In my previous blog post I talked about why employee engagement is critical to any business endeavor and is your most important job as a manager. I referenced part 7 of Mike’s Leadership Principles, He Drinks 7-Up, as a key lesson in how to create highly engaged employees. But of course, the point of that story is not that you need to know your employees’ preferred brand of soda. The point is… well, let’s hold off on that for a second. I’ve got a beverage story of my own.
Several years ago I was mentoring a rising star in the consulting firm I worked for. Let’s call him Darren. Darren accompanied me on a number of client presentations. After several of these sessions, I asked Darren if he wanted to take the lead role in the next one. He was more than ready, and he eagerly agreed.
Unfortunately when the day came, it was a disaster.Not sure if it was nerves, sun spots, or just a bad hair day, but Darren didn’t do a good job. And he knew it. From my perspective there were two problems to be solved. One was the damage control needed to repair the relationship with the client. That wasn’t going to be fun, but it was comparatively easy. The other challenge – much harder – was how to turn this experience into a productive one for Darren.
Immediately after the session, I took him out for a beer. Instead of chewing him out, or providing him with a full review of his mistakes and a litany of suggestions for improvement, I asked him what he learned and what he intended to do differently as a result. His response was amazing. For thirty minutes he talked non-stop about his performance, and it was obvious he knew exactly what he needed to do to improve. I told him that was good enough for me, and that he had my blessing to do the next client presentation as well.
I worked with Darren for another 24 months, and across that time his level of commitment to the job was as strong as any employee I’ve managed. Oh, we had disagreements, and there were other times I needed to deliver some tough messages. But we had established a basis of trust. He knew I trusted his ability and his work ethic, and that I wasn’t going to jump down his throat (or submarine him in a performance review) if he made a few mistakes along the way. And if you think about it, did that half hour really cost me anything? Actually it did: about $20. I paid for two rounds of Stella Artois. I’d say that investment produced a pretty good ROB (Return on Beer).
It also led to one of the proudest moments of my career. A couple of weeks later Darren was relating this story to a co-worker, and he finished by saying “if you look up the definition of ‘good manager’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Dave Willis.”
The lesson of the Darren story (and the 7UP story) is that you create highly engaged employees by exceeding their expectations. At the end of his presentation, Darren was feeling very low. He knew he’d underperformed. He knew he had not met my standards; he knew he hadn’t meet the clients’ standards. And perhaps most importantly, he knew he hadn’t met his own standards.
Knowing how most organizations and most managers provide feedback, he had every right to believe that his conversation with me was only going to (a) state the obvious, that the event was not successful and (b) make him feel even worse. Instead, we used the opportunity to provide him with helpful feedback – which he himself delivered – and to reinforce that I believed in him.
I’m not suggesting that exceeding your employees’ expectations is easy. There is an art to it. You have to get to know your people and really care about them in order to exceed their expectations. How well do you really know your current employees? What do they want out of their current job? What’s their dream job, and is at your company or somewhere else? How can you help them get there? What skills do they most want to develop? What’s important to them outside of the job? Do they prefer more direction and oversight from you, or less? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, or haven’t thought about them in a long time, start there.
There are lots of books and articles written with very tactical suggestions on how to engage your employees. Many of them have good advice, but they miss the bigger picture. Engaging your employees isn’t about the tactical task of buying them 7-Up. It’s about knowing what they care about and why, anticipating their needs, remembering their preferences, and solving problems for them before they even know they have them. It’s about being a better manager, and delivering a better employment experience, than they ever expected.
And if you think that sounds very similar to the recipe for great customer service, you’re exactly right. But that’s a subject for another blog post.