When employees excel, give them independence and recognize their accomplishments.

Any "manager" who deserves the title knows his personal success is inextricably tied to his employees' success. For a manager to reach his goals, employees must first reach theirs. The challenge, then, is building the management skills that foster loyalty, strengthen the work ethic and encourage a quest for excellence.

Nothing works better than rewarding accomplishment. But before that can happen, managers must create an atmosphere within the business that allows employees to achieve their goals. And the best method, most managers say, is to give your people the power to control their own destinies.

"I went through a very interesting situation a few years ago," says Dan Cantrell, manager of Sudan Livestock and Feeding in Sudan, TX. "I had just taken over a feedlot, and when I met with the ownership group they let me know they were very unhappy with the performance of the middle managers. They were perceived as 'weak' supervisors.

"When we met again nine months later, I was congratulated - the middle managers were now perceived as a strength. But they were the same people. All I did was remove the existing constraints. I gave them the power to make their own decisions and their own mistakes. They determined how to accomplish their goals."

When it comes to employee empowerment, Cantrell says he follows a very simple formula.

"If I say, 'Do this job this way,' they have to do that. If I say, 'Do this job,' they do it their way. And I always ask if they have a better way than mine."

Like Cantrell, Neal Odom, managing partner of McLean Feedyard, Inc., in McLean, TX, believes in the value of employee empowerment to attain goals.

"All of my department managers have full authority to make decisions within certain guidelines," Odom says. "What I mean is that there are always going to be times when they need partners to help. I encourage dialogue within and among each department because input from many sources is so valuable.

"I don't spend much time worrying about their decision making. If it's a good decision, it works. If it's a bad decision, it's practice."

Odom also stresses flexibility as an integral part of setting and achieving goals. Short-term goals are managed informally - if they turn out to be poorly conceived, they are immediately culled. Long-term goals get the same scrutiny.

"Even long-range goals must be flexible," he says, "because times change, the customer base changes, and the industry changes. If our goals are on target, they are easy to monitor. I communicate them, the middle managers monitor them, then I follow up to see if we got there."

Rewarding Success Once employees are empowered to reach their goals, it's important to reward them. And rewards come in many different forms.

Neal Odom, for example, is a firm devotee to the art of bestowing praise. "It's a personal goal of mine to take the time to tell an employee or manager they have done a good job," he says. "That will buy more production efficiency and camaraderie than money or bonuses ever will."

This year, Odom is instigating another set of rewards. He is creating a list of restaurants, movie theaters and hotels where employees can just say, "Charge it to the boss."

"When someone does a great job, they'll be rewarded with a night out," he says. "It's a feel- good thing, and people need to feel good."

Like many managers, Jim Miller, president of Miller Feedlots in LaSalle, CO, mixes cash bonuses with non-cash rewards.

If death losses, for example, are held below a certain target - on a pen-by-pen basis - employees responsible for beating the goal get a bonus. Even feed truck drivers, who are assigned a specific vehicle, can qualify for bonuses. Since the driver is responsible for maintenance, Miller analyzes maintenance expenses, compares that to age and condition, then awards the driver a bonus after an inspection proves he's done a top job.

"But there are more important things than money when managing people," Miller says. "Say it's Christmas and one of my employees has young children. I'll drive their truck or loader myself and cut them loose on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I think good employees appreciate those kinds of things more than cash - especially when it's a surprise.

"We also have a tradition for Sundays. On Saturday afternoon we'll feed extra. Then we start an hour early on Sunday, knock off for church, and they don't have to come back in the afternoon. And they get paid for the full day."

At Eckley Feed Yard near Yuma, CO, owner/manager Erick Farmer says meaningful rewards begin with praise, but they don't end there. Farmer always arranges for employees to get time off when they need it. He's loaned money to an employee for a home purchase. He has even awarded a pen of cattle as a bonus.

"I believe in incentives," he says, "but not when they are proposed on the front end of a job. That's bait. Rewards should be given at the end of a cycle. Then they know they accomplished their goal on their own and earned the reward."

