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Finding the Right Talent: Who Has an Entrepreneurial Spirit and a Desire to Run a Successful Company?

Chairman's Column - April 2016

Richard W. Schwartz, NAW 2016 Chairman of the Board, and Chairman of the Board, Winsupply, Inc.

Among the many concerns companies in the wholesale distribution industry are facing today, and a frequent topic wherever I go, is the evolving workforce. Millennials now make up the largest generation in the workforce and it’s safe to say few are thinking of wholesale distribution as an industry of choice.

The Pew Research Center analyzed U.S. Census Bureau Data and released a report that revealed that one in three American workers today is between the ages of 18 to 34. This generation born after 1980 has now surpassed the number of Gen Xers (those ages 35 to 50) in the American workforce.

Any purely business-to-business company tends to face the same challenge: How to attract people to its respective vertical. We at Winsupply have an increasing number of company management and leadership staff who are approaching retirement age. We recognized this fact some time ago and hired an expert in talent acquisition and succession planning to help us develop a strong bench and prepare people for leadership.

Our challenge is to reach younger people in general and then land the kind of people we need: Individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to run a successful company. In fact, among the major keys to achieving our organization’s strategic objectives is attracting new people. Just as important, once you land that talent, you need to retain the best.

We like to say that people, training, and recruiting are the equivalent in distribution of the R&D expense in manufacturing. We embrace what millennials bring to our organization. They’ve grown up doing things very differently from previous generations and their ideas for transforming the transaction and supply chain processes are the kinds of R&D we seek. Millennials seem to be driven by the need to make a difference and, along with being intellectually curious, they are also an adaptable, logical, and efficient group. In previous years, new generations entered the workforce and assimilated to older workers. With millennials it seems to be working the other way around.

I was very impressed at the NAW Executive Summit in January with the presentation of Ben Casnocha, co-author of New York Times best seller “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.” If you haven’t read his book, I highly recommend it.

Today’s younger employees have essentially become free agents, Ben says, due to the broken nature of the employer–employee relationship of previous years. But instead of thinking of employees as free agents, he recommends viewing them as allies: You want them to help transform your company; they want you to help them transform their careers for the long term. A solution, he goes on to say, is for each to commit to mutual investment and mutual benefit. As their employer, do what it takes to nurture their growth through mentoring and constant exposure to new knowledge and skills.

Millennials seem to have a mindset for continual learning and they value knowledge and experience. If they don’t know how to do something, they’ll find an online article, forum, or video that will teach them how. Millennials want to grow into great employees and learn from the best. Providing mentorship opportunities or letting younger employees work alongside more experienced ones, I believe, will help foster a stronger workforce all around.

In return for committing to their career transformation, ask them to commit to a specific company objective. “The Alliance” provides a comprehensive strategy to accomplish this, and I tip my hat to Ben.

The presentation he gave is a great example of the many resources and best practices NAW provides to leaders of successful distributors. We rely on NAW extensively to help us improve how we go to market, and how to find and keep talent is one of the key challenges today.

Networking and word-of-mouth have always been at the top of our talent acquisition strategy, but increasingly they aren’t enough. Having a talent expert on board is vital and we’re seeing the benefits. We get involved with four-year colleges for some direct linkages to students, and we’ve increased our engagement with passive candidates (candidates who are employed and not currently looking for a new opportunity) through LinkedIn. We tend to steer away from Facebook as we find that millennials typically do not participate.

Military recruiting leads to one of our more productive talent pipelines, especially considering the types of individuals we’re seeking. Officers in the military learn first and foremost to lead from the front, to lead by example, and to put their troops first. Their emphasis on constant training and learning is a perfect fit for Winsupply. Working through a group called Alliance that hosts retired military officers, we personally interview and attract ex-officers to our management in training program which gives them a year of training in operations and sales. Once they successfully complete the training, we offer them an ownership position in a company of their own. As an owner, they have the same kind of local unit decision-making they already experienced as officers.

We’re also working at the high school level, getting exposure by providing students with information about the distribution industry, interview training, and resume writing.

Another hurdle that all distributors face is that the demand for talent is exceeding the supply. Multiple distributors in a given market tend to be looking for the same type of person. At Winsupply, it’s incumbent upon us to have a compelling and competitive offering to win them to our company. Once on board, it’s imperative that we have a robust training regimen in place for employee development and retention. NAW’s research studies often augment the training we offer and we use these studies on a regular basis.

If you’re looking to augment your leadership training, you should consider NAW’s Distribution Program for Rising Stars at Ohio State. Over the course of one week, high-potential distribution leaders learn specific ways to improve their companies’ profitability while at the same time expand their own business skills and acumen. It’s not too late to send your people to this year’s Program in Columbus, which is June 13–17.

Another source for new leadership development is the Next Generation Leadership program, which NAW and its partners, Apollo Education Group and Western International University, recently launched and the first course is now accepting enrollees. This program is designed to teach critical leadership skills, blending independent, online learning with one-on-one coaching and mentoring.

With recruiting and managing talent being one of the biggest challenges all distributors face, I encourage you to look to NAW and the NAW Career Center to help you effectively attract younger candidates and develop your emerging leaders into higher levels of management and leadership within your companies.