Dirty Hands Make for Great Hygiene 

By Jason Jennings

There’s nothing Cliff Hudson loves more than working in the kitchen. When Robert Silberman’s day job is complete he teaches night classes while Jim Goodnight prefers writing computer code into the wee hours. Respectively, Hudson, Silberman and Goodnight are the CEOs of Sonic Drive Ins, Strayer Education and SAS Institute with combined annual revenues of more than seven billion dollars. By religiously keeping their hands dirty these CEOs have taken great strides in insuring the hygiene ‘the preservation of health’ of their companies.  

Fewer than twenty companies in the US have achieved what the companies headed by these CEOs have accomplished; greater than ten percent growth in both revenues and operating profit for ten consecutive years. One of the traits shared in common by the CEO’s of all these exceptional organizations is that by keeping their hands dirty they stay closely involved with the people and the real business of the enterprises they lead.

Conventional Wisdom: Wrong Again: Conventional business wisdom has historically promised that the higher an executive climbs up the leadership ladder the less time they have to spend dealing with the troops and with customers.    

Following a couple of promotions the making of actual sales calls is often replaced by a congratulatory lunch and hearty round of handshakes after the dirty work of the deal has been done. In an effort to further distance themselves from staff and customers a growing number of executives dehumanize both and refer to them as headcount and buying units.      

And some executives have made themselves so inaccessible that they never have to utter a single word to a worker or customer. Calls from employees are handled by an outsourced Employee Relations Department and customer’s calls for the boss are routed to someone in a noisy Call Center.  

By staying locked up in their corner offices these executives don’t have a clue as to what’s really happening inside their companies or with the customers who provide the revenue that keeps them going.

A Different Ethic at America’s Best Performing Companies: Robert Silberman, Chairman and CEO of Strayer Education leads an educational company whose thirty campuses serve more than 20,000 working adults working to complete a university degree.

Silberman has a full plate managing a company that grew both revenues and profits by more than twenty percent in 2004 but still makes time to teach a management course at the University. “Why wouldn’t I teach,” he asks, adding, “what other better way would there be to remain in close touch with both students and faculty?” 

SAS Institute is the world’s largest privately held software company whose products are used by 97 percent of the Fortune 100. One of the reasons the company was able to post a remarkable twenty-five year string of double digit revenue increases is because of founder Dr. Jim Goodnight’s insatiable curiosity to determine what the company’s customers need and then deliver it.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do,” says Goodnight, “than listen to our customers and figure out what we can do to make their businesses more successful.”

“Once Goodnight has finished listening to customers the fun really begins,” says Keith Collins, SAS’s Chief Technology Officer, adding, “because it’s not unusual for Jim to come over here, steal away a handful of my best people and go to work with them creating new offerings.”

With a grin Collins says that Goodnight’s projects often become the rudimentary version of the firm’s highly successful offerings. “We’ll take innovation anyway we can get it,” he says, “and its great when your CEO is there working alongside you as a leading innovator.”

Medline Industries, another top performing company, manufactures and sells nearly 100,000 medical and surgical items to hospitals and healthcare providers. “Everyone here calls on customers,” says CEO Charlie Mills, adding, “My cousin, his brother-in-law and myself are the top three officers of the company and we all have our own customers we deal with on a weekly basis.” 

Another way the leadership team at Medline makes certain their collective hands stay dirty is a company rule that dictates that none of the firm’s 700 salespeople are allowed to say ‘no’ to a customer for any reason.

“Unless a salesperson’s response to a customer is ‘yes’ the issue has to be escalated to a member of the senior leadership team,” says Mills and he credits this policy to the company having become early adopters of online ordering, making product changes and opening new warehouses.

Customers of Sonic Drive In’s 3000 restaurants have the highest return frequency of any national fast food chain. Surprisingly the company doesn’t have a gleaming stainless steel test kitchen teeming with cooks brewing up new concoctions.

“All of us on the leadership team spend time in our restaurant’s kitchens,” says Cliff Hudson. “Because everything we serve is cooked to order we’re able to watch what the people who work in the restaurants are preparing for their own breakfasts and lunches and listen in real time to what our customers are inventing whether it’s Swampwater (a murky combination of all the available carbonated beverages) or Chocolate Covered Fries.”

Hudson credits keeping his hands dirty with one of the firm’s best business decisions. “We had a franchisee,” he says, “who sold ice cream products and instead of issuing a directive from headquarters to stop we listened, watched and eventually rolled out dairy products which today account for as much as thirty percent of our chain wide volume.”          

The fact that the CEOs and leadership teams of the nation’s top financially performing companies are committed to keeping their hands dirty might seem on surface to be simple common sense. But, then again, as we’ve all repeatedly witnessed in the upper echelons of business; the most common thing about common sense is how uncommon it is!

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