Remember the book, All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Perhaps not, unless you are a seasoned vet like I am, but the premise is still sound. Today I was reminded of the power of principle centered leadership.

This morning I attended a meeting of the Manufacturers Alliance, a group of 300 or so manufacturers here in Minnesota who share best practices, lead training seminars and otherwise help their peers get better. The keynote speaker was Tom Tiller, CEO of Polaris Industries.

Tom’s message was so crystal clear I need to share it. Polaris, he told us, has increased its value by 150 times in the last 20 years (despite intense competition, wars and several economic ‘downturns’) because of one thing – people.

Tom said they treat their employees like gold, foster a culture of innovation and participation, and make sure they get and stay close to their customers. “It’s our passion for outdoor activities like snowmobiling and off-roading that drives our contact with customers. We use the product together and talk about what could make it better. I am with customers, using our products, more than 200 days a year.”

Wow! That’s a lot of time with customers. That’s a lot of time actually using the product. That’s a lot of time spent listening – to both employees and customers.

Tom ended his presentation with a quick story about his employees’ passion and commitment – during spring flooding a few years ago in Roseau, Minnesota, both the company’s plant and many employee homes were threatened. More than 400 Polaris employees showed up at the plant to help sandbag for 48 hours straight (Tom among them). They watched their houses float away but managed to save the plant.

What’s so simple about Polaris’ strategy? A clear and unshakable faith that success will come if they focus on their two most important constituencies – their customers and their employees. It wasn’t their strategic planning, their marketing plan or the way they organized their shop floor.

Does it work? Well, one would expect discretionary lifestyle purchases like snowmobiles, ATVs and the like to be down these days. Instead, Tom told us this morning, Polaris expects a 22% increase in sales this quarter.


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