Menasha’s Winning Package: Humiltiy, Autonomy and Teamwork

Build an innovative corporate culture using the precepts of Menasha Packaging

One of the important leadership traits for an innovative culture is the leaderships’ humility. Believe me, in today’s world, there is plenty to make us humble. Our wins at Menasha Packaging have been due to the great team we have in place at all levels, not me.

As the leader, my role is to set the course, with them, and then get out of their way. I give them the autonomy, encouragement, training and tools to do their jobs excellently. We can see their results in our customers’ success in the marketplace. Many times, it’s because our people are free to self-organize — to do what they need to understand the customer, and the customer’s customer — and to create an appropriate and impactful solution.

Hire for Culture and Values

My father-in-law, who was the great-grandson of Menasha’s founder Elisha Smith, said, “Arrogance, pomposity and self-importance don’t have a place here.”  We are accountable to our values and each other. We deliberately hire and acquire for culture and values. We look for team players willing to get their hands dirty no matter what level, a servant-leadership mentality, a “Yes, and” mindset that is comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown, confident (but not arrogant), unpretentious, willing to say “I don’t know” and with a strong value on community. That’s all summarized in one of our three strategies:

“Continue to foster a culture that embraces safety and thrives on change, innovation and growth without compromising our core values.”

Trust and Humility are Inter-twined

Trust and humility are integrally tied together. I took over as president during turbulent times. Our people needed to palpably see my commitment to the future and to them. They needed to know I didn’t have all the answers and wanted their help but knew enough to set the direction and want their help in getting there. My management team and I wrote, signed and delivered a letter of commitment to each employee sharing how they were critical to the company’s success and asking them hold us accountable to executing and evolving the strategic plan.

Actions speak louder than words, though. To that end, I ask our employees for their input and ideas. I invest in their training and education, I and invest in equipment that helps us make money, through new capabilities, not just cost-cutting. I hand write thank you notes, (perhaps illegibly), to honor our employees. We also highlight our people in our company newsletter, and we give lots of genuine pats on the back, praise and personal “thank you’s.” Even more exciting are the unsolicited praises, awards and recognitions by our customers. These commendations drive us to further innovate and delight our customers.

Less Hierarchy, More Autonomy and Teamwork

When you walk through a plant, people smile, say hi, laugh together and work together. Employees are hard pressed to remember a time they reached out to a colleague, peer, subordinate, or superior, who wouldn’t help. People just do whatever needs to be done to help a customer and each other. I’m rarely involved except for major capital expenses and rarely have I turned down a capital investment with a compelling business case. The hierarchy is intentionally fairly flat, ranging from a span of 4 to 6 between a plant floor employee and myself.

The level of autonomy and teamwork are now in our DNA. We have terrific people who base relationships on trust, common purpose and focus rather than on hierarchy. For the most part, our people enjoy what they do and the people they work with. There is an innate passion and excitement about doing the right thing – doing whatever it takes. It’s not for extrinsic benefits. Our salaries and benefits are in line with and in some areas better than our competitions’, but the intrinsic rewards are the most vital.

Stewardship and Smooth Sailing

Perhaps because I’m an ‘outlaw’, I have a strong sense of stewardship for the company and our communities. Our success directly impacts our communities’ economic and social health. Many families and small businesses depend on Menasha Packaging and our ecosystem. I take this very seriously. I run into our people, and our customers, outside of work all the time: in the grocery aisle, the basketball court, the gas station, and the hardware store. In fact, many of us grew up together on the baseball field, in the band, and at school. We are from our communities.

These bonds and relationships transcend walls and raise the stakes and sense of accountability. And we know how to have fun. A volunteer team from our Muscatine plant entered canoe-like boats and a 30’ long 11’ tall Pirate ship in the Muscatine Great River Days Annual cardboard boat race using their Lean training to design and build the boats! They met during lunches and after work to design and test prototypes, commenting that though it took them out of their comfort zone, and they had a lot of fun. On its maiden voyage, the boat carried four employees for 10 minutes without leaking! (

The results of our incredible people are increased market share, revenues, profits and ROI, even during the recession. We continue to grow beyond expectations and delight our customers. We delight our customers because we have great people who love what they do, feel challenged and free to innovate and imagine and understand our customers like few others. I’m just there to steer the course and remove the obstacles. My definition of success is simple – I want to make sure our people get to live their dreams at home.

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Mike Waite is President of Menashing Packaging. See Mike’s LinkedIn profile here.

Mike Waite




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