It’s About Attitude

It’s About Attitude

Why the eager and invested will lap the shrewd and savvy every time.

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
—Winston Churchill

I often write about the role of a leader’s values and their impact on the organization, citing an ancient proverb about how a fish rots from the head, for instance. But how often do you hear about the attitudes of employees impacting leadership? In other words, ground-up leadership?

That’s why my ears perked up during a recent conversation with Peter McDermott, president and CEO of Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI). McDermott, who took over MDI four years ago, was explaining to me how MDI has created 250 new jobs since December 2011, despite the difficult economy—and considering MDI’s unique mission to provide job opportunities and progressive development for people with disabilities. Surprisingly, McDermott told me that MDI’s employees and their collective positive attitude has been a major contributor to MDI’s recent success and comeback from previous challenges.

MDI is a nonprofit manufacturing enterprise that provides a variety of corrugated plastic products and kitting, packaging, and assembly services to business customers. They have facilities in St. Paul, Grand Rapids, and Hibbing, where employees work on equipment including plastic extruders, rotary and flatbed die-cutters, screen-print presses, sonic welders, shrink-wrap lines, and product testing equipment. Jobs range from entry-level positions to line leads, process technicians, supervisors, maintenance technicians, forklift drivers, and shipping/receiving clerks. Approximately half of MDI’s employees are individuals with disabilities (physical, cognitive, or emotional). Yet all employees receive benefits and no one earns less than minimum wage.

So in the current economy when most businesses are struggling to survive, how can MDI be doing so well?

The answer, in large part, comes down to the attitudes of MDI’s employees, McDermott says. Several years ago when MDI was going through a challenging period, it had to downsize to restructure costs, which resulted in the layoff of some workers. Rather than becoming resentful, according to McDermott, the employees understood the situation and the reasons for the layoff and just wanted to know that if the company was able to recover whether or not it would hire them back. He said those being laid off were glad that their fellow workers were keeping their jobs, instead of thinking only about themselves.

“Our value system at MDI is that our employees are people first. I interact often with employees, and I don’t know who has a disability or not, and I don’t ask. Our model is that all are equal; it’s the nature of how we treat people,” McDermott says.

“I’ve learned a lot from MDI’s employees because their attitude is to always work hard to achieve their full capabilities,” he says. “I had worked in the private sector for 25 years, but I enjoy working with MDI’s employees much more because they always try to do their very best.”

I asked McDermott whether MDI’s value system could really be a model for other businesses, and he gave an enthusiastic “yes.” No matter if a business is private or nonprofit with a mission like MDI’s, he says, a “positive attitude is about 80 to 90 percent of what’s important,” and that positive nature rubs off on the entire organization—even creating a ground-up leadership culture.

For example, if an employee needs to be taught a new skill, if they have a belief that they can learn new things and want to be better at their job, then they are teachable. “It’s just contagious,” he says, and explains how good outlooks contribute to better teamwork and improved productivity, and that leads to a positive outlook at the leadership level.

Hiring for Attitude, Training for Skill

Good attitudes are so rare that when a company works to cultivate a corporate culture of positive thinking, they become the subject of articles like this. For instance, author and doctor Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker last year about a health care organization in Atlantic City, N.J., that has “reinvented the idea of a primary care clinic in almost every way,” in part by hiring people with can-do attitudes.

Gawande wrote about The Special Care Center, which hires full-time “health coaches” who work with doctors but spend most of their time with patients so they can better manage chronic illnesses and improve their lifestyles. The practice’s leader told Gawande that they don’t recruit people with health care experience “because the health care system trains people to say ‘no’ to patients.” They want people to say “yes” to patients and help them solve their problems. It’s all about recruiting for attitude, not skill.

Another organization known to hire for attitude is SuccessFactors, a leading provider of cloud-based business execution software. Founder and CEO Lars Dalgaard has been quoted as having a rule that the company has a “no jerk policy.” This is the quote on the careers page of its website: “Dreamers That Do: Remove the restrictions we place on ourselves—trust in yourself and our team and go make it happen; find a way. Ask if ‘no’ is really an acceptable answer, and pretend the word ‘impossible’ doesn’t exist. Genius is the result of boldness, creativity, and action.”

Whatever your business or organization does, one of the contributing factors to success is whether or not your employees have that special approach to their job. A “can do” outlook goes a long way when obstacles loom or an unexpected disaster occurs.

As Thomas Jefferson is frequently credited with saying, “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” If you hire people with the attitude you want in your organization and then create an environment where that manner can become contagious, the positive energy will flow throughout the organization. And that’s what attracts and compels customers toward your business and keeps your competition working hard just to keep up.

Mark W. Sheffert, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., provides investment banking and corporate renewal/performance advisory services. Contact him at mark@manchestercompanies.com.

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