Sylvia Ann Hewlett blogged at Harvard Business Review that leaders need to inspire lower-level employees. She writes:


…No one succeeds alone, which is why all leaders must find a way to pollinate the workforce with their values, ideas and enthusiasm. This is what keeps businesses humming, especially during a downturn.

Some leaders inspire the masses via the grand motivational speech. Others via one-on-one conversations. At Time Warner, CEO Jeffrey L. Bewkes held a series of skip-level lunches with ten to twelve high performers that typically had little or no access to him. He spent two unscripted hours talking about his vision and answering their questions. Employees who attended Bewkes’ lunches reported feeling more “confident in the company” and developed a new affinity for their chief.

Whatever vehicle leaders choose to use to reach out and inspire employees at local levels, their talk must have teeth. Don’t spout hyperbole — “Great job” or “we can do it!” Instead, serve up concrete, achievable goals. Listen to people’s problems and offer real solutions. Mentor by sharing your own lessons learned, celebrate teams’ efforts and reward tangible achievements. Even a simple “thanks” goes a long way when delivered from on high.

Each week at furniture designer Knoll, president and COO Lynn Utter emails four senior managers and asks them for the name of one person on their team who has been exemplary. Utter then calls each person to thank and congratulate him or her for a specific accomplishment. Utter is as time-constrained as the rest of us but says that if she cannot make four phone calls a week to acknowledge people’s good work, then she is not doing her job.

Hewlett is right–inspiring the troops is an important leadership task, especially in tough times. But my reaction on reading this prescription was, “Ugh, more top-down thinking.” In other words, everything’s up to the leader–that “affinity for the chief” and thanking employees makes a company better.

How about this idea instead? Let’s forget about CEO Bewkes for a moment, and focus on making the work more fun and rewarding for the 87,000 people who work for Time Warner.

Gary Hamel discussed this idea in his recent book “The Future of Management.” In it he pointed out how Toyota is able to leverage the creative thinking of all its 300,000 employees through means like the Toyota Production System. This benefits the company by ensuring a constant stream of innovation, and the employees by making the workplace a more rewarding place to spend time.

I am focused on one particular group of employees–those who interact directly with customers. This includes customer-service reps, retail clerks, bank tellers and account support staff. It is a group with tremendous insight, and a group that’s held in low esteem in companies I’m familiar with. To borrow a phrase from my friend Matthew Achak, “Nobody listens to the reps.”

They sometimes are not even allowed internet access.

This is just wrong. These groups occupy a unique position in the company. They hear the unvarnished truth from customers. Their stories, rather than being ignored, should be nurtured and collected. Everyone else in the company should read them and absorb the lessons (especially the leadership). They should be primary inputs to strategy, marketing and product development. The best stories and best storytellers should be acknowledged and promoted.

Companies should focus on something like this, instead of sending their CEOs around on motivational tours or making four calls per week to exemplary employees.

Increasing employees’ sense of meaning and personal value in their work. Now that’s leadership.

Related posts:
Time to start listening to customer-facing employees
On “The Future of Management”

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