Mike Jandernoa leaned toward the audience during his speech, cupped the back of his ear and asked a simple question: “How many of you practice active listening?”

Jandernoa wasn’t testing whether the crowd at the Advanced Manufacturing Expo in Grand Rapids last week was being attentive. He credits active listening with helping to take Perrigo Co. plc from $30 million company in Allegan with about 300 employees to a $6 billion company with 13,000 employees worldwide.

“The Perrigo culture focused on the employees,” said Jandernoa, who served as CEO for 14 of his 22 years with the company. “Our job as the management team was to enable the employees so that each one of them could be the best that they could be.

“One of the key activities to achieve that vision is that every employee and every manager needed to engage in active listening,” he said. “Listening is a very important skill that some of us in management -- some of us who wear the ties -- forget about sometimes.”

But listening isn’t enough, he added. Active listening calls for responding as well -- with clearly defined vision and plans to achieve that vision, frequent meetings with all the employees and two-way discussions that are conducted honestly and openly.

Jandernoa said there is a lot more at stake for local companies to empower their employees than just how it may affect their bottom lines: Michigan as a state needs to have the most productive workforce in the world to bounce back from the loss of more than 1 million residents from 2000 to 2009. “Because they left, we have the worst demographic makeup of any state in the country,” he told the audience at the DeltaPlex.

To respond locally to the issue, a group of more than 100 business leaders from companies across 13 West Michigan counties formed Talent 2025 to reverse the trend.

“We need a better educated workforce,” he said. “Talent 2025 is trying to address this issue: dramatically increased graduation rate, improve the number of two year degrees, increase the skilled workforce, and increase our STEM.”

Jandernoa drew from his own experience at Perrigo to encourage the audience to improve their own companies and the region at large. “In 1979 when I started, we didn’t have a mission, we didn’t have a vision, and we were 4% of the market,” he said. “Then we adopted the vision to become a national leader -- then a global leader -- of high quality low-cost pharmaceutical drugs and products.

“It was a clear vision. Every employee could understand it and get behind it, and they wanted to do their part in making that happen.” He credits the employees with getting behind the vision that eventually took Perrigo to about 80% market share.

Other advice from the founder of the Jandernoa Entrepreneurial Mentoring, a Grand Rapids-based consulting firm that assists executives in growing second-stage companies, included:

  • Be honest and have integrity;
  • Have a bonus plan that rewards employees when productivity is increased; 
  • Embrace performance reviews as if you were coaching your best friend on how to get better; and
  •  Delegate in a controlled fashion, otherwise the growth of your company will be stunted.

And probably the most surprising: fail fast.

“How many of you have a passion to fail fast?” he asked the audience. “Do you know what failing fast is? It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s learning. To be the most knowledgeable company in our business, we had to try new things, new equipment, new policies. When you fail fast, you lose a little with expenses, but you gain the knowledge.”