John Addison spent 35 years in the corporate offices of one of the world’s largest direct selling companies, Primerica Inc., most recently serving as Co-CEO. Since his retirement, he wrote the best-selling book Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, and he now serves as president and CEO of Addison Leadership Group. He regularly offers his leadership insights to Direct Selling News readers and recently sat down with the DSN staff to discuss workplace engagement. If you have a question you’d like John to answer in a future issue, email email@example.com.
This month, we are announcing our third-annual Best Places to Work in Direct Selling honorees. What do you think makes a direct selling company a great place to work?
Direct sales companies are usually very focused on personal development and positive thinking, which helps make them fun places to work—as long as you like people. It’s not like you’re making auto parts; you are building a business that impacts the lives of other people.
The thing that I always enjoyed when I was growing up in the business—way before I was CEO—was building relationships with people in the field. Many of those relationships have lasted for years, and it’s fun.
How do you advise executives to approach employee engagement?
My approach was always to talk about the three pillars of business. The first is the salesforce. This is the most important, because your salesforce is your distribution system. The second pillar is your clients and customers. You must make sure the products that you sell are the right products for the company, are of high quality, at a fair price and bring real value. The third pillar is the stake holders, your employees and shareholders.
“I’ve watched Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde before because they are in charge of something now and they think, ‘I’ve got to prove to everybody that I’m large and in charge.’”
My view is the business has to be “one team, one dream,” with everyone on the corporate staff and salesforce pulling together. It’s important to communicate, talk to, motivate and inspire both your employee base and the members of your distribution force. Whoever is on the phone dealing with the salesforce needs to know the core values, the strategy and the approach that the company is taking. It’s not good enough for the CEO to give a flowery speech, if the employee base hasn’t bought into it. People need to have a common vision and a common purpose.
What is the optimal way for a company to position the HR function within the leadership structure?
I think the HR function has to be a critical part of the management team. A company’s human resources leader needs to understand the direction of the company as well as when things are doing great and when things are challenging. The job of human resources isn’t just to put people in seats, it is to put the right people in the right seats. In order to do that, HR has to be very plugged in to the core values, strategy, vision and inner workings of what’s happening in the company.
Do you have a recommendation about where that HR function should fit within the C-suite? Should there be a Chief Human Resource Officer?
I think it varies. I’ve never been a servant to an organizational chart. It depends on the strengths and the weaknesses that you have within the company. I will say that the position of leading human resources shouldn’t be buried down in the organization structure, it needs to have a prominent place.
If a company determines that it needs to shift its corporate culture, how would you advise the company to approach that challenge?
My No. 1 advice is you better move slowly, unless the company is a complete disaster. When a company is on life support, then you’d better change everything. But in most cases, when you see a problem or you see something and decide you need to make a change, you can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Change is change, and even positive change is incredibly disruptive. I believe that when you are running a mature direct sales company that has been around awhile, you’re driving a battleship, not a speed boat. When you make changes, if you see you have got to change your course, you don’t just start yanking the wheel on a big giant battleship, you aim and adjust. You also have to plan ahead; you have to start turning it now if you want to move it three miles further into the ocean.
Cultures are very ingrained. You have to think and make intelligent decisions. It also is much better to talk positively about what you are doing when you’re making changes, versus negatively saying how screwed up everything is. I’ve watched a lot of CEOs come into companies, and the first thing they do is spend six months talking about what a disaster they inherited. Well, maybe what was done before wasn’t good, but the guy or the gal that ran it before, they’re not running it anymore, so talking about how bad they were is irrelevant. Instead, take positive steps to move in the direction you want to go.
Does the corporate culture influence the culture within the salesforce, or is it the other way around?
Does the corporate culture influence the culture within the salesforce, absolutely! I don’t think it’s yin and yang, but I don’t think you can have one completely different than the other; I think that sets you up for a disaster. There has to be a congruence between the corporate goals and the field’s goals.
Corporate people and employees are different than the field. When you do a rally of your employees, it is never going to be as exciting or crazy as a rally for your salesforce. But, I think it is incredibly important to make sure that both of those are on the same page, and moving in the same direction.
What common mistakes do you see new managers make?
Thinking they’ve got to establish their authority. I’ve watched Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde before because they are in charge of something now and they think, “I’ve got to prove to everybody that I’m large and in charge.” A lot of people that you would have thought were going to be great managers because they were really good at the job they were doing, get into management and they become a challenge.
You have to earn the respect of your people; you can’t demand the respect of your people. My biggest advice to those who are becoming a manager for the first time is to stay humble and realize that you are depending on the other people on the team, it’s not just you anymore. You’ve got to build a team, and that starts with you having some humility.