Leadership Lessons From a Yogurt Factory

“The money means a lot but being appreciated means even more.”

“We use to work together as a team but now we are partners and you are owners.”

“This is just amazing, who does that?”

“It has been my dream to give back to the people and this community, they were responsible for this success.”

Those quotes come from employees as well as the owner of Chobani yogurt in upstate New York when he unveiled his plan to hand over to his employees, stock worth around 10% of the company when it goes public.

The owner, Hamdi Ulukaya who is a Turkish immigrant, started the  company in 2005. Giving away part of his ownership, he said, is his way of rewarding those who helped build the company, now considered to be worth billions.

“I have built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people,” he said. “Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time.”

The picture of the new leader

Last year I wrote of the college president who forgoes his bonus every year so that it can increase college scholarships for deserving students. Some other executives have also taken this issue on themselves. A founder of Gravity Payments, a Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm, last year promised to pay a minimum wage of $70,000 to his 120-person staff within three years. After Twitter’s stock plummeted in October, CEO Jack Dorsey announced that he would give a third of his stock award — worth about $200 million — to employees. Plum Creek Timber Co. CEO Rick Holley also gave back his $2 million bonus in 2014.

These are examples of real leaders. You can’t teach this at an offsite or some leadership development course. This is what real authentic leaders do. They care about the people who got them there. They care about the people who give it their all to move their organization forward. This is the style of the new leader.

As I watch the struggle and controversy of organizations fighting against the tide to pay their employees a higher minimum wage, I look on in wonderment. I struggle to understand the logic of fighting against a living wage while these companies give their leaders 7-figure paychecks.

Let everybody win

Many years ago, I owned a 7-11 type store. The prior owners were in their 70’s and just wanted out. Upon finding they were paying the employees off the books and below minimum wage, I knew I could not in good conscious take advantage of them this way. In light of the fact that I really did not understand this cash intensive business, I needed their help more than they needed me.

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My wife and I decided we would pay them a higher than minimum wage, one-week vacation, and eventually, health insurance. I wanted to be successful and I could not reach that goal without them. Ten  years later we had reached that goal, and we cashed out. The employees were all better skilled and more financially secure. In the end we all won, but I could NOT have won if it was not for this team.

The leader as a bully

Sometimes I see leaders as school yard bullies. The only difference is that they are now adult bullies. They own the school yard; it’s  their territory. Their style is “my way or the highway.” They never bought into the mindset that we all must share. They want all the toys in their domain and will distribute them as they see fit.

This leadership behavior is contagious. When leaders are aggressive, there’s a higher likelihood that their team will become aggressive.

However, flip the script on that as Chobaini has shown and that positive behavior will also spread throughout the workforce. After hearing they were getting a share in the company, one worker emotionally asked, “Who does that?”

I predict that in the future this type leadership behavior, which first flourished in the startup tech industry, will spread throughout the business world. No one builds a business from an idea to a success on their own. Some conceited leaders blindly believe that because it was their idea, success was due solely to their efforts. But they are clueless and kidding themselves with that thinking.

It is said that “success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan.”  That is so true in that every success really does have a thousand fathers, but in our case they are called our employees.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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