Title: President, Fluid-Dairy Division
Company: Land O’ Lakes Inc.
Location: Arden Hills, Minnesota
In January 1991, Dan Hanson learned that he’d been promoted to vice president of corporate planning at Arden Hills, Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes Inc. After 12 years at Land O’ Lakes — first as director of sales and marketing, then as general manager of its food-ingredient division — Hanson had been put in charge of the company’s planning efforts and had moved into a more corporate environment. The next thing Hanson learned was that he had cancer. “That made me realize that life is terminal,” says Hanson. “It gave me a sense of urgency. I knew that I had to rediscover the meaning of my work.”
It was February 1991. Hanson immediately took six months off from Land O’Lakes. He underwent a series of intensive treatments for the growths in his thyroid gland and lymph nodes — and he reflected on what he was doing at work. The medicine treated his disease; the reflection dealt with something deeper. Hanson realized that his hard-won promotion was, in fact, a serious misstep. Instead of sticking with what he loved — working closely with people and helping them find connections with their colleagues — he had moved into a corporate position that required him to look at companies and at people as numbers: assets to increase, cut, or exchange. “Corporate planning was like a game of chess,” Hanson says. “I played with people as pawns and with businesses as though they were valued by only their bottom line. I was losing touch with the fact that organizations are made up of people.”
Not only did Hanson beat cancer — the disease has been in remission for more than six years now — he also rejuvenated his career: Along with returning to Land O’ Lakes, he began teaching business classes at Augsburg College, in Minneapolis. He also wrote two books, “A Place to Shine: Emerging from the Shadows at Work” (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996) and “Cultivating Common Ground: Releasing the Power of Relationships at Work” (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997).
Two years ago, Hanson became president of Land O’Lakes’s fluid-dairy division. In his new position, he turned his attention to a problem that he thought would define the health — and ultimately, the success — of the organization. “I was frustrated with what I saw going on in the workplace,” Hanson says. “People didn’t seem to be finding meaning in work, they didn’t seem to be shining, and there was an energy missing.”
According to Hanson, when people don’t find meaning or meaningful relationships at work, the problem isn’t with the people — it’s with oppressive work environments that stifle creativity or with unhealthy work relationships that keep colleagues at odds with one another. Companies that want to foster internal communities must restructure their organizations and change how coworkers interrelate. Which is exactly what Hanson is doing in his 850-person, $300 million division. His logic is both simple and compelling: “Feeling connected to your work brings energy to the workplace.”
What is Hanson’s prescription for building connections in an organization that is not accustomed to community? First, you have to address organizational and personal problems that affect the workplace. When an organization grows at the expense of treating its employees as people, Hanson says, the people inevitably start to feel alienated. If they aren’t connecting to their work or to one another, it’s important to find out why.
Second, you have to highlight what Hanson calls “pockets of wellness” — teams that have changed how they do things. For example, when a flood hit Grand Forks, North Dakota, in April 1997, the Land O’Lakes team in that city pulled together to control the damage. The experience became a model for the kind of exceptional accomplishment that community-based action can make possible.
Third, you have to remember that community must come from the grass roots, rather than from the top down. “People feel better when the organization succeeds because of them,” Hanson says, “not because somebody in management decided that the company was going to follow some program.”
Finally, says Hanson, when people succeed, you have to tell them so. “Making people feel special isn’t the same as pampering them or praising them for something they didn’t earn. That’s hollow,” Hanson says. “One important thing I’ve learned is that people want to be challenged as well as appreciated.”
If you want to create more meaning in your workplace, where do you start? Dan Hanson suggests that you begin by discussing the undiscussable: Convene a group to talk about what is getting in the way of work relationships. “You need to go on a shadow hunt,” he says, “and clear out all of the old assumptions.” Be specific about what’s getting in the way: Which processes work? Which ones don’t? What should we do more of? And what should we do less of? “You need to pinpoint what’s wrong with how you think about work: What you do to one another that gets in the way of relationships,” Hanson says.
Heath Row (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company associate editor. You can reach Dan Hanson by email (email@example.com) or visit Land O’ Lakes on the Web (www.landolakes.com).