Last week, I had the pleasure of working with a national retailer whose leadership team has established some bold goals to transform the culture and reinvent the customer experience. It’s a heady vision that, given their size and structure, will likely prove to be ambitious.
Yet, given the distance this organization must travel and the importance of the initiative, it’s not calling in the brass band, turning the organizational chart on its head or asking associates to ceremonially sign on to the new mission. Rather than taking big steps in the direction of the goals, the organization is consciously and deliberately taking small steps.
The first step leaders have chosen to take is modest and simple: They’re preparing store managers to have 10-minute conversations with their associates. That’s it. And they are banking on those small steps driving significant change.
The Small Step Advantage
The natural assumption that too many leaders make is that big change requires big steps. And certainly that’s one strategy. But the history books and business journals are littered with stories of audacious, big, visible change efforts that failed miserably despite elegant execution and colossal investments of time and money.
Small steps are a powerful and effective alternative for a variety of reasons.
They are doable. Leaders and employees alike operate in a time-starved environment where every minute matters. Give them a 17-step process, and it will likely be discarded before step 4 is even read. Undoable, unrealistic requests breed ambivalence and resistance, which create their own inertia to change. But suggest a small action that can be embedded into the workflow, and implementation is far more likely.
They are sustainable. Most change requires a long-term commitment on the part of management and employees alike. Genuine transformation doesn’t occur quickly. As a result, everyone must pace themselves. Big requests, extensive demands and complicated actions may be implemented briefly; but people quickly tire, burn out and turn their attention to other matters. By contrast, smaller, incremental steps can be maintained over time, enhancing the chances of ultimate success.
Missing one or taking a break isn’t a showstopper. When what’s expected of others to support change is substantial, it becomes a bigger piece of the puzzle. Lose a few pieces, and the picture becomes much less clear. But when more people are contributing in smaller ways over time, missing pieces create less significant gaps.
The effect is cumulative and reinforcing. Small steps beget more small steps, with each building on the other. When leaders or employees take action and experience positive results, the satisfaction creates an upward energy spiral and encourages more of the same behavior. Over time, these small steps can contribute to a self-reinforcing tornado of commitment and action in support of the desired change.
So the next time you’re faced with implementing an ambitious change, challenge the natural inclination to think big. Instead, think small – doable and sustainable. And consider:
How do you eat an elephant? One (small) bite at a time.
‘Tis the season… when leaders everywhere scramble to find the perfect holiday gift for their staffs. This year, will it be:
The latest business title?
A gift card for designer coffee?
An outing featuring laser tag, team building and pizza?
Perhaps you’d like to do something entirely different. Why not give employees something they really want this year – a gift that will keep giving long after the egg nog is gone? Consider something from my Holiday Gift Guide for leaders who want to delight employees and deliver results. 1. Encourage career development. Employee Delight: Price: $0 According to recent research conducted by Aon Hewitt, 91% of all employees report that career development is among their top priorities. Yet, in engagement survey after engagement survey, managers consistently earn their lowest marks in this area. Imagine your employees’ delight if this holiday season you invested some genuine attention in understanding who they are and what their hopes and dreams are, as well as toward helping them develop plans toward their career goals. (This gift teaches why giving is a good as receiving because, as you grow others, you’ll also deck your own halls with greater capacity and capability.) 2. Remove roadblocks. Employee Delight: Price: N/A Forget the visions of sugar plums. What employees really dream about is working without unnecessary obstacles, fire drills or other irritants. Ask them about what gets in the way of their best work, and you’ll likely be surprised by the struggles and workarounds that are part of their daily routines. Watch employees light up brighter than any holiday decoration if you take even small steps toward clearing the way for them. 3. Express genuine appreciation. Employee Delight: Price: Priceless Spread good cheer in the form of recognition and positive feedback. Too frequently, leaders become inadvertent Scrooges, withholding praise and wondering why performance is lackluster and morale is low. Catch people in the act of doing things right. Be on the lookout for contributions — large and small. “Thank you” doesn’t require fancy wrapping or a bow, yet it’s warmer to the hearts of employees than chestnuts roasting. These Holiday Gift Guide suggestions come with a range of benefits. They’re value-priced to fit any budget. There’s no tax or shipping. And you can even hope that they’re “re-gifted” as employees find ways to extend the positive practices you model to others. So, with the number of holiday shopping days quickly dwindling, skip the malls, dig deeper — within yourself, not your wallet — and experience some real magic this holiday season… and all year long. “Gift me” with your own thoughts! What do your employees want most? What gifts are you considering this holiday season?
This is interesting data for organizations and leaders everywhere. First, it might settle the nerves of managers and supervisors because it confirms that not every employee is looking to rise up through the ranks. My research with Beverly Kaye found that one of the key reasons managers don’t engage in career conversations with their employees is fear. Fear that everyone will want a promotion. Fear that they can’t deliver on those expectations. Fear of the disappointment and disengagement that will ensue when these two conditions collide. But the good news is that two out of three employees aren’t coveting the manager’s – or any other leaders’ – job.
At the same time, this data is also unsettling because it demonstrates a fundamental challenge with the way organizations are structured. Unfortunately, some of the 66% of employees who are uninterested in leadership positions will pursue them anyway. That’s because, in too many organizations, “up” is the only way to develop. Those without a genuine appetite to lead will chase down promotions because it’s their only chance to grow.
So, what’s an organization to do? Plenty!
Distinguish between the 34% and the 66%. Ensuring job satisfaction, engagement and, ultimately, results demands that you understand employees, their motivations and their aspirations.
