Treating Your Employees like Volunteers: A Strange Idea or a Key Insight?

Have you ever worked for a not-for-profit organization that relies heavily on volunteers to accomplish its mission? Have you ever been a volunteer yourself?  If so, you know just how deeply committed—and highly effective—volunteers can be. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most not-for-profits couldn’t function without their volunteers. During my years at Cleveland Clinic, for example, I was continually amazed at the remarkable service provided to patients and their families by the hospital’s more than 1000 volunteers.

What inspires these people to give up their time? They certainly feel a call to serve; they undoubtedly have a strong sense of purpose. But still, they could always give their time to some other organization. So you have to ask: how does an organization attract volunteers? How does it keep them committed? How does it keep them coming back? And how does a leader’s behavior change when the people he or she leads can always just walk away?

In my experience, not-for-profit organizations go to great lengths to tell their story, and tell it in a way that gives volunteers a gut level connection with the people the organization serves and what it’s trying to accomplish. They recognize their volunteers, tell stories about their contributions to the mission, and celebrate them as heroes.

Organizations that depend on volunteers don’t manage by simply telling them what to do.  Instead they manage with a ‘light touch,” explaining what needs to be done and how to do it, and providing ample support to help their volunteers succeed.  Leaders in these organizations manage to their volunteers’ strengths, giving them a choice of how to participate and trying to make the work as much fun as possible. And again, most of all they find ways to thank their volunteers and let them know that without their efforts, the organization could not succeed or possibly even survive.

Now there’s no doubt that to a great extent most of us go to work every day because that’s how we pay the bills. Getting paid is a powerful motivator. But is compensation enough? Can money alone create engagement, that “heightened emotional  and intellectual connection that an employee has for their job, organization, manager, or co-workers that, in turn, influences them to apply additional discretionary effort to their work.”

There’s a considerable body of research that indicates that money alone can’t buy engagement. And on the flip side, not-for-profit organizations have demonstrated that engagement can be stimulated without money!

So what if we did treat our employees like volunteers? What if we treated them as if they could just leave at any time—which by the way is true for our people whose skills are most in demand, the people we most want and need to retain? How would we change as leaders? How would our organizations change? How would our people respond and what results could we achieve?

A strange idea or a key insight? Let me know your thoughts.

Need a Major Organizational Change? Dissatisfaction Is Your Friend!

With the New Year just underway, and many of us still determined to follow through on all those resolutions,  I thought I’d write about what it takes to drive successful, lasting change, whether that change is on a personal or organizational level.

First of all, understand this: change is hard. Human beings seem to be hardwired to resist it. Before we can really commit ourselves to making a change in how we think or behave, we need to be seriously dissatisfied with things as they are.  Think about it for a moment. Have you ever made any significant change in your personal life—whether in a relationship, your weight or fitness level, your career, or just some habit you’d rather not have—without being deeply dissatisfied about that particular issue? People who have achieved the most difficult types of change—recovering from addiction, for example—typically talk about having to “hit bottom” before even being able to get started.

What’s true for individuals is also true for organizations—which should come as no surprise, since organizations are made up of individuals, each “doing their own thing” in ways that don’t always align very well with the organization’s stated goals or preferred practices. So when the people in an organization generally feel that things are going well—when the sense is that the established ways of doing things are OK—achieving real change is next to impossible.

It comes down to, “Things could be better but we’re still delivering results. Isn’t continuous improvement good enough? Why make a big change when things aren’t broken?”

But leadership is about helping people and organizations get to a place they would not—could not— achieve by themselves. That’s why leaders need to be appropriately paranoid about the future. They need to cultivate an ability to look past today’s success, identify the challenges (and opportunities) that others might not see, and drive the changes necessary to deal with what’s coming down the road.

Inevitably, that process involves identifying, leveraging—and when necessary, stimulating—dissatisfaction with the status quo. That doesn’t mean that you as a leader run around like Chicken Little shouting that “the sky is falling.” It certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t recognize what your organization and its people are doing well. But it does mean that you need to point the way from good to great.

