The Best Team Wins
ONE UNDERSTAND GENERATIONS
How to Engage Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers
Joan Kuhl describes herself as the Millennial Matchmaker. She runs the consultancy Why Millennials Matter and advises employers, including Goldman Sachs, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Eli Lilly, on hiring and retaining recent college graduates. She believes that while managing Millennials presents a few distinctive challenges—for instance, many see nothing wrong with oversharing information about their lives (and work lives) on social media—there are also tons of positives. “We tend to publicize the outrageous acts of defiance,” she says of the newest generation, but adds “the majority that I work with are very mission-focused and value-based.”
Yet even this fan of the younger generation does grin when she thinks about some of the behavior of young people in her own office. She recalls one intern who ate a tuna-fish sandwich during a morning meeting with senior colleagues. When mildly rebuked
after, the intern replied, “Well, you said to be myself, and I was hungry.”
So much has been written about this Millennial generation (also known as Gen Y). They are supposedly narcissistic, lazy, entitled; constantly Snapchatting or Tweeting with the person in the next cubical. They don’t respect authority, but want hand-holding and praise. And they’re ready to skip off to a new job in a heartbeat. A Time magazine cover story called them the “Me, Me, Me Generation.”
Our intention is not to bad-mouth Millennials. We personally think this generation has the creativity, drive, and technological aptitude to revolutionize our workplaces, and they absolutely should feel valued and rewarded for their contributions. Also note that we understand generalizations about generations always overstate differences, leading to grossly exaggerated caricatures. That’s not our intent either. There is, of course, no such thing as a typical Millennial, Boomer, Gen Xer, or even the soon-to-emerge Gen Z. The definitions of when each generation begins and ends aren’t even universally agreed upon. History doesn’t punctuate so neatly for us. For our purposes, we’ll accept these as the most commonly accepted delineations: Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964; Gen Xers between 1965 and 1984. As for Millennials, two of the leading authorities on generations, researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future, say the last Millennial was born in 2004—and anyone coming thereafter will be Gen Z. You can find other dates to end the Millennials—from the mid-1990s on—with some saying Gen Z (or iGeneration) is already in the workplace in force. But Howe and Strauss are widely regarded as the experts on generations and
we won’t argue with them. So that means new workers entering the job market will be Millennials for a while longer (unless your new IT director is twelve years old).
With that said, while Millennials may have been unfairly caricatured, like generations before them, they do demonstrate some strong commonalities. Many of these are unique strengths we have not seen before, while others are presenting serious challenges to managers. And the worst thing we can do is ignore the differences.
THE NEED FOR BETTER PRACTICES
Why should we care about all of this? Why do we have to learn how to manage Millennials any differently? The first big reason: We’ve reached a tipping point. Millennials have edged out Boomers and Gen X as the largest generation at work; and by 2020, more than half of working adults worldwide will be Millennials. Consider your own team: Is it a homogenized cluster of similar-thinking, similar-looking, similarly aged folks with identical backgrounds and biases, or is it a collection of diverse people—some older, some younger—who come at work from different perspectives. And of your young workers, have you noticed a few differences? Scott Harner has.
Harner is team manager of Chip Ganassi Racing, which runs successful cars in NASCAR, the IndyCar Series, SportsCar Championship, and World Endurance Championship. His organization has teams of mechanics who keep cars running on the tracks, and noted that many Millennials bring an affinity for technology that is vital in racing today, but he’s also seen a change in the work ethic in some of the young guys he hires. “This is hard work—twelve-hour
days turning around a car that’s crashed then jumping on a plane for another city. And we do it for six months in a row. A lot of the young guys flame out pretty quick. I guess it’s the way we raised them—a participation trophy for everything. In our world, only first place gets a trophy.”
Harner has found success in helping his Millennials see that they are part of a team, and that’s a good thing, something many younger workers spark to. “Our team is a family,” he told us. “So, if they work hard to get a car back on the track it could mean one more point, and that could lead to a championship for the team. They learn that the team is going to be behind them, and that’s really positive. In turn, they have to work their butts off, so they don’t let their team down.”
In short, Harner has found that while managing younger workers may offer its unique challenges, he’s not about to give up because the better he becomes at leading Millennials now the more returns his team will reap as they come to dominate the workforce.
The second big reason to devote special attention to younger workers is that, overgeneralizations aside, Millennials really are distinctive in some important ways that managers need to understand, which our research clearly reveals (Hint: It’s more than beards on the men and yoga pants on the women). Understanding this handful of key distinguishing features about how Millennials prefer to work and what they are expecting from their managers and work lives is vital to assuring they work in harmony with their teammates. This understanding can also lead to best practices for inspiring Millennial workers’ engagement and productivity, and even to convincing them to stay with the firm longer. That’s essential, considering the troubling finding that less than one-third
of Millennials feel their organization makes the most of their skills, and 66 percent expect to leave their employer in the next few years.
That threat of attrition is not an idle one. Millennials do leave jobs much faster than prior generations. We’ve come to calling this the renter generation. Millennials tend to rent their living quarters versus assuming a mortgage (desire for homeownership is on a sharp decline); they lease cars versus buying. They even rent boyfriends and girlfriends. Not in that way, but a steadily increasing number of twenty-somethings are shying away from traditional marriage and instead engaging in multiple short-term relationships. When they do get married, if they do, it’s much later—now thirty on average for men and twenty-seven for women, compared with average ages of twenty-six and twenty-three just fifteen years ago. Pew Research estimates one-quarter of Millennials will never get married; almost half, in a recent Time magazine survey, said they would support a new marriage model that involved a two-year trial—a beta test if you will—at which point the union could be formalized or dissolved by either side with no divorce or paperwork required.
It’s important to understand that a good deal of research on Millennials has shown that they are distrustful of institutions, marriage being just one of them. Opting out of the traditional marriage model in greater numbers could very well be attributable to the record high divorce rate of their parents. Many of them experienced the effects of such separations on their families, and virtually all witnessed those effects on the lives of friends.
That distrust of institutions is extending to the workplace. Many Millennials watched their parents go through rounds of downsizing, restructuring, reengineering, and M&A, that virtually
eliminated the concept of job security. As such, many younger workers entering our teams today consider themselves to be renting their jobs; they aren’t looking to buy. If things don’t work out, they are indeed quite content to move on.
Melissa Aquino, vice president of the science and technology giant Danaher, calls Millennials one of the biggest diversity issues her 62,000 person company faces. While she personally believes this latest generation rocks, and has the potential to be the most productive in history, she acknowledges that organizations face a challenge in getting some of them to commit. “Millennials are largely critical of corporate America. They don’t know if they want to be attached,” she told us. More from Aquino in a moment.
