Project Management Lessons from “Duck Dynasty”

The millionaire rednecks didn’t stumble into their fortune, they earned it. Here’s how you can apply their lessons in your own family business.

Duck Dynasty has become the most popular reality series on TV, outdrawing the big networks in terms of viewers in some instances. Set in rural Louisiana, it follows the events around a small business called “Duck Commander,” which builds duck calls for hunters. Family patriarch Phil Robertson started the business and ran it out of his small home with his wife, Miss Kay, but he now enjoys his retirement as his sons run the company.

The show is often compared to “The Andy Griffith Show” because of its country setting and family-oriented storylines. A less complimentary comparison to the show is “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but that is completely wrong. Jed Clampett stumbled into his fortune; Phil Robertson earned his wealth, along with a Master’s degree in education and a patent for his duck call.

As the show has become popular, the storylines have become increasingly contrived. You quickly realize that they couldn’t possibly operate the company like you see on the show and stay in business, and in interviews, they admit to a little staging. Sometimes the producers suggest an action, other times it is something that really took place off-camera, so the cast re-enacts what happened.

Despite that, there are lessons to be had from this series, set in a small but very rapidly growing family business. Company CEO Willie Robertson and his wife Korie wrote a book entitled The Duck Commander Family: How Faith, Family and Ducks Built a Dynasty, and in it they share many business and life lessons learned along the way. Some of these suggestions can help you manage your own projects.

1. Seniority should not be the decider.
Willie Robertson is the third-born of the four Robertson sons, yet he is CEO. Why? Because he showed an aptitude for business his brothers did not. When Willie was 10, he bought a load of candy from the local Wal-Mart and sold it at school piecemeal, nearly putting the school’s candy store out of business and earning his parents an angry phone call from the school.

Phil decided that Willie would be the one to run the business in the future, and after getting his degree in business, Willie did just that, taking it much further than his father ever could. It also helped that his other three brothers didn’t want the job.

What a project manager can learn: Seniority should not be the deciding factor. Desire and talent are far better motivators.

2. Let people find their passion.
This dovetails off the first lesson. The eldest Robertson son, Alan, wasn’t even in the business. He was a minister for 20 years. Only recently did he leave the church to work for the family business, handling media inquiries.

Second-born son Jason, a.k.a. Jase, wants nothing to do with the business and has said so multiple times. One episode featured Willie turning over the job to his elder brother for one day and it was such a headache Jase told him at the end of the episode “You can have this job, I don’t want it.”

Youngest son Jep Robertson wandered in the wilderness for a while before finding something he really enjoyed: filming. Long before the show became popular, his father and brothers made a series of hunting videos, The Duckmen series. Jep found he enjoyed filming and the editing process and now that whole task is his.

What a project manager can learn: Phil Robertson let his sons go where they felt at home, not where they should be, were needed, or by order of birth.

3. Give clear instruction.
As Sun Tzu said, “If the instructions and words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.”

Duck Commander has 15 types of duck calls for different species of ducks. In the premier episode, one duck call maker was working (thus driving home the image that the people working at Duck Commander work when they feel like it, which isn’t the truth but it does make good television); but he was making the wrong duck calls.

Why was he making the wrong calls? Because he wasn’t told which ones to make. So Sun knew what he was talking about. Willie told him what was needed and sent him on his way.

Another example: When Willie made his brother Jase the CEO for the day, he didn’t tell him what was pending or needed to be done. Late in the day, Jase discovered – by accident – a massive order that needed to be shipped that day. By the time he got a truck loaded and got to the distributor, it was too late. The distributor had closed.

On a more amusing note, Willie and Jase took their wives deer hunting and the women did everything wrong: They wore bright clothes, spoke loudly, and wore perfume, all no-nos for deer hunting. The men told them what they needed to have done after the fact, when they were in the woods, and not before leaving home. This might be an example of a contrived scenario (how many hunters’ spouses are unaware of these basic rules?) but too many people can relate to “leadership” that tells you what you should have known, too late to make the changes.

What a project manager can learn: People are not mind readers. Keep Sun Tzu’s admonition in mind at all times.

4. Use volunteer experience to gain perspective on your “day job.” 
Before becoming CEO of the company, Willie Robertson was manager of a children’s camp that was bleeding money. In his book he speaks of leading the camp from losing $150,000 a year to breaking even. The camp was only open during the summer but he found ways for year-round revenue.