I like to take some of my clients through an exercise I call “Standing in the Future.” I ask them to write a headline and an article for the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, or their professional magazine that will appear five years from now. The article should discuss what your customers and shareholders think of your products, services, and employees? It should talk about how your employees feel about the company, and touch on the impact of the company on the communities where it operates, and on the larger world. Then I ask them to identify three actions that will help them make dramatic progress towards that future in the next year. In all the times I’ve done it, this simple exercise has never failed to produce a very thought provoking discussion.

With this in mind, I hope you’ll spend some time identifying the changes your organization needs to make, and the changes you need to make in the coming year to help the organization move in that direction. You might try “standing in the future” and writing an article about what you see that others may not see. Then embrace the dissatisfaction this process may well create. Use it to get mobilized, and let me know the results!

Happy New Year.

Beware the “Book of Shoulds”

I think it’s safe to say that from time to time, we’re all dissatisfied with or upset about some aspect of our lives. We find ourselves wondering why we’re not further along in our career, why we didn’t get that big promotion that went to so-and-so instead, why we haven’t “done as well” as a sibling or close friend, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Now here’s the thing: at the risk of overgeneralizing, I think the chances are that what upsets us the most in these situations is not the specific “failure” in question, but the fact that our expectations—and the expectations of others—have not been met. In other words, in many cases the problem isn’t so much that we’re not further along in our career, for example; the problem is that our parents or our spouse or our friends—and worse yet, we ourselves—expect that we should be further along!

In my professional role, I’ve done a lot of coaching and counseling, with people at every stage of their career, from young people just starting out to top executives not that far from retirement. And most of them, including those highly successful executives, almost always express this kind of dissatisfaction about something. Something that has gone wrong for them. Or something that hasn’t happened fast enough. Or  something that they really wanted to happen, but that probably isn’t going to happen at all.

But most of the time, when I ask those people how those unmet expectations were set in the first place—where they came from—they rarely have a clear answer.  I sometimes think about this in terms of the “Book of Shoulds.” You know, that unwritten book that most of us nonetheless seem to carry around in our head, the one that prescribes where we should be at every stage of our lives. The book that sets those unspoken expectations that have such a powerful effect on our sense of who we are, what we can aspire to achieve, and what we’ve actually accomplished.

And the thing about the Book of Shoulds is that it covers a whole lot of terrain. In this blog I write often about the challenge of creating real and lasting organizational change, whether the organization is a small unit or a global enterprise. And believe me when I say that the Book of Shoulds definitely comes into play here.

In my experience, efforts to create significant organizational change almost always happen too slowly for the organization’s senior leaders.  I’ve been involved in many complex change initiatives, at many organizational levels, and I’ve had leaders say to me, “We’ve been working at this thing for a year now, and we still haven’t  moved the needle. How long is this going to take?” Or “Sure we’ve made some progress, and I know we started in the bottom quartile, but why haven’t we made it into the top quartile by now? We must be doing something wrong, because it ‘should’ be happening faster.”

Who says “it” should happen faster? All too often it’s the Book of Shoulds, rather than any real understanding of how change happens. In fact, the research shows that even the best orchestrated organizational change or engagement efforts takes time. In the very beginning, you may see very little progress, as the change initiative starts to penetrate the organization. (If you chart that progress, the graph will often show the classic “hockey stick” profile.) Beyond that, a good rule of thumb is one year for every layer of management between the CEO and the front line manager for a major cultural or engagement change to occur—and really become established.  Five levels, five years.

Of course that doesn’t mean you won’t see progress long before that. It’s those signs of progress that you need to capture and tell stories about. Publicize them widely throughout your organization, whether that’s the whole company, a division, or a department or work unit. Create heroes of those who are leading the way and doing great work.

The bottom line is that organizational change is hard. Successful organizational change takes time, and many change efforts fail because expectations aren’t set correctly or managed well. So use the facts to set and manage them—and toss the Book of Shoulds aside.

