Walter Yager could see what was happening, and he knew he had to stop it. He was becoming a micromanager, a behavioral change that was hurting what he and his business partner, Jose Sanchez, had built at Alpine Fresh Inc.
“There was a specific instance where I got into a disagreement with one of the sales staff over a particular sale and I realized, ‘You know what, that’s not my role,” says Yager, the 4,000-employee fruit and vegetable grower’s co-founder and CEO. “That’s not what I’m here for. I need to take a step back.’”
Yager removed himself from “The Situation Room,” the 3,000-square-foot nerve center that housed most of the key leaders at Alpine Fresh. He was then promptly reminded that there was a good reason why he had hired these people to fill key positions in the company.
“I find they handle 90 percent of the things just as good as if I were there dealing with it myself,” Yager says. “The other 10 percent, they walk it over to me and we’ll discuss it. As a CEO, you have to be really careful not to micromanage because it really limits your ability to grow. It kind of stifles you and you’re also stifling the people you’ve hired to help you grow.”
Yager had rediscovered the value of his people. They help keep him up to date on the status of his farming locations across the globe. They help him gauge the potential benefits and risks of new opportunities that may come about. And they help him prepare for the unexpected challenges that are always looming when you’re in the agricultural business.
Yager needed to build solid channels of communication so that his top leaders would be ready for all of these things and not playing catch-up or asking a lot of questions because they hadn’t been kept in the loop.
Here are some of the ways he cleared these channels to help Alpine Fresh always be ready for the next challenge.
Set the tone
Asparagus is one of four items that Alpine Fresh is known for selling, along with berries, grape tomatoes and mangoes. When a change was made several years ago to the sanitary requirements to import products into the United States, asparagus was affected and Alpine Fresh had to respond.
“There were different vital sanitary requirements to import the product that significantly affected the quality,” Yager says. “It was a big disruption at the time. It was being able to adapt to that change and being able to decide what logistics you were going to use to sell a quality product. We had to make some quick changes to adapt and survive and thrive in that market.”
Whether you like it or not, you’re a role model for your people. Your employees and those on your leadership team look to you for cues on how to act and how to respond to things that happen in your business.
“If you show patience and don’t panic, everybody around you will have the same feeling,” Yager says. “If the leader panics and is erratic, then the people around you are going to get nervous. What I try to communicate is that there is a solution to every problem.”
Yager has grown used to dealing with sudden changes and being forced into a position where he has to respond quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
“We’re dealing with perishable commodities,” Yager says. “Your factors are changing almost minute by minute. You may have a vision of how you want things to go, and all of a sudden, it changes because climates are changing in certain areas of the world or demand curves change or political situations change. It’s difficult when at any given moment, I know what my vision is, but it can change. Trying to offer a stable vision is the most difficult part.”
The key for you is to reinforce a can-do spirit. Encourage and recognize those individuals who offer solutions to problems over those who are content to wait for you to provide a solution. Give those people a real chance to be part of the solution and to feel like they can truly make a difference for your business.
“I tend to talk more to people that are part of the solution,” Yager says. “They are problem solvers on their own and that tells me they are thinking on their own and I value their judgment. They are not afraid to make a decision. They are not afraid to think.”
Again, it’s your reaction to a problem that will go a long way toward determining how your employees respond to it. Of course, there may be times where you don’t even need to respond at all.
“What type of problem is it?” Yager says. “Is it a spot problem or is it a systemic problem? If it’s a spot problem, then I would expect it to already be fixed and be done with it. If it’s a systemic problem, I would look at what we’re doing wrong that is causing this problem.”
Maybe, in the case of the asparagus situation, you haven’t done anything wrong. Whether that’s true or even if it is a problem that you caused, you need to keep your cool.
“There isn’t a problem that can’t be solved,” Yager says. “We just have to think about it and think it through and we’ll find the solution for it. There is nothing, short of the sun not shining, that is going to put an end to our existence. We just have to keep thinking and keep adapting.”
Engage through goals
Yager is not a big believer in burning the midnight oil to get the job done. Rather than praise an employee for doing so, he would more likely wonder why the employee wasn’t able to complete the task during regular work hours.
One of the ways you can help employees prioritize their workload is to give them a means to set and pursue goals. It provides a venue to discuss what they are doing and gives them a chance to feel like they’re making progress in their work.
