Leading with a Focus on Humanity

Four distributors that are embracing "people-centric" leadership.

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Today’s leaders are tasked with a challenging undertaking: one that expects them to not only meet customer demands in an unpredictable world, but also find new ways to support their people.

Because if employees feel their job is uninspiring today, that leadership sees them as merely a cog in the machine, they will jump ship.

We’re seeing it across industries, and distribution is not immune.

People are searching for a spot to spread their wings, do important work with purpose and feel valued not only for their job, but also for the uniqueness of who they are. 

In the aftermath of the pandemic, leadership has been asked to pivot to a role where they can support the whole person, to help their team make the most of their time both at work – and at home. 

Tony Robbins calls servant leadership the practice of looking after others, of serving them, instead of only looking after what’s best for the organization.

But how do distribution leaders evolve from what German Psychologist Kurt Lewin coined the three basic leadership styles: authoritarian (do as you’re told), participative (collaborative and democratic environment) and delegative (hands-off non-participation) to one that is more people-centric? 

That is what I set out to uncover. 

The Humanity Revolution

I like to think of the changing nature of leadership as a Humanity Revolution and while not overly complex, it requires a change in mindset. 

It’s an opportunity for leaders to obliterate the thinking that employees are assets and for employees to feel empowered to view themselves as more than “just” a driver, forklift operator, accounts receivable team member or sales rep.

“As leaders, our goal is to move obstacles out of our employees’ way so they can do their job successfully. If we give them the right tools, training and resources, we can move those obstacles and help them shine and excel,” Ryan Craven from General Air Service & Supply said.

This summer was year two of the We Supply America tour, championing the noble calling of distribution and connecting with distributors across all segments and all sizes.

Across cities and states, thousands of miles of road, and over 55 distributors later, I witnessed the changing landscape of leadership in distribution. I saw distributors infuse humanity into leadership by: 

  • Viewing employees not as assets, but as valuable team members with untapped potential
  • Removing barriers to success in the workplace
  • Encouraging – and supporting – employees to go after the roles they desire
  • Being intentional about meeting employees where they are
  • Providing opportunities for employees to grow – outside of their roles at work

I wanted to further understand this changing nature of leadership. So, in addition to the We Supply America tour, with Wipfli’s support, we surveyed over 200 executives to learn how their leadership styles have evolved. 

What we found is that leaders are leading amidst personal disruption. Their people aren’t the same now as they were going into March 2020. As one distributor told us:

“People have always wanted to feel they matter and belong to something greater than just their own needs. COVID has required many to finally think about the people they affect.”

With this backdrop, my new report, “Reimagining Leadership,” reveals key findings about the urgent need for a humanity-centered approach. Two are particularly relevant:

  • Leaders must consider the whole person.
  • We need to redefine the work-life balance as the life-work balance.

An overwhelming 93% of survey respondents agreed with the idea that the human element will play a significant role in leadership going forward. However, 53% believe that most distributors are leading in old-fashioned ways. 

How can we bridge that gap? 

We can learn from leaders who understand their role centers on the humanity of business and the impact their business has – must have – in the lives of their employees. The ones who see that real business outcomes can come from “Smart Love,” which means caring for the employee is not only the right thing to do, but it is the smart thing to do for business.

Here are a few distributors that do more than talk – they walk the walk: 

Robert Weed Brings Humanity into Work

Despite record growth, Robert Weed, a wood products distributor, wanted a cultural reboot, one that reinvested in its culture. They recognized people have been under constant strain for the past several years. That stress is lingering.

Robert Weed’s leaders believe it’s their responsibility to relieve some of that pressure. “Our industry used to be confronted with major events every seven years; now it seems to be every 18 months or every two quarters. How do we work collaboratively with our supply partners and end-users to create some stasis so that we can treat our workforce better?” CEO Will Weed said.

So, what did this distributor do about it?

They started by offering voluntary biometric screenings to provide insight into baseline health and stress levels, as well as life coaching programs for employees to improve their emotional, physical, mental, social and financial well-being. Robert Weed has also adjusted vacation time and time-off policies to provide more flexibility – recognizing that work-life balance has become more like life-work balance. 

They also went to five shifts, with five different start times to accommodate real life, such as school dropoff and pickup times. 

The folks at Robert Weed Corp. have embraced this transformation and it shows on the faces of its team members. 

They feel supported. 

They look forward to the future. 

They walk tall.

“It’s about the sustainability of our business, keeping people employed and creating equilibrium both in our markets and our personnel,” Will said.

CH Briggs Sees the Faces Behind the Spaces

I love that motto: The faces behind the spaces. That’s how specialty building materials distributor C.H. Briggs views their team. They’re focused on more than product selling. They’re bent on enriching the lives of others inside their four walls – and within their customers’ four walls. 

This lofty goal was personified in Emily DeLucas, manager of customer care. In just five years, she moved up in the company three times.

She told me, “No one's going to let you stay stagnant here. If you want to grow, somebody will find you. I don't know if I would've ever been brave enough to make myself uncomfortable the way initially stepping into a supervisor role did. Patti (Emily’s manager) was brave enough for me, and I'm really grateful for that because I really don't know if I'd have done it on my own.”

L&R Distributors Ignites Leadership with Innovation and Humanity

From automating product fulfillment to merchandising and logistics, L&R Distributors challenges the status quo with one goal — to create the perfect customer experience for their customer’s customer and a work culture like no other.

L&R does this through world-class automation and the company’s L.E.A.D. philosophy.

Listen and learn. 




CEO Marc Bodner explained that it doesn't matter the role, title or tenure, everybody in the organization can have the attributes of a leader when they follow that acronym. Those attributes translate into an ownership mindset that ultimately improves the earning potential for the company and the employee.

“We’re going to give you the opportunity to be an entrepreneur.”

‘Not a Number’

When I visited Dalco, a jan-san distributor up in Minnesota, a group of employees told me they wanted to be challenged and grow, advancement in their job and career, responsibility and ownership of results, sense of pride, and enjoyment and sense of purpose.

One of their answers was “humanity.” In other words: “Think of me as a person, not a number.”

I don’t think that’s too much to ask. It’s about embracing the fourth style of leadership (that I outline in our latest research): Noble Calling, in which management is called by a higher purpose and is intent on making an oversized impact – beyond the bottom line.

Leaders in this category are focused on investing in and empowering their employees. Employees want leaders who empower them to make an impact, inspire them to fulfill their potential, and make work meaningful through purpose.

After all, “leadership is about the fundamental human experience,” as one survey respondent wrote in our research. I couldn’t agree more.

If you’d like to learn more about the findings of my latest research, “Reimagining Leadership,” and the critical role humanity will play going forward, click here.

Dirk Beveridge is the president of the Beveridge Consulting Group, the founder of UnleashWD and executive producer at We Supply America.

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