Turn Your Mission Statement into a Cause

In a recent NY Times opinion piece, Swarthmore Professor Barry Schwartz wrestled with the disheartening results from the latest Gallup engagement survey indicating that…”almost 90 percent of workers were either ‘not engaged’ with or ‘actively disengaged’ from their jobs.” In trying to figure out why this is so, Schwartz rejects the idea that “it’s just human nature to dislike work” and that most of us work only for a paycheck. On the contrary, he argues:

Of course, we care about our wages, and we wouldn’t work without them. But we care about more than money. We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and grow. We want to work with colleagues we respect and with supervisors who respect us. Most of all, we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.

Take a look at that last sentence again: “Most of all, we want work that is meaningful—that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.”

When was the last time anyone in your organization took a look at your mission statement on your wall? Does its language pack an emotional wallop? Does it say—in a clear, compelling way—that the work of the organization is work that “makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way”?

We’re all looking for a cause—something we can give ourselves to with energy and passion. Many of us—and given the Gallup findings referenced above, I think we can say most of us— find our cause outside of work. We find it coaching Little League, volunteering at the local food pantry or hospice, or working for a political candidate. But typically, and sadly, we don’t find it at work.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s just business; it’s not personal.” Think about that. I think this is just the opposite message leaders should be delivering. We should want our people to take the work they do very personally—whatever that work involves.

So how do you build this sense of purpose in your organization?  How do you turn your mission statement into a cause? You start by getting your people involved. Give them a chance to sit with one another and talk about what the company does. How do the company’s services or products make a difference to its customers? To the larger community? How does each function and role in the organization touch the customer? How does each individual touch and affect what the company does?

As one of my mentors used to say, “There are no back office jobs.” What he meant is that every role in a business has an impact on the company’s performance. Every role, even if it does not directly engage with the customer, has the potential to influence—for good or bad—how the customer perceives the company.

In other words, every job in the company is important. Every job has value and dignity. Get your people together and give them a chance to see that for themselves. Give them a chance to connect the dots between what they do and how the company contributes to its customers and the larger community. If you do that, you’ll have taken a huge step toward bringing out the best in your people and your organization.

Virgin Atlantic Airways has what I consider a great mission: …. “to embrace the human spirit and let it fly.” Why not get going on turning your mission statement into a cause. Get your people to fly!

Feedback: The “Breakfast of Champions”


If you want to get better at anything, one of the most valuable resources you can have is tough, honest feedback, and one of the most valuable skills you can acquire is the ability to handle that feedback effectively. And when I say “acquire,” I mean exactly that, because for most of us, the ability to handle tough feedback is definitely not easy. I’ll be the first to admit that this is something I’ve had to work at for most of my career, and even with all that work, I still sometimes find myself getting defensive when someone is critical of something I’ve done, or haven’t done. Let’s face it: we’d all rather hear that we’re doing a great job.

But again, if we want to get better at anything—and that includes becoming a better leader—honest feedback is incredibly valuable. So how do you get better at dealing with and profiting from feedback?

The single best piece of advice I’ve been given in this regard is to change the story you tell yourself when you receive the feedback. Much of our behavior—maybe most of our behavior—is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. Stories in which we’re the hero or the victim, stories in which we’re being challenged, or taken advantage of, stories in which we fail or triumph. Often we’re not even aware that these stories are playing in the background of our mind, but that only makes them more powerful.

So the next time you get some tough feedback, don’t let your mind run the story that you’re a victim, that you’re facing a threat—a threat to your position, your power, your next performance review, your next raise or next promotion, your relationship with your manager or the people you manage.

Rather, you need tell to yourself that this feedback is a valuable gift that will help you become the best leader you can be. And in my opinion, that means becoming a Servant Leader, leading with a servant’s heart. If you view your role as a servant to your people and your organization, you’ll find it much easier to accept and even invite tough feedback in order to keep growing and to provide better service to the people around you.  You may not always be comfortable hearing it, but you’ll definitely find it easier to listen.  And you’ll get far more out of what you take in.

