By Dirk Beveridge
This summer was year two of traveling the country for the We Supply America tour, championing the noble calling of distribution and meeting with distributors across all segments and all sizes.
One day in June, I found myself in a Walmart parking lot. I began to prepare for the day ahead: I would be visiting Broadfield Distributing Inc., a multi-generational family-owned distributor of video technology.
I was looking forward to my visit for many reasons, one of them being the leadership perspective of the company’s president, Gary Bettan. In the days leading up to my visit, Gary told me: “It takes great people to make a great company. Our people care about their work, our company and the growth opportunities we provide. We treat our employees like our extended family and value work-life balance.”
Gary’s sentiments about his employees are just a slice of what I witnessed yet again this summer. Across cities and states, thousands of miles of road, and over 30 distributors, I witnessed the changing landscape of leadership in distribution.
The COVID-19 pandemic put us all through the ringer – there’s no doubt about that. Distributors had to scramble and pivot to survive. But distributors also had to find new ways of operating to support their people, such as offering remote work and flexible schedules, accommodating unprecedented family needs and providing more generous sick leave.
In my new research on the changing nature of leadership in distribution, 93% of survey respondents agreed or significantly agreed with my premise that the human element will play a significant role in leadership going forward.
Leaders are leading in an environment of personal uncertainty – of personal disruption. They aren’t the same now as they were going into March 2020. As one distributor told us:
“People have always wanted to feel they matter and belong to something greater than just their own needs. COVID has required many to finally think about the people they affect.”
If employees feel their job is mediocre and uninspiring, that leadership sees them as merely a cog in the machine, I assure you they will jump ship for a better opportunity. Leaders need to embrace and infuse humanity into every part of what they do.
My new report, “The State of Leadership Throughout Distribution,” reveals key findings about the need for a humanity-centered approach. Two are particularly relevant to the changing tides of leadership:
- Leaders must consider the whole person.
- We need to redefine the work-life balance as the life-work balance.
Everyone wants to make the most of their lives. They want to do the best they can – using all of their unique gifts and talents – both at home and at work.
When I met with jan-san distributor Dalco up in Minnesota, I asked their emerging leaders about what they want in a company, job and career.
One of the answers was “humanity.” In other words: “Think of me as a person, not a number.”
I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
The Humanity Revolution
I like to think of the changing nature of leadership as a Humanity Revolution. It’s an opportunity for us to obliterate the thinking that employees are assets, and equally, for employees to feel empowered to view themselves as more than “just” a driver, forklift operator, accounts receivable team member or sales rep, for example.
Here’s what that means:
Viewing employees not as assets, but as valuable team members with untapped potential.
Our employees cannot be assets, as the literal definition holds, because they aren’t replaceable, and their value doesn’t depreciate over time.
Employees are individuals who help us fulfill the business’s potential when we help them fulfill their potential.
I spoke with Will Quinn, director of industry and solution strategy at Infor and former Marine, about this topic. He’s no stranger to managing several hundred employees in a warehouse setting, and he believes that it’s a leader’s role to ensure people understand their true value, which can start with something as simple as making sure everyone is doing a task they enjoy and are proficient at.
“Everyone in my distribution center was performing a necessary task that was important to servicing our customer and providing them with a great customer experience. No matter what the position was – whether you’re the general manager, receiver, forklift driver, inventory control, quality control, customer service, sales – it didn’t matter. We’re a whole team that works together to make this company run and make distribution happen.”
Removing barriers to success in the workplace.
When I spoke with ProSource Supply CEO Drew Roberts, he couldn’t wait to tell me about the changes they had implemented for their employees.
The Great Resignation hit ProSource particularly hard. Tenured employees were suffering from burnout, working excessive hours of overtime or continually training new hires only to have those same new employees leave shortly after onboarding. Those situations weren’t sustainable for the company nor the individuals trying to keep it afloat.
“We did the same things as everyone else. We had an ice cream truck come out. We did a one-time bonus,” Drew told me. “Those things are nice, but they don’t make a difference in somebody’s life. They might go, ‘Okay, it’s good to know that you appreciate me, but I can’t take ice cream home and spend it.’”
ProSource eventually raised total wages by $300,000, which allowed employees to earn no less and in many cases more income – while slashing overtime. When I was on site during a We Supply America tour stop, talking to Drew and Preston, ProSource’s logistics manager who developed this plan, I asked why Preston recommended these changes. His response, “to give our employees their lives back.”