Another reason for the fleet-footedness of Millennials: They were raised in an era of immediate gratification. Consider that this is the first generation to have grown up with such things as overnight delivery—no waiting a week for the postman to bring a package—and DVRs—they skip right through pesky TV commercials. Most never had to do research for school without the Internet—no need to trudge to the library and ponderously look up information. Of course, the ultimate provider of instant gratification is the smart phone. Who doesn’t love their phone? Some 83 percent of Millennials report sleeping with their devices within reach so they don’t miss out on messages during the night. But many Millennials use phones in distinctive ways from previous generations. For instance, they make much fewer voice calls. We have been told by younger employees that they believe phone calls to be rude—as if they are demanding a person’s time at that precise moment. Moreover, they add, they often feel trapped on a call, giving their full attention to a glacially slow form of synchronous conversation.
As one Millennial told us in an interview, “If I could disable the phone on my phone, I would.” (Paradoxically, we spoke with him while he worked at a retail phone store.)
Skanska USA CEO Rich Cavallaro explained that one way his company has appealed to people raised in a world of instant gratification is to ensure they have greater flexibility. “There’s no question you have to manage this generation differently,” he said. “We found forty-six percent of incoming employees from college say a flexible workplace is the most important thing for them.” Yet, he admits, that’s a challenge in a project-based business with 11,000 employees, but the company is striving hard to make it happen. “I come from a generation that if you weren’t sitting at your desk, you weren’t working: twelve hours a day, six days a week. That world is over. If we believe that we can tell Millennials to go sit at their desk all day, every day, we’ll be here by ourselves.”
As such, the company has launched the Skanska USA Flexible Work Program: finding ways to offer job sharing, flexible work time, telecommuting, a compressed work week, and part-time employment. And remember, this is a construction and development company, one that helped build the Oculus train station in New York City and is renovating LaGuardia Airport.
Leaders like Cavallaro teach us that we can’t stick our fingers in our ears about generational disagreements anymore. This is reinforced by a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which found that nearly three quarters of HR professionals have reported not just differences but intergenerational conflicts in their organizations. We hear about them all the time in our consulting work: Managers and older workers complain about their younger colleagues’ seemingly odd habits;
including a lack of commitment; and what they perceive as whiny demands for coaching, feedback, and praise. Millennials, in turn, have plenty of complaints about their bosses and older colleagues. The HR professionals surveyed by SHRM described the following most common negative perceptions:
MILLENNIALS TOP 3 COMPLAINTS ABOUT OLDER WORKERS
• Resistant to change
• Lack of recognition of my efforts
• Micromanage me
OLDER WORKERS TOP 3 COMPLAINTS ABOUT MILLENNIALS
• Poor work ethic
• Informal behavior and language
• Inappropriate dress
Melissa Aquino gets a chuckle out of that last complaint, the one about attire, but says it’s something she considered when running an operating company at Danaher. “Whether right or wrong, Millennials are skeptical of older folks who dress too fancy,” she said. So, as a nod to help her younger associates feel more included, and to help older workers loosen up, she presented company hoodies to everyone. “I handed one to our sixty-four-year-old finance guy who was wearing his tie. ‘This is delightful,’ he said, ‘what am I supposed to do with it?’?”
Overall, the good news we have about managing Millennials is twofold. First, we have identified a couple of key differences in what motivates them most strongly at work versus older workers, and we provide methods here for taking account of those
motivators with specific management tactics that can dramatically boost their engagement. We’ve also found that Millennials share a particular set of strong motivators with older workers. In fact, the set of the top three motivators is fairly consistent across age groups, while the set of the lowest motivators has some similarities as well. So, as much as the differences in Millennials’ preferences and behaviors are real and must be addressed, there also is a great deal of common ground with which to manage teams in ways that will bond younger workers and their older colleagues better to their teams, and also bond them more strongly with the organization overall.
THE BIG DIFFERENCES
One recent scholarly review concluded that there has been “limited research to guide managers on how to better incorporate the Millennial generation into the workplace.” We are happy to step in. Let us dig a little deeper for you into our 50,000 person database. Respondents are employees of all ages, and are from the United States, Canada, Mexico, throughout Europe, Central and South America, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa. The database allows us unprecedented insight into what most motivates people at work, and what doesn’t. Our Motivators Assessment ranks the twenty-three motivators—shown by our research to be most widely motivating for employees—all the way from the strongest to weakest for each person. We developed the Motivators Assessment with Drs. Jean Greaves and Travis Bradberry, creators of the Emotional Intelligence 2.0 bestselling book and its accompanying assessment. These psychologists and their team of
behavioral scientists helped us create a scientifically valid way of assessing people’s underlying drivers at work.
For those curious about the complete set of twenty-three, here they are. You might want to see if you can guess which of them are most important to Millennials versus older generations.
Now, what did we find were the biggest differences? That’s where we go next.
WHO WANTS TO WORK ALONE?
While autonomy ranks near the top set of motivators for older generations in the workplace, it’s near the bottom of motivators for most younger workers. In fact, when we combined all answers from respondents in the Millennial generation, we found that autonomy ranked twenty-first overall (out of twenty-three
motivators) for participants in that age group. However, autonomy was the eighth most important overall concept for Boomers and twelfth most important concept for Gen X. That’s one of the single biggest shifts in the database, and it certainly bucks the prevailing wisdom that all workers thrive with more independence in their work. That was a central contention in Dan Pink’s bestselling book Drive, in which he listed autonomy as the most important factor in motivating employees. The low desire for autonomy on the part of the vast majority of Millennials shows that it’s time to differentiate the degree of independence we give to, and expect from, our employees.
This discrepancy alone can be one of the major sources of friction between Millennials and their bosses and older colleagues—and a key reason that older workers can find younger workers’ requests for more direction, coaching, and inclusion to be irritating, or at the least counterintuitive. It’s not unheard-of for some in the older generations to say that younger workers are acting immaturely, expecting so much hand-holding. But managers must understand that, for Millennials, it can be extremely frustrating not to have sufficient mentoring or time working in close collaboration with others.
Some managers hear this and assume this lack of self-governance is a serious shortcoming in their younger team members—something they need to get over. The better way to view it is as a terrific opportunity for building stronger teams. Where we think of Boomers and Gen Xers as largely cowboys—an individualistic lot—Millennials are collaborators. Said one Millennial: “Maybe it’s our desire to be well-liked and to have a high friend count, but Millennials are great team players. Through school projects and massive, collaborative online games, we grew so comfortable working with others that many of
us say we are more productive working in teams than on our own. This has obvious benefits in the workplace. Where other generations may have seen in teamwork only the danger that their hard work will not be rewarded and poor work will be blamed on a scapegoat, Millennials thrive on being part of a team.”
