Helen Johnson-Leipold is Chairman & CEO, Johnson Outdoors; Chairman, Johnson Financial Group; and the first woman in five generations to lead a Johnson Family Enterprise. She delivered the Keynote Address at our Best Bosses Conference & Celebration last month. In Part 2 of this interview, she discusses why the family has never wavered from relying on employees to drive innovation. (To read Part 1 of the interview, please click here.)

One of your leadership qualities that’s been brought up again and again is the importance of valuing employees. What are some specific examples of this within the various S.C. Johnson family enterprises?
Our focus on our people is a solid business strategy that has created enormous employee loyalty and real bottom-line benefit. Consultants tell me they’ve been offered a fortune by companies searching for the secret to creating that kind of loyalty and commitment among employees because it directly translates into productivity and, ultimately, profitability.

Helen Johnson-Leipold at the 2006 Best Bosses ConferenceHow do we do it? Very simply, we treat our employees with respect. That means we listen to them and walk the talk of our values. I believe trust and loyalty are earned – you have to give them to get them, and our family has worked to earn the goodwill of our people every day since we opened our doors. My great-great-grandfather who founded the family business [Samuel Curtis Johnson –Ed.] instituted 40-hour work weeks and paid vacations before 1900. My great-grandfather pioneered profit sharing in 1917, which gave employees a bigger stake in the performance of the company, and there’s been profit sharing paid every year since. My grandfather didn’t lay off one employee during the Great Depression, and during that time he even increased employee healthcare benefits. I think it’s interesting that our companies have remained non-union all these years. Dad once asked the local union chief why that was, and was told, “When Johnson stops paying people what they’re worth, and stops giving people benefits they deserve and stops providing people a clean, healthy and safe place to work, then expect the union to show up.”

I don’t think there is any one employee program or benefit that demonstrates how much we value our people; rather, it is the collective goodwill built over 120-plus years, across five generations of Johnson family leadership. I am amazed by the number of employees who are the fifth generation in their families to work at our companies. That’s the ultimate in trust and loyalty.

Johnson Outdoors has made the introduction of new products a major focus in the last six months, including rapid-deploy tents for military or industrial use. What mechanisms are in place to gather employees’ ideas for new products or improving existing products?
Innovation is who we are, it’s what we are all about. Every company that wants to be around for the long term has to innovate. But it’s even more important for us at Johnson Outdoors because we don’t compete on price: we compete on price/value. So we are constantly focused on filling the new product pipeline. And it must be meaningful innovation where the difference is relevant and the value is clear to consumers. Almost everyone here is an avid user of our products, so it is relatively easy for us to stay on top of what the outdoor enthusiasts want. But not everyone is as experienced and passionate about the outdoors as we are. Most people want to try a lot of outdoor experiences, and aren’t looking to become expert at any of them. They are recreational users, and they are the focus of growth and the future for our industry. So our challenge, our mission, is to create products that invite recreational users to enjoy the outdoors experience, and we use sophisticated market research tools and techniques to understand their unique wants and needs. Historically, new product development has been more of an art than a science in this industry, but we’ve introduced new rapid prototyping technologies into the equation, which ensures continuous consumer input from concept to commercialization. What this allows us to do is fail early and often, and to apply what we learn so we constantly move forward.

None of that would matter if we didn’t have the right culture in the company. So we’ve worked hard to nurture a culture of innovation and entrepreneurism, where everyone feels the freedom to create and share their ideas all the time, and is empowered to act on them. Innovation is the theme of every employee meeting, and is part of every business and budget discussion I have. Simply, we’ve ensured that innovation is part of everyone’s job.

At the March 2006 Johnson Outdoors annual shareholder meeting, your comments pointed to improving operating efficiency by “striving to be simpler, better and faster” in all processes. With 23 facilities worldwide, what do you see as the challenges in improving efficiency company-wide, and how will this involve employees?
The reality is that the world is constantly changing, and the marketplace is becoming more and more competitive all the time. We have to get continually better at what we do and how we do it in order to compete and win. Also, efficiency means change, and change can be difficult. I believe communication and training are critical to ensure that an organization embraces the change needed to remain competitive for the long term. That’s why I think it’s so important that our people “own” the change that lies ahead. So, rather than dictate to my business teams what needs to change, I ask them to tell me.

It’s very empowering for our people to have a stake in designing our future. They don’t have to ask “why” something was done, they know why. It minimizes the “fear of the unknown” that can paralyze an organization during change.