Most company leaders will tell you that they seek to build a culture of passionate people. They want their employees to have passion for their job, the company and especially the customer. Yet they often find it hard to define “passion.”
To an executive of a national consumer electronics company, passion means that his customer service employees do more than simply satisfy the customers; he wants them to create “groupies” for the company’s products.
While sales were up, customer satisfaction was on a slight decline. Quality scores in the call center indicated that agents were not doing a good job of building rapport with customers. They were going through the motions.
So the company embarked on a mission to strengthen the culture of its call center organization by turning up the level of passion. But the company first needed to create passionate leaders capable of passing on their passion to frontline employees.
What kind of leader is needed in this new passionate culture? Companyculture.com defines culture as the company’s personality. The culture tells people how to do their work and takes its signals from leaders.
‘Employee satisfaction surveys showed an improvement in the areas of communication and employee/leaders relationships.’
In the ’50s and ’60s, if you asked most people to name a passionate leader, they most likely would have pointed to a military example, someone like U.S. Gen. George Patton or Gen. and President Dwight Eisenhower. The military-style leader was good at choosing new directions and moving people forward, but the leader also expected everyone to fall in step behind him, with no questions asked.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the model of a great leader became the CEO. He or she chose the corporate direction but was often much better at explaining the plan. The CEO was effective at sharing his (and, in some cases, her) goals for the company, but the plans were still developed by “those people in the ivory tower.” This type of leader was open to some discussion. But at the end of the day, the CEO was still in charge.
In the ’90s, management books pointed to the need for leaders to be good coaches. It was a vast improvement over the military and CEO model. Leaders began to include people into the discussion of how to play the game. Problems were assigned to teams, and solutions were developed closer to the frontline; teamwork became the mantra for most successful companies. This new leader-coach was willing to call a time-out to talk it over with the team, but when the time-out was over, he or she was still the one holding the clipboard and most likely still the one calling the plays.
Today, we need a new kind of leader, someone who not only can create goals and define passion but also has the ability to make employees at every level of the organization feel and share the same level of passion.
I believe the new model for today’s leader must be a cross between a gardener and a poet. Before you dismiss the concept, hear me out.
In its 2006 study, Employee Passion: The New Rules of Engagement, the Ken Blanchard Group describes employee passion as a “positive emotional state of mind resulting from perceptions of worthwhile work, autonomy, collaboration, growth, fairness, recognition, connectedness to colleagues and connectedness to leaders.”
Most employees want to feel that work is valuable and they are a part of the success. They want connections to their leaders and others. Their jobs need to be more than a paycheck; they must allow them to feel. The study showed that these attributes of passion resulted in “long-term commitment to the organization, peak performance, low turnover and increased tenure with the organization.” They also have a direct impact on the level of service provided to the customer.
Successful poets share their ideas and stories in a way that allows others to feel what they are feeling. Poet-leaders must be able to make employees not only embrace ideas but also feel as though they are a part of the story.
Successful gardeners know that they must have three key elements: soil, fertilizer and pruning. Think of the soil as a supportive environment that allows employees to grow and know that someone is there when they need it. Fertilizer can be likened to positive feedback and recognition. Recognition is the nutrient that allows employees to feel they are contributing to the success of the company. The leader must be willing to prune employees, to provide constructive feedback when it is required. This pruning redirects the growth of the employee. It can sometimes be painful, but it is necessary to help people grow in the right direction, making them better at their job. This, in turn, benefits the company and the customer—as well as the employees.
The electronics company executive knows these concepts work. He put a team of 10 specially chosen frontline managers through a special program focused on employee leadership and growth. The leaders, each with 15 to 18 direct reports, learned how to become the right kind of poet and gardener with a healthy dose of coaching and feedback skills. The key take-away was that passion is best defined at the front line as time: time to share the story as a poet, time to provide feedback and time to coach as a gardener.
The poet-gardeners began to focus on their low and mid-level “seedlings,” offering immediate feedback, coaching and positive reinforcement. The changes were seemingly small in scope: providing daily positive feedback, celebrating their minor improvements and cheering when they attained major goals. Coaching began to focus on specific behavior, and employees were asked to share their assessments of the situation as the first step in the process. Quality scores began to rise, and employee satisfaction surveys showed an improvement in the areas of communication and employee/leaders relationships. Higher quality had a direct impact on customer retention.
A passionate culture starts with simple changes in the way managers think and lead. Encourage your managers to become poets and gardeners.