I recently finished a 71.5 mile hike along the Camino de Santiago in Spain with my good friend Bill Barkeley. We hiked over 14 miles each day – uphill, downhill and at times, in pouring rain. The physical demands were undeniably harder than I anticipated and the most enjoyable part was the time I spent with fellow VSP employees.
In addition to Bill and his companions, four VSP Global employees joined the hike. They work in different parts of the company, at different levels, and I had not met or spent much time with them before the Camino. That in itself is not unusual. During the course of my career at VSP, I have met many employees who work in various offices and roles. It was the setting of the hike which made the interactions different and more transparent. We were casual, outside, hiking side by side in the rain, eating at nondescript roadside cafes, and sleeping in a shared space of bunkbeds in hostels at night. It was such a departure from my day-to-day interactions with employees in my office, in the lunchroom or during meetings. The informality of the setting coupled with the fact that everyone’s focus was on completing the hike and struggling to keep up with the pace was a great equalizer. We were teammates above anything else, with a single goal of supporting Bill and his rope team.
Because of this, my interactions felt open and direct. I heard about challenges they faced at their jobs, what kept them motivated, and why they choose to stay at VSP Global. Some of these conversations were eye-opening for me. While I understand the operations at our various lines of business, it was great to hear how things operate on a day-to-day basis from the frontline employee perspective. While I always ask for feedback from employees (I have an open door policy and invite employees to email me directly with questions, ideas, and concerns), understandably, many employees hold back. On the hike, these barriers were removed, and employees were comfortable telling me how they really felt about their jobs and the company, and in doing so, provided me with insight into changes that could be made to help employees feel better supported. It was a great reality check for me. I felt like I was on “Undercover Boss,” minus the fake wig and mustache.
The hike gave me a glimpse into the lives of four employees whose feedback has shaped my perspective and leadership style. In return, I hope they walked away with little doubt that I care about them and want them to succeed.
The hike also reinforced something the great Coach Lou Holtz said to a group of us CEOs at last year’s Wall Street Journal CEO Council: “The hopes and dreams of the people you have the privilege to lead are in your hands and are impacted by the decisions you make. Don’t screw it up!” My time on the Camino and Coach Lou’s challenge will remain with me for as long as I have the privilege to lead this amazing company. Thank you Sara, Jared, Michael, Sadie and Coach Lou!