All this means there is a seismic shift occurring in the workforce in how a lot of people want to work, which bodes well for the transition to the evolving network-of-teams approach. Leaders must assume many of their people now value being part of a meaningful team more than working independently. And a major implication is that if the team around them isn’t meeting their collaboration and connectivity needs, Millennials are going to meet those needs elsewhere.
In one of our workshops, a forty-something team manager told us he was surprised to find one of his Millennial employees was crowdsourcing work problems online with friends. Let’s say an important client wasn’t returning calls from the young man; well, the worker posed this as a question to his network and asked for advice. In many cases, his friends responded in real-time on his social media sites, and often with workable ideas. He wasn’t asking his boss because it took way too long to get a meeting, and that would involve an awkward face-to-face. This example bears up in a report from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, where researchers found many of today’s workers don’t see their managers as experts in subject areas the way their predecessors did. Why ask the boss when almost all the information you need is available online? Instead, the UNC researchers found, young workers want their managers to serve more as mentors and guides through the corporate experience.
This was revealing for the boss we spoke with. He realized he was not as relevant to his young employee’s experience as he should be, nor were the employee’s colleagues. The manager wasn’t objecting to the notion that someone should consult his community of support for advice, it actually struck him as quite enterprising. But the employee’s reliance on an outside network rather than those around the office certainly wasn’t building loyalty to the team or company.
WILL YOU TELL ME HOW I’M DOING? PLEASE!
The second major difference we uncovered in the data is that Millennial employees are much more often strongly motivated by receiving recognition for their good work. In fact, overall, the data indicates that Millennials as a group are almost twice as likely to be motivated by recognition as Gen X and three-and-a-half times more likely to be motivated by recognition than Boomers. This might account for a lot of the irritation older bosses and colleagues tell us they feel about incessant requests from younger workers for feedback and praise.
The fact is that most Millennials have grown up with more recognition than any generation in history. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other nurturing bodies—only within the last few decades—embraced the practice of offering up a stream of continuous reinforcement. While Boomer and Gen X managers might find Millennials’ demands for recognition and feedback annoying, it’s ironic that most older folks acknowledge that they would have loved more of it from their parents. Many also admit, sheepishly, that they offered it in abundance to their kids—helping create
the recognition junkies who are now emerging in the workforce. Younger people have had their finger paintings posted proudly on the fridge; collected gold, silver, and bronze stars on spelling papers; were named first chair in high school band or starting shortstop in softball; scored well in a round of debate and took home a ribbon. Even when their soccer team lost they beamed with joy at their participant medals. They’ve been dubbed the Everyone Gets a Trophy Generation. Technology has played a role too. Video games provide as many as 100 positive reinforcements a minute, while social media feeds provide a steady stream of reinforcing responses to pictures and comments. If a young woman wants to know if her friends think a new outfit is working for her, she can post a selfie straight from the dressing room and her tribe can gush. No wonder Millennials show up at work expecting at least a modicum of appreciation for their work. A boss telling them, “You don’t get it yet, but you will. I’ll let you know if you mess up, otherwise keep doing what you do!” feels like withdrawal.
So, with this new data on recognition and generations, we have begun pointing out to our clients the irony that they are spending the bulk of their time and money celebrating the accomplishments of more senior employees—those who hit big career milestones or do something above and beyond. It’s not that those celebrations aren’t worthwhile, nor should leaders stop them, but we must find ways to provide more meaningful, frequent recognition to our younger workers if we want to engage them and keep them.
While these differences in the expectations of Millennials about work have been a source of confusion or frustration to many managers and older colleagues, the fact is that on both counts they can push organizations in positive directions. As to
recognition, while Millennials typically value it more than older workers, our research reveals that appreciation of achievements is a powerful driver of engagement and commitment for just about everybody.
Dan Helfrich came to see the power of frequent, sincere recognition as an attribute of a healthy team culture. The leader of Deloitte’s 8,500 person Federal Government Services Practice told us he conducted an experiment. “I knew our people were doing great things for each other every day, so I sent an email asking them to reply with the story of someone who had helped them, and to copy the person. In one week, we had a thousand recognition emails. I realized, ‘Holy cow, our culture is so supportive of one another.’ But I also realized we had tapped into a nerve of people who wanted to say thank you more and weren’t.”
Helfrich said he was awed by, “the swelling of pride that our people felt from a three-line email that was copied to the overall leader of the business saying, ‘Robin did something amazing last week.’ It was this spontaneous thing that started an amazing conversation in our team about the power of gratitude.”
The point for us: Recognition not only helps retain and engage Millennials, but is energizing for employees of all ages.
The same is true about fostering more collaborative and inclusive problem solving, as opposed to emphasizing autonomy. While the greatest admiration in our workplaces has typically gone to the lone hero who solves the problem, wins the big deal, and calms the angry customer, the payoffs of collaboration are so numerous that fostering shared responsibility and developing better ways of working closely together is essential.
Thus, team leaders have a marvelous opportunity, as they seek
to manage Millennials better, to shift perspectives about how all team members should work overall.
What we found next, is that Millennials are also pushing teams in positive directions when it comes to the major motivators that they share with their elders.
CAPITALIZING ON THE COMMONALITIES
As our research team sorted through our database, one of the most striking findings was how similar people are in the top and bottom motivators across all four generations. While there was quite a lot of variation in motivators four to twenty between age groups, the top three were exactly the same for all groups until we reach the Traditionalists (those born before 1945). The bottom three were also remarkably similar, but had a few important exceptions.
Take a look at this snapshot of the top and bottom three for each generation:
TOP 3 MOTIVATORS
BOTTOM 3 MOTIVATORS
It’s in order to provide a little explanation of how our research team defined some of these motivators. The desire for impact is the need to know that your work is important and makes a positive difference in the world. Just to underscore the significance of this idea, it is the number one ranked motivator for every age group from the Gen Z teens who’ve taken the assessment to working adults over the age of seventy.
As for the desire for learning, it might appear fairly straightforward—it’s the wish to keep developing our talents and increasing our knowledge. This idea has appeared in other surveys by other researchers, but we’ve looked under the hood to find that similar labels can mask important differences based on age. The most effective learning for Millennials is often collaborative and tech-forward. For Boomers, the best learning typically builds on their experience and knowledge (versus being completely new to them). It also should be immediately applicable to their work. For older employees, learning also comes through variety, and variety as a motivator grows substantially in importance with age. Variety moves from a middle of the pack concept for Millennials (ranked eleventh) to one of the strongest motivators for people later in their careers (fourth for Boomers). Thus, for older workers—who many leaders, unfortunately, take for granted—a sure way to disconnect them is to have their work become rote.
