Have you noticed that everybody and her mother is talking about how to be a good leader? Books such as Leadership Styles and Strategies, The 21 Century Supervisor, and 9 Natural Laws of Leadership are just the three of 3,048,203 search results that MSN returned when I searched leadership books. But when I searched for "how to be a good follower" the search engine returned 3,219 of which many were martial arts and religious sites! Sound leadership involves nurturing employees to excel in their abilities and create a functionally, competitive, and profitable work environment. Often, companies nurture employee skills by continuing education and training. Encouraging employees to take courses to improve project management skills or to learn the latest version of office software is great and companies will certainly benefit from a technologically savvy workforce, but this type of training isn't applicable to every area of the company.
One of the most neglected areas of an enterprise is its warehouse. This is where the greatest waste—and where the greatest savings can occur (see the series Warehouse Management Systems: Pie in the Sky or Floating Bakery?). Warehouse employees benefit when their skills are nurtured, but how to do this isn't always clear. Ultimately, when companies invest in continuous learning and training, they are encouraging employees to become good employees.
Now before you classify me as a crackpot and while you ask yourself who would want to learn how to be a good employee, hear me out. I spent several years in the military and I learned a lot about life in general. But what I learned about business will amaze you. Every branch of the military teaches you how to be a good leader by first being an excellent follower. You learn how to take orders, when to ask the right questions, and how to execute.
By now, I know many of you are thinking about all of the books you have read on management and leadership, and you are probably saying to yourself, "What good is it to know how to lead people, when the people you are leading do not want to go where you are taking them?" I know the books tell us that a good leader is supposed to have the ability to take people where they ought to be instead of where they want to be. However, regardless of where they are in the company, today's followers want to know several things before they follow you—and this is especially true in the warehouse where employees don't always see the impact of their role in the company. Followers want to know
- where you are taking them;
- why should they be there;
- what will happen when they get there; and my favorite
- how long will it take to get there.
In other words, today's followers want the problem and not just the solution.
Some would say these are generational differences and I agree, but those differences have been around for a long time. I believe it was Henry Ford who lamented, "Why, when I hire a pair of hands, does it have to come with a brain attached?" Today's leaders are having problems with generational differences, and instead of leveraging their employees desire to see the big picture, leaders ignore it. In fact, many leaders don't even realize the key to good leadership is adaptability. In the military we had to adapt to our surroundings immediately and the same is true in business, but most leaders want the followers to adapt to their leadership style instead of adapting their leadership style to the individuals following them. What leaders need to realize is that today's followers are different. One size does not fit all.
So this, perhaps, is a key point. No one wants to be classified as a "follower"—they are employees. To a leader, these might mean the same thing, but to your staff, they are entirely different. Employees need reason and incentive. The psychology of leadership will have you taking notice of the behavior of different individuals, and understanding that there are and will be differences.
For employees of a large multinational corporation or an employee of a mom-and-pop shop, their roles are all the same. From a warehouse standpoint, orders must be received, putaway, picked, packed, and shipped. Seems simple, but less than 30 percent of all warehouses are efficient and they average somewhere between 45 to 60 percent in annual turnover rates. Labor accounts for 65 percent of the costs associated with distribution, and this means that your employees are the most important part of the process. You need to start encouraging them to act like it.
We have known for years about the 80:20 rule. Twenty percent of your customers generate 80 percent of your revenue; 20 percent of your product is shipped on 80 percent of your orders and 20 percent of your employees process 80 percent of your work. Losing one of these individuals forces you to hire two more people as a replacement. Workers will leave quickly if they feel their skills are underutilized or they feel under valued.
However, all is not lost. You do not have to fire 80 percent of your workforce. You can nurture better employees by helping employees understand what they are working for, so they will appreciate their effort. Guide them by encouraging them to
Write down goals. Your organization puts its sales goals up ever month so the entire organization will subconsciously focus on the outcome and not the obstacles. Individuals are like organizations. They need to state their goals and determine what needs to be done to achieve those goals. Wanting a better job, a lot of money, or a better house is not enough. A goal is stating what type of job and when, how much money and by when, and how much to put down on that better house, and when it will be purchased. Goals will help your employees see past the orders they are picking, the product they are receiving, and the packages they are shipping, because by they are acting with their goals in mind.
As a leader you need to inspire confidence by making your employees confident in their skills. Once they understand the purpose of the company and the roles they play, then hopefully they will see the purpose in their work—and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Write down strengths and weaknesses. Your employees need to determine what they need to know about their corporation, what they do well, and what they need to improve. This way when positions become available within the organization, they can determine whether they are truly qualified and if they are capable. They will also know what they need to work on to be considered a possible candidate.
