Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Merryman, the CEO of Oregon Freeze Dry Foods, LLC (OFD). OFD is the largest independent freeze dryer in North America. The Company freeze-dries a broad variety of products with highly technical specifications, including foods, pharmaceutical ingredients, specialty chemicals, medical devices, cultured organisms, and other sensitive biological materials. Walking around their headquarters and manufacturing plant, I was impressed by many things, including their technology, operational efficiency, and commitment to safety. But what knocked me off my feet was Jim’s story – a CEO who started as the night janitor 35 years ago.
Jim grew up in a lower-middle income family in Hawaii. He was somewhat introverted, but also hard-working and adventurous. He was accepted to Oregon State University, and matriculated into their engineering program. Needing to pay his own way, Jim found an after hours janitorial role at OFD. Jim worked the graveyard shift, scrubbing dirty drains and taking out the garbage, while pursuing his engineering degree by day.
During his shift, Jim would note inefficiencies in the company’s manufacturing process. He began envisioning better ways to design the equipment and systems to minimize waste, testing his concepts in class with his engineering professors. But Jim was also a little timid to present his ideas directly to OFD leaders – who would listen to the ideas of the night janitor? So Jim would draw up the specifications for his design improvements and drop them on the Head of Engineering’s desk in the middle of the night while cleaning his office. OFD leaders began noting these great suggestions, and started putting them into practice. Finally, the Head of Engineering decided that he had to identify the source of these great ideas and started a 5:00 am stakeout. He was shocked to learn that his informal Head of Innovation was also emptying his trash! He offered Jim a role on his engineering team, and Jim continued to impress his leaders. Over time, the company tagged Jim as a high potential leader and introduced him to different facets of the company: engineering, production, sales, and marketing in order to build the knowledge he would need to serve as a senior executive. In 2011, Jim was promoted to the CEO role.
On the surface, Jim’s story is one of hard work, initiative, and intelligence – and it is all of those things. But, it is also a story about access! Access between a front-line employee with innovative ideas and an executive with the resources to implement them. Jim’s role as a janitor gave him the keys (literally) to communicate his ideas to the Head of Engineering, access that only a handful of front-line employees had. Jim says that if he had a different role at OFD, he may never have been noticed by the Head of Engineering. It is unlikely that he would be the CEO today.
At Green Peak, we believe that 95% of the ideas an organization needs to realize its strategy already reside in the minds of the existing workforce. Every time we lead an organizational due diligence (pre-acquisition) or organizational review (post-acquisition) we hear a wealth of potential game changing ideas that front-line employees have been unable to surface to their executives. There are very few organizations (~10%) who have a mature and highly-utilized medium for efficiently communicating ideas between the front-line and the C-suite. As a rule, middle-market companies are underleveraging their internal talent and leaving big money on the table.
The problem is so prevalent that we got tired of talking about it and decided to help our clients solve it. In 2016, we partnered with a company called Entromy (http://www.entromy.com) to develop an efficient, SaaS solution for internally measuring organizational health, identifying front-line impediments to productivity, and crowdsourcing solutions. Entromy allows individual employees to suggest solutions, and colleagues to build on them and elevate the ones with the greatest viability. Momentum for the best ideas builds quickly and rises to the top of the executive team’s dashboard. The benefits are great. In addition to enhancing productivity, Entromy can identify high potentials, heighten leader awareness, and enhance employee engagement. As one CHRO client recently told me, Entromy can pay for itself in the first month. It has quickly become our fastest growing service line.
Of course, our solution is not the only option. There are other tools you can use to bring your company suggestion box (or keys to the Head of Engineering’s office) into the 21st century. For example, McKinsey & Company has a “Practice Olympics” competition that enables associates with the most innovative ideas to brief the Global Managing Partner and his leadership team. A very high percentage of associates participate in this challenge. Use whatever works for your company’s culture… but, you need to have a solution, and most companies do not. If you do have a solution, ask yourself, what percentage of your population is using it on a monthly basis? Is it less than 10% or greater than 50>#/b### (Entromy averages about 70%)? How easy is it to access and use? How easy is it for employees to build off of each other’s ideas? How easy is it for senior executives to parse through the noise and identify the ideas with the highest value? Our experience is that 90% of you will answer “not that easy” to one or more of those questions. If you are among that 90% population, you are missing out on a tremendous opportunity – maybe even the opportunity to identify your future CEO.