Lessons in Leadership: Johnsonville

As I approached the entrance, I began to immediately notice something unique. A smiling face opened the door for me and welcomed me into the building. I noticed the individual happened to be carrying a book on leadership development. As I entered the lobby, the receptionist made immediate eye contact, smiled warmly and got me settled, offering me coffee and water. I looked around the lobby and noticed further amazing – the employees were smiling, laughing and were all engaged in passionate conversations. Each of them said “good morning” to me as they walked by. To this point, absolutely no one had any idea of who I was or why I was there – and yet made me feel completely welcome. The smallest things tell you all you need to know.

In 1945, Ralph F. and Alice Stayer started a butcher shop named after their hometown of Johnsonville, Wisconsin. Nearly 75 years later, the Johnsonville brand is synonymous with quality, passion and perhaps most significantly, an amazing leadership culture.

Early on, Mr. Stayer recognized a crucial insight: companies are designed to serve people and not the other way around. In his book, “Flight of the Buffalo”, he lays out his leadership philosophy, which focuses on the power of employee empowerment and development. When other organizations were focused on “building shareholder value”, he focused on building people. Well before it was in vogue, Ralph decided that Johnsonville would be made up of “members”, not employees. Far before it was fashionable, he laid a vision for “decentralization” to enable those closest to an issue to tackle it and own the plan. While other companies created wall posters on “values”, he ensured Johnsonville members actually lived their values on a daily basis. As many organizations slashed leadership development programs, Ralph and his team expanded them. Before it was trendy, he and his team encouraged the process of “coaching” vs. “managing”. Oh, and along the way, they continued to make the best sausage in the world and always put the consumer first.

What did all of this accomplish, you say? A leading brand which enjoys outstanding consumer satisfaction, market share, employee engagement and continued global growth. Why? It’s simple: he and his team have realized that, for the best organizations, financial success is not the goal; rather, it is the outcome of doing things well in service for others. Consumers feel this and keep buying product, recommending it to others. Employees feel this and tell their friends what a great place it is to work. The Community feels this when employees give their time at charity events.

Ralph, his leadership team and thousands of members have done an outstanding job building and maintaining an outstanding leadership culture – one which many organizations would be wise to listen to. Perhaps while they are eating a brat.