Next, with family, our research shows people who are motivated by this concept feel it’s important to balance work and personal time, and they want to make their loved ones’ proud of them. An interesting note: This motivator was number one for Millennial women.
Overall, more Millennials stand out as being especially closely
bonded to their parents in comparison with prior generations. It’s not too far from reality to say that the majority of Boomers and Gen Xers would have lived in a cardboard box before moving back in with mom and dad after college, but now it’s commonplace. Many Millennials allow their parents into their social media worlds, text them, and communicate in some way with them almost daily. Again, to show how a similar label might mask generational differences: For older workers, family often means kids and/or spouse or partner. More important than daily work/life balance for many in older generations is leaving a legacy of what they value to their children.
You won’t see many other research studies showing mom and dad or husband or wife as a driver of productivity or motivation. It might be a little uncomfortable to consider family as a motivator in our buttoned-down business teams, but it’s not a bad thing. Not at all. There’s a large body of research that suggests employees working long hours—subsequently ignoring those important to them outside the job, like family—does not help companies. It doesn’t seem to result in more output. In a fascinating study by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference at all in output between employees who worked eighty hours a week and those who just pretended to. And Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees who worked a normal week accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.
Moreover, considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral, it can hurt workers and their companies. Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that overwork and resulting stress can lead to health problems
including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. None of those are good for an employee or a company’s bottom line. They show up in increased absenteeism, attrition, and health insurance costs. Even the stingiest of bosses, who cares nothing for his employees’ personal well-being, should find some compelling signs that there are real, balance-sheet costs incurred when employees ignore their personal lives.
Overall, we see that while there are important insights that come out of this data, that many Millennials tend to be especially vocal about their desire to make an impact and to learn and to have time for family, they are in fact voicing the deepest desires of people of all ages (just perhaps more vocally). The majority of workers want these things. Thus, leaders who incorporate methods of satisfying Millennials’ demands are going to be better managers of everyone else too.
If we apply what we learn with this data, we find Millennials will help push teams in positive directions. Providing more explicitly designed opportunities to take on challenges to grow and develop, helping people see the larger value of the work they’re doing—and balancing time with their loved ones—may be especially important for Millennials. But doing so will also reap great rewards in increased engagement for the rest of the team as well.
Thus, we present here a handful of key strategies we found that not only motivate Millennial workers more strongly, but which our research shows can energize people of all ages. The strategies are:
• Adopt simple rituals of recognition
• Institute transparency about collective team challenges
• Foster directly relevant learning
• Clearly articulate to the team the meaning of their work
We’ll take a close look at each in turn.
MILLENNIAL STRATEGY A ADOPT SIMPLE RITUALS OF RECOGNITION
Not long ago we were conducting a training at a Silicon Valley technology company. When we explained that research shows the most engaged Millennials are recognized more often, and that this particular company’s employee engagement survey showed its recognition scores were, ahem, kind of sucky, one man countered with: “My first boss didn’t say good job very often, but when he did you knew he meant it.” We asked the rest of the group for their thoughts, and a woman spoke up: “That may have worked for you, Rod, but act like that today and your programmers will leave you.” Many of those in the room nodded their heads in agreement. We could tell by his expression that Rod wasn’t sold, and you might not be either. Many managers tell us that recognition is not motivating to them (and so assume it’s not for their people), some are too busy to find the time, others are worried about jealousies arising if one person is recognized and others aren’t, some say they don’t know what to give for what achievements, the explanations go on and on. Let us share with you some powerful data on the value of this idea. Deloitte has found productivity, performance, and employee engagement are, on average, 14 percent higher in teams where employees feel regularly recognized for their work. Our 200,000 person research study for our book The Carrot Principle showed
organizations that are most effective at recognizing excellence were three times more profitable (as measured by operating profit margin) than those that gave little to no recognition.
That said, let us make one thing clear: No manager will ever be perfect at appreciating their employees’ work. You’ll never catch everyone, say the right thing every time, give the perfect awards. But the alternative—skipping it entirely—is the managerial equivalent of punting on first down (squandering an ample opportunity).
Recognition, after all, is about more than expressing gratitude. It is perhaps the most powerful teaching tool a manager has at her disposal. One of a manager’s most pressing jobs is to stay on top of problems. What we find is that managers can prevent a lot of issues from ballooning into problems by publicly calling attention to those small things her people are doing well—pointing everyone in the right direction in a positive way—and especially those bigger things people are doing that are exceptional, that are above and beyond. Each recognition moment with an employee or team is a chance to communicate vital information—to those receiving the award and those around them. This is especially important in helping Millennials know they are making an impact.
Offering regular recognition doesn’t have to take a lot of time. The most effective managers in our studies spend only about an hour a week, on average, recognizing the accomplishments of their people—that’s about two percent of a fifty-hour work week. Yet they have significantly higher employee engagement scores and much lower attrition. Even brief expressions of appreciation, when done frequently, can lead to extraordinary gains in worker satisfaction and commitment.
So, below, we offer our Top Seven Ways to provide recognition, culled from decades consulting with organizations about their recognition strategies:
7 WAYS TO OFFER SMART RECOGNITION
1. APPLAUD ATTEMPTS: Good bowlers don’t aim for the pins but for the arrows set on the lane fifteen feet from the foul line. This is called spot bowling. A ball that rolls over the right spot (or arrow) will usually continue down a straight path and hit the right pin. In great teams, managers aim their people at regular, small-scale milestones to get to the big ones, and they praise every positive step taken along the way—including valiant efforts that don’t work out (workplace gutter balls, if you will). For the 2013–17 seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team had one of the worst records in the National Basketball Association, yet the sales team set league records for season-ticket sales. They created an environment where teammates were constantly praised and applauded for what they call hustle stats—not dollars booked but all the little things that lead to a sale. That included time on the phone, emails sent, face time with clients in person, online connections made, coaching other teammates, and so on. Employees with the most hustle points earned public praise in huddles, had their names flashed on flat screens around the office, and could earn wacky, fun team prizes—like rotating championship wrestling belts, golden boots, and bronze wolf statues—for their efforts.
2. DO IT NOW: Kind of like milk left out of the fridge, thank-you does not keep long. The closer recognition is given to the
time a behavior happens, the more a manager reinforces the behavior and employees learn what matters most in the team. Many leaders think they’ll remember employee achievements, perhaps believing them more appropriate to reinforce in the next performance review, but too often the acts are forgotten and the chance to reinforce is lost—along with the motivating power for other team members to witness the celebratory events. Timeliness is especially important with Millennials, satisfying their desire for instant gratification. Lance Trenary, CEO of Golden Corral, is a big believer in the timeliness of recognition. To that end, he has provided the system with golden nuggets to hand out as soon as they see coworkers doing something great. Managers can add a few lines of gratitude on to these nugget-shaped thank-you notes, or also include a gold-nugget lapel pin. Trenary adds, however, that even with tools to facilitate speed-to-recognition, a manager, “Has to find out what’s important to the individual. Some people like verbal praise, others a gold nugget, someone else wants half a day off in summer to spend with their kids.”
