Fargo, N.D., is, as the old song puts it, where the buffalo may roam--but not the employees. At least not those from Great Plains Software, Inc. Last year, the company had a 6.2 percent turnover rate in an industry where the average runs around 20 percent. So far this year, Great Plains has clipped the rate to below 4 percent. Numbers like these have put the 900-person company (with fiscal near 1999 revenues projected to be around $120 million ) in the national limelight, most recently as first-place winner in the Arthur Andersen Best Practices Awards program in the "motivating and retaining employees" category. Great Plains triumphed over nearly 1,000 applicants from around the globe, and was the first company to take the top spot in this annual competition in two different categories. Just earlier this year, the company also was named for the third time to Fortune's list of the "100 Best Companies to Work for in America."
A Team Effort Great Plains' basic building block for success is the team. Every employee is referred to as a "team member." All employees are part of one or more departmental teams. There are also ad hoc "virtual" teams, which may last from a couple of weeks to a year, and are convened to address specific goals. Each small group creates its own mission statement and strategic plan, which are then tied to the overall corporate mission.
Nowhere is the Great Plains feeling and spirit stronger than at the company's many meetings --or "celebrations," as they call them. Quarterly company meetings are held in a large hotel ballroom in Fargo and emceed by the head of marketing communications, known for his talent as an entertainer. At the start of each meeting, new employees are asked to stand for a round of welcoming applause. Another ritual: All attendees are asked to take five minutes, look around, and introduce themselves to two people they have not met before. "We are here as one big team," says Mike Slette, vice president, human resources, "and the only way to be effective on a team is to know who your teammates are. That's why there is lots of focus on getting to know the people of Great Plains." The company also holds wine and cheese parties throughout the year: for a major product introduction, for example, or the end of the fiscal year. But by far, the company's biggest bash is "Pioneer Days," which runs during the third week in June. The date is hardly random: With the fiscal year ending May 31, it's a good time to hold sessions on recent accomplishments and on plans for the future.
Pioneer Days events are dispersed at hotels around the city. This year, the company encouraged staffers, whether from Fargo or out of town, to include their families and arranged special family discounts and programs with area attractions such as the Red River Zoo and the children's museum. In addition to business meetings, the week kicked off with an afternoon carnival, followed by a company-wide picnic. The next evening, there was a golf. Thursday was Info Day, a half /half carnival event that the company holds each year at the Fargo Civic Center. About 50 different teams typically set up booths representing their products, services, and recent accomplishments. In between, there is food and entertainment for the whole family, such as a Jeopardy-style game, or a golf hole-in-one contest. The final day of the week celebrates employee achievements, with the presentation of several awards (either a plaque or a bronze buffalo), including the Jesse James (for innovation), the Heritage (for customer service), the Frontier (for learning), and the Pioneer (for lifetime achievement). This recognition ceremony is followed by a picnic and a dance.
Open Lines Communications Events such as Pioneer Week are not the company's only channels for communication. "One of the things Great Plains does exceptionally well is to constantly ask employees: 'What do you want? What do you need?' and then incorporate that feedback," observes Jeff McKay, manager of the Best Practices Awards program at Arthur Andersen. Jonathan Palmer, another Andersen Awards team member who visited Great Plains, adds: "The CEO runs lunchtime Q&As with employees regularly. They can share their thoughts and ask questions. It sets up direct communication between the front line and those making the daily decisions."