Work with those who possess an authentic desire to lead, finding ways to cultivate these skills and talents – even before opportunities for promotion open up. Leadership isn’t reserved for certain levels. It’s a state of mind and a set of skills that can be practiced regardless of role.
Don’t assume that, just because people don’t aspire to leadership, they’re happy where they are. Many aren’t. Many of your 66% are bored, going through the motions and not contributing to their greatest capacity. Figure out what interests them, where their passions lie and what they would like to accomplish. Then work collaboratively to help facilitate opportunities for development and growth in their current roles.
Find ways to reward employees for deepening their knowledge and skills… without changing roles. (Let’s be honest, many of the 66% are pursuing leadership because it comes with a pay bump.)
Consider treating leadership as a discipline rather than a level. What if advancing to leadership was a lateral rather than vertical move? What if it didn’t come with an automatic raise? What if people moved into leadership because they really wanted to do that kind of work?
Information like that generated in the CareerBuilder study can be a powerful tool for organizations to look differently at leadership, who wants it and why. The information also helps organizations produce better results by ensuring that 100% of employees are doing the work they want to do most.
First impressions apply to organizations as well as individuals. Employers have a short window during which to capture the hearts and minds of a new employee. Unfortunately, too frequently the window closes… about the same time that a door opens and the disappointed, disillusioned employee walks out!
We’ve all had that new employee experience. What drew you in? What pushed you away? What did your introduction to the job telegraph to you? And what long-term effect did these early messages have on how you felt about the work? The job? Yourself?
For most of us, those first precious hours and days were dedicated to paperwork, processes and procedures. Well-meaning leaders concerned themselves with “on-boarding” and “time to productivity.” Right? But all of this likely did little to bond you to the organization, excite you about the road ahead or ensure your long-term commitment.
Organizations have a great opportunity to help new workers get off to a powerful and lasting start. But they need to change their approach to welcoming new hires. Best-in-class employers who enjoy high levels of satisfaction, engagement and retention among new employees do three things differently. They:
Ensure connections: One of the primary psychological needs we bring to the workplace is the need to engage in supportive relationships. So, companies must engineer relationships consciously from the start to ensure that new employees have a ready-made network that will help them through the transition. This can be as simple as a lunch rotation and as choreographed as formal mentoring. How it happens is less important than that it happens… early in the transition.
Help others contribute quickly: Protracted training programs, extensive shadowing and elongating time to productivity – this is a recipe for disengagement. Companies should help people quickly find ways to feel competent, effective and productive. Facilitate the use of their strengths early. Identify small projects and quick wins to establish a sense of momentum. Meaningful contribution builds a sense of commitment.
Begin the career-development conversation: Invest in employees, and they’ll invest in you. Demonstrate your commitment to their futures, and you will enhance their commitment to yours. Keep the initial employment interview going by continuing to learn about the new employee’s strengths, interests and goals. Take steps from the start to clarify how the employee wants to express herself and grow… then work together to find ways to make it happen.
Onboarding for genuine, long-term results comes down to this: De-emphasize the process and paperwork that is normally the (less-than-warm) welcome to a new job. Focus on connections, contribution and career development. And watch as your new employees:
Confirm that they made a great choice in accepting your position.
Quickly become powerhouse contributors.
Settle in for a long and productive career with your organization.
As many organizations look to add young talent, the opportunity to develop, inspire, engage and grow these new workplace entrants is great. So is the potential to kill their motivation and drive… with just four small words.
I met a young man in his mid-20s recently who shared with me his plans to change jobs. He’d been with his current employer for a couple of years, taking on increasing levels of responsibility. He didn’t mind the additional work without a title change or more compensation; he was delighted to be learning, expanding his skills and gaining valuable experience. A position in his current organization that represented the next logical step in his career progression had recently opened up. He summoned the courage to approach his management with his interest. The response he received started with those four small words:
“You’re too young to…”
Nothing that came after mattered to – or was even heard by – this young man. He promptly activated his network, started applying for jobs elsewhere and tendered his resignation.
He reminded me of a time earlier in my career. I was a consultant and had been working with my company’s sales team and a prospective client on a sizable and fairly complex training implementation. Things had gone well, and the client was very happy with the work. The contract was signed, and I got ready to head off to Arizona. Then I heard those four small words:
“You’re too young to…”
Planning the implementation was one thing; but rolling it out… that required someone with more experience and some grey hair. I’d done a fine job, my boss told me. But I was too young to take it from there.
These four small words go far beyond answering a request or redirecting someone’s effort. They’re killer words. They extinguish motivation, inspiration, excitement and even connection with the organization. These four small words close doors and choke off possibilities. They discourage, demoralize and drive young people away.
Now, let’s be honest. Not all young people are prepared to take on every challenge they aspire to. But youth should never be used as an excuse or reason to hold someone back. Instead, what if organizations and managers communicated a different “you’re too” message to their young, ambitious workers? What about…
You’re too talented to not keep growing… so what skills will you need to develop to be prepared to take on greater responsibilities?
You’re too valuable to not know how much we appreciate you… so thank you for your contributions and performance.
You’re too creative and innovative to not continue to be challenged… so what‘s next on the list of things you’d like to take on?
The ambition and even impatience of young workers can be a vital competitive advantage to organizations that know how to harness it. We need young employees to remain passionately engaged so we can cultivate them into the tenured contributors who will become the bedrock of our organizations. The first step is to rid your vocabulary of those four small words. And we’re never too young – or old – to do that.