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Are Your Cows Content

April 1, 1999
Related Topics: Motivating Employees, Featured Article
Whether it’s in heavy manufacturing,distribution, retail, services, high-tech, or professional sports, it’s noaccident that the organizations consistently identified as winners in theirchosen fields happen to be some of the best places on earth to work. 

    This occurs not as an afterthought, butas a vital, premeditated element of business strategy. It’s a relentless truththat those in the unenviable position of having to compete with the likes ofSouthwest Airlines, General Electric, Federal Express, Hewlett-Packard, 3M,Wal-Mart - and scores of lesser known organizations have to face every day. Ifyou treat people right, you’ll make more money. 

    Using real companies and real numbers,authors Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden have made the case, not with faith, butwith facts. In their book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk (Saltillo Press,1998), they have profiled six organizations with well-deserved reputations asgreat places to work (the Contented Cows) versus six of their competitors (theCommon Cows) and did a full blown analysis of their financials over a 10-yearperiod. 

    The results bear out a premise thatwould doubtless be echoed by generations of dairy farmers: Contented cows givebetter milk! 

You Get What You Expect To Get
   What do you assume about the people whowork in your organization or team? And what do you assume about people ingeneral? 

    If you believe that most people whocome to work for you are lazy, stupid, untrustworthy, inept and just downrightcontrary, that assumption can’t help but show up in the way you run yourbusiness. You’ll have all kinds of rules and regulations designed fornumbskulls who couldn’t pour milk out of a boot with the directions printed onthe heel. You’ll no doubt have a supervisor for every six or seven folks, andwill inevitably attract just the kind of people who will live down to yourassumptions. 

    Disconcerning, competent employeeswon’t come anywhere near your place, and your original assumption about peoplewill be reinforced. 

Core Covenants
    Organizations operate on a limitednumber - not a great long list - of core beliefs and assumptions that are burnedinto the very fabric of the business. Here are a few you should adopt(seriously) and begin operating on, today. 

  1. The Rule of Common Purpose: The organization must be managed in a way that permits all legitimate stakeholders - managers, employees, owners, and customers to benefit, each in their own way.

  2. The Rule of Selective Membership: Since the beginning of time, winning organizations the world over have recognized and held dear the notion that membership is a privilege, and not a right.

    Contrary to popular belief, there really is an ample supply of conscientious, hardworking, capable, honest people. No doubt some of them already work for you. You can (and must) find others like them. You’ve got to expend a little effort doing it because “eagles don’t flock,” but they are out there. (If you can’t accept this notion, sell your business to someone who can, or shut it down now!)

  3. The Rule of Omission: In the main, your employees, customers and, yes, owners will be inspired less by what you do for them than by what you don’t do to them. If, for example, you expect them to believe in you and stick with you, you should never, ever, ever deceive or abuse them! If the company conducts its business in a way that is sufficiently satisfactory (you don’t have to be Mr. Wonderful) to the people who work there, most of them will perform better, producing more and better stuff.

Assumptions Are a Two-way Street:The Employees’ Perspective
   The whole subject of assumptions wouldsimplify itself immensely if you only had to mind your own. The problem iseveryone else has a set, too. 

    Equally as important as yourassumptions about your workforce is the whole question of their operativeassumptions - about work, the organization and about you personally. 

    For example, what are their assumptionsabout profit? How much is there? Where does it come from? Where does it go?Given the continuing erosion of the trust factor in the workplace, what aretheir assumptions when they show up for work in the morning? Are they fullyengaged? Or is it more like, “I know they’re out to screw me, so I’ll getthem first”? Do you even know? 

    What are their assumptions about theorganization’s priorities right now? Have they had to figure this one out ontheir own? Or have you told them? Are you sure? 

    What are their assumptions about you?What’s important to you? What do you stand for? Believe in? What will orwon’t you tolerate? Yes, we know. You probably told everyone this stuff whenyou hired them, right? But how long ago was that, and have your actions reallybeen consistent with those statements made so long ago? 

    Unless you and your entire managementteam have invested a considerable amount of personal time and effortcommunicating honestly and openly - sharing the bad news as well as the good,showing people the numbers, helping them understand them and making sure thatyour words are backed up by your actions - you’ve got people operating withbad data. In other words, your organization very well could be afflicted with abad case of ignorance - curable, but ignorance nonetheless. 

What Employees Want: The Contented Cows’ View
   The view taken by the Contented Cowcompanies seems to be that their employees want (and deserve):

  1. Meaningful Work: Employees need to feel proud of their work. They want suitable challenges and the freedom to pursue them. They want to be in the game, not on the bench.

  2. High Standards: They dislike losing organizations and don’t want to hang around with losers.

  3. A Clear Sense of Purpose and Direction: They want to read mysteries, not live them. Timely, relevant and meaningful (truthful) information is a must.

  4. Balanced “Worth-its”: A commensurate level of interest and investment in them must be demonstrated. Internal systems that support rather than impede their efforts, and freedom to pursue some things that are important to them.

  5. A Level Playing Field: This means reciprocal caring, coupled with some sense of justice and an assurance they won’t be taken advantage of.

