To Recharge Your Lagging Business , Engage Your Employees

As we begin the new year, is your small or mid-sized business less profitable than you’d like it to be? Worse yet, are you losing money? Are your employees on board mostly for the paycheck? Are individual performance targets, promotions and rewards tied only loosely to  your bottom line? If this describes your business, results are not likely to improve unless and until you actively engage your employees across all functions, top to bottom.

Motivating on-board employees must be priority number one! Only customers can generate cash flow for your business but no matter how good your product they won’t come in the first place nor stick around unless they have a good experience before and after the sale. No matter how good the food, you and I probably wouldn’t go back to a restaurant where the wait was long and the servers aloof, inattentive or downright rude. You wouldn’t buy a second vehicle from a car dealer where the service department repeatedly failed to complete maintenance on time or diagnose and fix problems.

To demonstrate the importance of employee engagement, I’ll tell you a story. Two years ago, my wife Gloria and I considered downsizing from our large home to a townhouse. We had no immediate plans but definite potential interest. Several times, we had driven by an attractive new townhouse development about one mile away. Promotional signs pointed out several attractive features.

One Sunday afternoon around 4:50 PM we were out for a drive and noticed their sign, “model open until 5 PM.” Gloria said, “Let’s check the model out!” so we went inside. Unlike what we expected, the real estate agent on duty did not rise from her chair to warmly greet us. In a rather cold tone of voice, her only comment was, “Our model closes in 5 minutes so you’ll have to hurry.” She did not accompanying us on a tour of the model to point out features or answer questions.  Precisely at 5 PM, she stood up to remind us that the model was closing.

Question: If and when Gloria and I decide to buy a town home, will we be highly motivated to consider this development? Our clear answer is “no!” This incident is a classic example of disconnect between employee priorities and customer expectations. I don’t know if this on-site agent would have shared in the commission had we purchased a unit and frankly, I couldn’t care less! The whole point is she was a representative both for the real estate agency and for the developer. Her obvious priority of the moment was to get home and spend Sunday evening with family but would an extra 5 or 10 minutes of kindness have cost her that much?

This incident also demonstrates an obvious disconnect between employer and employee. Maybe the agent thought that we couldn’t afford the model. (In fact, by downsizing we most certainly could!) Even if not immediately ready to purchase, we might buy a unit in the future. Also, we just might have good friends seeking to buy a new town home right now! To this day, whenever we drive by the model or see the developer’s ad on TV, my wife and I recall this agent’s rudeness and we’ve told several friends about it.

Given the halting business recovery and today’s lean staffing, a lot of business leaders are asking experienced mid-career employees to “go that extra mile” and “to do more with less” simply to keep their jobs. With an official US unemployment rate of 7.9% (and true unemployment/underemployment much higher) this tactic may work for awhile, but the sorry result is a lot of uninspired colleagues who mirror our real estate agent.

As a leader–formal or informal–in your business or not-for-profit enterprise, here’s a question to ask yourself: how can I transform my workplace into a destination where employees of all ages, responsibilities and seniority are tuned in, turned on and eager to go that extra mile on their own terms? Gaining trust and promoting employee welfare is far more than a kind thing to do, it’s also good business.

As pointed out on my Internet radio program, there is one essential difference between human beings and every other living creature: only we humans possess both imagination and a burning desire for free will, to do as we please. The common statement “free as a bird” is a myth. Sure birds can fly (unless they’re an ostrich or an emu) but they are far from free. In fact birds are bound by their nature, habits and a survival instinct. Of course, we humans also are creatures of habit and our conscious or sub-conscious minds may self-impose limitations, but we remain free to imagine brighter circumstances and most of us strive for self-determination in our daily living.

In order to engage employees for maximum performance, you as a leader need to grant, encourage and nurture both imagination and free will; one without the other leads only to frustration and discontent! Effective business leadership includes granting a franchise, narrow or broad, to every single employee. Obviously assignments and targeted outcomes must be coordinated, goals mutually agreed upon in advance and performance routinely monitored but to the maximum extent possible each employee should be granted discretion over precisely how to accomplish his or her assigned mission. It also is most important to keep employees aware of the overall business results and informed of plans and goals for the future.

Despite their desire for free will, most employees do not want to work in a vacuum, completely without direction from “a boss” and lacking instruction, coaching and feedback on a regular and consistent basis. No one who reports to another wants to be left alone for a year only to be told in an annual “performance review” that their contribution is “not good enough.” No employee wants to be laid off while learning for the first time that his or her company has suffered momentous losses. Mutual trust, both up and down, good times or bad, is absolutely essential for full employee commitment and a prosperous bottom line.

In future blogs, I will talk more about the ground rules of employee engagement, the concept of “in command but out of control” leadership and an effective pathway to “perpetual innovation”, continual enterprise forward movement without disruption and alienation.

For additional ideas on recharging your business, tune in to the March 4, 2013 broadcast of my Internet radio program “Middle Age Can Be Your Best Age” on www.WebTalkRadio.net. I interview business leadership expert Les Landes, author of the new book GETTING TO THE HEART OF EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.

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