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Consider Great Plains Software, a leading vendor of financial-management software for midsize companies. Great Plains is headquartered in Fargo, North Dakota, in a two-story office building wedged between corn fields and a bingo parlor—not exactly a hip location. But Great Plains has attracted, developed, and retained some of the most talented people in its line of business. With 850 employees, the company has a turnover rate of 7% a year, which is almost unheard-of the famously volatile software industry. Great Plains also has a robust revenue stream—bringing in almost $86 million in fiscal 1998, up 50% over 1997—and a roster of loyal customers, including Adidas, the Detroit Lions, Cinnabon Bakeries, and the Girl Scouts of America.
What’s the secret? Great Plains not only offers a balanced life—it lives one. Tami Reller, 34, has been with Great Plains since she graduated from Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minnesota, in the spring of 1987. Her career with the company, where she began as an intern, is one long testament to the value of flexibility. “I was amazed at the company’s level of commitment to helping interns succeed and stay with the company,” Reller says. Her first assignment was in the company’s finance operation at its headquarters in Fargo. Then she moved to San Francisco to train in sales. After seven years there, Reller felt ready for a move into the rank of corporate management—but she didn’t want to leave California. No problem: Great Plains didn’t want her to leave the company either, so it gave her a senior position in corporate marketing and allowed her to telecommute to Fargo —and, by the way, to finish an MBA while working part-time for three months.
That arrangement lasted until 1996, when, for family reasons, Reller moved to Minneapolis. Still no problem: Now she directs finance and investor relations from there. The next development: In a few months, Reller will give birth to her first child. Is she worried about balance? Not a bit—Great Plains lets its people take voluntary time off while keeping benefits.
“For me, balance means having the flexibility to choose what to accomplish and how I want to accomplish it—in my career, my job, my personal life,” Reller says. “It’s not simply an issue of not working 8-to-5. It’s the ability to accomplish the big things in life —like finishing an MBA or having a child.”
The Great Plains approach is to hire the best people it can find and then to give them maximum freedom to get their work done —however, whenever, and wherever they choose to work. “We have really smart people who know what they need to accomplish,” Reller says. “You find a way to get the work done in the hours that you need. Sometimes that’s 30 hours a week; sometimes it’s 70 hours a week.”
Doug Burgum, 42, Great Plains’s chairman and CEO, explains how the system works. “We put people through a vigorous hiring process and through a lot of interviews. Once they’re part of the team, we say, ‘We trust you.’ From day one, you get a key to the building. You get a laptop. You become an equal member of our community, and we trust that you’re going to pull your weight.”
None of that happens by accident. When Burgum began with the company in 1983, he understood that it needed something more than good software to become competitive. Great Plains’s edge would be in the quality of its people—in their ability to provide first-class customer support and to develop strong relationships with suppliers and vendors. How do you attract the best people when your headquarters is in Fargo, North Dakota? By recruiting carefully, selectively, and rigorously—and then by giving those you hire the power to organize their work by themselves.
“Balance is not about taking off the day when your kid gets sick,” Burgum says. Any company can give employees that sort of flexibility. “Balance is what’s needed when your kids are playing in a softball tournament, and they really want you to be there. We want parents to be able to say yes to their kids. There’s a huge amount of value in giving people the opportunity to say yes to things that are important to them but that may conflict with their regular working hours.”
For Burgum, the idea of balance goes deeper than simply juggling tasks and appointments. “It’s important to have flexibility over a life span or a career span,” he says. “There has to be a deeper level of personal satisfaction, a sense that things are all right. If you can help people find that level, they tend to stick around.” Burgum is proud of Great Plain’s extraordinarily low turnover. “That’s no small accomplishment in an industry where so much of a company’s assets are linked to individual employees’ knowledge,” he says.
THE OB SKILLS WORKBOOK 251
The 21st-Century Company
What do all of these new enterprises have in common? They are only as good as their most talented people. And they don’t take the loyalty of those people for granted. They understand that talented people have never had more options. So these companies have developed strategies to recruit and keep people from whom they want total commitment.