By Jason Bader
Managing Partner, The Distribution Team
I was always taught that the responsibility of a manager, or a good leader, is to make people better than they were when you got them. I was supposed to prepare them for the challenges ahead. Enhancing their set of skills, whether directly related to the business or not, was just part of the deal. Sure, this approach requires a little more work but the caliber of employee is so much better. They thrive while working on your team and appreciate your efforts when they move on. Sometimes that reward is enough.
Your thoughts on the approach depend on the type of leader you are. In the 1960s, Douglas McGregor of MIT spent a great deal of time studying motivation and leadership. During this course of study, he came up with the Theory X and Theory Y styles of management concerning how supervisors viewed their employees. A Theory X manager inherently believes that employees are not to be trusted and will avoid work if not monitored or incentivized. The Theory Y manager believes that employees have an interest in their work and if given the opportunity, they will seek out new challenges to better themselves and the company.
What McGregor found was that the type of manager an employee worked for greatly influenced his or her behavior and motivation.
The employee under the Theory X manager became less productive and required more supervision, while the employee under the Theory Y manager became more self-directed. Essentially, a large part of developing the skills of your employees comes back to your leadership.
Assuming that we’re all striving to be more of a Theory Y leader, one of the core tenants in getting employees interested in their development is getting them to see the big picture. Those of you who have read my articles in the past know that I am a proponent of sharing financials. I believe that this is one of the best ways to make people feel like they are part of an organization. Why should they try to get better if they don’t have a good sense of the organization’s health or progress? Beyond the financials, many employees don’t know the structure of the company or truly understand how their company adds value to the market. In a small company, this is simple to communicate but becomes more difficult as the business grows.
Once team members feel like they are part of the bigger picture, you can turn the discussion into their individual contribution. Where do they fit into the bigger scheme? This is where I like to introduce the concept of the internal customer. When we talk about the term customer, most of our employees think of someone located outside of our four walls. In sales, we are critically focused on the external customer. In operations, the focus shifts to an internal customer. The internal customer is the next person in line during a process. For example, the internal customer of the person who puts stock on the shelf is the order picker. The manner in which the shelf stocker performs their role has a direct impact on the picker’s ability to complete their task to a high degree of efficiency. An interest in personal development occurs when employees know how their actions affect the whole.
In order to create a development program, we first need to determine the path. Many companies struggle at recruiting good employees, especially in the warehouse, because they can’t sell the organization as a career opportunity.
A majority of the companies I’ve worked with prefer to develop their own people and promote from within. Good organizations have a defined progression for their employees to advance in the organization. I would suggest that several have the opposite—a loose career path.
Unfortunately, it is very hard to create a program based on a loose idea. It’s time to get it down on paper. As a leadership team, take the time to write out the steps that lead to progression in the company. Perhaps it goes something like this: warehouse, counter, inside sales to outside sales. This is a basic framework. Then you can add in deviations required in your company, such as purchasing or branch management. Next, break down each functional area into components, such as will call counter, front counter or counter lead. The idea here is to take each of these individual jobs and define a set of skills associated with the function. This will help you develop a list of skills the employee must master in order to be eligible for a promotion to the next job in the progression. This step might take some time and a coordinated effort to complete but it will really help your younger managers get their arms around employee development.
When you start to roll out the program to your employees, be sensitive to how it is communicated. Some could see the offer of education as a direct attack on their ability to do the job, while the manager thinks they are doing right by an employee by offering to help them develop their career. This conflict of perception can lead to a breakdown in the program.
In order to avoid misunderstandings, present educational offerings from an employee-benefits perspective. How will the opportunity advance their career? What specific needs does this offering address? Sometimes it helps to participate in the training with an employee, especially if it is something offsite. Talk in terms of how “we” can benefit from this education. Who knows, you might learn something new. Finally, be willing to think outside the box. By offering many different educational opportunities, your team members will be far more likely to find something that fits.
Employee development is a perpetual activity. Distributors do not have the luxury of the occasional dabble. Your employees want to improve. They want to be part of something greater. They want to be successful and have their talent rewarded. It is up to you to provide the opportunity. Remember, you only coast one way. Good luck.
About the Author
Jason Bader is the managing partner of The Distribution Team, a firm that specializes in helping distributors become more profitable through strategic planning and operating efficiencies. The first 20 years of his career were spent working as a distribution executive. Today, he is a regular speaker at industry events and spends much of his time coaching individual distribution companies. For more information, call (503) 282-2333 or contact him by e-mail at Jason@Distributionteam.com. Also visit The Distribution Team’s website at www.thedistributionteam.com.