case a woman had cancer and she was living with her kids but her house was falling apart, and this went onto the wish list.
“People would give money and the company would always add some. In the case of the woman with cancer, members of staff went and painted her house and the company gave a fridge that it wasn’t using. Other staff members had all sorts of needs – they often did not amount to much in money terms but they did it for each other.
“Generally, our branches are not unionised, but on one occasion, in Johannesburg only, a union tried to get into the business. They were quite smart about it because they got us to employ a few people who turned out to be agents of the union.
“They managed to get the support of a small group of employees, but at its peak only about 60 employees out of the 2,000-odd employees then were members. This small group was, in Legitimate Leadership terms, anti-establishment.
“But we managed to contain this because management just stuck together and did more Legitimate Leadership behaviour. As opposed to trying to bully or intimidate people, we just did the Legitimate Leadership thing.
“In a very short time – about nine months – the staff themselves threw the union out. But it was a scary period for our management team; they were traumatised by the event. This was because they had been living so long with the Legitimate Leadership methodology that they didn’t believe that this could happen in their space.
“I remember having a number of conversations in which we resolved to just do, and behave, according to the Legitimate Leadership Model. That’s all we really did, until the employees came to their senses.”