He was unconventional, but Jim Shaw could teach us all something about integrity in the workplace
Since Jan. 3, the day Jim Shaw died, the Calgary Tower has been bathed in blue light, Shaw Communications’ company colours. Then, the motorcade from his funeral last Friday to the tribute at the Stampede stadium was guided by police standing at intersections in salute. The leaders and family from Rogers, Canada’s other major cable company, attended to pay their respects, show their friendship and participate in his tribute. Many Shaw employees took time off and stood beside their vehicles outside the stadium in -25 degree weather, in silent appreciation. It is hard to imagine what other Canadian business leader would elicit such a parting, particularly several years after retirement.
In an era of homogeneity among Canadian corporate leaders, Jim Shaw walked a singular iconoclastic path.
Starting as a cable technician, he climbed to become Shaw’s CEO. During his 12 years in the top job, he increased the company’s size six-fold, transforming it into a multi-billion-dollar corporation, with multiple cable acquisitions across Canada. He wrested WIC’s television and radio assets in a successful competition with CanWest Global, and engineered Canada’s largest-ever telecommunications swap with Rogers, leaving Rogers with most of eastern English-speaking Canada and Shaw with the west. All of this while rolling out internet and telephone units.
What does his legacy and leadership teach Canadian employees and employers?
1) Play tough but honour your word
Phil Lind, long-time vice-chair of Rogers, himself one of Canada’s most respected executives, spoke of Shaw as a tough competitor but one he could trust to work co-operatively and to honour his commitments. Shaw’s many corporate deals could never have occurred without underlying trust and respect between the principals. Trust underlies employment relationships. If employees trust their employer, there will seldom be misconduct. Concomitantly, those employees who get fired are those the employer does not trust.
2) Be persistent
In a clip from an earlier video from Jim, he quoted his father, JR, telling him “you are not always right. But you are not always wrong. As long as you keep batting away, you’re going to win most of the time.” Few employers will begrudge an employee’s mistakes if they are trying and putting their mind to the problem. More to the point, courts never consider honest errors cause for discharge.
3) Know your subordinates’ roles intimately
Working his way up from the bottom, Shaw had an astute appreciation of the challenges in the work of each of his employees as well as what amounted to extraordinary achievement. He acknowledged both. If you do not thoroughly understand your subordinates’ tasks, it is difficult to recognize what warrants a bonus or a promotion, let alone to delineate what level of competence warrants discipline or discharge.
4) Dare to be unconventional
Shaw shook up formerly sleepy CRTC hearings, held in what he characterized at the time as “the town that fun forgot,” by rolling on to the Ottawa convention stage on his Harley, bedecked in full leathers. Unless you breach material company rules, originality is never cause for discharge. Indeed, it is what usually leads to progress.
5) Make sure your employees know you have their backs
No new union ever certified a Shaw system. In fact, during his regime, a number of inherited unionized systems applied to decertify. Why? Because the tone from the top was such that employees knew they would be taken care of, that they would do better by dealing directly with the company and there would be no repercussions from decertifying.
6) Care about your people
Shaw did countless, usually unannounced, favours to alleviate employees’ personal difficulties. Others who never required that help knew it would be available if they ever did. That type of loyalty to employees creates a rubber-band effect, returning your beneficence in spades. When JR arrived at his son’s tribute on Friday, he walked straight to the cable technicians, shaking their hands and thanking them for turning up. It is what his son would’ve done. Most employee misconduct would be avoided if only employees had been made to feel loyalty toward their employer.
Canadian business has lost a great leader and I, a friend and mentor.