3. DO IT OFTEN: We’ve found members of the most engaged teams report feeling some form of appreciation from their leader or fellow teammates about once a week. Yet a lot of leaders worry they could end up giving out too much recognition. Really? Have you ever worked at a place that appreciated you too much? Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) has an award-winning online system where employees and managers can post electronic recognition that can be viewed by the entire 80,000 person workforce. Little and big wins are broadcast
for everyone to see and be inspired by the stories—and they have been happening multiple times a day around the banking system for several years now. RBC also encourages coworkers to add an electronic thumbs-up or a short comment of encouragement. This constant, frequent flow of social appreciation is helping build a culture of frequent gratitude throughout the bank, and reinforces the concept that every role is important if we are going to win as a team.
4. BE SPECIFIC: Generic praise has little to no meaning for employees. We’ve probably all known a boss who sprayed the place with meaningless platitudes like, “Good job, everyone.” He thought he was being magnanimous, but came off a bit clueless, as though he had no idea what his people were really doing. The hard truth is some team members might not have done that good a job, while others have made truly stellar contributions. The result of this style of leveling-praise can lead to cynicism. A team leader of an engineering design team told us he learned this the hard way. Jennifer, he said, was, “by far my most innovative and productive designer. And she got along with everyone, and that’s not always the case with high performers in our business.” The problem was, the manager didn’t want to praise Jennifer too much in front of the team because she was always the best. “Frankly, Jeff worked right next to Jennifer, and I didn’t want him to feel bad.” The manager summed it up, “Over time I think Jennifer felt undervalued. She left for a competitor a while ago.” When we asked if Jeff was still there, the manager nodded. Of course. Jeff wasn’t going anywhere. A lesson learned.
5. CLEARLY REINFORCE KEY VALUES: The most effective teams typically operate under a brief list of core values or guiding principles, and their leaders are constantly on the lookout for members who demonstrate them. With public recognition, they reinforce those behaviors to the entire team. We get a chance to work with a lot of great organizations, and the best always have clear values. Johnson & Johnson’s credo is etched into limestone in the HQ lobby—putting customers at the top, employees second, and shareholders last. But anyone who’s owned J&J shares long enough knows that a fantastic return has come from living these values in this order. At Tesco, Europe’s largest retailer, the core values can be easily found in every store, lorry, and online location. Team members have little trouble reciting the three: “No one tries harder for customers,” “We treat people how they want to be treated,” and “Every little help makes a big difference.” These concepts are brought up in team meetings before shifts; and when managers recognize associates, the celebrations are focused on one of the three specific behaviors.
6. FORMALLY CELEBRATE SIGNIFICANT OUTCOMES: When a big goal is reached, it can be demotivating for a manager to offer up only attaboys, such as: “You saved our biggest account, Nadine. Here’s a Starbucks card. Let me know if you get change.” Great managers know they have to celebrate outcomes with an award and a presentation that is meaningful to the person. The award may be something intangible—from the assignment of a leadership role on a big project, to time off to be with friends or family—to something tangible like a formal award. It depends, again, on the person and what they
value. At Rich Product Corporation in Buffalo, the brand promise is to treat customers, associates, and communities like family. As such, the company has celebrated the success of its best individual performers and teams with a vacation in the Rich family jet. (That’s the kind of family we want to be a part of.) The trips created ambassadors within the associate ranks who spread the word that good works are recognized. Of course, most of us can’t give out rides in our private Gulfstreams, but it’s not a stretch to find an award that will be meaningful to an individual and somewhat commensurate with an accomplishment.
7. TAKE A STEP: In formally presenting an award, managers can add impact by remembering the acronym STEP: Tell a Story about the accomplishment, gather the immediate team Together to listen and add comments (recognition is always public, criticism is private), Emphasize a core value that has been demonstrated, and Personalize the moment. Public recognition like this happens regularly at Tire Kingdom Service Centers. In just one circumstance, a district manager told us he’d recognized one of his general service technicians. The manager said: “He executed the inspection process correctly and turned in the inspection within the time rule, which is the key to this process. I brought the entire team into a quick huddle, thanked the team for their hard work and for keeping the brand-new store clean every day. I reviewed what the associate did and why it was important and then presented him with a thank-you card and a twenty-five-dollar gift card.” And yet the touching moment for the district manager came about thirty minutes
later when the associate came and asked him to sign and date the card on the front because he wanted to put it in a frame. Why was this simple act so powerful? Because the associate’s peers were gathered and a manager explained exactly why he was being recognized. Great business leaders create similar moments for their people by taking just a few minutes to think about how to best deliver each award.
MILLENNIAL STRATEGY B INSTITUTE TRANSPARENCY ABOUT COLLECTIVE TEAM CHALLENGES
Being more transparent with your team about problems as they arise, how the team can step up, who’s tasked with doing what, and the perception of higher-ups about team performance are among the most powerful ways to help younger workers feel they are valuable contributors and part of a collective effort. With such transparency, not only Millennials, but everyone, can see better how the team fits into the larger operation, not to mention understand how they might make more impactful contributions. Being more transparent empowers all members of a team.
Joe Badaracco, professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School, advises managers, “If you find yourself being furtive too often—editing a lot of what you say before you say it, or being secretive with information, hiding things from people—I’d stop and ask what is really going on. It may be time to take a step back and do some reflection.” If your people don’t know what’s going wrong, how can they possibly help you fix it?
Transparency is particularly important to Millennials. Danaher
Vice President Aquino told us she’s tried to implement solutions for this in her team. She said, “Boomers want to be honored for their legacy and what they know, Millennials want information. They are used to living in a world of perfect information and, if it’s not, they often don’t get started. I’d estimate this generation can give twenty percent more productivity than any generation if they have the right information to get started.”
So, she tells her new hires to not be intimidated but to seek out knowledge. “I give each of my new people a list of five people they need to meet and the core knowledge those people have. They are supposed to set up meetings, meet with them face-to-face, and interview them. Then they come back and give me a summary of what they learned. That’s led to some really rich discussions.”
Aquino is among the team leaders we’ve met who are transforming their workplaces from need-to-know cultures to need-to-share, where privacy is being replaced with a permanent transparency. In our personal lives, most likely because of social media, more of us are living in the open than ever before, and this is transferring rapidly into the work world. Secrecy, once considered the accepted norm in business, is now largely anachronistic. Who would have ever believed that employees would get to rate their bosses in public, which they can on Glassdoor and other sites—or their customers—encouraged in places like Airbnb and Uber. Who could have predicted a new Pope’s first charge to his Vatican administrators would be “absolute transparency” (as we saw with Pope Francis).
