Today, people around the world have a wide range of media resources at their disposal. They can use these social resources to communicate across vast distances, to keep up to date with current events, and even to voice their displeasure if they are dissatisfied with issues presented to them in the workplace.
Recent events in the ownership saga of the Market Basket grocery chain are prime examples of the power of social media. While the family feud underlying this story has a 20-year history behind it, it really only exploded onto the public stage recently when a boardroom decision to remove beloved CEO Arthur T. Demoulas proved wildly unpopular with customers and employees. After a rare show of solidarity between ousted leadership and a non-unionized employee base, Arthur T ultimately gained total control of the $4.3 billion organization.
If you followed the ordeal as it unfolded under the scrutiny of public opinion, you may have gotten the same sense that I did: That the business exchanges and backroom politicking that used to take place behind closed boardroom doors can no longer be counted on to be exclusively private affairs.
Here are three key takeaways from the Market Basket situation to consider in your own business operations today:
Leadership (vs. management)
There is a major difference between managers and leaders. Managers turn widgets only as far as they are directed and they rarely question rules. Leaders inspire their people to rise beyond what is ordinary and to achieve extraordinary results no matter the challenges.
Arthur T. Demoulas had long demonstrated leadership skills that included empathy, empowerment and the encouragement of self-functioning work teams. These teams could not be mollified by a new, unexpected management team that was perceived as being focused on self-enrichment at the expense of Market Basket workers and customers. Subsequently, 25,000 Market Basket employees risked their jobs as the business hemorrhaged some 8 million dollars a day during a walkout and boycott of that new, unwanted corporate regime.
Outstanding customer care may have played a role in prompting customers to boycott against Market Basket. Customers chose to follow the lead of well-known, well-liked and well-trusted employees when called upon to help in supporting Arthur T. Demoulas. Had customers continued to shop, employees who walked out might very well have lost their jobs and been swiftly replaced. Instead, losses of millions of dollars a day raised the visibility of a much larger set of issues, including who was in charge of the Market Basket boardroom and who was tasked with directing the company.
Social media brought all of this activity into the public eye in a way that hasn’t been seen before. Think of how strikes were viewed in the past. Union picket lines, loud shouting and printed placards with demands. Negotiations conducted by well-paid teams and short, made-for-TV sound bites coupled with flyers shoved into the hands of unsuspecting bystanders. Striking Market Basket employees brought their efforts into the 21st century by using social media to facilitate a sense of solidarity through direct and immediate public communications tools.
They did this by using the very same principles a company might use to drive engagement and support through Inbound and Content marketing: by creating a powerful presence that included information channels and websites (allowing striking striking employees to keep up to date minute by minute), fan pages on Facebook (allowing customers, employees, friends and family to “like” and rally around) and self posted photos and news stories (sharing information and viewpoints in real time, subverting traditional media outlets and mitigating any interpretations that might be biased through a corporate media point of view).
Because of an organized social media presence and its public impact, public sentiment factored heavily into the backroom corporate dealings. Indeed, two governors and several legislators came out publicly to support the employees’ rights by certifying the situation as a strike. A self-determined walkout could have led to immediate termination. Once certified as a strike, however, some employees were able to collect unemployment, and employee jobs were given some modicum of protection under the law. Greater scrutiny was focused on the entire situation and discussions on the subject took place at a neighbor to neighbor level that was unfettered by professional newsmakers.
That workers would risk their jobs for a billionaire “ex-CEO” and align customers and vendors around their cause is a unique case with virtually no precedent in business history. The entire Market Basket saga will make an outstanding business school case study down the road. For now, take advantage of this learning experience and evaluate how your company is performing on the leadership, customer relationship, and social media spectrums.