Do you remember the big-wig bosses in most Hollywood movies? They’re always sitting behind massive wooden desks in high-rise offices with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook some incredible view in New York City. They typically dictate orders down to their subordinates from the comfort of an oversized leather chair.
They view their employees as numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine.
It’s an exaggerated view of a very real condition that still exists in a lot of companies: a top-down approach to leadership.
The problem is that this type of leadership is not serving distribution companies today.
Hierarchy? Command and control? Short-term thinking? Money as the only motivator?
Those no longer create the results they once did.
Sixty-five percent of distribution leaders believe that leaders must unlearn some qualities that led to their success in the past. That’s what we found in our new research project into how we must reimagine leadership.
We all know COVID-19 highlighted problems and exacerbated them into massive disruptions. From the functionality of the supply chain to manufacturers’ ability to secure products, distributors large and small had a lot to deal with.
But just as the business changed – people changed.
People began to reevaluate their lives. This, in turn, contributed to the Great Resignation and subsequent labor shortage.
The truth is: If a job is mediocre at best and leadership uninspiring and unreachable, people are more willing now than ever before to find something else.
People are searching for a meaningful spot to spread their wings, do hard work with purpose and feel valued not only for their job, but also for the complexity and uniqueness of who they are.
The whole person has come into focus, and employees want to make the most of their moments both at home — and at work.
During my first run across the country, filming season one of We Supply America last year, I met Harold Keppner at Porter Pipe in Addison, Ill. This 83-year-old rockstar had been a pipe fitter for 64 years when I met him, and he’d been at Porter Pipe for the past 29. You know what’s kept him there, despite having the skills and experience to venture out on his own?
“They treat me better than any boss I’ve ever had, including myself when I had my own business for 20 years,” he told me.
He described how everyone feels like they’re part of a family. “They love me, and I love them. It’s like home to me.”
Harold’s story illustrates a radical (yet not-so-radical) way of leading: putting humanity at the core.
It’s Time to Unlearn and Relearn How to Lead
I recently released the first prong of a three-part research series. Part one is all about leadership, but the entire project was meant to gauge the accelerated change affecting independent distributors. I spoke with dozens of leaders during my two seasons of We Supply America. And we supplemented that with a survey of more than 220 distributors, and my work one-on-one with companies around the country.
Most respondents to our survey agreed with my premise that the very nature of leadership has changed as a result of the pandemic, but what was more exciting to see was that 83% of distributors believe we must lead differently coming out of the pandemic than how we went in.
In my experience, there are four leadership styles:
- Controlling: Management gets things done by legislating and policing activity; they use fear as a motivator. (Think movie bosses.)
- Managing: Management is focused on the day-to-day and maintaining processes and the status quo. (Understandably, many distributors found themselves here in the midst of the pandemic – just trying to stay afloat on a daily basis.)
- Leading: Management is looking to the future with an articulated vision and defined strategy to achieve success.
- Noble Calling: Management is inspired by a higher purpose and is intent on making an oversized impact – beyond the bottom line. They’re focused on investing in and empowering their employees.
It’s this last style that distributors need to embrace in a post-pandemic world.
How to Lead Nobly
The Noble Calling renews the focus on the individual.
As one respondent said, “Command and control don’t work” any longer.
Leaders must balance purpose with profits and understand that unilateral decision making will no longer work. “Employees no longer want to be viewed as worker bees,” said another respondent.
Employees want leaders who communicate, make them feel like a valued part of the team or community, and actively engage – not just in annual celebratory meetings.
Chris Blaylock of Wipfli said it perfectly when he told me: “We’ve seen a shift in what people want in a workplace” and their leaders. “The distributors who have been successful are those who are engaging in a different way. They have a personal relationship. They walk the floor. They have a first-name-basis conversation. They know their team’s family members. Those that have invested in their people in this way have succeeded because their employees feel like they are valued, and that value means something.”
This makes work feel like home, like a safe space.
I recently visited Red Ball Oxygen in Schreveport, La., as part of my We Supply America tour. Over lunch, I talked to a buyer for the company who emphatically told me that when she joined Red Ball, it was the “best decision” of her life.
I probed to learn why.
She told me the culture and environment in her previous employer were so toxic she developed a stress ulcer and was hospitalized. She gave her two weeks from the hospital bed. But as a “Red Baller,” she has been embraced as part of the family from day one, and plans to retire right where she is.
Red Ball Oxygen has an open-book style of leadership that provides transparency to the company’s financials, and has made every employee a stakeholder. Each month, employees share in the company’s profits.
Red Ball is a place where people want to be – where they are valued.
Taking on the Noble Calling requires unlearning. Get rid of tactics like:
- Fear-based, micro-managing
- Money as the only motivator
- Tenure as the sole reason for moving someone up within the company
Instead, try something like what the folks at plumbing supplies distributor ProSource Supply do: Every few weeks, the leadership team visits a branch to host a town hall meeting. Employees can ask questions, voice concerns, offer ideas for community-building and suggest solutions for problems.
Post-pandemic leaders must be innovative, intentional and, above all else, human. Almost all of our survey respondents (93%) agreed that the human element will play an important role in leadership in a post-pandemic world.
“Leadership is about the fundamental human experience,” one survey respondent wrote.
I agree. Don’t you?
Want to see what else distribution leaders said about the changing landscape of leadership? Learn more about our new report.