As John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, traveled throughout the United States visiting his stores, he often would be approached by employees who would ask him if the company could implement this benefit, or that benefit, which caused him to re-think how benefits are offered.

Now, Whole Foods Market - which has 300 stores in the United States, Canada and the U.K. - puts its benefits to a vote. Every three years, the company lets employees nominate benefits and if other employees agree, the benefit is added. It's just one of the ways the company empowers its employees and encourages innovation, Mackey told a packed crowd in opening keynote address at the 2012 Great Place to Work conference in Atlanta.

Mackey also briefly outlined the company's total immersion health program whereby people at high risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, or those already diagnosed with the disease, are encouraged to attend a one-week immersion program that teaches them to about the importance of diet and exercise in managing - or even eliminating - their disease.

"What really makes a difference is when team members are transformed and they become missionaries for better eating, diet and exercise. Their productivity goes up," said Mackey, noting that he's been approached by tearful employees who've gone through the program and want to thank him. "But it's their hard work," he added. "It requires a radical shift in your diet but it changes lives."

One of his company's higher purposes, he said, is to bring this knowledge to the world, "to raise consciousness about the principles of healthy eating and to help change our health care system to focus on prevention of disease through diet and lifesyle, rather than disease management through drugs."

He also discussed the lack of authenticity in corporate America today and argued that this lack of authenticity is just one reason why trust in corporate America is so low. (See sidebar.) "And yet people cry out for authenticity and communication without spin," he said.

"One of the things I hear all the time is people like the way it feels when they're in our stores," he added. "The reason it feels good is because our team members aren't afraid. We don't manage their fear. When people aren't afraid they can be authentic. Humans are fundamentally loving when they're not afraid. It's essential that leadership manifest this love. We think love is weak in corporate America. ... We need new metaphors about binding people together."

As an organization, Whole Foods Market decentralizes its decision making as much as possible. "You should decentralize as far down in the organization as you can, unless there are overwhelming economies of scale that would lead you not to," said Mackey. "Decentralization enables more participation to occur and encourages innovation. It's always appropriate to ask 'who should be making this decision?'"


High-profile resignation offers cautionary tale about leadership (Adapted from EBN's blog, Employee Benefit Views, written by Kelley M. Butler) Normally, I'm too busy trying to keep up with the current in my 99% life that I don't have much time, energy or desire to check in and see what the 1% is up to.

But when a colleague passed along a New York Times editorial featuring a Goldman Sachs executive leaving the firm in a fiery blaze of glory, I found that the exec's words touched my 99% existence - at least the professional part.

You can read the full editorial on the NYT website; frankly, most of it is what you'd likely expect from someone leaving a company on bad terms. But the part that struck me the most - as a manager and as someone who keeps tabs on talent management issues as part of my job - was this:

"The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence ... I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It's purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client's success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

"I'll be the first to admit that I don't know what derivatives are, or how or why one might sell them. But I know enough to know that if an employee at your company - regardless of whether you sell derivatives or donuts - thinks that true leadership is lacking and that sincere customer/client service isn't its first priority, you've got big problems with culture and employee communication. Because if one employee feels that way, it's like crumbs: if you see one, you're guaranteed to find more.

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