After all these years I’ve found the easiest way to figure out whether someone is a servant leader or not is to observe how well they take feedback. Leaders who can’t handle feedback, who are threatened by it, who don’t want to hear about how they could improve, who may even punish those who dare to suggest that they might not be perfect—those people can’t be servant leaders their view of the world is that it’s all about them! The servant leader turns that view upside down, says it’s all about those whom I serve, and embraces anything that will help him or her serve more effectively.

So there you have it. I’m not saying that learning to accept and work with tough feedback will be easy by any means,  but I am saying that you can make it easier.  If you change your story, you can change how you view feedback. You can get past the defensiveness we all experience because we’re human. You can use feedback as a source of energy to dramatically move you and your organization to the next level!

Employee Engagement: A “Tired Topic?”

Someone recently suggested to me that “Employee engagement has been written about and talked about so much that it’s really a tired topic.” I’ve heard this before, and in part I think it’s a reflection of our culture’s obsession with the Next New Thing. Whether it’s the latest political crisis, celebrity scandal, electronic toy—our individual and collective attention span seems to constantly grow shorter.

The real issue here, it seems to me, is that for as much as employee engagement has been researched and written about over the past ten or more years, the fact is that we still haven’t come close to solving the engagement problem. According to Gallup, which has been tracking employee engagement in the US since 2000: “Less than one-third (31.5%) of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014.” As for the rest, 51% are not engaged, and 17.5% are “actively disengaged,” which by Gallup’s definition means they “aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day these workers undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.” What’s truly amazing is that these results are actually the best in terms of engagement since 2000!

So basically what this means is that two out of three employees in the US go to work without feeling a strong emotional and intellectual connection to their organization, their job, and their colleagues—the kind of connection that leads to their putting in that extra effort to get the job done right. Is there any doubt that this has a negative effect on performance?

It seems to me that the issue is not that employee engagement is a tired topic. The problem is that most organizations haven’t solved their engagement problem. Given how much has been written on the subject, why is that?

I think it’s because creating—and sustaining—the kind of culture that produces high engagement is just plain hard. And most leadership teams don’t do the hard work to make it happen. They may put raising engagement on their list of goals for the year, but all too often they don’t include it in the strategic plan. Or if it is included, it rarely receives top of mind status within the plan or at executive or board meetings.  This in spite of the compelling research that highly engaged organizations perform better across most of the dimensions within those strategic plans.

The fact is that building an engaged workforce means addressing or changing your culture, which is difficult and takes time. It’s not enough to get excited and implement some new benefits or other employee-focused programs. While this may bump up an organization’s engagement scores in the short term, all too often that progress leads to a loss of momentum. Then engagement falls off the radar screen. Managers and employees come to see the engagement initiative as just another “fad” in a long line of fads. The managers slip back into old behaviors that lead to dis-engagement.

What can be done to keep this from happening? No one has all the answers; I know I don’t. But I do know that in the organizations I’ve been part of, we were successful in building and sustaining an engaged workforce only when engagement became an integral part of our strategic plan.  When we defined—and tracked—a set of clear engagement metrics. When we gave those metrics visibility at the most senior levels, and managers had at least 25-40% of their annual review weighted on their progress and achievement of their engagement goals. When engagement received the same level of planning effort as any other major business change effort within the company— and when that plan was communicated as such.

So what’s in your strategic plan? Do you really think engagement is a tired topic? Or are we just too tired to make it happen?

Getting the Best Out of Your Organization: Yes, It Does Take Time.

Recently I met with the executive team of a successful small business that’s wrestling with the question of how to achieve even higher levels of employee engagement, organizational performance, and customer satisfaction. As we discussed what it might take to achieve their goals, the head of customer service said,

“These steps were discussing…like giving our people more support and mentoring… they absolutely make sense, but how are we…the people in this room…going to fit them into our day to day workload, when we’re already overstretched?”