One driver broke down crying when he heard the news. Unbeknownst to ProSource, they were about to lose him, their most beloved driver, because he couldn’t afford to work there any longer. He had triplets at home. “Now, we’ve changed his whole story,” Drew said. “When someone works with us, I want to make sure we can feed their family.”
Encouraging – and supporting – employees to go after the roles they desire.
Adela Perez is a fiery, petite mother of four who started off in packing at L&R Supply and had dreams of being a forklift driver. But she wasn’t sure she’d be given the chance. She thought someone of her size and stature and gender would never be given that opportunity.
Then, after talking with friends and coworkers about her dream, she gathered the courage to ask her leadership team. She thought they’d say, “No, we need you here in this department.” Or, “We have forklift drivers already.”
She was surprised when her boss not only supported her dream, but embraced it.
Within 30 days, they started her forklift certification. And for the past 18 months, she has been a boss on that forklift. You can see the pride emanating from her. I asked her what her mother thinks about her being a forklift driver in the warehouse.
“Oh, my God, she’s so proud of me. My kids are proud of me.”
L&R Distributors gets it. They celebrate every person, opportunity and challenge with gratitude. They believed in Adela. They understand that our businesses are a platform for more than just moving goods: They are a platform for developing and supporting people.
Be intentional about meeting your employees where they are.
Ryan Craven from General Air Service & Supply shared this philosophy of meeting people where they are with me; it’s one of his guiding leadership principles.
Shift your perspective from employees as the people behind the desk or in the field, and view them as individuals with lives and goals. Although they may spend 40-50 hours a week at your organization, they have other important things to do outside of those hours – some of which may impact their productivity and attention in the office.
“If you can pause for a second because you know where they’re at, you can give them a chance to win that day, even if it looks different than the average day,” he said.
General Air’s “Lunch and Learns” bring in outside resources to provide employees with a chance to grow in new areas, such as budgeting or retirement-fund allocation. They also host family dinners, where everyone comes together with their families to connect.
Provide opportunities for employees to grow – outside of their roles at work.
As leaders, we have the privilege of helping our people grow on the job and as a person. Mark Chirgwin, the COO at plumbing supplies distributor Bender, does just that through his Purpose Meetings, which are vehicles for soft-skills development. Although these meetings are voluntary, it’s not uncommon to see the CEO sitting next to warehouse associates or the sales and marketing folks working with customer support and human resources – all on soft skills, which tend to be underrated.
A recent meeting covered “carefrontation,” which Mark defined as “bringing up someone’s blind spot to improve the situation rather than point out something negatively.”
Bender wants to help their employees work toward a better version of themselves inside and outside of work. This is real humanity in leadership.
As Mark told me, “We’re all leaders, and in order for soft skills to grow, we have to be vulnerable, and we have to be storytellers. When we do that, people see that these soft skills are super important, and the company is a safe zone.”
Two other simple acts that go a long way:
Acknowledging a job well done. Research shows that “79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving.” “Recognizing somebody at work has a lot of impact on employees throughout their day and can actually make or break their decision to stay with your organization,” Jessica Dunyon of Infor said.
Open the dialogue. Whether you’re the CEO hosting a monthly town hall meeting or an operations manager scheduling one-on-one sessions with each employee, infusing humanity into your leadership style can take the form of a single question: “What do you need to do your job better?” Whether their answer is professional or personal, their answer matters.
“As leaders, our goal is to move obstacles out of our employees’ way so they can do their job successfully. If we give them the right tools, training and resources, we can move those obstacles and help them shine and excel,” Ryan told me.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The ability for a leader to connect, empathize, understand and communicate will be critical going forward. If you’d like to learn more about the findings of my latest research, The State of Leadership Throughout Distribution, and the critical role humanity will play going forward, learn more here.
Dirk Beveridge is the founder of UnleashWD, Executive Producer at We Supply America, President of the Beveridge Consulting Group and Champion for the noble calling of distribution for over 36 years. His one-of-a-kind perspective on the future of wholesale distribution has guided his mission to advance the growth, relevance and transformation of the industry, helping distributors thrive. Learn more about Dirk by visiting UnleashWD.com. Or learn about his work speaking to audiences big and small for forward-thinking businesses and associations committed to creating new value in the market.