I used to think that the most important thing in building a new business was the right strategy. What I failed to appreciate, and only learned after making many mistakes, was “people first, strategy second.” Successful entrepreneurs know how to engage employees and in this article, I will give you some of the insights I have gathered over the years about employee engagement.
My background was one of overachievers. I played baseball in college and spent three years at one of the most prestigious law firms in New York City. Northwestern Law School, where I got my law degree was ranked seventh in the country when I graduated and was the worst law school in my firm’s candidate class.
In the mergers and acquisitions world, it was common to hold conference calls at three in the morning and not to sleep for days. Needless to say, people were expected to drive themselves. When there are billions of dollars at stake and clients are paying hundreds, if not thousands of dollars an hour for lawyers, the need to engage the workforce hardly gets much attention.
Pro athletes and lawyers at firms like the one I worked at are self-motivated. They don’t need to be aligned, engaged or inspired. I figured everyone was that way. I realized, the hard way, that the real world is not comprised of lawyers at firms who pay them $150,000 starting salaries.
The real world is made up of the people who make it go round—the customer service representatives who help you with your credit card, the construction workers who build your house, the medical administrators in doctors’ offices and hospitals, the sanitation workers who clean our streets, the factory workers you make sure your Amazon orders ship and the postal workers who deliver our mail. Remove them from the world and watch society collapse.
I thought that everyone we hired at IncentOne—the customer service reps, the fulfillment personnel who shipped gift cards, the client service representatives and the technology developers, would be self-motivated. If they weren’t self-motivated on their own, once they knew that we would change the healthcare system, they would be so inspired that they would hop out of bed at 6 a.m. without an alarm.
They wouldn’t worry about their mortgage, sick child, struggling marriage, aging relative, medical bills or the cost of their bus pass. It seems silly as I put these words on the page. Boy was I wrong.
How you take care of your people tells you more about your company and you as a leader than anything. Nothing demonstrates cultural values more than how you treat your team. A commitment to your people has many positive effects.
It drives their commitment to the vision. It creates ambassadors for your company. When you or your company are criticized, they will defend you. It creates a recruiting department when you don’t have one. Customers notice and want to do business with you. Employees will take constructive criticism.
Treat your people like fungible assets that can be replaced at any time and watch the negative effects.
When one thing goes bad, ten things will go bad. When an obstacle occurs, they will blame others. When you provide constructive criticism, they will look for a job. When you or your company are criticized, they will pile on.
So the question is if people are our most important asset, how do you
maximize the performance of your people? The perspective of most entrepreneurs is that they expect their people to work hard. Some entrepreneurs expect their people to work constantly.
After all, we have a business to build and so much more to do than time. My perspective, like most entrepreneurs, was that we were doing important work, and if someone was getting involved, they knew they were going to work their ass off. That is the default strategy that entrepreneurs use to drive performance. “You signed up for this.”
Is this right? The question is, “How do you truly engage your people so that they are not only productive but deliver at a level which far exceeds your expectations?” And how do you do it so they are fulfilled and excited about what they do with their lives?” I think the answer will surprise you.
How To Engage Your Employees
The answer is not what your team does for you and the company. The answer is what the company does for them. Put this perspective in place and you will see performance you have never seen before. Here are two tools that will help you think differently:
• Find Out What They Want in Life. Don’t ask yourself, “How do I get the most out of our people?” Instead ask, “How do I get our people what they want most in life?”
Find out what your people want. Not what they want in their business lives but in their personal lives. Not what they want for their professional growth, but what they want in life. Not in a superficial way, but in a way that touches who they really are. Find out what they really want in life. Don’t worry about how it relates to your business. That will come.
Once you discover what is important to them, figure out how to get them what they want. Don’t focus on what your people do for the business. It’s about what the business does for your people. How do you implement this? Here’s what I did at IncentOne. I told everyone the following:
“I want to help you unlock your potential as a person. Not your potential as an employee. Not your potential as an employee of IncentOne. I want to understand what you want in your life. Then it is my job to help you realize that and see if it can align to what IncentOne needs. My belief is if IncentOne helps you realize what you want, then working at IncentOne is a good thing.”
At first, everyone was taken aback. Was I serious? I asked for one-on-one meetings with every employee. At that time, we had about one hundred employees. I asked them, “What do you want in life?” Each and every one of them rattled off something related to their work. “I want to learn Excel better.” “I want to understand how health plans budget.” “I want to learn more about our product.”
Then I stopped them, and said, “I don’t want to know what you want in your IncentOne life. I want to know what you want in your life. Do you want to run a marathon? Do you want to learn a language? Do you want your brothers to get along?” Everyone started to share. One of our customer service representatives sang opera and wanted to get more lessons. Another wanted
to learn how to cook. Another wanted to eat better. Another wanted to learn to drive a stick. Another wanted to help her son get into a specific college. One employee wanted to quit smoking:
Kelly had been smoking recently and wanted to stop. When I asked her why she said she was stressed about her mom’s health. I asked her to come to meet with me after work. She told me more about her mom, and she seemed like a terrific person. I said to her, “Do you mind if I ask you something personal?” She said fine.
I said, “Your mom seems like a terrific person. You obviously are close and she means the world to you. Do you think she would be proud of you if she knew you smoked?” She started to cry. I said to her, “I’d like to help you stop. Will you agree to that? We will meet each week on it.” She agreed. By the time we met the first week, she had already quit.
If they want to learn opera, do an opera event. If someone wants to learn how to cook, hook him or her up with a chef friend to give him or her a cooking lesson. When you come across a client or fellow employee who has a manual transmission car, connect them.
The Best Employee Engagement Strategy
The best way to unlock the potential of employees is to help them achieve what they want in life. When this happened, they began driving forward at work. How could they learn more about the product? Could they sit in on sales meetings and learn about the sales process? The more we showed them that IncentOne was a way to help them in their lives, the more we unlocked their potential.
The customer service representative who wanted to sing opera is now one of most respected client services managers running some of our most complex health clients—and boy can she belt out a tune.
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