It’s a question I’ve heard many, many times—because the fact is, leaders at every level, in pretty much every organization, are always pressed for time. They—you—are  constantly under pressure to get things done—to complete those projects, make those numbers, hit those performance goals. With too many meetings to attend and too many fires to put out, there never seem to be enough hours in the day.  So how do you find the time to get to know the people in your organization and give them the support they need to develop their potential? How do you find the time to build a culture that fosters high levels of engagement?

Obviously, the answer lies in how you set priorities—where you choose to spend more time and where you choose to spend less. Which brings me to the difference between managing and leading. A great deal has been written on this subject, but in my mind, managing is more about organizing people, controlling costs, and deploying resources. Leadership, on the other hand, is more about motivating, inspiring, and bringing out the best in people. It’s about helping people expand their vision of what’s possible, and then helping them achieve that vision. That takes time—time spent meeting with people, listening to them, and figuring out how to remove the barriers that get in the way of their performing to their full potential.

So if you’re wondering where you’ll find the time to do the hard work of building a culture of engagement, you might ask yourself, “If I’m really a leader, what else should I be doing?”

As you think about that, here’s something else you might want to consider. When the customer service leader quoted above raised the “time” issue, one of the other people in the room said, “That’s a good point. But what if we each put 10% of our time into getting more out of the other people in the organization…and as a result they each got 10% more productive…wouldn’t the whole company be much better off?”

Good point, don’t you think?

The fact is that building an engaged culture does take time. Personally I’m convinced that it’s time well spent, since higher engagement almost always translates into better individual and organizational performance, measured by virtually any metric you choose. As a leader, you can’t afford not to find the time.

Leading as a Servant: Exploring Your Fear

Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to a group about Servant Leadership, someone almost always comes up to me afterward and says something like this:

“The idea of servant leadership is very appealing to me. It just feels like the right thing for me to do. But I work for a boss, and for an organization as a whole, that’s very much about command and control. I’m afraid that if I start to practice servant leadership, I’ll be seen as a weak leader. I could get side tracked when it comes to promotion. I could even lose my job. I’m not sure what to do.”

Wow. That’s a tough situation for anyone to be in.  You may be facing a similar challenge yourself.

Let me say first that there’s absolutely nothing weak or soft about servant leadership. Does anybody really think that Herb Kelleher—a dedicated servant leader—built Southwest Airlines into an industry leader by being weak? Did the servant leaders who’ve built organizations like Starbucks and Toro and Marriott and Zappos do it by being soft or weak? I don’t think so.

Yes, servant leadership is about caring for the people in your organization—caring about their opinions, their well-being, and their growth. But that means not only giving them opportunities to grow, it means helping them grow by raising the bar, having high expectations for their performance, and holding them accountable for meeting those expectations. Nothing soft about any of that.

There’s no question, however, that if you work in a command and control environment, and you start behaving like a servant leader—being more collaborative, giving your people more room to take initiative, even more room to make mistakes—there will be an initial transition period. The people you lead will wonder, “What’s going on? Is she serious about this? How should I react?” They may be slow to trust that you really want them to take more responsibility. They may test your commitment in ways that are not always easy for you to handle. But trust me, if you stick with the program, eventually your people will get on board and the results will be dramatic.

But what about the other leaders in your organization—including your boss? One real possibility is they may not even notice that you’re doing anything different. In other words, your fears in this regard may be based on assumptions that just aren’t valid. These “manufactured fears” can seem very real, even if they never actually materialize. (I know, because I’ve had my share of manufactured fears in my own professional and personal life.)

It’s also possible that your boss will notice the change in your leadership style and will initially see it as a sign of weakness. In other words, your fears in this regard may in fact be quite valid. But what will happen when your servant leadership makes your group more productive? What happens when your group really turns it up a notch, when great people want to come work for you, when your group’s performance jumps to a new level? Will your boss still think you’re a weak leader?

