For Or With, That Is The Question

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Over the past three months, I have asked more than 20 people, "How many jobs have you had since you started working?" Their answers ranged from 1 to 35 jobs. I then asked them, "With whom did you work?" Nineteen of the 20 responded that they worked "for" the companies. Only one said that he worked "with" them.

While you may think the difference in the two words is just semantics, I contend it means much more than that. In fact, I believe the difference is worth millions of dollars to the individual and the company.

When I finished questioning, most people asked me how many people I have worked for. I responded, "None." I said I always felt I was working "with" the companies and universities I tried to help.

If an owner of a business or a corporation can develop an environment of working together, employees will feel they are working "with" the company and not "for" the company.

I’ve seen many cases, especially in agriculture, where the employees are so tightly controlled that they are allowed to do only what they are instructed to do. As a result, when they finish one job, they must wait to be told what the next job is. If the boss isn’t there, they just sit and wait for instructions as to what their next task will be.

On the other hand, those workers who are free to make their own decisions feel they are making a significant contribution to the company. They enjoy their work and are much more productive both for the company and themselves. They also are happier and more satisfied with their working time.

In fact, many people who work "with" their companies commit more time to projects than just 40 hours a week. Some invest 60 or even 80 hours a week because they feel their work is important and they are making a significant contribution to the company.

Of course, this can go to the extreme so that they get so wrapped up in their work they sacrifice other areas of their lives, such as family, leisure and sometimes even health. This can also cause the employee and the company difficulties. 

Good Management

How do you manage a company in order to take advantage of the secrets of handling employees?

I knew a CEO in the horticultural printing business who was hired as a graphic artist with the business. He worked day and night and got to know everyone at work. There were probably 20 employees at that time. He knew how to work with people. He would remember their names, spouses’ names, children’s names, birthdays and what they liked to do in their leisure time. He learned everything about the company. Because of this, he became the plant manager and the plant grew to employ 100 people.

He still knew every person by name and the facts about each one. This continued for over 40 years until the company employed several hundred people and he became the president and chairman of the board. When he arrived, the company did less than $1 million in sales a year. When he retired, it did over $50 million annually.

His secret was he knew everyone, everyone liked him and they loved to work "with" him. He treated everyone, from the professional designers and printers to the people who cleaned the building, with equal respect and opportunities.

Another one of his secrets was that he always said, "We have accomplished this. We need to improve this. We have these goals for next year." The company held regular meetings so everyone could share ideas on how to improve their jobs and what needed to be done to make the company better.

He never used the pronoun I because I is a lonely word. I immediately indicates that people are working "for" you. If that is true, then you have just lost the team spirit. You have to make all the decisions yourself, and people will wait for your next instruction. They will be afraid to make decisions themselves. Thus, the "I" approach is a very costly one. It will cost millions of dollars in lost productivity and low employee morale, and it will also reduce the potential growth of the company.

I Versus We

An article in the 2004 Harvard Business Review cited the famous management guru Peter Drucker. Drucker surveyed many CEOs and found they had different types of personalities. They ranged from extroverts to almost recluses, but they all followed eight basic practices that made them successful.

Here are those eight practices:
1. Ask what needs to be done.
2. Ask what is right for the business.
3. Develop action plans.
4. Take responsibility for decisions.
5. Take responsibility for communicating.
6. Focus on opportunities, not problems.
7. Run productive meetings.
8. Think and say "we" rather than "I."

These steps provided them with the knowledge they needed and converted that knowledge to actions. They made the whole organization feel responsible and accountable.

Show me a well-run and profitable greenhouse business and I’ll show you a strong leader who practices these basic principles. The fact that the leaders of successful companies may have varied personalities does not make that great a difference if they follow sound basic management practices.

I believe this is the greatest problem of the small greenhouse operation. While most small operators learn the basics of growing plants and know how to produce them commercially, they don’t have or take the time to master the basics of good management. As our industry matures, we can see many small growers going out of business. I would venture to say the "I factor" is a major part of the problem.

There are levels one can reach with a sole proprietorship or partnership or small corporation where the strong boss approach works. Usually that approach can work until sales reach $1 million and then the business starts to "shake," becoming difficult to maintain or handle. At that point, some sort of organizational structure and professional management are needed. If this isn’t done, the boss approach may still work until the company reaches sales of $3 to $5 million. Then it will shake again, this time more violently. It may even start to fall apart. Beyond this point, the "I" will die and the "we" will survive.

People who start their own businesses and make them survive and grow almost always want to keep control. They have made all the decisions that made the business successful to this point, and they are afraid someone else will never be able to handle it.

Most of these folks have never understood the basics of management and do not know how to work "with" other people in a non-threatening way. They have not learned the simple difference between "for" and "with" and that can cost them their business. I hope you enjoy working "with" 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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