Lessons from Harley-Davidson

Yesterday I attended the Jonathan R. Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship at Swarthmore College, my alma mater.  Richard Teerlink, the retired chairman of Harley-Davidson, was the keynote speaker.   During his 18 years with Harley-Davidson, Teerlink led the successful cultural transformation of the company based on the premise that "people are an organization's only sustainable competitive advantage."

Teerlink discussed the importance of creating a work environment where employees can make their best contribution.  That can  be difficult to do in this economic climate where cost-saving measures, including lay-offs, may instill fear and uncertainty in the workforce.  On the other hand, today's challenges can be an opportunity to engage and vest employees in the future of their business.  

How to develop a workforce that can create a competitive advantage?

-  Understand and communicate how each individual employee makes a difference.

-  Consider lay-off alternatives.

-  Invest in employee talent through training, continued education and wellness.

-  Consider flexible work arrangements, such as alternative schedules and telecommuting.

Trust and communication are key.  Shifting some of the burden of the business to employees may actually be a benefit if employees feel they can contribute to survival and ultimately success.

Harley-Davidson has not been immune to the decline that most businesses have suffered.  But the company has overcome similar challenges in the past, including a lay-off of 40% of the work force in the early 1980s. 

For more on the Harley-Davidson story, see More than a Motorcycle: The Leadership Journey of Harley-Davidson. search.barnesandnoble.com/More-than-a-Motorcycle/Rich-Teerlink/e/9780875849508/