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to this critical question. If your boss cares first and foremost about results, he or she will not only support your servant leadership but may even start to follow your example. That’s how organizational change builds from within.

On the other hand, your boss may never get it. He or she may focus less on the positive results you’re producing as a servant leader and more on the fact that you’re not following his or her example of command and control. If that happens, your fears could be realized: you could get passed over for promotion, you could lose out on desirable projects or development opportunities, and yes, ultimately you could even lose your job.

But here’s the thing: if your organization is so committed to command and control leadership that it can’t tolerate a servant leader who delivers great results, do you really want to work there?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never to tell people how they should feel! But for what it’s worth, I think it’s important for each of us to develop our own “true north,” our own individual sense of what we stand for and how we should behave. As leaders, that means developing our own “leadership identity.” If the organization in which we work won’t accept that leadership identity, it may be time for us to move on.

So—is there a risk in becoming a servant leader if you work in a command and control organization? Sure, there is. There’s always a risk in behaving differently, in standing out from the crowd. But being a leader always involves risk. How you handle risk is in fact what determines what kind of leader you are.

What it always comes down to is what kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of leader do you need to be in order to follow your true north?


Why do you lead?


During my career, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to other people about their careers, and these conversations almost always come around to the question of leadership. Whether I’m talking to a young person looking to move into their very first leadership role, or a VP looking to advance to SVP, I’m always curious about the individual’s motivation—why that person wants to become a leader or wants to take on more leadership responsibility. I’m curious because I’ve found that how people answer these questions provides a good clue to what kind of leader they are, or will become.

Interestingly, many people have difficulty explaining why they want to lead. Virtually no one says, “I want to make more money” or “I want to have more power,” although I’d be surprised if those factors weren’t involved in at least some cases. The answers that do finally emerge seem to fall into several broad categories.

The first is the idea that leadership is a right. The people whose motivations fall into this category are basically saying “I deserve to move into this leadership role because…” What comes next varies, of course. They deserve more leadership responsibility because they’ve made their numbers, completed their MBA, been in their present position long enough (or too long), etc. Often this attitude seems to have an undertone of “I’ve always been a leader…in school, on the playground, on my basketball team, etc.” Again, the idea, even if it’s never expressed in so many words, seems to be, “I have a right to lead.”

A second category, which somewhat overlaps the first, is the idea that leadership is a rite, as in rite of passage. The idea is here is that the person has passed the various tests and met the various requirements to advance to greater leadership responsibility. The tests and requirements may sound a lot like those mentioned above: i.e. the person has held a certain role for a certain period of time, or completed a certain academic degree or leadership development program, or met some particular performance goal.

A third category is what I call leadership as a privilege. People whose motivation seems to fall into this category say things like, “I feel I can provide greater value to the organization if I was offered a broader role.” Or, “I’d like to share and leverage what I’ve learned on XYZ project or in XYZ assignment.”

I must say that the idea of leadership as a privilege resonates more with me than the idea of leadership as a right/rite. In my experience, the leaders who’ve had the most positive effect on their organizations have thought of leadership in this way. Not that these people are completely selfless, but on the whole they put the organization ahead of themselves. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and they’re careful not to take advantage of their position power at the expense of the people around them. As a friend of mine once said, “They don’t take up all the air in the room.”

Some of the leaders I’ve been privileged to work with take the idea of leadership as privilege to another level. These are the servant leaders, or those who aspire to become servant leaders. They want to lead so that they can be of greater service to others.

In his 1970 essay entitled The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf defined the servant leader’s role as “making sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served,” noting that: “The servant-leader is servant first[…]. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”

Why do I want to lead? That’s the question we all need to think about very deeply. The answer we come to will be critical to the kind of leader we become. The traditional command and control leadership model is grounded in the idea of leadership as a right or a rite. In far too many cases, leaders who operate on the basis of this model and this attitude fall into what I consider the serious mistake of focusing less on bringing out the best in the organization and its people and more on their own position power and prestige.