Millennials have grown up with the belief they have an inalienable right to participate, and smart managers are encouraging it, and it’s leading their teams to be more collaborative as a result. Participating in decision-making tends to reduce stress, increase
trust, and create a culture where people are more likely to own challenges and solutions. We instinctively know how important this kind of transparency is in our personal lives. We wouldn’t fall in love with someone if they failed to disclose as we got to know them better. As hunky as James Bond might be, most women would not put up with his clandestine behavior for long. Similarly, in our work lives, we don’t create a connection with a manager who keeps everything close to the vest.
There’s a propensity to think of this idea of transparency as something to do when a mistake has been made. While that is an important part of the process—fessing up when we mess up—we are speaking of proactive transparency. For example, consider why so many hip restaurants nowadays allow customers to see their chefs at work, and the cooks to see their customers. Is this simply for better ambiance? Hardly. A study by Harvard Business School researchers found a 17 percent increase in customer satisfaction with food and 13 percent faster service in these open environments. In this literally transparent world of dining, customers feel as if they are part of the creative process, and workers seem to be more thoughtful and precise knowing that they are observed.
Transparency about who is doing what tasks, and how it’s all going, is fundamental if team members are going to assist one another. That can create better connections with younger workers and their older colleagues. After all, longer tenured workers do tend to have more connections within the organization and ways of getting information, and younger workers can often offer disruptive ideas and solutions, especially those using technology.
A few questions a manager might ask herself about the amount of transparency she’s fostering are:
• Do I share everything about our team with my employees, or do I find myself keeping information secret that doesn’t need to be?
• Do we have a very clear way to post our team goals and current performance levels for all to see?
• Am I consistent about involving my people in decision-making with issues that affect their work lives?
• Do my employees have a say in setting goals that are important in their jobs?
• What avenues do my team members have to voice their ideas and concerns?
• How do I show my employees their opinions and ideas are appreciated?
Kim Cochran is regional sales manager for Fluke Industrial Group, a manufacturer of electronic test tools and software. She took over her nine-state region three years ago, at a time when the company was losing too many of its valuable technical salespeople. One of her first steps as manager was to review the latest engagement survey results for her new team, and found that half her people were actively looking for another job.
Jump ahead three years, and Cochran hasn’t lost a single one.
She credits the biggest change in her team with implementing an extraordinary degree of transparency. Her people are all remote, and they travel nonstop. Thus, her goal is to help them feel included and listened to, but never overwhelmed by information. She therefore classifies all messages that come in to her on a ladder.
On the lowest rung are things that she can take care of for
her direct reports without bothering them. These are easy. Boom, done.
The next rung up involves information that does need her employees’ attention, but isn’t going to make or break their sales efforts—things such as due dates for benefits sign-up or when sales forecasts are due. She sends these out in a short email. Her people know she tries to screen the information that comes their way; thus an email from Cochran does need some attention. “The trick is not to harp on them,” she says. “That can be frustrating for people who are busy. Things do accidentally fall off their radar.” The goal is to keep her people on schedule and watch out for them.
Next up the ladder comes information she classifies as hot topics, those items that her folks will need to give serious attention—changes in work process, organizational structure, pay plan, customer pricing, and so on. During the week she compiles these issues on a running agenda and brings them up one by one in her weekly open-forum call with the entire team. These weekly calls can get heated, and she says, “There are times I have to say, ‘There’s more to come on this topic, but I’m not at liberty to share right now,’ or, ‘I know this is a problem, and I want to assure you that it is being looked at from a very high level.’?”
Cochran says she’s tried to do a better job of communicating the why behind decisions made above them. “If we roll out a new sales process, for instance, as a manager I’ll be privy to all the whys and hows. But I’m rolling it out to fresh ears on my team. I have to explain, ‘This is why we are doing this, here are the statistics that show why it’s important,’ versus ‘This is what we are going to do.’?” If there’s debate, she promises her team that she’ll raise the issues with her higher-ups and find resolutions, if possible.
The top step in her ladder approach is information classified as urgent—those 911 items that can’t wait even a day to share. In this case, Cochran will call a huddle phone call at day’s end (when most associates are available). “I’ve learned this should not be used for everyday topics, since it puts everyone in the fire-drill mode constantly. I have been a part of an organization like that, and it’s miserable,” she said.
One of our favorite stories of transparency comes from Quicken Loans, where a handful of the 10,000 employees accidentally call CEO Bill Emerson every month. He doesn’t mind. He has given his personal cell-phone number to each employee, and expects a few pocket dials now and then.
“It’s an open culture,” he says. “I encourage leaders to be accessible because it breeds an inclusive culture.” And as the senior-most leader, Emerson realizes he must model the behavior. The CEO only receives a handful of real calls from employees each month (even some from brave interns), and most are about regular business. He has not yet received any prank calls. Still, he does remember a few unusual moments.
During one new employee orientation session, new hires were given an awareness quiz, which came soon after Emerson and founder Dan Gilbert spent a ten-hour day going over Quicken’s ISMs (values) and culture. In the quiz, one of the questions was, ‘What color are Bill Emerson’s eyes?’ “I got like six phone calls from people asking if I would answer the question for them. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t answer that; it’s an awareness quiz!’?”
So, we find with a smile, there may be a few times when it’s not good to be too transparent—even in the most transparent of cultures.
MILLENNIAL STRATEGY C FOSTER DIRECTLY RELEVANT LEARNING AND CAREER DEVELOPMENT
We introduced you to Skanska USA earlier in this chapter. Leaders at this firm have found they must create regular learning experiences for Millennials, so they have started rotating new, young hires every six months until they find their sweet spot in this construction giant. In the rotations, employees will usually have roles in safety, estimating, quality, and as superintendents on various projects.
The company has also changed the way their people learn—again due to the Millennial influence. Says CEO Rich Cavallaro, “If the taillight goes out on my wife’s 2012 Jeep Cherokee, how do I fix it? I watch a video on YouTube and in ten minutes I can do the job. If I didn’t have that video, it would take me three hours to figure out how to remove all the parts. That’s how people learn now.” And, as such, Skanska’s process to bring people up to speed has become much more video based, offered in bite-sized increments.
Mitch Snyder, CEO of 7,000 person Bell Helicopter, finds his Millennials need much more feedback about career development. “When I started years ago, we got a promotion every two years—from an associate to an engineer to a lead engineer to a senior engineer. Then someone decided no, you are an engineer and that’s it. But Millennials value nurturing and constant high-level engagement with their leaders, as well as being challenged and making a difference. They need to feel there is a path for their career.” Thus, Bell has become more transparent about career development and lateral and promotional opportunities, and
encourages mentoring sessions with managers to help employees take each step forward.
