Does employee engagement matter?

Photo of a young African-American woman sitting at a computer and staring out the windowThere’s a lot of flutter and angst around employee engagement and the latest trend of employee experience. Questions abound on everything from how to measure engagement on through to how to improve employee experience, leading to the ultimate dilemma: is it really worth the effort?

Do happy employees actually improve the bottom line?

For those of us who care about whether employees are happy and believe they’re making a difference, the intuitive answer is, of course, YES.

But intuition doesn’t generally lead to budget allocation.

Fortunately, there are studies that provide actual facts. A recent example started with research on which companies among the largest in the U.S. have top ratings for employee wellbeing (based on salary, benefits, work-life balance, training, and professional development opportunity, among other factors). It then looked at how these top-ranked companies perform relative to those with lower rankings.

The good news for those of us who care about our employees: these top-ranked companies really do perform noticeably better, as a group, than those lower on the scale.

Just Capital is the author of one such study; they’re a nonprofit that ranks the Russell 1,000 index (consisting of the largest companies in the U.S.) on these issues of employee wellbeing. Just’s CEO, Martin Whittaker, commented in a Fortune magazine article a few months ago that it’s basic human nature: “A better-rewarded workforce produces at higher levels.”

Does this sound obvious to you? Me too. But, as I mentioned above, things that are intuitively obvious don’t necessarily translate into funding!

So now what?

This is important information if you want funding for professional development programs in your organization – whether for yourself or for your team.

The data from Just Capital, along with other research from Gallup as well as the financial advisory firm Parnassus Investments (and you can find more with a little Googling), helps you build a strong case for investment in what CEOs and CFOs sometimes view as “squishy” and with little clear return on investment.

Combine this information with the cost of failing leadership spreadsheet available for you to download (just click that link and you’ll have it), and you’ll be well prepared to present a proposal for the training and support you want for yourself, your team, and anyone (everyone?) else in your company.

Whether you’re a first-line manager and leader, or a seasoned executive with managers reporting to you, it turns out that making sure the people working for you are interested and challenged by their jobs really does matter to your company’s bottom line. So … what are you waiting for?

(Interested in learning more? Here’s a recent article from Fortune magazine on the Just Capital study:

gljudson Career development

Should work be more fun?

Lunch box with happy faces all over it and two happy face plush toys popping outDo you bounce out of bed every morning, eager to get to work?

Congratulations, if so. And if so, I’ll hazard a guess that either you have a great boss, or you work for yourself.  (Or maybe both, eh?)

But for a lot of people – an awful lot of people – work isn’t much fun at all.

I’m not talking about the inevitable really-rather-not tasks that even those of us with great bosses have to do. Setting that aside, why isn’t work more fun?

Surprise! It’s about leadership!

Okay, that’s no surprise. You don’t need studies and statistics to tell you this (though there are plenty of both out there if you want them).

You’ve worked for someone, so you know your boss makes the difference between whether you feel like going to work, or calling in sick.

Why aren’t we doing a better job of making good leaders?

The fundamental problem is what’s often referred to as the Peter Principle: the idea, presented in the book of the same name, that individuals are promoted through the ranks until they reach their level of incompetence.

In other words, until the skills that got them here (to their most-recent promotion) won’t get them there (to success in this new role).

(The weird thing is that although the book The Peter Principle was published in 1969 (which you’d think would be long enough ago that something would have changed by now), the concept was first discussed in the 1700s. Geez.)

This is glaringly obvious when someone is promoted from team member to team leader.

As a team member, you’re responsible for executing on a task list. Those tasks may well be challenging and important, even crucial, to your employer’s success, but it’s simply tactical work for which you’re directly responsible. You – and everyone else – can clearly see whether or not you’ve done what you’re supposed to do.

As a manager and leader, you have a whole new, very different, and much less black-and-white set of responsibilities. Leadership is an endless gray area, highly subjective, and not directly task-oriented.

Trying to approach leadership and management in the way you’ve been successful up till now – as a series of tasks to be executed – doesn’t work. You’ll tend to micromanage, fail to delegate, and struggle to communicate. And since you’ve almost certainly never been exposed to strategy – strategic awareness, strategic thinking, strategic planning – you’ll frustrate your new managers (who expect leaders to understand strategy), and find yourself feeling less and less competent to do the job you were so excited to be given.

Meanwhile, your team will feel less and less inclined to come to work.

It’s not your fault

If all this sounds familiar, either for yourself, your current (or former) boss, or someone you know – it’s not your fault, or theirs.

The fault lies with the mid-level and senior leaders who fail to understand the gap between individual contribution and leadership.

Or maybe they just figure they had to fumble their way through, so why shouldn’t you?

Possibly they don’t realize or remember the depth and severity of the struggle and its impact on everyone, not just the individual leader.

But it IS your responsibility

It’s up to you to take control of your career and your destiny as a leader.

If you want the role, then learn to be good at it. Don’t settle for stumbling around until you somehow “get it.” Take responsibility for learning and growing into the type of leader you’re proud to be.

This quote from Andy Grove, co-founder and former CEO of Intel, says it all:

As a middle manager, you are in effect a chief executive of an organization yourself … As a micro CEO, you can improve your own and your group’s performance and productivity, whether or not the rest of the company follows suit.”