Invest in themselves to achieve their goals. I remember watching a news story about people who had been laid off. When the news anchor asked one man what he was going to do, the man replied, "Nothing! I have been working here for twenty years. This is all I know." That was the saddest thing I had ever heard. The fact that this company did not invest in this person was amazing—and the fact that he shutdown after a certain time everyday was even more amazing. My mother told me when I was very young "You earn a living from 9-5! But you earn a fortune from 5-9!"
Markets will change in twenty years and so will the jobs they offer. Jobs don't have futures. People do. Encourage your employees to spend some time outside of the company towards self investment. Point them to resources related to their field, their job, and the position they aspire to have. The ambitious ones will seize this opportunity. It took 1,800 years from the birth of Christ for man to double our knowledge. Now that happens in less than eighteen months.
Exceed goals. Most of us need reminding more than we need teaching. We need to be reminded that an increase in pay is based on the contribution being made to the department and more importantly to the organization. Managers do a horrible job at explaining this concept. Simply giving employees a goal and not tracking who is reaching it is a waste of time. Managers need to provide employees with stretch goals and then periodically expand those goals. All goals must be given a target date and once that goal and date are met, a new goal must be set immediately. Remember, in the future companies will have to do more with less in order to remain competitive. By expecting more from what you have, and you may never have to do to decrease your staff.
As a manager, you also have a notable role to play. You should
Promote professionalism. A disorganized area means mistakes happen. A disorganized packing area tells me that shipping errors occur here, and that impacts the whole company—from customer service to finance. The appearance of the warehouse should be as professional as the rest of the company. It will help warehouse employees feel a part of the company and strive toward the common goal.
Encourage responsibility outside of job descriptions. Most people are quick to tell you when something is not their responsibility, and even if they don't vocalize it, they still think it. This is a symptom of a greater problem: your employees don't see the incentive of doing something that is beneficial to the company, even though they know it should be done. Why? They think no one cares whether they do it. Your employees must realize that their responsibility begins when they walk through the warehouse doors and punch in and as a manager, you must be ready to recognize and reward.
Support dialogue with management. Most mid level managers do not take the time to adequately evaluate their employees. Therefore when review and raise time comes around, employees are often surprised that their increase was so low. This is demoralizing and destructive to the leadership process, because employees feel their efforts were for naught. You need to build incentive, promote dialogue, and monitor results. Employees should know how they are doing on a monthly basis. This doesn't mean doing twelve reviews a year, but it does mean supervisors and employees should feel free to talk about job progress informally and at appropriate times. Employees should feel any criticism they receive is constructive and any improvement they make will be recognized. Remember, this is to realize goals. When raise time comes around there should be no surprises one way or another.
Keep employees informed about initiatives. Employees need to feel there are opportunities for progress and advancement. They should know what is important to the supervisor and where they can showcase their ability and willingness. For example, if employees know that the company plans to implement a new warehouse management system (WMS) at the end of the year, they have an opportunity to show their interest and dedication to the company, and it will make the transition to the new system will be easier. As a manager, you should let them into the process. As a result, everyone benefits.
If you've spent all this energy nurturing good workers, then last thing you want to do is lose them to a competitor. Distribution is a cash intensive business and labor accounts for 65 percent of the cost associated with distributing your product. Most warehouses average somewhere between 45 percent and 60 percent annual turnover rates and most warehouse personnel will leave your organization for a 25 cent increase in pay. Your goal should be to provide an environment where your employees look forward to coming to work and not dread coming to work. If you are currently experiencing "normal" turnover rates it is definitely time to evaluate your leadership style. Always remember, "People don't leave bad organizations. People leave bad managers!"
About the Author
René Jones is widely known in the industry as the founder of Total Logistics Solutions, Inc. (http://www.logisticsociety.com) a warehouse efficiency company. With over eighteen of industry experience, Jones was recently recognized for his achievements in the industry by Supply & Demand Chain Executive and was named one of the top twenty-five "Pros to Know" in the industry for 2005. Published and quoted in industry magazines throughout the United State, Central America, Canada, and Australia, he is also the author of the acclaimed book, This Place Sucks: What Your
warehouse Employees Think About Your Company and How to Change Their Perceptions! and WMS 101: A Complete Guide to Selecting, Implementing and Maintaining a Warehouse Management System. He can be reached by phone at (818) 353-2962 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org