In premier companies like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Zappos, Toro, Nordstrom, Kaiser Permanente, and many others, the leadership model has changed. In these companies, servant leadership has emerged as an alternative to the traditional command and control model. In these organizations, the leaders see their roles as a privilege—given to them by the people they lead, and in a very real sense, shared with those people. These leaders believe— and act as if—they have to earn the privilege of being a leader every day.

All of which raises the question: “Why do you want to lead?” The implications of that question, and how you answer it, are huge, for your career, your personal life, and equally important, for the success of your organization and its people.




The Servant Leader Journey: The Beginning

Servant Leadership has been at the core of my work for many years as an HR leader and now as a consultant. One reason is simply that at a gut level the idea of the leader as servant just seems “right” to me, but equally important is the fact that servant leadership “works,” as indicated by the research that consistently shows that “servant led” enterprises significantly outperform other organizations.

I first became exposed to the idea of the leader as servant nearly 20 years ago when I became VP of HR for Digital Equipment’s Global Service Business. After five years of downsizing and restructuring, we needed to build a new people strategy to re-engage a workforce that operated in 114 countries, and I was asked to lead this critical initiative. One of my colleagues, who had been Director of Quality at Xerox, introduced me to the work being done on the “service profit chain” by a group of professors at Harvard Business School. Their groundbreaking book on the subject made a powerful impression on me—so powerful in fact that the ideas it laid out ultimately became central to our new  people strategy.

The book articulated the economic power of developing not just satisfied customers, but loyal customers. Loyal customers feel an emotional connection to your service or product and your brand—an emotional connection created by highly engaged employees. Because of that emotional connection, loyal customers are six times more likely to be repeat customers. They’re also more likely to refer their friends to your business, and they’re even willing to pay more for your products or services.

As examples, the authors called out in particular two companies and their leaders: Herb Kelleher from Southwest Airlines and William Pollard from the Service Master Company.  Both men consider themselves servant leaders. Herb talked about loving his people. It wasn’t enough to just care about your people, he said. You have to love your people. (The company’s NYSE symbol is LUV.)

To Bill Pollard, leading with a servant’s heart meant being willing to do any job in the company as confirmation that all work, even the most mundane, is important. (At least four times a year, all the executives at Service Master go out to clean offices side by side with their work crews.) To Bill, leading with a servant’s heart also meant being willing to step back and give others credit and visibility when it’s the best thing for their development.

I found the interviews with these two iconic CEOs fascinating and compelling, and they inspired me to learn more about this notion of a “Leader as Servant.” That exploration led me to the work of Robert Greenleaf.

Greenleaf spent nearly 40 years at ATT, serving among other assignments as the company’s  designated “troubleshooter” and Director of Management Development. In 1970 he published The Servant as Leader, and until his death in 1990 he dedicated himself to spreading the gospel of servant leadership. Through Greenleaf’s writings and the work of others, I took myself to school on the topic. Eventually I had the opportunity to put servant leadership at the core of the people strategy at Cleveland Clinic, with dramatic results. I’ve also been privileged to serve for many years on the Board of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, founded by Robert Greenleaf and dedicated to carrying on his work.

Servant leadership brings out the best in leaders and creates organizations that bring out the best in their people. That’s why I believe it’s an idea whose time has come, and why in future postings I hope we can explore this important topic in greater depth.

What’s In Your Strategic Plan?

Pretty much by definition, your organization’s strategic plan must include a set of clearly defined objectives—objectives that have been prioritized, operationalized, quantified, and cascaded down from the enterprise level to all operating units. Action plans to meet those objectives are drawn up at every level, and performance against those plans is measured and evaluated.

While the process varies from one organization to another, you can’t manage an organization of any size and complexity without following the basic steps: define your goals, decide on a plan to meet those goals, measure your progress, and adjust accordingly.

So here’s a question: is increased employee engagement a high priority component of your strategic plan? At least in my experience, in many organizations the answer to that question is “No,” despite the fact that the research on this subject has consistently shown that high engagement correlates positively with a wide array of key metrics, including revenue, profitability, quality, customer satisfaction, and many others.

