HR PROFESSIONALS — YOUR INFLUENCE HAS FINALLY ARRIVED
As an entrepreneur who owned and operated four companies with several hundred employees for more than 20 years, the only two departments I ran myself were Human Resources and Sales. I know that this is not typical of how most men run a large company, but women business owners recognize a direct connection between one’s ability to hire, fire, and manage employees with their ability to establish a successful business. We rely on our natural instincts and skills to identify with and understand someone else’s feelings or difficulties which makes a world of difference in evaluating and managing personnel. A perfect example of how these qualities helped me build a successful organization is embodied in my guitar playing, song writing truck driver I hired, called “Clem.”
Clem was a far cry from the stereotypical truck driver. Tall and lanky, with dark wavy hair and a preppy demeanor, Clem insisted on working in well-pressed chinos, a button-down shirt, and penny loafers and one more thing—this was his first job as a truck driver. I took a flexible and inclusive—that is, a businesswoman’s approach—to hiring employees, which allowed for distinctive individuals to get a job with my company.
“You look nice, Clem. Too nice for a dirty job like this,” I said.
“This is who I am, Susan. I’ll be fine,” he said.
And he was fine until . . . less than one week later a case of beef fell over, covering Clem in blood.
“Well, you were right about this being a dirty job,” he admitted when he called me later that day, “but I’m still me, and I’m not buying a new wardrobe. I’d like Allegro to buy me white smocks to protect my clothes. I’ll wash and press them myself.”
The image of Clem delivering supplies to a casino in a starched, white butcher’s coat was irresistible. I agreed.
I thought he looked distinctly professional in his new uniform; the warehouse workers thought otherwise. They whistled and hooted, making fun of his white coat when he pulled up to the loading dock. But Clem, who always seemed to march to his own beat, strummed his guitar as he waited for the workers to unload his truck and ignored their teasing. Eventually, they stopped whistling.
Clem had planned to work for me for only a few months, but he ended up staying with me in various roles for more than fifteen years. He was one of the brightest, most multitalented employees I ever hired—and by far the quirkiest.
The goal in the food distribution business is to get in and out of the loading docks as quickly as possible. The less time you expend visiting more docks, the more money you make. Clem was a genius at this. After driving the truck for only a month or two, he figured out that the most efficient way to get in and out of six casinos in an eight-hour shift was to work with the foremen in charge of the individual loading docks. In fact, he may have introduced slotting in Atlantic City, which is common practice in the trucking business nowadays but wasn’t widely used at the time in the casino industry.
Basically, slotting involves working out a time slot with each foreman to deliver your goods, as opposed to showing up randomly, when other trucks could be lined up ahead of you. By doing this, Clem was generally able to finish work in seven hours.
The loading dock operators took special care of Clem because he helped improve their productivity. And my company’s credibility increased because of it.
Clem was brilliant. Clem could also be incredibly difficult. He was definitely not a yes-man and was never shy about offering his opinion on every decision I made, whether it was welcome or not. Usually it wasn’t. But Clem had a unique point of view that often gave me a valuable perspective of a situation, although at the time he offered it, it felt like his agenda was to rub my nose in the truth as he saw it.
Most businessmen wouldn’t stand for this kind of insubordination from employees. On the other hand, successful businesswomen often hire diverse individuals to create a unique mix of personalities among employees, which invigorates a business.
In most traditionally managed businesses, having an employee question the employer’s decisions is not tolerated. Women and even some enlightened men are beginning to encourage employees to point out problems and offer suggestions—in effect, get them to take ownership in the business—which increases productivity and correspondingly adds to the company’s bottom line.
Clem was a nonconformist who liked to play his guitar and compose music in the truck while he waited during pickups and deliveries. My unbiased approach to talented employees led me to see past Clem’s idiosyncrasies and recognize his assets. An honest, hardworking guy with a song in his heart, he not only got the job done, but through his innovations he helped establish my company’s credibility and contributed significantly to its success.
Clem left New Jersey and my company when he heard California calling him. His parting gift to me was a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” that showed me just how much he cared about my meat company and what a unique talent he had brought to the company and to me.
After Clem left, I often reread his list and laughed out loud at his blunt commands and personal reprimands; at the same time, I felt the deep sadness that grabs you when something valuable is lost.
I hired Clem more than twenty years ago, at a time when no other company would have even considered him to fill that position. But things they are a changing. That’s why I am optimistic about the influence women have brought to HR. Employers have begun to rethink their criteria about hiring certain individuals and such things as positive attitude, diversity, and individualism are
gaining some traction. Yes, it’s been a long time coming, but we all need to do our part to drive home the positive impact that these qualities can make to a company’s bottom line.
The story of “Clem” is an excerpt from Susan T Spencer’s book Briefcase Essentials.
Copyright @ Susan T. Spencer 2011
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