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Catlette, Not Cousteau

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We all have our youthful ambitions — firefighter, lawyer, doctor, George Clooney. Whatever the profession or whoever the icon, we dream, hoping that one day we'll step into the shoes of our heroes. For Bill Catlette, the dream was to be the next Jacques Cousteau. However, like many young dreamers, Catlette realized that his skills were better suited for something else. And for this HR Star, that something else was human resources.

Without any qualms, Catlette admits, "After a year and a half of getting my butt kicked by chemistry at the University of Miami...I switched to the school of business and found that I not only liked it, but had a knack for business. Not yet certain about which way to go in the business world, I hedged my bet by pursuing dual finance and employee relations majors.

"After graduating," he continues, "I talked my way into a job as HR manger for Genuine Parts Company in Miami. About three months into this assignment, a senior VP of the corporation informed me that he knew what I knew — namely, that I didn’t know ‘jack’ about HR."

Fortunately, what came next wasn’t “You’re fired.” Instead, Catlette received powerful advice: “If I wanted to stick around, let alone prosper, I would do well to learn, really learn, the businesses they were in, and then find ways, within the purview of my job, to make the business run better.

“In other words, I had learned a lot of great stuff about employment laws and motivational theory in school, but I wasn’t going to get far by constantly telling our managers what they could do,” says Catlette. “And, if my programs weren’t lined up with the business strategy and needs, they weren’t going to be well received…I was a business person who happened to be working in HR, not the other way around.”

For the next five years, Catlette worked for Automatic Data Processing, Inc (ADP). There, he traveled between Miami and Chicago, working HR generalist jobs before joining the corporate employee relations staff. “All positions had heavy involvement with recruiting, E/R, and comp., with some training and safety exposure,” he says.

Soon, a “young, still in its infancy” FedEx opened and convinced Catlette to join its workforce. He left ADP, joined 2,000 FedEx workers, and knew straightaway “that this was something special.” Employees were pumped. “Folks with purple blood and a warrior spirit,” as Catlette recalls, “daily demonstrated crystal clear understanding of the expression, ‘whatever it takes.’” In other words, Catlette’s team was ready for anything.

“My job, in the early days, was to find lots more like-minded warriors who would agree to start on an on-call basis, try to get them paid on time (money and internal systems were scarce), serve as a referee on people matters, and try to keep the business on the rails,” says Catlette. “It was a blast, made considerably more rewarding by having a founder and CEO who was (and still is) seriously committed to running the business well by doing right by his employees.”

For 11 years, Catlette worked for FedEx, his last position being managing director of HR for all of the company’s domestic ground operations. However, 11 years is 11 years, and Catlette knew it was time to, not only hand the reigns over to someone “better suited to running a large bureaucratic organization,” but to venture out on his own as well. So, in 1989, he began his own consulting business.

Today, as managing partner of Contented Cow Partners, LLC, Catlette enjoys the freedoms that come with owning his own business. In fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job is “not having to kiss any fannies that don’t belong to paying customers.”

At his firm, which is “absolutely, positively devoted to helping clients improve business outcomes via a focused, fired up, capably led workforce,” Catlette “share[s] [his] responsibility with [his] partner for all things associated with running and growing Contented Cow Partners.

“I’m involved with PR and marketing (with our partner of choice, PRPR), pitching C-level executives on our products and services, managing client projects (we currently have two employee opinion surveys in house), writing (our latest book, Contented Cows MOOve Faster was released in July), delivering keynote speeches and seminars for corporate management groups, executive coaching, and the myriad small tasks essential to keeping a business afloat.”

Catlette’s responsibilities and accomplishments are numerous; however, his greatest achievements have little to do with the office. “I’ve done and continue to do a lot of work that I’m extremely proud of,” says Catlette. “But I’ll let our clients speak for the professional results. Personally, I simply could not be prouder of our two grown, responsible, well-adjusted children, who are each now getting their own chance to be a mom or dad.”

And Catlette loves family. When asked who has influenced him significantly in his life and career, he heaps praise on his wife of 35 years. “[She’s] an absolute saint when it comes to supporting my career interests,” Catlette continues. “She has made sacrifices of security, income, convenience, last minute business-related house guests, frequent relocations, and raising two wonderful children with me gone a lot of the time. Hell, she even moved to New Jersey without complaining.”

However, along with interests outside the office, the HR industry continues to thrill Catlette, specifically, he says, when it comes to understanding the leadership habits and workplace practices that both drive and restrain human performance.

"The central thesis of our new book, Contented Cows MOOve Faster, [is that] we all have within us a reservoir of discretionary effort, or ‘Oomph,’ as we call it, that can be applied purely at the option of the individual. As profiled both in our work and a major new study by Towers Perrin, that discretionary capacity, if applied in the workplace, results in huge productivity and economic gain. It is likely the single greatest source of competitive business advantage for the next thirty years."

Catlette also emphasizes two important ideas facing the HR industry today:

  • “Owing to ‘just in time’ everything, an extreme short-term focus on business results, and the breakdown of trust, the American workplace is undergoing a tectonic shift. As British management scholar, Charles Handy put it, we must adjust to the fact that ‘we are no longer employers, but organizers of work.’ When you think about it, that’s pretty profound. As but one small example, my thirty-something-year-old son recently remarked that ‘we no longer marry our jobs, we’re just dating them.’

  • “We’ve really got to get the health care thing figured out in this nation. It’s badly broken, and I think those of us in the business world will be much better off if we develop some sensible solutions rather than wait for change to be imposed by someone in Washington, DC.”
Regardless of who Catlette once dreamed of becoming, he rose to the top in a field he conquered. He runs his own business, has no regrets (“I don’t mean for this to sound arrogant, but the only thing in my life that has a rear view mirror is my car”), and thrives both in the office and out. With such vast expertise and experience, Catlette offers three pieces of advice to upcoming HR professionals:

  • “Learn the business first, then find a way to help run it better (as a full management partner) using your special training and expertise.

  • “If you wonder about or ever begin to doubt whether or not your work matters, read our first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk.

  • “Be very selective about the people you work for, more so even than the company or the job assignment.”

Q. What do you like to do outside of HR? Any odd hobbies/interests? Are you married? Do you have children?
A. 1 wife, 2 grown children, 2 grandchildren.

Q. Can you explain a little about your personal life outside of work?
A. I’m seriously addicted to fly fishing, both salt and fresh water. My dream experience is standing on the deck of my favorite guide’s flats boat somewhere on the southwest Florida coast at 7 a.m., with a hot Starbucks Verona coffee in the holder, and hearing the words, “Snook at 11 o’clock, 50 feet, moving to the left, cast now.”

Q. What CD is in your CD player right now?
A. I just downloaded John Ondrasik’s Five for Fighting album to my Ipod. He’s giving it to all active duty armed forces. (I bought mine.)

Q. What is the last magazine you read?
A. Business Week.

Q. What is your favorite TV show?
A. Dirtiest Jobs (Discovery Channel, starring Mike Rowe).

Q. Who is your role model?
A. I don’t have any one composite role model. Rather, I look to different people for different things. I greatly admire the charisma and intellect of FedEx founder Fred Smith, the courage of John McCain, the optimism of Erik Weihenmayer (a blind mountain climber), the grace and acceptance of my mother-in-law, Julia Ladet, the authenticity of General William Suter (Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court), the trusting nature of my good friend Michael O’Donnell, and the humility and good spirit of my good friend Dave Wilson.

On the net:Contented Cow Partners, LLC

Contented Cows MOOve Faster

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