Clay Mathile: Want to Grow Your Business? Grow Your People

Clay Mathile is the former CEO and owner of The Iams Company and the founder and Chairman of the Board of Aileron.

Photo by Daniel Smyth

Former CEO and owner of The Iams Company, Clay is the founder and Chairman of the Board of Aileron. He believes strongly in free enterprise and has a high respect for business owners who risk their capital to employ others. Clay attributes professional management as one of the key reasons he was able to grow Iams to a $1 billion organization. In 1999, the Mathile family sold Iams to international conglomerate Procter & Gamble for the sum of $2.3 billion.


Want to achieve your strategic goals each year and progress to your long-term vision? Engage your employees as your collaborators. They are your most important assets. Invest in them. Get to know them. Tap into your employees’ talents and unleash their potential in ways that mutually benefit them and your business. This is essential for operationalizing your goals. A committed, passionate workforce will deliver your long-term goals and move you closer to realizing your vision. 

Set the goal of building the best workforce in your industry. Then, enroll everyone in achieving this goal in a collaborative process. The more focus and energy you give to this process, the more likely your success and sustainability. Each employee will see the connection of their job, their own passionate purpose and valuable contribution in their daily work to the mission and vision of the company. Individual, team, and department goals will align with the strategic goals of the company. This is a winning combination.


Collaborate on Goals and Plans

The process for growing your individual talent begins when you or your managers engage in discussion with direct reports to understand each employee’s personal and professional goals and how these goals align with the current and future needs of the business. Working with managers to establish goals and development plans, the employee takes ownership of his personal development. Managers coach, provide feedback, and offer opportunities for learning experiences and new challenges that push growth.

Managers can learn a lot by talking with employees about what interests them. As business goals are defined and roles and responsibilities are clarified, it is up to managers to ensure that individuals have the opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills in areas that interest them. This is part of their collaboration. It is of mutual value to the individual and the company because people who are doing what they enjoy and what is exciting to them are more productive. One company needed to solidity its brand. No one on staff had expertise in branding, but an employee had expressed an interest in learning and developing in this area. With her manager, she identified excellent training programs. She worked closely with a consultant hired by the company to work with her on the rebranding efforts, which were successful for the company and made the employee even more dedicated to the company because she was given the opportunity to grow.


Freedom and Accountability

Delegating is often a big stretch. But it is easier to let go and give others responsibilities when you provide boundaries for authority and decision-making. We call this “the area of freedom.” Imagine a sandbox framed on each side by these parameters: 

Values that are core to your culture

Policies and procedures for your company

Job descriptions and standards of performance objectives that describe what the work is and what must be accomplished

Business goals

Defining these boundaries makes it clear to employees where they can operate with a degree of freedom. To respect this freedom, you and other leaders/managers need to maintain a respectful distance along with appropriate dialogue and feedback. 

Here’s an example of how it works. Clients ask the sales manager of a tech company for a quote on integrating two technologies. His team has extensive experience with both technologies and wants to offer a different solution. They already know that these technologies do not work well together. The clients aren’t open to listening to an alternative solution. They keep pushing the sales manager for a quote on integrating the two technologies, which he knows will only mean problems for them. He could give them a quote, and his company could do the work, but he knows it’s not right. The clients will not be happy with the final solution. He would meet his goal, but the longer-term cost to the company would be too high. Knowing that each project reflects the company’s values and he is responsible for reflecting the value of excellence, the sales manager chooses to explain to the clients the reasons why his firm has decided not to offer a quote on the project. Frustrated and disappointed at first, the clients eventually understood the problematic nature of the technology and they asked the sales manager to propose another solution.

Without the “sandbox,” the sales manager could have proposed a quote for the job. The firm could have done the work, charged the clients, and the clients would have gotten what they requested. The sales manager would have met his goals for the year and probably received compensation for doing so. However, this would have happened at great cost to the company and its reputation; it would have been a shortsighted decision.


Push Down and Spread Out Decision-Making

The people on the front lines need to have the freedom and accountability to make good decisions. They are in a position to notice things, small things that can make big differences. Often good ideas are suppressed or wasted because people don’t feel empowered to bring them to anyone’s attention, or take initiative to develop them.

When I worked as a purchasing manager at a big packaged-food company, a veteran maintenance supervisor, Ernie had figured out a way to save a lot of money. He quietly began substituting nylon rollers for steel rollers on the track that moved products along the production line. Ernie worked under the radar, because this improvement meant breaking regulations requiring stainless steel rollers. But the nylon rollers lasted ten times longer and reduced wear on supporting parts. Ernie’s quiet innovation was saving the company $60,000 per machine per year, but he was afraid to ask for management approval. I persuaded a government inspector to OK the change, reported the savings to management and when the company picked up on the idea, other plants adopted it. The company saved $1 million a year thanks to Ernie, a guy who knew the production equipment better than anybody else but had no voice in the company.

The front lines are where good ideas need to flourish and decisions need to be made. Smart business owners train and empower everyone to make decisions that serve the company’s strategy by providing some guidelines and frameworks, like the “sandbox,” to encourage innovation and leadership at all levels. People need to feel that they have the freedom and authority to speak up, to solve problems and pursue ideas. Leadership can come from anyone anywhere

The implications of spreading freedom and accountability through your organization can be transformative. Wes, owner of an IT firm, took a long-needed two-week vacation with his family. When he returned, he expected to find a stack of work that would take days to dig through. Instead, he found little and was finished in a day and a half. When he realized he didn’t have anything to do, that his desk was clean, he had a sense of sheer terror. Before implementing professional management, that kind of lapse in activity for him would have meant his business was in crisis. If he didn’t have anything to do, that meant his company didn’t have anything to do. He realized it was a signal that everything was going exactly as designed. His managers and other employees were well prepared to assume more responsibility and make decisions. His desk was clean because his employees were doing what they were supposed to do.


Hold People Accountable 

A common complaint from business owners is that their employees are not accountable for their work. Or they believe that their employees don’t work hard enough, put out enough effort to help the business to be successful. When we ask business owners, “How much more is enough? What exactly do you want from them?” they can’t answer those questions clearly. Instead of negotiating goals and clarifying expectations, business owners assume that their employees already know what is expected. This is a big mistake, an incorrect assumption, and it creates a gap or misunderstanding in your relationship with your employees. It doesn’t serve you, your business, or your employees.

To motivate employees to work hard and help the company to succeed, you need to talk with them. Discuss your expectations and listen to theirs. Try to bring both into alignment so that everyone has a mutual understanding and a satisfactory relationship. I’ve found that most employees want to contribute and to be successful; they just need direction and clear communication on what is expected. Many genuinely want to exceed expectations, but they can do so only if they know what those expectations are.