  6. To Be and Feel Competent: We don’t need to explain this one, do we?

But Will They Be Contented Here?
   From the start, we’ve been making thecase that Contented Cows Give Better Milk. It’s an absolute fact. But it’salso a fact that all cows aren’t going to be content living on your ranch, solet’s be truthful about it. 

    By definition, the Contented Cowcompanies are viewed as exceptional places to work. But that holds true for onlycertain types of people, and Contented Cows unabashedly take steps to ensurethat people who won’t fit in with their particular environment don’t go towork there. (And, if they do somehow manage to get on the payroll, that theydon’t last long!) 

    In effect, what they arerecognizing - and it’s as true in your company as it is in theirs - is thatnot everyone would be happy, productive or successful working there. As youmight guess, these companies employ a rigorous selection process.Hewlett-Packard candidates have been known to experience eight or more jobinterviews. Lincoln Electric, the decades-old Cleveland manufacturer of electricmotors, reportedly takes it a step further by requiring every new hire to beinterviewed and unanimously approved by a board of vice presidents and factorysuperintendents. 

    Rick and Diane Ernst, who operate oneof Alphagraphics’ largest and most successful franchises, go even furtherstill. After conducting an exhaustive recruiting and screening process, they paypotential hires $100 to work with their team for a day; a measure which givesboth parties the opportunity to make an informed decision and opt out beforeit’s too late. 

    Such measures not only narrow the risk,but also make plain from the very start that the organization is deadly seriousabout employment matters. It also sends a message to the individual that he orshe must be joining an elite organization, thus creating high expectations thatin turn breed high performance. 

    One measure of a person’s capacity tobe satisfied and productive at your company is the degree to which they can livewith your ground rules. Every organization has certain things which are in therealm of the sacrosanct. They are immutable. Changing them is not on the tablefor discussion. 

    Among other things, Contented Cowcompanies realize the absolute futility of trying to convert someone whoseinternal compass points 40 degrees to the left of the corporation’s. It’snot a matter of morality, but makeup. 

    More so than the average company, theContented Cow companies have a crystal clear sense of direction and a keenawareness of their core values. Accordingly, these organizations have littleroom for those who are unwilling to make the journey with them. 

The Proof Is In the People
   Having put forth some of the behavioraldrivers behind the best stool-and-bucket Contented Cow companies, let’sdescribe three of the very fundamental characteristics they share regardingtheir employment practices. Are you ready? The book is going to hang onto thesethree branches. 

    While the Contented Cow companies areunique in many ways, they share remarkable commonality in three importantrespects. Day in and day out, each of them does a remarkable job of: 

  1. Getting (and keeping) their people solidly lined up behind the organization’s core purpose and objectives. In short, they are committed.

  2. Letting people know through myriad ways - in some ways large (but mostly small) - that they’re important. They’re more than just a number or body. They are cared about - first as people, and then as professionals.

  3. Through personal as well as systemic means, removing the obstacles from the path of their workforce. In short, they have enabled their people to perform.

    Analyzing each of these areas, we’lladdress the following questions: 

  1. What exactly are the components of these characteristics? How will you recognize it when you see them?

  2. How can you replicate them? Here, we’ll look at two aspects of the equation:
    1. Employee relations practices:  These are obviously (we think they’re obvious) those things that you would actually do to promote contentment and productivity. You know - pay, benefits, employee involvement, teamwork, the hiring and decision-making processes - all of them - and more.

    2. Operational practices: These are all the decisions you make about running the business which aren’t directed at employee relations - but that employees nonetheless must depend on or contend with. These are less obvious because they won’t come up in a discussion of employee relations, but they have a tremendous effect on contentedness, and on frustration levels. These are things like customer service policies, safety, equipment maintenance, etc.

  3. What are the employees’ responsibilities? What must people do to ensure their own contentment? This is anything but a one-way street.

    Finally, to help you“three-dimensionalize” the ideas governing each chapter, we’ll identifysome of the people and organizations that are doing an especially good job inthese areas. From time to time, we’ll also take a look at those that have“climbed the mountain” but, due to a failed strategy in otherrespects - have lost ground, money or ceased to exist altogether. 

    Our job, then, will be to pick throughthe situations and examples, bringing to light those which define eachcharacteristic in the simplest, clearest, and most replicable manner.  

    When people are afforded theopportunity to focus freely on their work, and that opportunity is backed byhigh expectations and appropriate rewards, they’ll - guess what? - do theirjobs. It’s very much in your self interest to create and support a satisfiedworkforce because that workforce can build wealth almost as fast as adisgruntled one can destroy it. Contented Cows do give better milk, and bettermilk translates to better profits. Period. 

    In our book, as we continue to make thecase with cold, hard facts, and analyze what it takes to create and maintain acapably led, satisfied, highly motivated workforce, expect some holes to bepoked in the myths that around about what employee satisfaction really is.We’re willing to bet it’s probably not what you think. 

Excerpt reprinted with permissionfrom Contented Cow Partners. You can purchase ContentedCows Give Better Milk at the Contented Cows Website. 

Workforce,April 1999, Vol. 78, No. 4, pp. 61-65 SubscribeNow!

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