The Acumen community experienced a unique opportunity this quarter, hearing from Steve Baker, Vice President of the Great Game of Business, Inc., at our Advance Leadership Workshop in August. Steve is an author and speaker known for his engaging and irreverent style, and if you missed the workshop, you’re in luck! We’d love to share a few of the highlights below.
A strategic business coaching and growth system, the Great Game of Business, Inc., is the smallest division of SRC Holdings Corp., an employee-owned remanufacturer run by Founder, President, and CEO Jack Stack. While most of SRC’s employees wear their names on their shirts and have wrenches in their hands most of the day, it only takes an interaction or two to realize that these aren’t your average hourly workers. They understand the broader scheme of the work they’re doing and are deeply invested in their personal roles in it. According to Steve, this all began with the surprising actions of one dying division of International Harvester about 40 years ago.
During a catastrophic time of 12 percent inflation and 17 percent unemployment, a young line manager named Jack Stack was sent to International Harvester’s smallest plant in Springfield, Missouri. He met with the team of resourceful, dedicated techs and floor managers and quickly found himself unable to take either of the options his higher-ups had given him: shut the plant down entirely or at least package it up to sell. Instead, he and the workers landed on a third option. They scraped together a $100,000 down payment to buy the business themselves.
Given that the business’s total price had been set at $9 million, Jack quickly found himself crushed with debt and (as a 29-year-old crawler tractor line manager) with no idea what he was doing in a business sense. But he was quick to learn. He approached 54 financial institutions for a loan, only to be (unsurprisingly) rejected every time. He learned the language as he went, and when he finally found a bank that would accept their objectively risky and not at all valuable business, his loan officer was quickly fired for making such a bad call.
Jack persevered, taking lessons from each loan rejection because lives and families were at stake. Although he knew they had a long way to go, he also knew this:
Business is not just a way to do well, but also to do good.
With the loan finally secured and a business to run, Jack soon found himself pushing against the legacy of the Industrial Revolution: that separation of a working person’s daily activity from the big picture. It became glaringly obvious to him that the world comprised many different people playing different games and speaking different languages when really there was just one game and language that mattered most—the language and game of business. Just as he had learned the rules of that particular game during his search for a loan, he felt convicted to loop every team member into the process as fully as possible too. He was positive that allowing them to use their full intellectual capabilities and understand the value of their daily work would engage them, cause them to hold one another accountable, create a self-funding business, and teach them to think, act, and feel like owners.
Your company is the product—not the stuff you make or the services you provide. You want to create a growing, profitable, and sustainable business, which can’t happen without involving everyone in your organization. You have to bring the marketplace to them.
Building a business of people who think, act, and feel like owners involves three main prongs of organizational action.
1. Education - teach them!
Many of our employees go to work every day feeling like they’re being asked to find true north with their eyes closed. They just punch their buttons, trust the magic to work, and return home uninspired.
Steve pointed to the story of Greene County, Missouri, which sought the Great Game of Business’s help with only two months of payroll left in the bank for all their hardworking, chronically underpaid government employees. A few weeks of financial literacy classes and weekly huddles to demystify the system for every one of those team members did the trick (though a rehaul of the system to position them to start giving out raises again after a 6-year pause certainly helped as well).
One maintenance worker found that for 20 years, he had been using a chemical as a 100% solution when the container instructions actually called for a dilution of 7 to 1. This realization saved the county $7,000 that year—maybe not a massive sum in the grand scheme of things, but hugely significant in that one man was no longer thinking of himself as someone who “wasn’t paid to think too hard,” who could just trust to the power of a requisition order and not bother to worry about where his supplies were coming from. Once he knew better, he stepped up.
“Money flows from people who don’t understand it…to people who do.” – Dave Ramsay
2. Accountability - engage them!
Everybody is dying to be heard instead of being stuck as just a part of the herd. And when you teach your people how business and the financials work in their area, some will just grab it and run! As business owners, we must allow our team members to follow the action and keep score, giving them tools to create their own scoreboards, implementing effective huddles, and empowering them to practice forward forecasting.
When your teams collaboratively identify their own metrics and craft their own scoreboards, with a shared stake in the outcome—for example, what if they were the ones forecasting and setting their quarterly bonus pool and clearly calculating their daily role in accessing or increasing that bonus?—they can see all the connections, and how they each have a role to play in holding the team up. There’s a reason that windshields are bigger than rearview mirrors, so get people focused forward: what do they control? How can they create team success that tangibly impacts them in the form of a cold, hard cash bonus, if nothing else?
3. Incentives - reward them!
Speaking of bonuses, you really do have to provide each individual in your organization with a financial stake in the outcome. It sounds crass and capitalistic, but there’s no way to get your team members on board with your high-minded ideals and values if they’re busy worrying about making rent. Beyond simple bonuses, you need to build a sense of ownership in each employee using personalized rewards, positive recognition, and short-term incentivized initiatives (the Great Game of Business, Inc. specializes in this last piece and calls them “mini-games”).
Once your team members have been educated on the organization’s critical number and their roles in reaching it, and have become invested in holding one another accountable, they must always have a clear answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” Telling people to “Go out and sell more if you want more money” has never been the answer; the exact goals and their role in reaching them must be made glaringly clear. When your incentives are team-based, self-funding, and gain-shared, you’ll find yourself with employees who are genuinely motivated to create company-wide success.
Steve shared many practical exercises and examples throughout the insightful workshop; check out the book that sparked it all to learn more!
The Acumen community engages in a catalytic, exclusive Advance Leadership Workshop once a quarter – it’s just one of the many ways we strive to sharpen, challenge, and inspire our partners! More details and a list of our previous workshop speakers are here.
September 7, 2023