Frankly, I don’t get it.

To me it seems pretty straightforward. Highly engaged employees outperform less engaged employees. Organizations with higher percentages of engaged employees outperform organizations with fewer engaged employees. So if you want to outperform your competition, it follows that you should do whatever you can to build a highly engaged workforce. That’s not all you need to do, of course, but it seems obvious that it’s definitely one of the key things you need to do.

Which means you need to treat engagement like all the other components of your strategic plan. You need to set engagement targets at every level, develop action plans to hit those targets, measure performance in a systematic way, and hold managers at every level accountable for the results they deliver.

If your organization is already doing all that, great. If it’s not already happening—and you’re not yet at the level where you can make it happen across the entire organization—let me repeat something I said in an earlier posting: “You are the CEO of your own organization.” While a number of things need to occur at the enterprise level around planning and execution in order to build a truly engaged enterprise, it’s also true that engagement is very much a local phenomenon. It needs to be built day in and day out, at the small unit level, by an organization’s managers and supervisors and team leaders. Which means that even if you’re leading a small unit within a larger enterprise, you can—and should—create and implement your own engagement strategy.

After all, if not you, who?


You are the CEO of your organization…no matter how small it may be.


Everything in my life—the special experience of growing up with an identical twin brother; the relationships with family members, teachers, coaches, colleagues, and mentors that have made me who I am; the lessons I’ve learned on the athletic field; the work I’ve done in my professional capacity; my involvement with some wonderful non-profit organizations; my religious beliefs—everything in my life has taught me that no one succeeds alone. We are definitely “all in this together.”

That said, I also believe that each of us has the power to help move the ball down the field. Each of us can make a difference. As Robert Kennedy once said, “Few of us have the greatness to bend history itself. But all of us have the opportunity to change a small portion of events.”  You are the CEO of the organization you lead, no matter how large or how small it is, and in that sense you have the power and the opportunity to make a difference. In that sense,  what you do—indeed, everything you do—counts.

How you treat the people in your organization…whether you can count them on one hand or they number in the thousands…will determine how they feel about coming to work every day and affect their willingness to do their very best when they get there. Engagement definitely requires the commitment of those at the top of the house, but it gets built every day by leaders at the “local level.”

Employee Engagement: What Makes It Happen…or Not

Engaged employees feel a strong emotional connection to their organization…a connection that leads them to make the extra effort that ultimately drives higher performance. Engaged employees do the ordinary things extraordinarily well…because they care.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to know that an employee is unlikely to care about …to feel connected to…an organization that doesn’t seem to give a hoot about them…which is why the research on engagement has found that  the key factor in whether or not employees become highly engaged is whether or not they feel that their leaders care about them. In my experience, most of the people who end up in leadership roles are not self-centered, or arrogant, or uncaring.

And yet, they—we—all too often make decisions and take actions that come across that way to our employees. Why is that? One reason is that when we’re in decision-making mode, and especially when the decision we have to make is a tough one, we often fail to include all of our stakeholders, including our employees, in our thought process. I also think that sometimes we fall into thinking of our employees not so much as people but as just another resource—albeit a human resource. Resources are not something you care about. Resources are something you manage, optimize, utilize, etc.

And sometimes we’re just tone deaf. We’re not sensitive to how our actions will be perceived. Part of the reason for that is that even though we may actually care about our employees, on a day-to-day basis we live in a different world. As leaders, we have far more power, we make a lot more money, and in many other ways we’re treated as if we’re special. Basically, all it takes is for us as leaders to start taking the special treatment we enjoy as our due—for us to feel entitled to that treatment instead of viewing it, and our role as leaders, as a privilege. When that happens, it’s easy to start acting in ways that make us look an awful lot like those self-centered, arrogant, uncaring “takers” we don’t ever want to be.

And when that happens, we have only ourselves to blame if our employees don’t give us their best.