Nurture Passion in Your Employees–and Customers


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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? 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.

Leadership paradigm

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.


  1. Bob, Your artilce brings up two questions:

    1. Why did it take so long for leaders to come to the conclusions you state are now the vogue in management? And, why did these leaders not understand that one cannot motivate people, one can only provide an environment where people can fee motivated? This leads me to question two:

    2. How many CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, COOs, ever spend a day or two or three sitting in the place of those that are on the receiving end of customers’ calls?

    One can promote passion, one can edict passion, but until one sits in their empoyees shoes, passion is only a nice word . . . more or less that was promoting good service was really only lip service.

    Your history of the changes in management theory or actions is very enlightening. Why one starts has to have a genisis and why they end has to have a reason. The latter would be by necessity, I’m not sure why or how any of them started.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants

  2. I am not sure that I have a good answer for the first question – “Why did it take so long….?” I think companies go through waves of “what is really important.” They go back and forth between the value of the customer or how to reduce expenses. They often have a fundamental knowledge that employees are important but the cost fact often causes them to “de-fund” the important aspects of hiring and training – especially at the frontlines. I agree that we cannot motivate people long-term. But I do believe that a manager can inspire people to do the right thing. Creating an environment where people understand their value is the key. I see this happen in unusual places – like the McDonalds near my house (where the service is amazing) and in “my” Starbucks (where people love how they are part of the Starbuck’s brand). People want to feel a part of something bigger. As leaders, we need to share information in a way that allows them to understand their importance.

    You raise a great point in your second question. Getting a CEO (and top executives) to experience the perspective of the frontline employee will often change the way the company is managed. Yet, most don’t participate. I have long been an advocate of using Quality Management technology for this reason. I recommend that call center managers bundle-up 15 minutes of “real” calls and send them to executives throughout the company each month. If they won’t come to the frontline to understand the customer, I think it makes sense for the frontline to take the customer to them.


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