Mike Ramirez: Herman Miller ‘servant leader’
By Christine Gatuiria
Mike Ramirez is a family man. It just so happens that including his wife and two children, his family consists of the 5,000-plus employees of Herman Miller. Ramirez is the Senior Vice President of People, Places & Administration at Herman Miller, an office furniture, storage and furnishings company located in Zeeland, MI.
If his job title has you scratching your head, that is because it is meant to. At Herman Miller, general acronyms like CAO (Chief Administration Officer) or DHR (Director of Human Resources) are rare. Instead, management titles are created specifically to inspire curiosity and conversation.
“We don’t want people to assume they know what a role is or does,” Ramirez said. “[The title] gets people to ask what you do.”
So, what exactly does a Senior Vice President of People, Places and Administration do?
“One of the most important aspects of my role is to go out, walk the floors and talk to everybody and anybody,” Ramirez explained. In addition to being a proponent of at least one acronym—MBWA (Management By Walking Around)—Ramirez embraces his duty to proactively interact with and engage employees, thus monitoring the pulse of the organization.
“At the end of the day, it’s about how the employees feel…”
The key to his success is always being present. Ramirez hangs out in the lunchroom. He maintains an open-door policy for all employees. He meets with the executive team in the boardroom and chats with the work leaders on the floor.
“You cannot do the job if you don’t know what’s going on,” Ramirez said.
It helps that Herman Miller’s Senior Vice President of People, Places and Administration has an outgoing personality and intuitively knows how to talk to all people from all walks of life.
“Mike is very approachable. He takes the time to ask people about themselves—their families, their interests outside of work and their jobs—and our employees really respond to that,” said Pam Carpenter, Employee Communications.
Ramirez also is able to inspire and motivate. When the Sales Operations team unexpectedly lost its leader, he stepped in to take the reins. Tony Cortese, People Services, described Ramirez’s handling of the situation as exceptional.
“Following the heartbreaking and untimely death of their previous leader, the team was somewhat fractured and disheartened,” Cortese said. “Mike was able to rally the team, help establish a vision (“Getting To Yes!”), and begin a transformation that elevated their performance and relevance within the organization.”
Making the List(s)
It is evident internally that Ramirez is doing good work at Herman Miller, and the external community also has taken notice. Herman Miller made Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list in 2008, 2009 and 2010: no small feat for a publicly traded manufacturing company operating in a challenging economy. In March, 2012 the company was awarded the Huntington Pillar Award by the Women’s Resource Center for having “implemented innovative and progressive policies to ensure the recruitment, retention and advancement of women in their workplace.” That same month, Herman Miller was honored as one of the year’s ‘Best Places to Work for LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendered) Equality’ by the Human Rights Campaign.
While these are significant achievements in areas under Ramirez’s purview, he wants to do more to serve his Herman Miller family. He believes in being a servant leader and surrounds himself with people who find satisfaction in helping others. The leader stresses that his role was created purposefully to serve company employees.
“My job is about them, for them and at the behest of them,” Ramirez said. “At the end of the day, it’s about how the employees feel about working at Herman Miller.”
And Herman Miller employees are not shy about speaking their minds. Unlike other companies where staff morale may be gauged via static employee surveys, the culture at Herman Miller encourages candid communication between management; and staff and the conversation flows both ways.
Ramirez believes that people open up to him because they know that he values their input. If a staff member asks him to look into an issue or execute an action, he does so even if the answer or outcome may not be exactly what the employee wants. That is how it works in a familial environment.
“We may not always agree,” Ramirez said, “but in a family you have the conversations, both the great ones and the tough ones.”
The tough conversations often stem from profitability concerns due to the recent economic recession, which has hit the office furniture industry hard. In 2009, cost-containment actions at Herman Miller included layoffs and a reduction in the 401K company match. But the company has rebounded and continues to take care of its employees, while they in turn maintain productivity and loyalty. Longevity is a hallmark of the 100-year-old-plus company.
One custom Ramirez is especially proud of is the way Herman Miller recognizes and honors employees who have been with the company for 20 years or more. These staffers are dubbed “Watercarriers.” The term is coined from the Native American culture, in which trusted members would fetch water from the community every day at sunrise and sunset. They walked long distances in search of fresh water—a necessity for the survival of the tribe—and passed on their knowledge to the younger generation.
“I’ve been here 15 years, and I’m still a rookie,” Ramirez said. “About 34 percent of our workforce is [comprised of] Watercarriers. They set a wonderful example of the power of culture, the power of people, the importance of experience, and what that brings to the table. I learn a lot from these people.”
It is more than likely that Ramirez will join the Watercarriers group in five years time.
“I love Herman Miller,” he said. “I am passionate about this place.”
And his words are not those of just a company man, but the words of a family man.