Cooperation within an organization is a key to overall success, and companies need to embrace the team concept to get the best results, particularly in a challenging economy, according to a top U.S. tire executive.
Richard "Dick" Wilkerson, chairman and president of Michelin North America Inc., talked about the benefits of collaboration and the drawbacks of internal competition during his keynote presentation, "The Power of Cooperation," at the ACS Rubber Division´s spring technical meeting May 4.
While most would agree that cooperation is important in getting positive organizational results, Wilkerson said competition and winning-particularly individually-is celebrated.
Finding "the best" is paramount, and there is an assumption that competition leads to the best results. But there is research and documentation backing cooperation as the pathway to success, and Michelin has embraced the latter, Wilkerson said. For example, part of the bonus system for senior technical people and managers is based on a measurement of cooperation.
"Each year there is feedback given on how we are seen as cooperating and furthering the results of the total organization, not only in our area but the areas with which we interface," he said. "The compensation recognizes cooperation."
The tire maker also includes cooperation in its standards for promotion and reviews incentive and reward systems to encourage collaborative results. The Michelin boss said he learned a lesson along those lines earlier in his career when he worked for Proctor & Gamble as a team leader at one of its start-up plants in Jackson, Tenn.
At the time, Wilkerson headed a group running one of six lines at the site, and he had a crew that yielded one-third of the total production-"they had good team spirit, knowledge and energy," he said-at the plant.
When the first department manager slot came open, Wilkerson thought he would get it; when he didn´t, he was shocked. "I didn´t understand how that could happen," he said. "No other team was even close to what our team had done."
A mentor of his, however, took him aside and told him what he needed to hear: that while it was true his team and he had built the best labor on the line, they hadn´t shared their strategies with anyone else.
"All of a sudden the standards of what it took to be a manager became much more clear to me," he said. "I was immature at the time and didn´t recognize that it wasn´t competition to beat the other people, it was competition to see who could help the most, to help the plant succeed the most. When you´re young and ambitious, sometimes you miss the point."
In 1990, when Michelin bought the Uniroyal Goodrich tire business, Wilkerson said, there was a salesperson in the Northeast who was making more money than managers two and three levels higher than he was, primarily because he was selling in regions outside of his calling area.
It wasn´t the salesman´s fault, because he was just following the rules of the game, he said. Michelin changed the rules and the salesperson´s income went down-though he thought it was fair-but total sales rose because the representatives in other regions were energized instead of being victims.
"Even though one person may be a star, the organization´s total results may be a loss," Wilkerson said. "We have to be careful of what signals we give organizationally, ones that celebrate the individual and not the team."
Like all companies, Michelin has faced challenges during the downturn, and a trait that works in its favor is its ability to build teamwork and cooperation at a time when disruptive behavior can arise. Employees react differently in a bad economy, Wilkerson said, and some, for example, try to stay invisible, figuring "if they can´t see me, they can´t get me."
Others decide it´s a good time to be an outstanding performer and take others´ ideas as their own and get ahead "in the interest of security." The key strategy for a company in tough times is to make sure it builds on teamwork and cooperation, he said.
Wilkerson referenced the company´s announcement last month that it will shut down its Opelika, Ala., tire plant. Several employees said in meetings afterward they would maintain the company´s quality and close the factory with "dignity and pride in the company and product line," he said.
"That doesn´t come from a week of good management," he said. "That comes from years of good management. It comes from a committed employee. That´s what makes our employees special, that even in difficult times, there´s a commitment to success, a commitment to each other and a commitment to the company."
Michelin overall has had success in this recession-it´s been profitable despite a 25-percent demand dip in North America, 40 percent in original equipment-because of three drivers, Wilkerson said: product, planning and people. The importance of the latter is emphasized by the company´s low turnover rate-an average of only 3.5 percent annually over the past 15 years.
"They come with us and stay with us because it´s a great place to work ... because people cooperate ... because it´s challenging," he said.
"The knowledge and experience to develop a tire, you have to be a very skilled and knowledgeable individual. That´s something that is tremendously valuable to us."