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A Contented Cow Who Cuts Out the Bull

A Q&A with Bill Catlette, one-half of the 'Contented Cows' duo

Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden emerged on the employee engagement scene in 1998 as the “cow guys” after the publication of their book, “Contented Cows Give Better Milk: The Plain Truth About Employee Relations and Your Bottom Line.” Fourteen years later, they’re still crusading for building better workplaces. Now, the duo has published “Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk,” in which they share new stories, showcase new companies and provide new evidence that creating a focused, engaged and capably led workforce is one of the best things any organization can do for its bottom line. We spoke with Catlette shortly before the book’s July 3 publication.
 

SMM: It’s been 14 years since you published the first “Contented Cows” book. What’s new in the workplace since then?
CATLETTE: The job of frontline leaders is harder now by a factor of two or three times. They are asked to do so much more and absolutely no training has been done. When the economy drops like it did a few years ago, corporations slam on the brakes.

SMM: It sounds like with those companies that don’t rate as “Contented Cows” organizations, you are sympathetic to the frontline managers. Is there a specific level you point at to fix those companies?
CATLETTE: Senior leadership has got to come down on one side of the fence or the other. Are employees truly assets that they’re willing to invest in with training and recognition, or are they simply lumped in with expenses? One of our main messages has always been to put people in positions to succeed. Frontline managers are definitely being short-shrifted in training, and that’s just plain mean.

SMM: What hasn’t changed between the publication of the first book in 1998 and now?
CATLETTE: The common thread is that if you treat people right your company will grow and you’ll improve your bottom line. If you put any more money into the equation, do it in a way that serves to better differentiate (and reward) better performers. If more money’s not in the cards, or even if it is, leaders could substantially improve employee satisfaction and engagement, and thereby organizational results, by investing more meaning in people’s work. If you employ adults, treat them as such. Hold them accountable — really accountable — for excellent results, and let them figure out the best way to manage their schedules while meeting business needs.

SMM: What did you learn between the publications of the two books?
CATLETTE: One thing is you need to be hiring slower and more deliberately, and firing faster. That’s not a cold-hearted thing at all. The most important thing a manager — any manager — does is make decisions about who does and does not wind up on the payroll. That is especially the case in an environment where there simply are no spare parts and each person’s contributions or lack thereof are vital. In terms of firing a person, once you realize together that you’ve made a mistake — that this person is never going to be fully engaged or performing at their peak level — you’re doing them a disservice to hold on to them. I think that’s particularly true with sales positions.

SMM: What are some of the biggest challenges companies face in terms of employee engagement?
CATLETTE: The fact that you now have representatives in the workplace from different generations and the challenge of being able to communicate with them.
A second challenge is how do we recognize and reward people without just throwing stuff at them and spending money? You’ve got to make it personal, find a way to engage with people on their terms, and at times and in a manner that suits them.