She’d retired in 1963 after spending 25 years working for several companies in direct sales. As she wrote in her autobiography, while she loved the work, she didn’t like the attitude: “There were times when I would be asked to take a man out on the road to train him, and for six months of training he would be brought back to Dallas, made my superior and given twice my salary! It happened more than once.”
She found herself bitter. As Ash wrote in On People Management, another of her books: “To ward off those feelings, I decided to make a list of only those good things that had happened to me during the previous 25 years. Forcing myself to think positively did wonders for my spirit.”
At first, she thought the list she’d compiled might become the basis for a book, one that could help other women in the same predicament. But somewhere along the line, she asked herself: “Why write about a company based on Golden Rule management techniques? Instead of just writing about it, why not give it a try myself?”
Do It Yourself
She’d recently purchased the rights to a series of skin-care products originally developed by a tanner who discovered that the solutions he worked with in leather kept the skin of his hand youthful looking. He modified the solutions for use on the face as well as hands.
“I knew that these skin-care products were tremendous, and with some modifications and high-quality packaging, I was sure they would be big sellers,” Ash wrote.
She financed the company with her life savings of $5,000, and on Sept. 13, opened Mary Kay Cosmetics in a 500-square-foot Dallas storefront and plowed ahead, using the grit and determination instilled in her during a difficult childhood.
Mary Kathleen Wagner had a difficult childhood. At age 6, she had to take care of an ill father while her mother worked two jobs. She still did well in school and found time to participate in extracurricular activities. “My mother’s words became the theme of my childhood,” Ash said. “They have stayed with me all my life: ‘You can do it.’”
While Ash had no experience running a company, she’d worked with people she felt couldn’t manage either. She planned to learn from those negative experiences.
For example, she remembered once waiting in a long line to meet a sales manager who’d delivered an inspiring speech earlier in the day. She waited three hours, but when it was her turn: “He never even looked at me. Instead he looked over my shoulder to see how much longer the line was.
Right on the spot I made a decision that if I ever became someone people waited in line to shake hands with, I’d give the person my undivided attention – no matter how tired I was.”
She made a point of knowing all her employees until that became physically impossible. But even as the company grew from its initial nine employees to more than 850,000 with $1 billion in sales, she’d send each employee a personal birthday card.
Ash set high standards for her employees. “My experience with people is that they generally do what you expect them to!” she wrote. “If you expect them to perform well, they will; conversely, if you expect them to perform poorly, they’ll probably oblige. I believe that average employees who try their hardest to live up to your high expectations of them will do better than above-average people with low self-esteem.”
She felt it important, too, that supervisors let employees know that their work is appreciated. “I never yet met a person who didn’t want to be appreciated,” Ash wrote. At Mary Kay, Ash set up a thank-you system that ranges from a simple “thank you for showing up early” to a pink Cadillac.
The company is well known for giving the expensive luxury car to its top producers. Ash said the vehicles were chosen because of their association with excellence.
Whatever incentive program the company runs, Ash wrote: “We go first class, and although it’s expensive, it’s worth it, because our people are made to feel important…. It (is) our way of telling our people how important they are to our company…. We might settle for one elegant banquet a year rather than two moderate ones.”
Ash thought that one of her most important management tools was her ability to listen. She called it “the most undervalued of communication skills” and suggested “that’s why God gave us two ears and only one mouth.”
Make It Personal
Asking for employee opinions makes them feel important. Just as important, Ash said, it makes them buy into a plan. “People will support that which they help create. When you dictate even the most thoughtful and logical concept to a person – this idea is still a command. When you ask her to contribute to its inception, that very same idea becomes a ‘personal crusade.’”
Ash wrote that once she promised something, she had to deliver. “A manager should never make a promise that something will be done unless he is absolutely certain that it will be done! A broken promise is devastating for those who have been disappointed, and there is no excuse for it in management. Furthermore, a manager should never make a commitment unless he has the complete authority to do so.”
Ash considered her employees investments and assets. “If we spend six months training someone, only to see that person leave us, we feel we have lost a lot of time and money. So once people come aboard, we make every attempt to keep them. If by chance they don’t seem to be working out in one area, we’ll try our best to find another spot for them.”
Ash once had a secretary who wasn’t right for her job. She was conscientious, but something was out of whack. After sitting down and discussing the situations with her, Ash transferred the woman to the accounting department, “where she did a first-rate job. Good people are hard to find – so when you do find them it’s important you make every effort to keep them.”
Source: “BUSINESS LEADERS & SUCCESS – 55 TOP BUSINESS LEADERS & HOW THEY ACHIEVED GREATNESS” (With an introduction from William J. O’Neil, founder of INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004, pages 31-34.
Jakarta, 20 March 2014