“The kids would come for six weeks during the summer but Willie started renting the camp’s facilities to churches and youth groups during the off-season… He was very creative in finding ways to create new revenue for the camp. Willie learned how to operate a business on a budget and the camp proved to be a good training ground for him,” Korie writes in their book.

It was while running the camp that Willie got a little perspective on how to expand a business. He expanded the camp’s offerings to bring in more revenue. When he finally joined the family business, Willie could see opportunities his parents were missing. For starters, his decidedly low-tech father had no use for the Internet; Phil told him “If a man wants a duck call, he can pick up the phone and call me.” When Willie took over, he knew what needed fixing and he’d acquired the skills to do it.

What a project manager can learn: Get out of your comfort zone and go tackle something completely different – but something you enjoy. You will likely find that skills acquired there translate to other areas.

5. If you are going to delegate, delegate. Pass it off. 
In her book with Willie, Korie commends Phil and Miss Kay for letting go when Willie took over the business. “Phil and Kay were super supportive. In a lot of companies, when control is passed from one generation to the next, the older generation has a hard time letting go and is somewhat resistant to any kind of change. Phil and Kay weren’t like that at all. In fact, they were completely the opposite. They gave Willie all the respect and room he needed to learn and grow,” Korie writes.

One example: Miss Kay, who has all of a high school education, was managing Duck Commander’s books, usually from her living room couch at the end of a long day. She incurred as much as $35,000 per year in bank penalties for innocent mistakes. Once Willie and Korie (who is the office manager) took over, they got a handle on the finances and eliminated those penalties.

What a project manager can learn: Don’t put responsibility in someone’s hands and then refuse to let go. Either trust in them to take the baton and run with it, or don’t pass it in the first place.

6. Find a positive motivator.
In one episode, there was a huge order to be filled and not enough time to do it. Willie felt overwhelmed, but his Miss Kay stepped in. She is known for her cooking (if you like squirrel brains; that’s her favorite) and baked up a huge meal for anyone who would show up to help. Well, they showed up.

What a project manager can learn: Positive motivation really works. What can you do to help your team achieve its goals? You don’t always need to chip in personally; see what you can do to enable productivity.

7. Nothing personal, strictly business.
Duck Commander has had a long relationship with Wal-Mart, and it’s not always been good. Phil first began selling the duck calls to local Wal-Marts in Louisiana by going store to store. Eventually, a buyer at the headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas called him and chewed him out for doing such a thing. Skillfully, Phil used that as a chance to formalize the relationship.

Wal-Mart often played low-ball but the family didn’t want to lose the retail giant. So rather than lose the account, they took very low deals that made them next to no money. Then a few years later, Wal-Mart got out of the hunting business. Losing a buyer like that could have killed the company, but by that point Willie found other retail outlets, such as sporting goods stores like Bass Pro Shops and Cabella’s.

A few years ago, Wal-Mart came back around and started carrying the duck calls again. After repeatedly low-balling Duck Commander and then tossing them aside, Wal-Mart is now the Robertson’s best friend. With the explosion in the show’s popularity, there are whole rows of Duck Dynasty merchandise at the stores and it is a major advertiser on the show.

What a project manager can learn: Never take a business decision personally or you only spite yourself.

Your Call
I wouldn’t dream of running a company the way Duck Commander is portrayed on TV. While the show has become more of a sitcom than reality TV, there are plenty of crazy stories in Willie and Korie’s book. Jason Norman, the burly duck call maker on the series who works with Willie’s brothers, was asked to fill in temporarily for Willie while he was out of town, and he never left. There was no formal hiring process, he just showed up to help out for a few days and stayed. Try doing that at any enterprise company.

Don’t think for a minute this is an easy job. There is no automation in making the calls. Willie said the duck calls are like musical instruments, and they have to be made by hand. They are woodwind instruments with a reed in them, similar to a saxophone. Every call on the shelves is made by hand and blown into to make sure it sounds right, a scene you see frequently on the show.

However, “Duck Dynasty” shows that a difficult job can be done with a casual style rather than drawing rigid lines and micromanaging things. Set expectations clearly, and trust in people to do their job.

And have fun doing it.













Photo Credit © AETV.com

Andy Patrizio

Andy is a freelance journalist who has covered the tech sector for more than 20 years. He has worked on staff at a number of leading publications, such as InformationWeek and eWeek, and contributed to many more, including Wired News, Network World, ITworld and CITEworld.

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