Business Guru Jim Goodnight’s Innovative Approach to Leadership
Education and Careers One of the most influential technology entrepreneurs of the past fifty years discusses the importance of customer communication, job security and creative management.
Mediaplanet: How does your approach to management different from most?
Jim Goodnight: I subscribe to the philosophy — Esse Quam Videri — to be, rather than seem. I don’t subscribe to leadership fads. I believe that people trust you when you are genuine and authentic. Authentic leaders are not perfect, but they demonstrate passion for what they do, practice their values consistently, and make decisions with others in mind. Ninety-five percent of my assets drive out of the gates every night, and it’s my job to make sure they come back the next day. Keeping employees and customers in mind has been the backbone of SAS’ success as a business, and as an employer.
MP: If you could detail five core values that have attributed to SAS’s overall success throughout the past four decades, what would they be?
JG: Our culture is based on three simple things: trust, flexibility and values.
SAS is a company built on relationships, and our relationships with customers are only going to be as good as our employees’ experience at SAS. That experience is based on meaningful work, empowering leadership, and a world-class work environment.
Our software is a product of the mind, and our employees are highly educated, creative people who love a challenge. Some studies show that challenging work is the most important factor in job satisfaction. To keep employees challenged we trust and empower them to take risks and innovate. That keeps them happy; and when employees are happy they keep our customers happy. We offer flexible hours to respect work-life balance. We designed a stimulating work environment – with fitness facilities, private offices and artwork throughout ̶ to keep people inspired.
“If you treat people like they make a difference, they will make a difference.”
There is a direct correlation between our culture and our business success. While remaining privately held, SAS just celebrated its 39th year of uninterrupted revenue growth and profitability. It’s a virtuous cycle – treat employees well, and they innovate well. This creates happy customers. Happy customers impact revenue. Revenue enables us to reinvest in our employees, and our customers. It just makes sense.
MP: What inspired you to create and implement your innovative approach to management?
JG: I realized very early in my career that work environments affect employee productivity and retention. Before starting SAS, I worked on the NASA Apollo program. There, I found an environment in which people didn’t communicate. Employees weren’t treated with respect or trust. Executives had their own dining and break areas, while employees had to pump money into a machine just for a cup of coffee or a soft drink. When we started SAS, I wanted to create a very different work environment. Creativity is inherent in the knowledge work we do, and our workplace culture inspires that. Our annual turnover is less than 5 percent, compared to an industry average of about 15-20 percent. I’m very proud of what we’ve created, and what we’ve been able to sustain for nearly 40 years.
MP: Referring to SAS, did you immediately begin to recognize the positive impacts of your management strategies on your workforce?
JS: It’s been this way since the very beginning. These management strategies say to our employees, “We’ll take care of you if you’ll take care of us.” We make sure they have challenging work. And, in turn, they are highly motivated and productive.
Sometimes the effects are immediately obvious. In the early days we were at risk of losing young women as they became mothers. We quickly saw the effect on retention when we offered daycare and flexible work hours. Sometimes the impact of a decision isn’t obvious right away. In early 2009 when so many companies were laying off thousands of workers, a lot of employees were nervous about their job security. I announced that there would be no layoffs at SAS so people would stop worrying and focus on their jobs. But we also asked them to cut back on expenses. At the end of the year, the impact was clear. It was one of our most profitable years.
MP: How have you worked to disseminate your methods/findings to improve workforce management policies outside of SAS?
JS: I try to share best practices when I can. I co-authored an article with Richard Florida for Harvard Business Review, and SAS has been the subject of several university case studies (including Stanford University and Harvard) on workplace culture. I am also very open about our strategies with customers and media and am always willing to talk about our culture. Because of our standing recognition as a Great Place to Work — not only in the U.S., but around the world — we are often asked by customers, journalists, analysts, educators and students about our secret sauce. There’s no secret; just treat people right.
MP: You have been quoted as saying that education is critical to the success of people, organizations and nations. Have you done anything outside of SAS to achieve your vision of education reform?
JS: My wife Ann and I have a passion for public education that can be traced back to SAS’ roots at North Carolina State University. Education is the key to economic growth, and SAS depends on a strong educational system for its long-term success. The company’s philanthropic efforts focus on programs and initiatives that prepare more graduates for college, work and success in the 21st century.
"A strong education system benefits all citizens and businesses, and is the bedrock for economic growth. But schools should not have to do it alone."
SAS supports numerous K-12 education initiatives that provide the skills needed in our modern economy. First and foremost, schools must attract and retain the best teachers for all subject matter areas, especially in STEM.
SAS focuses on closing the skills gap in math and science by improving reading, math and technology fundamentals in public schools. At the high school and university level, we focus on efforts to close a persistent analytics skills gap. Big Data has created an unprecedented demand for analytics talent that outpaces the number of qualified applicants. Through SAS programming for high school, any US high school educator can access relevant curriculum, software and improve technology skills
A strong education system benefits all citizens and businesses, and is the bedrock for economic growth. But schools should not have to do it alone. I encourage the business community to reach out to schools and universities and find ways to engage and inspire the next generation.
MP: If you could offer one piece of advice for CEOs and key decision makers of organizations worldwide, small and large, what would it be?
JS: I’ve always said, “If you treat people like they make a difference, they will make a difference.”