No truth revealed by my research and travels visiting with distributors during the We Supply America tour is clearer than this: People want purpose, not jobs.

Full stop!

As one distributor put it in the survey we conducted for our research on the changing nature of leadership:

“If your organization is not a people-first organization, your people will find one.”

Bender, a plumbing supplies distributor with six locations across Connecticut, has taken giving people purpose straight to the heart. So much so that it’s not uncommon to see tears during their regular Purpose Meetings.

Bender’s leadership team embraces the Noble Calling, which means they:

  • Provide opportunities for all team members to improve the life and well-being of their families;
  • Create an environment of growth for the individual; and
  • Empower employees to be the best version of themselves — and to believe in themselves.

In my research, 47% of respondents believe this is how distributors must lead in the next five years if they want to be successful. This requires a tectonic shift, because 53% of respondents believe distributors today lean on controlling and managing as leadership styles.

Controlling and managing are antiquated. We must change tack. Putting humanity at the core of leadership is critical if we want to build sustainable businesses, for the next generation and the generation after that.

A significant 93% of survey respondents agree with this premise that the human element will play a significant role in leadership going forward. And if we are to ensure humanity is at the core of leadership, we’ll need to personalize the word “disruption” and recognize that the disruption over the past few years has had a greater and more enduring impact on the individual than it has on the business as a whole.

It can be done. The team at Bender is a shining example. Bender is focused on the whole person, and humanity is firmly at the center of their leadership operations.

“We are developing leaders and letting go of the vine,” COO Mark Chirgwin told us during a follow-up discussion after my visit.

To them, developing teams means looking down two tiers from branch managers for leadership development opportunities.

“If I can look down and see leaders being built at that level, then I know I’m becoming a good leader,” Chirgwin said. “If it stops at the people that report to me, I’m not developing teams, because they’re not developing teams.”

This is where letting go of the vine comes in. To encourage leadership mindsets at all levels, branch managers and warehouse supervisors at Bender are asked to let go of responsibilities, strategically and to those who want those responsibilities.

They’re asked to “delegate and elevate.”

Even the seemingly simplest tasks hold meaning: A branch manager handed coffee and snack ordering off to an individual who takes pride in having that responsibility. Another branch manager was still personally involved with several customers and trained another person to take on that opportunity.

“We can’t force people to have humanity, but there’s two things we can do for them. We can give them the opportunity to have humanity, and we can make sure they have an opportunity to self-reflect every day on it.”
Mark Chirgwin, COO, Bender

“It gives us more time to work on the business rather than working in the business,” Dan Falvo, Branch Manager at the Waterbury location, said. “It gives the person we’re delegating it to some additional responsibility, and they get to step up and raise their game.”

To the Bender team, delegating is about helping individuals grow.

“More times than not, people want to continue to evolve,” Chirgwin said. “They want to do more, and you can’t do more if you don’t give up what you’re currently doing.”

When I recently asked emerging leaders at Dalco, a division of Imperial Dade, what they look for in a job, they responded that they want to be challenged, growing in their job and career. They also want:

  • Responsibility and ownership of results;
  • Sense of pride; and
  • Enjoyment and sense of purpose.

“At the end of the day, we want to be more profitable, we want to be more productive and efficient,” Chirgwin said. “But I think we’re onto something. That if we create tools and you do it outside of work, it’s going to happen organically on the inside.”

Delegating and elevating is just one strategy Bender applies to make work more meaningful for employees. They also hold Purpose Meetings every Friday. In these meetings, they cover topics tied to their core values and behaviors. They’ll break out into groups to discuss and share, and then reconvene to debrief and commit to an action. For instance, they might commit to being better listeners over the next week.

They’re really bringing – and allowing for – humanity in the workplace.

By providing the space, resources and tools, distributors can help employees unleash their spirit and support them in their lifelong journey of becoming better people.

At Bender’s Purpose Meetings, it’s not uncommon to see the CEO sitting next to warehouse guys or the sales and marketing folks working with customer support and human resources – all on soft skills, which tend to be underrated.

When I was on a Zoom town hall with Bender’s team during my We Supply America tour stop at the Waterbury, Connecticut, branch, one man shared the value of these meetings with me. He simply said:

“I’m a better father.”

He then shared that at a picnic with his son, he could feel himself starting to get frustrated because his son was unwilling to leave his side and play with the other kids.

“He quickly thought about where he was, what he’s learned through our meetings and realized he needed to have more patience,” Chirgwin said. “By the end of the day, his son was more social, and he was so proud that the moment didn’t turn into an argument and ruin both of their days.”

If we all commit to the same development and valuation of these softer skills, imagine what we could do in – and outside – the world of distribution.

“We’re trying to give people tools that make them better human beings outside of the workplace,” Chirgwin said. “I’m a basketball coach, and I’m a much better coach today with the tools we’ve created at Bender than I was 10 years ago. Once I’m using those tools outside of work, they come to me easily at work: listening, delegating and elevating, having more patience.”

Dan Falvo, Branch Manager in Waterbury, Connecticut, says that’s been missing in leadership for a long time. “I think a lot of leaders have been mislabeled as leaders, when really they are managers. I never realized how wide the gap between a manager and a leader was until I came to Bender.”

“We can’t force people to have humanity, but there’s two things we can do for them,” Chirgwin said. “We can give them the opportunity to have humanity, and we can make sure they have an opportunity to self-reflect every day on: Did I have humanity today? Was I humble today? We can show them what a productive day is and ask them to self-reflect: Was I productive today? That allows them to leave work for the day with dignity.”

Your employees want you to think of them as a person, not a number. They want to feel valued. They want to be in a role and with a company that is evolving. These are truths proven out by my research and discussions with distributors across America.

People want purpose in their work and want to be seen as a real person. If they don’t find that, they’ll go elsewhere. Mark and his team at Bender recognize this and they provide it in spades.

Falvo has been at Bender nearly 10 months now, having left a 30-year career in the furniture industry for less pay and greater job satisfaction.

“I go home exhausted every Friday, but it’s a different exhaustion,” Falvo said. “I’m not managing anymore, I’m leading. It’s much more taxing mentally. And it feels really fulfilling when you go home at the end of the week and know you’re having an impact on people’s lives within your circle of influence.”

If you’d like to learn more about the findings of my latest research, Reimagining Leadership, and the critical role humanity will play going forward, learn more here.