This month’s cover story on “Best Practices Of Master Distributors” begins a year-long quest in our Golden Anniversary year to cast a spotlight on the best practices at all levels of the PHCP supply chain. This magazine’s staff and contributors are scouring the distribution industry far and wide to report on good ideas to emulate.
During this quest we’ve encountered a few people wary of cooperating with us, saying, “Why should we reveal our business secrets?” My response is, quit fooling yourself. Most of you brag about your best practices in your sales pitches and literature, although you may not label them as such. Besides, even if you manage to keep the lid on certain business practices, it comes off every time an employee leaves you to work for a competitor. Departing staff bring along knowledge of your operations that they are eager to share with the new employer. Often that’s a key reason someone is hired away. Is there any among you reading this to whom that’s never happened?
And therein lay the crux of this matter. Good business ideas are a dime a dozen. Whether or not they pan out depends on execution, and execution depends on employing people able and willing to do what’s required.
It is no less true for being a cliché that people are the key to success in any business. Brilliant upper management is less critical than the day-by-day performance of the people who operate forklifts, staff the sales desks and pickup counters, drive your trucks and perform myriad other routine duties of the supply business. A screw-up at any station wastes money and leaves disgruntled customers in its wake. Management’s job is to give the operations workers the tools and guidance they need to do theirs well.
Corollary to this is the familiar saying, “Good people are hard to find.”
Most operations jobs in the distribution field require skills substantial enough that you can’t take just any warm bodies off the street and make them productive. At the same time the skill requirements are not so elevated that distributors can make whatever-it-takes offers to fill the positions. Most distribution jobs can be categorized as semi-skilled and most employees fall around the middle of the middle class in income. Consequently, there tends to be a lot of turnover whenever someone sees a chance to make a little more money or enjoy better working conditions.
Business literature is filled with studies showing that pay ranks below certain emotional factors in job satisfaction. Topping the list are things like feeling appreciated and having input into shaping one’s job.
After three decades of visiting supply houses and factories, one develops a pretty good radar for detecting which companies are held in esteem by their employees, as opposed to those who merely go through the motions of doing their jobs. You can read it in their faces and in their demeanor. In the good companies, workers at all levels exude confidence in the presence of a stranger. In the not-so-good ones, they display a deer-in-the-headlights look, fearful of a misstep that will lead to a chewing out or worse. Another telling sign: Companies that have employees of long-standing tenure almost always turn out to be top performers. Experience pays off.
Shaping a loyal and effective workforce takes leadership. Peter Drucker once observed that the difference between leadership and management is that managers gain power from above, leaders from below. Managers have the authority to tell others what to do, but leaders have a knack for making the people who work for them want to do their best to please the leader.
It would take a book to explain what it takes for distribution managers to become leaders. Fortunately, such a book exists, written by an industry insider. That’s Ed Felten’s The Art of Supervising and Motivating People. Felten is the retired former president and chairman of the highly regarded regional PHCP supply chain First Supply Group, headquartered in Madison, WI.
Felten’s book is a primer on human relations that is filled with real world advice for turning employees into a loyal, productive workforce. It’s an easy read that’s low on jargon, high on common sense. You can obtain his book from the ASA Education Foundation at www.asa.net, or 312-464-0090.
Good people are indeed hard to find. That makes it imperative to identify those right under your nose and treat them well.