Next week America celebrates Independence Day, the day she declared independence from the British crown. America’s founding fathers, of course, knew the importance of independence – that’s why they fought so hard to win it. At the same time, they knew the importance of interdependence, both the interdependence of forging alliances among the colonies and the interdependence of maintaining alliances abroad.
We would do well to learn from America’s founding fathers and to apply their lessons to business. How can businesses, and the people who work in them, exhibit both strong independence and strong interdependence?
Ken Grenda, former owner of Grenda Corporation in Australia, knows the answer to this question.
Growing up working in his parents’ bus company, Grenda cultivated independence. He learned that a business owner has to stand on his own two feet in a competitive market in order to thrive. When he took over the company from his parents, Grenda took risks and independently expanded Grenda Corporation from six buses into a 1300-bus fleet. He also instilled the importance of independence in his sons, molding them into managers in the family company and teaching them responsibility for their actions.
At the same time, Grenda understands the importance of interdependence in business. He knows that a business is only as good as its front-line employees. Without committed employees, a customer-service business will flounder. Upon returning from his honeymoon, Grenda sat down with his wife and said, “I want you to treat our employees as one of the family. Without them we wouldn’t have a business. Without them we wouldn’t have bread and butter on the table.” His wife, Margaret, tells the story, adding, “It wasn’t hard to do.”
Grenda walks his talk. He got to know every employee by name, even when the company grew from 6 buses to 1300. He greeted everyone personally as he entered work through the drivers’ entrance instead of the corporate offices. He took an interest in employees’ families. Furthermore, on several occasions when a breadwinner who worked for the company died, Grenda looked after the families, making sure that the children received an education and that their needs were met.
The result? Grenda’s employees exhibit steadfast loyalty and excellent customer service. Turnover has been extremely low, teams work well together, and morale is high. The company has an excellent reputation and has done very well financially.
When Grenda sold the company and retired earlier this year, he distributed part of the proceeds to the company’s 1750 workers. The $15 million he gave resulted in an average gift of $8500 to each employee, with those who had served the company longest receiving as much as $30,000 plus a superannuation bonus.
When independence and interdependence balance one another within a business, the business thrives. Finding the appropriate arenas for independence, while at the same time recognizing the importance of interdependence, can help a business’s ecology flourish.
This Independence Day, let’s take a lesson from America’s founding fathers and Aussie Ken Grenda and strengthen both independence and interdependence in our businesses.