“The more significant employees feel, the more they will do without you asking them.”
The way I learned the lesson is even more powerful than the lesson itself. It was back in 1982. I was in college and working as a janitor at the Pepperidge Farms plant in Aiken, SC. When I first started and went to orientation, I thought that my supervisor was going to show me how to clean all of equipment that was used in the bread making, packing and shipping process. To my surprise, it wasn’t the supervisor who did--it was the plant manager, Ernie. He talked to us about how critical our jobs were to the success of the company and plant. He said, “We are depending on you to make sure our factory is clean so that we can produce a quality product and pass all of the government, white-glove, inspections of our plant. If we don’t pass them, we can be shut down. More importantly, if the equipment isn’t thoroughly cleaned, bugs and germs will get into the product and affect our customers.” Ernie backed up his words with action. Whenever we passed inspections with the highest grades, he would show up on the third shift and serve us janitors steaks. Needless to say, there was no way in hell I was going to let Ernie down. We made sure that everything was cleaned the way it was supposed to be. We didn’t accept anyone doing a half-ass job. It was all because Ernie made us feel significant.
I told that story when I was the commencement speaker at my undergraduate college. Little did I know that Ernie was a trustee of the university and was sitting behind me. We spoke afterwards. He didn’t realize the impact his leadership had on me.
That type of leadership was reinforced in me when I worked at Georgia-Pacific by our CEO Pete Correll. He made everyone feel significant by the way he personally got involved with our safety and employee service awards celebrations. I still have the picture Pete took with me on my 20th employee anniversary. All employees also used to get a cookie on their birthday. (We looked forward to that cookie and card attached to it.)
The three CEOs I worked with during my tenure at Medtronic also made employees feel significant. Art Collins, Bill Hawkins, and Omar Ishrak did by being personally involved in the Mission and Medallion ceremony. Every employee received a medallion for the role she/he was playing to achieve the Medtronic Mission to “Alleviate Pain, Restore Health, and Extend Life.” My greatest honor at Medtronic was when Bill had me participate in ceremony for our Puerto Rico employees. He and I handed out medallions and took pictures with over a thousand employees on that day.
Unfortunately, you don’t see that type of leadership too much anymore. That’s why employee engagement levels are so low. The reality is at most companies, unless you are at the very top of the organization, you don’t feel that significant. The good news is leaders who make their people feel significant will get sustainable, competitive advantage. To be that type of leader, you will have to personally engage with all levels of the organization and have some type of ceremony that reinforces your words with action.
A steak, a cookie, and a medallion are things that I will treasure for the rest of my life. What will your employees treasure and say about how you made them feel significant?