The Leadership Wisdom of Doug Hoffman

Doug Hoffman became the President and Chief Executive of WILCO in March of 1994. WILCO is the Northwest’s largest and most sophisticated Agricultural Supply cooperative, providing Agronomy, Petroleum, and Retail Store services to over 500,000 customers with a member base of over 3,000. As President and Chief Executive, Mr. Hoffman works under the Board of Directors to help set the overall vision and direction of the cooperative and then “ensuring that the vision and direction are successfully carried out.” Mr. Hoffman has five direct-reports, while WILCO overall has 700 employees.

I am pretty sure it is what Mr. Hoffman calls a “servant attitude,” that he so clearly manifests, which has led him to be voted one of the top CEOs in Oregon and WILCO one of the top employers in Oregon by OregonLive and the Portland Oregonian newspaper. Mr. Hoffman places a huge emphasis on “core values” —- namely “integrity, quality, respect, accountability, teamwork and community.” He is also very focused on supporting “the success of individuals” and “their growth.” What is the source of Mr. Hoffman’s “servant attitude” and “core values” and fervent commitment to supporting his people? Mr. Hoffman credits his upbringing in South Dakota as one of nine children along with “a 100 head of cows and calves, a bunch of hogs, and a bunch of hard work.” He says this foundation taught him early on that “if you want things in life, you have to work hard for it.”

Like so many of the most effective leaders, Mr. Hoffman combines strict accountability with a carefully calibrated build-up of responsibility and authority on the part of those who report to him —- a “gradual letting go of control.” Always supporting “the success of the individual,” while still holding the individual “accountable to agreed results.”

The Leadership Wisdom of Doug Hoffman

My approach to everything I do, personal and business, is to be a servant. It is not about me but the Team or the project I am working on. I am never looking at things I do and think, “Well if I do this, I get this award or recognition,” but rather, “What can the Team do? What can WILCO gain from my actions?” A humble servant attitude is hard to put into words and it can be hard to teach the concept. But it is gratifying to model it.

Find the people who believe in the same core values you do. Establish those values as a company, hold people accountable to them and the best employees will seek you out. You have to be patient and thorough so you are aligned on them. Look for genuine people who care about others. They need the skill, but that you can find. To find a person who has and believes the core values is critical. Just mentioning the words – the core values — will make some potential employees not want to join our team while others get excited about it.

Do not be afraid to make changes when you have the wrong person. If you let a “bad egg” (wrong employee) stay around it will begin to smell and destroy the rest of the eggs (employees). My solution is to either reposition those “bad eggs” within the company where they can be successful or free them to work for another company where they can be happy and successful. You have to be fair and hold everybody to the same accountability standards.

Select good leaders, set the direction, let them go do the work, and hold them accountable. Spend time with them so they know what the company is all about. Set clear expectations. We establish and agree on the strategies and then give the leaders a lot of freedom to win or fail depending on the solutions. But as they fail they know we will support them with gentle (generally) guidance. We develop our plans and plans of action so that we have measurement and accountability. We then can talk about it when plans are off.

Come up with solutions and do not to look to your boss to be the “grand wizard” of knowledge. I encourage my leaders, direct reports and others to think for themselves. Come up with solutions for problems they have. I am always willing to counsel but they know the situation more than I do. I expect my leaders to do the same with their staff. Listening; not telling them what to do; encouraging them to discover the solutions. New ideas and solutions are best done by people closest to the problem.

It is tough to get “unfiltered and honest” feedback from direct-reports or other leaders. It’s hard to overcome the fear factor. It takes a lot of time and effort of listening and spending quality time with your people. We encourage communication, with listening being a big part of our success. I would love to be an “undercover boss” so that I could really understand what our employees feel about the company.

Financial performance is easier to track than the soft skills. Having good data systems in place eliminates the need to constantly wonder. Either we are on plan or not. When it comes to the soft skills, it is harder, like “How are our managers managing people? Do they respect their employees or just work them?” We are always monitoring that. Gather the data and it forms the basis for the discussion of accountability. For example, there is a direct correlation between low employee morale and the number of injuries that are reported as well as employee turnover. Often times the low morale is an indication of the lack of clear communication on expectations. My coaching to my leader is, “Let’s find the solutions to the issues before morale goes low. Let’s be close to our staff and respect their concerns. Let’s be clear about our expectations but at the same time give the employee freedom to succeed. Let them have some personal pride in their jobs.”

On training and development… We have a lot of training and development opportunities for employees to participate in if they are willing to put in the extra effort and work. We explain that (back to my young days on the farm) that nothing comes without some hard work.

On annual reviews… We encourage our managers to be active with their staff and not just wait until the annual review to bring up issues or failure to meet expectations. The annual review should have no “surprises” on expectations but is a great opportunity to have two-way dialogue on future career path expectation and opportunity.

On recognizing and rewarding high-performance… Do more to celebrate the “wins”.