“What we’re trying to inspire out of them is the thought process and how they view themselves and how they view their role in the company,” Yager says.
One of the keys to making the goal-setting process work is to make sure the goals are able to be objectively measured.
“We’re trying to get more eco-friendly with paperwork reduction,” Yager says. “So one of the goals for somebody is we want to have it where all the documents are electronic. We need to get an electronic scanning system so we can scan everything and reduce the amount of paperwork. So that was one of their major goals.
“It has to be something that you can objectively measure whether they did it or didn’t do it. You don’t want it to be subjective, because then it’s going to be a gray area and they’re going to argue that they did it and you may argue that they didn’t do it. Make sure that they keep it objective.”
Employees should have someone to meet with and review the goals they’ve come up with. It’s not that you’re trying to censor their goals. You’re just trying to make sure they are helping both the employee and the company.
“The supervisor will review it, and depending on the employee, I’ll review some of them,” Yager says. “There might be a little back and forth where I get back to them and say, ‘Listen, this one is good. This one isn’t good. We need to look at something a little different.’ It may take a month before you come to a consensus.”
Make sure both the supervisor and the employee get a copy of the goals. Monitor the goals throughout the year to check on the employee’s progress toward achieving them.
“At the end of the year, we’ll whip it out and say, ‘Hey, you did it or you didn’t do it,’” Yager says. “The key is you have to be objective. It can’t be, ‘I want to increase sales.’ It could be, if I was one of the salesmen, ‘I want to get X customer to start contracting one of the items that he is not currently buying.’ It has to be something that anybody can measure objectively.
“You really find how people view themselves in the company and how lost some people are and how focused other people are. By doing that, you’re helping them to get focused on what you want them to do. But it’s coming from them, so they’re clear on what they want to do.”
Yager believes there is also benefit in giving employees personal goals to pursue through their work.
“A friend of mine in the industry, he told me about a book that he wrote,” Yager says. “The gist of it was that it was a cleaning company with a tremendous turnover problem. You can imagine a cleaning company. People don’t want to be in the cleaning business for the rest of their lives. So they hired this business guru to figure out how to prevent people from leaving. To make a long story short, they went in and they interviewed the employees and they set this program: ‘What were the employees goals and dreams? What did they want to do in life?’
“Obviously, you have to be realistic. My dream in life is to have a G5 and a 100-foot yacht, but I have to be realistic. You try to get them to have a realistic goal. How can we as a company help you achieve it? It’s a personal goal. It’s not a company goal. I want to get a new car in a year. I want to be able to buy a house. Whatever it is they want to do, you set out a plan. This is how we’re going to help you achieve your goal. As a consequence of that, their turnover rate went to zero because everybody felt better about where they stood and where they were headed in life.”
One of the results of this goal-setting process at Alpine Fresh has been a clearer identity of purpose for employees.
“People are working toward their goals,” Yager says. “They are not working toward them every day, but you have a year.”
The benefit of giving employees goals to pursue has been most clearly evident at the middle level of the company.
“At the top level, people are at the top level for a reason,” Yager says. “At the midlevel, they have a better understanding of what their role is in the company. Those are the people that can make a difference. A great quarterback needs linemen to protect him. Those are the people doing that for you.”
How to reach: Alpine Fresh Inc., (800) 292-8777 or www.alpinefresh.com
The Yager file
Co-founder and CEO
Alpine Fresh Inc.
Born: San Francisco, Calif.
Education: Bachelor degree, finance, University of Florida
Who has been the most influential person in your life?
Jesus Christ. He’s a guiding light in trying to do the right thing. Our director of sales is John Lyons. Years ago, when he was with us, we were relatively new, and we were having some logistical issues. He came to me and he said, ‘We have a problem. We don’t have any product, and I don’t know what to tell the customer. What should I tell the customer?’ And I said, ‘Tell them the truth.’ He looked at me like I was talking Chinese. ‘What do you mean? In business, you tell the truth?’ (Jesus is) just a guiding principle to try to do the best we can and try to be as truthful as we can in what we’re doing.
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
One of our first bankers who we went to get financing from to work on this project, he said there will always be another deal of a lifetime.
We argued that there wasn’t and that this was the deal we had to do. Of course, we did it and lost money at it. Usually, when you lose money is when you learn your best lessons. You tend to not listen when things are going well. We didn’t learn it right then and there. It may be a deal of a lifetime that you pass up on. But there will always be another one.