Rod Weatherly, president and general manager of Heritage Beef Cattle Company in Wheeler, TX, says he's experimented with a number of reward programs including 401(k) plans and cash bonuses. But he says the "little things" have meant much more to his employees.

"The power of a compliment is absolutely amazing," he says. "Once I wrote a note on the payroll checks thanking our people for all their effort and hard work. You would not believe how many of them told me that meant a lot to them.

"But the most memorable moment occurred at last year's company Christmas party," Weatherly says. "We hosted it in an old barn around the time Disney released that 101 Dalmatians movie. Anyway, my folks have an old horse-drawn buggy and we packed it full of those stuffed Dalmatians that were so popular. When we announced that Santa Claus was coming, and he rode into the barn on that buggy, the kids just went crazy. It was absolutely wonderful to participate in that."

Dan Cantrell and Erick Farmer know all about change. Cantrell recently stepped in as the new manager at Sudan Livestock and Feeding, and Farmer purchased a feedyard just two years ago. Goal-setting for employees under those conditions - when you are the new boss - must be done carefully.

"There's always a learning curve you go through," says Cantrell. "Each place has a personality. Each corporate entity has its own culture. And, length of employment varies. If you inherit a crew that has been together for 15 years, they are difficult to change."

Cantrell says he likes to ease in and work within existing boundaries at first. Within a few weeks he gets a feel for how quickly - or slowly - he can phase in new goals.

"Think small during the early stages of transition," he says. "Begin with simple, attainable, short-term goals. Build momentum and focus on establishing a 'yes' mentality. Within six months you'll know how far and how fast you can move with the employees."

Company goals, he says, are much easier to develop.

"Personalities aren't such a big part of the mix," he says. "Stockholders judge the bottom line, so you begin by setting goals for expenses, income, yard capacity and retained customers. You try to develop a program that will reduce employee turnover because it's expensive and bad for morale. Those types of goals - my personal goals - are self-imposed."

For Erick Farmer, who purchased a dilapidated feedlot and went from 600 head to 12,000 in90 days, goal setting was all-encompassing. Fortunately, Farmer is a natural at it.

"Since I was a kid, I've always been a goal setter," says Farmer, who purchased the business when he was only 22 years old. "But there's a fine line when setting goals. Put them too high and you are set up for disappointment. Set them too low, and you won't work hard enough. You have to balance the possible with the challenge."

Farmer's first goal was simple: Fill the lot. Once that was accomplished, largely with new customers, he set a goal to quickly become competitive with established feedyards in the area.

Next, he focused on establishing permanent relationships with customers, vendors and banks. Then he turned his goal setting to the big picture, a mission statement of sorts.

"I wanted to feed an animal efficiently, compete fairly with anyone, and provide a consistent product for the consumer," he says. "But accomplishing those goals was dependent on hiring top-notch employees.

"There was a lot of pressure. At first, my age was a liability because as the owner/manager I was working with employees who were a lot older than I was. But I'm a hands-on manager that works side by side with the employees and they respected that. Age is no longer an issue."

Neither is Farmer's approach to the business. He has not had a single employee move on.

"Everyone knows I set my goals high," he says, "because it's something I talk about with the crew all the time. Constant communication is the key. Everyone knows what we want to accomplish and we all take great pride in what we are doing."

Books

* The New Dynamics of Goal Setting by Dennis Waitley

* Goal Setting: Key to Individual and Organizational Effectiveness by Charles L. Hughes

* Masterful Coaching by Robert Hargrove

* Managing for Excellence by David L. Bradford and Allan R. Cohen

* Enlightened Leadership by Ed Oakley and Doug Krug

* Teamwork: Involving People in Quality and Productivity Improvement by Charles A. Aubrey, II and Patricia K. Felkins

* Teams by James L. Lundy

* Don't Fire Them, Fire Them Up by Frank Pacetta with Roger Gittines

* The We-Force in Management by Lawrence G. Hrebiniak

* Rewarding and Recognizing Employees by Joan P. Klubnik

Internet sites: * www.Mindtools.com * www.selfhelp.com