That kind of frequent interaction with leaders is at the heart of how most people learn. In fact, a commonly used formula within the training profession is what’s called the 70:20:10 model. It’s used to describe the optimal sources of learning for workers, and holds that individuals obtain roughly 70 percent of their work knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with influential others (like mentors and coaches), and 10 percent from formal educational events.
The 70:20:10 model’s developers—Morgan McCall, Michael Lombardo, and Robert Eichinger—were researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership. They held that hands-on experience (the 70 percent) is the most beneficial for employees because it enables them to discover and refine their job-related skills on the fly, understand customers better, make decisions and address challenges, see how products are made, and interact in real-time with bosses and coworkers within actual work settings. Individuals can also learn from their mistakes and receive immediate feedback on performance.
Employees learn from others (the 20 percent) through a variety of activities that include social learning, coaching, mentoring, collaborative learning, and other methods of interaction with peers. Encouragement and feedback are prime benefits of this valuable learning approach.
To help accomplish this type of learning, we watched with interest recently as ten senior leaders from Michigan Medicine (formerly the University of Michigan Health System) started something called MicroMentors in their organization. The idea
was to provide emerging leaders at this 26,000 person healthcare organization a way to spend up to sixty minutes of undivided attention with a senior leader. These short, one-time bursts of mentoring assist emerging leaders in working through issues with someone who has experience in the area. There’s no long-term relationship expected. Topics offered include everything from managing disruptive employee behavior to better determining your team’s priorities, from strategic planning to salary negotiation, from building high-functioning teams to managing stress and balancing work and home. The most oft-requested micromentoring sessions have revolved around career development—with younger leaders asking questions of their micromentors about pursuing additional education or trying new things in their careers. And since the executives involved want to retain these high-potential employees, they can usually point out opportunities available by staying and growing within Michigan Medicine. It’s a terrific idea.
Finally, the 70:20:10 formula holds that only about one-tenth of professional development comes from traditional instruction and educational events, a finding that typically surprises those with academic backgrounds (but literally no one else). Now, with that said, formal training is still foundational in providing a vital overview of concepts from proven sources, presented in creative ways that employees and managers can begin to process. Companies invest a lot in corporate universities, learning programs, and leadership development training, and there’s no doubt the teams and leaders we work with are hungry for these kinds of opportunities. But, we’ve found, team leaders must also be active in fostering learning. You can’t just ship employees off to a class and hope they grow into the dream contributors you need.
The Philadelphia 76ers sales team, with 105 people, is the largest in the National Basketball Association—and Millennials comprise 99 percent of the group. “They want to run through walls, they want to change the world,” said CEO Scott O’Neil. The sales team uses a two-week onboarding process to immerse young new professionals in the office’s sales process, but learning doesn’t stop there.
“In other places, I trained for a few weeks and then it was survival of the fittest,” said Evan Ostrosky, manager of inside sales. “Here, we train our reps at least once or twice a week on everything and anything. For example, if a player gets injured, we’ll get everyone together and train so we all have the same exact message.” Weekly, managers will also take a group of reps through mock appointments, techniques in finding their voice and understanding customer needs, and how to tell better stories. “Many millennials leave because they don’t feel challenged after a year,” said Ostrosky. “We want to develop you the entire time you are here. And not just about sales, we want to grow you professionally and as a person.”
Another company that’s good at creating relevant and engaging opportunities to learn throughout an employee’s tenure is DreamWorks Pictures—creators of animated hits like Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, and Kung Fu Panda. DreamWork’s thirteen-acre campus more resembles a small liberal arts college than a business, and many employees resemble college students. Nearly a quarter of the 2,200 workers are under thirty, and the studio has a 97 percent retention rate. The strategy here: Foster spontaneous discussions, encourage risk-taking, openly discuss mistakes, share successes, and nurture professional development.
As part of that, all new hires are encouraged to develop and pitch a movie idea to members of the executive team. The company even offers workshops and mentoring on how to make the pitches successful. DreamWorks has also invested in a robust education department, offering various classes to help employees develop not only their business acumen but artistic skills, such as photography, sculpting, painting, improv, and cinematography, which they can take during work hours.
While this is a terrific example of effective formal education, we again stress how important direct manager involvement is in the career development process. The format we advise for this is holding regular aspirational conversations, which we’ll discuss in the next chapter, short career discussions with those employees who work for you. Generally, having one of these conversations once a month with direct reports and at least once or twice a year with skip-level employees is optimal. But in some high turnover industries, such as retail or service, a best-practice shows holding them weekly can cut turnover as much as in half.
MILLENNIAL STRATEGY D CLEARLY ARTICULATE TO THE TEAM THE MEANING OF THEIR WORK
Philosopher Frederick Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “He who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.” And, we’d add, he can endure much better the setbacks that inevitably happen (the what the hecks!). Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was rejected by twenty-seven publishers before he sold his first book—and then 600 million copies more. Unable to have children of his own,
Seuss found a great sense of meaning by helping other people raise their kids with tolerance and love for humanity. Oprah Winfrey thought she wanted to be a newscaster and became the co-anchor of a nightly network affiliate in Baltimore when just twenty-two. She was fired from that job, probably because—as she recalls—her heart wasn’t in it. She wanted to inspire people to be more than they thought they ever could be. Once she launched her talk show, she was fulfilling her personal mission.
The power of why was on thrilling display at the Euro 2016 Football (soccer) Championship in France. The best men’s national teams from across Europe battled for the title of the continent’s best and, after the group stage, powerhouse England was set to play upstart Iceland in the knockout round. To put this match into perspective, Iceland is a country of 330,000 people; it has more volcanoes than professional soccer players, and one of the head coaches is a practicing dentist. The entire English national team play for clubs that are household names such as Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Meanwhile, Iceland’s players suit up in places like Israel and Turkey for clubs like the Grasshoppers and Whalers. Odds-makers predicted the Brits would win by at least four goals.
But Iceland was playing to bring pride and joy to the tiny country. More than 10 percent of the entire population journeyed to France for the tournament, and 98 percent of the rest tuned in on television. And as they had progressed through the set of matches, after each game, the players and coaches put on an exhilarating display of appreciation for their fans. In unison on the sidelines, the team began a slow, overhead clap, leading their supporters in the stands. They called this Viking Thunder Clap, and it
was punctuated with a guttural “huh” as the hands came together. Slowly the clapping built in momentum until thousands of Icelandic voices were roaring, hands clapping wildly, creating a cacophony of sound that floated out of the stadiums and filled the French streets. Unless your team had just lost to the Icelanders, it was impossible not to be moved by the display.
