Don’t Forget The People Who Made It Happen

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My wife Barbara and I recently attended the funeral for my former secretary’s husband, Jim Allen. Sandy worked with me for more than 25 years. She was one of the most important assets I had during my time at Michigan State University (MSU).

Barbara and Sandy managed the two businesses I had. They organized conferences for 2,000 people and followed through on the details of the many trips I took to speak all over the country and the world.

It didn’t take me long to realize my most valuable asset was not money but the people I had who worked with me.

During my tenure at MSU, I had 10 individuals who I held responsible for all the different areas I had to cover. The areas included teaching, research, Extension, the Horticultural Demonstration Gardens, all of the teaching and research greenhouses at MSU, Bedding Plants, Inc. (BPI), the Bedding Plant Foundation and my other floriculture activities.

I tried to delegate responsibility and authority. Once the employees knew their jobs and how to handle other people, they had the feeling they were running their own businesses.

I worked under the philosophy they could learn and then do much more than I could handle on my own. I had a rule that they would not see me or I would not interfere in their operations unless there was a problem. It was interesting to see how they developed and how proud they were of their efforts.

I worked to train these individuals in their jobs, held them responsible and then kept out of the way. I found that the group got together, held its own meetings and figured out how to keep me busy and out of its way.

It got to the point where I would check in with them. They would bring me up to date and then ignore me. To show them how important I was, I would say to them “you are fired” when I wanted something changed.

Delegating Responsibility

At Jim’s funeral, three of my former employees from MSU, who worked a total of 100 years for the university under my supervision, remembered having been fired by me over 50 times. If you add in the times I fired Barbara, who worked with me for more than 25 years with BPI, the total would be more than 75. They determined very early not to pay any attention to me, but to just do their jobs and do them well.

I realized very early in my career that I couldn’t do all I had to do by myself. I had better find skilled people who knew more than I did and then give them the responsibility and the authority to do their jobs. You must realize everyone has gifts and talents. Your job is tohelp them use these skills for your company or to accomplish your goals.

I try to stay in touch with our industry. I do some writing, some consulting and try to interact with a cross section of individuals to see what people are doing and what they are thinking. I’ve found strong companies have skilled people who enjoy their work because they are making a contribution, not only to their employers but to their families and communities, as well.

The managerial system of king and slaves does not work. This is very obvious when you consider the banking industry, which paid out millions of dollars in bonuses to CEOs while taxpayers have to pay their companies billions of dollars to survive.

When I worked with my core people, I never made more than 10 times their average wage. In Japan, they suggested the CEO should never make more than 40 times the average wage of the key personnel.

The problem with the banking and financial institutions in the United States is that the top executives are making over 4,000 times the average wage of their employees. This group of CEOs has destroyed many of our retirement resources and greatly damaged the wealth of our grandchildren.

My wife’s mother Lola often said that what goes around comes around. These people who have destroyed the economy will be destroyed themselves. Therefore, while money is essential, it is not the most important part of our business. Our employees, our co-workers, the people we work with are our most important assets.

Reality Of The Real World

The CEOs of the financial world showed they were more interested in themselves and their ability to take as much money as possible for themselves. They let their businesses go bankrupt and left their employees without jobs. They had no care or consideration for their most important assets.

Many of the schools that offer a Masters of Business Administration teach their students how to run a company, how to make money and how to get as much money as possible for themselves. But they do not teach them anything about being responsible for their employees or being accountable to the public.

I’ve asked several employers about the situation in the economy and whether they feel an obligation to take care of their employees. The people I asked were either in our industry or in small businesses in Michigan. They all said they do not have an obligation to ensure the betterment of their employees’ futures.

Several said they would try to help them get new jobs by providing letters of reference or other positive efforts. One said that they would close the place down, take the money for the owner and CEO and let the company go into bankruptcy.

I was very disappointed by their lack of concern for the people who had worked with them to make their companies successful. I really think MBA programs should teach a course in the responsibility CEOs or managers have for the employees who work with them.
The point I want to make is that people – employees, suppliers and customers – are your most important assets if you can work with them and take a leadership role. If you don’t, you may get all the money, but the damage you do will not be worth the money you think you have made.

Takeaways
The morals of this article are:

• If your greed is a need, you will not succeed.

• Trust is a must!

• If you are the CEO or leader, you will only be successful if people follow you.

• You need to take care of the people who follow you. Or, one day you’ll look around and find there is no one there.

These are difficult times for everyone, but if you have the responsibility and the authority to lead people, you had better be someone they can believe in and trust, someone who will do everything possible to help them keep their jobs or make certain they are taken care of.

I believe people in horticulture know how to take care of plants. Make sure you also know how to take care of people.

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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