Volume 56: Back in My Day!

RoyMy father worked for Levi Strauss for 27 years. The immense pride he took in his employment was robust and consistent. He was proud of the company’s leadership, its workforce, its products, and what it stood for in the marketplace.

His Regional office in Dallas had an incredibly stable management team and staff: I spent a great deal of time there during the summer, and saw the same faces, year after year. The office was fun. I knew his peers, his subordinates, and their families. On Friday afternoons, I was the unofficial bartender from the impressively stocked bar my dad kept in his office.

This memory is about 40 years old from a personal standpoint, but it’s about 100 years old from a professional standpoint. Pride in your employer? Crazy! Working in a happy, team-oriented, family-centric culture? You must be kidding!

I am confident these memories coincide with the work environments that existed in the Corrugated industry way back when. As I have been recruiting in the industry for 33 years, my early memories of the corrugated landscape are quite different from today’s landscape.

I am not saying that all of these sentimental cultural traits are gone, but, a lot of them are. I base these observations and conclusions on a simple metric: the overwhelming sentiment that I hear from you, the industry.

Thirty years ago, I simply heard a different narrative.

The fundamentals of my career were basically the same back then as they are today: I present talent and career options to the Corrugated Industry. Thirty years ago, however, the tone of the industry was different.

Of course, the goal was still to compete in a competitive market. Companies still had to carve out market share, and to generate a profit. It required strong leadership, technical skills, marketing knowledge, capital, access to paper, and some professional courage. But, the tone was different.

I remember the industry as a more civilized industry.

That pride my Dad took in Levi Strauss? People in the corrugated industry used to take that kind of pride in their company, whichever of the many competing companies they called home. And companies REALLY took care of their people: they were mentored instead of beaten to death with institutionalized training, and they were given opportunities for growth and to learn. The industry was more embraceable, and more embracing.

Some of you are thinking that you’ve already heard this story twice before, and you’d be right. You may be thinking that I’m romanticizing the past, and you’d be right. (And isn’t this fitting since it’s Valentine’s Day!) You may read this and conclude I have a huge case of “good ol’ days” syndrome, and you’d be right.

I will own my sentimentality. It’s who I am.

That does not make me wrong.

As we’ve touched on many times, the biggest reason those lost cultures and tones largely don’t exist in the industry anymore is consolidation. As many of the smaller entities were (and continue to be) eaten up by the Major Integrateds, those positive, and sentimental, traits become more and more rare for me to hear about.

When talking to someone about their experiences at a plant level, I sometimes still hear that pride in their voice again. They take pride in the subordinates they’ve mentored, or have some loyalty to the manager that has mentored them. But that pride disappears when they start talking about corporate meddling or restrictions.

For many, what I hear is that they love their team, but hate their company.

And because of this, the personnel stability that existed back in the good ol’ days is largely gone. People jump from company to company these days. Sometimes for a promotion or a raise, sometimes because they angered the wrong deity at the corporate office, and sometimes just because of plain old “grass is always greener” syndrome.

Sure, some of this jumping around happened back in the day too. I wouldn’t have made it very long recruiting for the industry if it didn’t. But jumping ship was a much more difficult decision back then: to leave your work family. The loyalty the men and women in the corrugated industry had for each other and their companies was stronger.

Consolidation in the industry, creating the Major Integrated companies, and the uniformity they tend to require, has been the primary driver behind the transformation from the industry that used to exist, to the one that exists now. There are, of course, massive changes in society as a whole that have also impacted that, but a discussion of those changes is well above my paygrade.

Another result of this consolidation is the turnover that it naturally creates. Leadership in plants that aren’t performing up to expectations that Corporate sets get the axe, and are replaced. Given that these Major Integrateds typically have a pretty short tolerance for not reaching expectations, this turnover can happen frequently in some facilities.

When this leadership change happens, it also tends to trickle down: the new Plant Manager wants to bring in his own Superintendent, who wants his own supervisors. They go through the formal processes and put people on performance reviews to make it look clean as they boot the old crew, but we all know what’s happening. Or, even if the supervisors and superintendents are not forced out, because there is still some loyalty to those that train and mentor us, people voluntarily follow the leadership team to their new facility.

It’s a cut-throat, profit-driven business for corporations at the Major Integrated level, and the impersonal nature of this is the cause of many of the talent problems facing the industry today.

So, now that we’ve established how we’ve gotten here, it probably makes sense to talk about the specific negative, and positive, things I hear most commonly as a result of these changes, and move on to some potential solutions to some of the problems that plague the industry.

See you in three weeks.

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