In their knockout game with England, Iceland stunned the football world by winning 2–1.
We acknowledge that the argument for a strong sense of meaning—clarity around an inspiring why—has been a staple of management books recently. You’d think by now that most managers would be following the advice. Apparently, it’s not that easy. Try this experiment with your team. With no prompting about the right answer, ask each employee individually to write down what they believe the core purpose of your team is, answering the questions: Why does our specific team exist / why do we get up and come into work every day? If all the answers are pretty much the same, and exactly what you’d want them to say, your team passes with flying colors and you can skip the rest of this chapter. But we’ve done this exercise with many, many teams—even those you would think have a clear purpose such as a nonprofit—and the answers usually range dramatically.
Failing to define a clear and compelling why is squandering a golden opportunity to create a strong bonding force among team members of all ages. We emphasize that this is one key way to unify younger workers and their older colleagues and bridge the gaps between. Believing in a noble cause makes older workers more willing to spend time mentoring younger team members and be more open to sharing with them. For Millennials (who we often
call the Why Generation), clarity about the cause helps them believe that, even as entry-level players, they are making a significant contribution to a mission that matters.
Now, we understand there can still be skepticism about the value of crafting a team statement of purpose—Ah, motherhood and apple pie, some cynics claim. And the detractors are not too far from the truth in some cases. Many team statements tend to be too generic to do much good: “Customers come first.” Really, how? Others are too mind-numbingly dull to have any inspirational effect: “We have committed to engineer excellent solutions while promoting personal employee growth.” Doesn’t everyone? While some are so complex as to baffle an astrophysicist: “We will disseminate error-free solutions and endeavor to monetize performance-based benefits while continuing to continually facilitate progressive meta-services.” So stirring. We might have to borrow a hanky (sniff).
There are a few mission statement generators on the Web if you need a good laugh, and Weird Al Yankovic’s parody song “Mission Statement” is well worth a listen.
Scott Weisberg, chief people officer for The Wendy’s Company, admits he’s been a bit of a cynic too: “I’m about to sound a bit like Scrooge, but I’m an HR guy who hasn’t seen the value of taking a great deal of senior leadership time to develop a ‘vision.’ Too often it ends up getting shelved or it’s not actionable. That said, I’ve always been a believer in people understanding the purpose of everything they do.”
As such, Wendy’s executive team met not long ago to reflect on its own purpose. To be clear, the senior leadership team wasn’t trying to define the overall purpose of Wendy’s, but the reason the
executive team existed. What job could this group of senior leaders do that no one else could? What they came up with were two words: joy and opportunity. Said Weisberg, “We realized our job is to bring joy to people’s lives through our customer experience and provide an opportunity for our team members to grow.”
There can be brilliance in simplicity, when it’s as good as that.
To avoid the generic, complex, or dull, there are a few keys to making the exercise of creating a team purpose statement most meaningful. The first step is to encourage input from your team, meaning, “Don’t do this alone.” With that said, we do not recommend asking your team the question: “What’s our purpose?” Instead, make it more human by asking, “Why do we exist as a team?” or “What job do we do for customers?” or “What gets you excited to come here every day?”
In answering these questions, employees can be in the same room, but should draft their attempts independently. Working together on a first draft typically ends up with a synergized mess where the team, “Leverages its core competencies to blah blah.” The process works best this way: Draft alone, then decide together. A good facilitator, from outside the group (maybe from HR, L&D, or communications—if you have those functions) can help cull the best ideas and then weave them into a compelling, yet brief, manifesto.
We were working with the IT department of a large bank, which had an overall corporate mission to make customers’ financial lives more successful. Surveys showed team members in the IT team, however, weren’t clear as to how their work impacted that big mission—since they never saw or spoke with live customers. They met as a team and came up with a purpose: “We enable
great customer experiences.” That might not seem too sexy, but the word “enable” meant a lot to this group of programmers, system architects, and help-desk staff. The IT folks then developed a list of “enablers”—specific behaviors they expected from each other. Those included such things as: “We anticipate and act with urgency,” “We empower people to take action,” and “We are courageous.” Finally, under each enabler, they then came up with specific definitions and examples to help associates understand “What it looks like” and “What I can do today.” So, for example, under the enabler “We are courageous,” associates could read in the definitions and examples that it was okay and expected to ask tough questions of each other and their managers, strongly advocate for their customers, and challenge the status quo in processes and design.
That level of specificity helped these information technology workers better understand their unique roles, how they could make the bank great, and truly help customers’ financial lives through their work behind the scenes writing code, fixing computers, and managing the network.
We’ve conducted this kind of purpose exercise with hundreds of teams. One of our favorite cases was working with Dr. John Charpie, director of the Michigan Medicine’s Congenital Heart Center, and his team, which comprises a few dozen nurses, physicians, researchers, techs, and environmental services professionals who take care of very sick children with heart problems. The purpose statement Charpie led his team to was: “Our job is to turn our patients’ and their families’ worst day into their best day.” Now that’s a source of unity and inspiration.
Another great example we found was at TCC Wireless, the
nation’s largest Verizon reseller. The company has hundreds of stores nationwide with 2,900 employees—85 percent of whom are Millennials. But TCC’s turnover is 20 percent below the national average for retailers, employee engagement is at record highs, as are profits.
Ryan McCarty was a pastor when TCC hired him to create a social responsibility initiative that would help the young employees feel the company was giving back. They ended up calling it a Culture of Good. McCarty explained it this way, “We wanted to create a place where you go to work every day and can be a force for good; that by working together with their customers and communities, employees can truly change the world.” Amen, Pastor!
They started with backpacks. The first fall, McCarty and the team at TCC filled 60,000 backpacks with much-needed school supplies, then they distributed the packs to employees in twenty-eight states. McCarty asked team members to get involved in finding kids in need and distributing them. Note that he didn’t ask just the store managers to do this, but everyone.
Said the former pastor: “When word got out about the backpacks our employees were handing out, people in need began to show up. Kids were hugging employees, parents had tears of gratitude.” How do you think TCC’s workforce felt getting up the next day? No snooze button for them.
Today, Culture of Good has quarterly activities—and each store has the independence to do what their employees think will do the most good in their communities. Workers also receive sixteen hours a year paid time off to do good on their own. And, corporatewide, the Backpack Giveaway is now an annual tradition.
Now, they give away (with help from other corporate partners) about 300,000 backpacks.
The result of a heightened focus on meaning? About 70 percent of employees believe the Culture of Good has won them new customers. But, more important, there’s an authenticity here that tells us everyone believes it’s the right thing to do.
McCarty said, “We are not trying to turn our company into a nonprofit. We want to be successful so that we can give more to those who really need it.”
Who wouldn’t want to unify around a mission like that?