Successfully anticipating and meeting your customers’ needs requires empowering your employees to serve as change agents — problem solvers — with a finger on the pulse of this ever-changing industry.

For the past two months, I have addressed the issue of employee recruitment and retention (ER&R) due to the continuing high interest level in the subject throughout our industry. During the past few weeks, I have spoken to groups several times in Alberta and again at the Cabinet Conference in Dallas. In each meeting, this subject was paramount on the minds of the participants.



In the February installment of Management Matters, I mentioned the importance of how your company is perceived by the labor pool in your community and how that profoundly affects your recruitment efforts. One point I emphasized was that you must determine what that perception is (correct or not), and if it is negative, do something to change it. This may necessitate changing the working environment — including how your company views its employees.



Last month, I wrote about ways to make your employees want to stay with you once they have made the decision to join your company. Satisfied employees who are dedicated to your company are the best recruiters available when you need additional help. It is their spreading a good word about you that will make you become an employer of choice in your area.



Before leaving this subject, I want to go deeper into the issue of how you and your company perceive your employees and how that will affect your future.



What Is Your Motive for ER&R?

Why is employee recruitment and retention on your mind in the first place? Are you just trying to fill an opening in a job classification or are you looking for more? The answer to that question gets to the heart of why many of you are experiencing difficulty in finding good people to join your company and to stay.



Gone are the days where you only focused on making furniture, or millwork, or cabinets, or any wood products in order to meet the day’s production goal. Today, that is not enough and is so short-sighted that it can cause a company to become a dinosaur almost overnight.



In fact, the focus within a company should be on how to better meet the needs of your customers today, tomorrow and in the foreseeable future. You may try to convince me that I am playing with words, but I will insist that you are wrong. The focus of your company has to be broader than just on today’s issues or today’s constraints that keep us from achieving our production goals or other short-term objectives. Rather, today’s focus must be on how to eliminate those or similar issues (constraints) from ever popping up again.



How can this be accomplished? The answer is quite simple: Identify the constraint, determine the best way to eliminate it and implement change. This begs the question of who is going to identify the constraint, determine the best way to eliminate it and implement the necessary change. The short answer is that it will not be you and it will not be me, but it must be those employees you are attempting to recruit and retain.



If I could offer you a strategy that would allow you to gain a competitive advantage today, you would probably welcome it, so here it is: Employee recruitment and retention efforts should be undertaken to attract and keep those whom you want to empower as change agents, while your competitors are out recruiting and trying to keep “warm bodies” that can assist in the manufacturing process.



Employees as Change Agents

The attitude that you and your company have toward the employees you try to recruit and retain will be either a driver of success or an instrument of your demise. It should not come as a surprise to you, as we speed into 2007, that to survive in today’s climate of global competition you must change the way you look at your job, and your company must look at ways to change its approach in serving its customers better. Things are changing rapidly and many North American wood products companies are not keeping up with the pace.



Today, we all must look at every employee as a change agent and not just as someone hired to do a certain job or jobs. The fact is that many of the positions that we struggle to fill are unnecessary to begin with. Now don't get me wrong, we need people to accomplish our missions as manufacturers of wood products — but what we do not need are robots to do the job. We need minds — creative minds — with the ability to make positive change to adapt and to proactively prepare for the future.



The common response to such a statement is, “You don't understand, Tom. The workforce we have to hire doesn't give a darn about anything but getting that weekly check. Besides, our people aren't even high school graduates.”



My reply to such a comment is simple and it is that you will not be disappointed with an expectation like that. Furthermore, you have just exposed one of the reasons you are having trouble recruiting and retaining employees. You have to believe in people and believe in the ability of your management and leadership to train and motivate each and every person in your company to become a team of change agents dedicated to making your company a better place to work.



I can hear some of you thinking, “But, Tom, we have a bunch of dummies at our company who hardly know how to come in to get out of the rain!” There you go, programming yourself and those around you to expect the worst — and even worse, to accept it!



Expect the Best

In a workshop a few weeks ago, I asked how many thought that their workers know their own jobs better than they do. How would you answer that question? Do you think you know best how to do every job in your company? Is it possible that some if not all of your employees know at least one thing that could be done to make a better product at a lower cost — something that you do not know?



In that group of company presidents and managers, almost 50% said they knew those jobs better than those at the desk or on the machine. That’s not just sad, it’s tragic.



You and your company have two choices today:



1. You can go out and recruit bodies to help you make your cabinets, or furniture, or whatever wood products you make. You can teach them to do their jobs the company way and to follow the rules. You can even require them to show up each day and to follow specifications and procedures to the last detail. You can then spend time trying to retain those you recruited so diligently.



2. On the other hand, you can hire people and acknowledge that they have the same inner desire to matter in life — just the way you do. (By the way, that includes everyone, no matter how smart, no matter what color and no matter how old). You can treat them with the same respect you do the president of your company. You can recognize their innate abilities and you can train and motivate them so that they can contribute great ideas for positive change in your company. You can then spend your time on other issues rather than employee recruitment and retention as you watch your company grow and prosper through the efforts of a host of employees who are coloring outside the lines and serving as positive change agents every day.



The choice is yours to make. It is how you look at your employees and how you empower them that will determine which way you go. I know which way is best for your company, and my guess is that you do too. The second choice is the only one for any world class company.



What Every Employee Wants

Every one of us wants and needs respect and dignity — it’s just human nature. If you or your company intentionally or unintentionally deny an employee those two essentials, they will leave your employ. If a person hears that this is the way you treat your employees, they will not consider your company when looking for work.



On the other hand, if you really believe in a culture of continuous improvement and you believe that your employees are indispensable in that process, and you let them know it by empowering them and by giving them the training and tools they need — your company will indeed become an employer of choice in your city. In addition, you will have the ability to make the changes necessary to become a much stronger and more profitable company.



By the way, I think employees empowered like this need to be called something else. Why not call them partners, associates or members of your company. Employee is really an outdated word. Don't you agree?



Tom Dossenbach is the managing partner of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or e-mail tfd@dossenbach.com. Visit his Web site at www.dossenbach.com.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.