In 1982, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman profiled a number of successful companies in their book In Search of Excellence. One section profiled two companies that had done well by valuing employees: Hewlett Packard, founded in 1939, and Walmart, founded in 1962.
My company, J.D. Power and Associates, was more than a dozen years old by the time the book came out, but I remember thinking how similar my approach to managing people was to that of Sam Walton, Bill Hewlett, and Dave Packard. Like Walton, I called my employees “associates” — something I was so committed to that I included them in the company name alongside my own. And like Hewlett and Packard, I saw the empowerment of individuals as the best way for the whole organization to achieve success.
Peters and Waterman tracked down the sources of HP and Walmart’s management philosophies: Sam Walton had learned about working with people at J.C. Penney and modeled many of his company’s core values on that culture. For Hewlett and Packard, it was lessons learned by working with government offices and for other electronics companies that taught them what not to do.
Treat Employees Like Associates
For me, the foundation of my philosophy for how to treat people — central to my management style — came from observations of what to do and not to do, and those observations started early.
I have always been a student of why people behave the way they do. This goes back to my family, my dad and his explanations to me, and to school. I think I learned a lot in grade school and college about why people do what they do and to have a respect for what they’re doing.
My father, a high school English teacher, was always giving me advice that proved invaluable in running a company. The path he took in his life was the furthest thing from business, but he had a keen sense of the way the world worked and very intelligent insights about people. While I was still in school he told me, “When you’re in charge of people, don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.”
My first opportunity to put this advice to use was in the Coast Guard. As an officer stationed on an icebreaker, I was in a position to manage crewmembers from every state in the union and of different races and economic backgrounds. Many of these men, working as enginemen or boatswains or in the officer mess deck, were just out of high school or were crusty career enlisted men with little patience for young officers. I made it a point to treat them all with respect and, above all, to talk with and listen to them. I felt that some other officers, especially the ring-knockers who had come out of the academy, relied far too much on the number of stripes they had to bolster their authority — and I also saw the pitfalls of doing so. The officers who did not listen to the crew often found it difficult to achieve their goals. And examples of this behavior went all the way to the top, to the captain in place when I began my first deployment.
This captain created conditions for the crew to misbehave and then came down hard on these young men when they took advantage of the opportunity. But his gravest mistake, in my view, was an unwillingness to listen to the thoughts of the people who were subordinate to him.