Whether you’re currently in a leadership role, or you aspire to be a leader, don’t leave your learning and support in anyone else’s hands. It’s up to you to take control of your career and your destiny as a leader.

gljudson Leadership

Should we ever ask why?

Multicolored arrows aiming outward in a circle from a question markIn my last post, I made the point that “why” questions can sound accusing and put people on the defensive – especially if the situation is tense to begin with.

And that’s true.

But this doesn’t mean you should never ask “why” questions. Sometimes they’re the exact right question to ask.

In fact, sometimes “why?” is a really important question to ask.

Why are you doing that?

If I’ve learned anything in my years of self-employment, it’s to always check why I’m choosing to do something.

It’s all too easy for me to grab onto a shiny new idea – whether it’s a program I suddenly want to develop, or a new technology tool I discover – and think that THIS is THE thing I should be doing.

I’d be willing to bet you’ve done that on occasion, whether in your career or your personal life.

The problem – as I’m sure you can see – is that we can quickly get sucked into a significant detour away from where we really want to go.

So ask yourself and your team why you’re undertaking a particular initiative. Does it align with your strategic direction, at the team, department, and/or organizational level?

If it doesn’t, and you have control over whether the initiative should be undertaken, consider either modifying it, or tossing it out altogether.

If it’s outside your control and you have the type of relationship with your boss that makes this sort of pushback possible, I highly recommend asking, “Why are we doing this, again?”

By the way, it’s useful to review all ongoing and repetitive tasks from this perspective. If you ask “why are we doing this?”, you may well find that there are things you can stop doing. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Why are you spending so much time?

Are you familiar with the Pareto Principle? As the Wikipedia article says, this idea – also known as the 80/20 rule – states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort.

So don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (Apparently so many people have said this that no one knows who said it first.)

Almost everyone has at least some perfectionism in their personality. If a particular task or project is dragging out, or you and your team are starting to feel cranky and resentful about getting to the finish line, it’s time to ask why you’re continuing to spend time on it.

I’m not advocating for sloppiness, incompleteness, or poor quality in any way. And some projects just have to keep on going.

But is this one good enough as is?


These are my two top answers to the “can we ever ask why?” question.

Do you have other examples? Drop me a note and let me know – they might show up in a future post!

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Does your team lie to you?

Shocked emoticon with a very long Pinocchio-lying noseWhoa – did I really ask that?

Here’s the thing: we teach people, including our teams, colleagues, and family and friends, to lie to us all the time.

Here are three examples.

“I don’t like it when you say / tell me {whatever it is}.”

Think about times when you’ve heard this. Does it make you reluctant to tell them about {whatever it was} ever again? Especially if the {whatever it was} made you feel at all vulnerable, you’ll shut down and keep {whatever it was} to yourself forevermore.

If this is something you’ve ever said to any of your team members, you’ve motivated them to lie to you about {whatever it was}. And the more often you say it, the more likely they are to lie.

“Don’t just bring me problems – I want solutions.”

Helping your team think through problems, rather than just presenting the issue to you and expecting you to fix it, is a good and necessary thing to do. It’s an important responsibility for you as a leader in developing your employees.

But if you always want them to bring you a solution along with the problem, you may find your team isn’t bringing you problems you need to be aware of. They might not be flat-out lying to you, but there is such a thing as a lie of omission. As Wikipedia says, “Lying by omission includes the failure to correct pre-existing misconceptions.”

“Why did you do that? What were you thinking?”

“Why” questions feel accusing – even if you refrain from the follow-on “what were you thinking?” comment. You may need to offer corrective feedback to someone who’s screwed up, but even if their screw-up was significant, asking “why” is likely to lead them to a cover-up – a.k.a., a lie.

If someone’s made a big, costly mistake, you need to take corrective action, up to and including firing them. But if you want to help someone learn and grow from their error, ask “what happened” instead of “why.”

Closing thoughts

There’s a lot said in management and leadership philosophy about making it “safe” to make mistakes, ask for help, and so on. There’s merit in that, of course; no one wants to come to work walking on eggshells or feeling as if they need to lie in order to get through the day.

But “safety” is an illusion in business and in life as a whole, and trying to make it “safe” to make mistakes leads to complacency and sloppiness.

Besides, we can’t learn anything without fumbling our way along in the beginning, which includes making mistakes – but if the mistake-maker is ripped for their error, they won’t try, won’t learn, and, yes, will lie.

The balancing act for the leader lies in offering enough of a learning-and-growth challenge without overdoing it. Then mistakes will be manageable with support, coaching, and mentoring. And if you set it up so that the employee knows that mistakes are inevitable and expected – and avoid the three pitfalls I list above (as well as others you may think of in reading this) – you’ll create an environment within which your team tells you even the hard truths.

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Do you believe Gallup?

Graphic representation of one in 10, two from 9

Gallup says one in ten have talent; two more might make it

A few months ago, Gallup came out with a rather stern report called “State of the American Manager: analytics and advice for leaders.” (You can download a copy here.)

In it, they basically claim that yes, indeed, the old saying “Leaders are born, not made” is true.

I quote:

Gallup’s research shows that just one in 10 have the natural, God-given talent to manage a team of people.

They go on to say that two out of the remaining nine individuals can, with training, support, and effort, “perform at a high level.”

I’m sitting here with my fingers on the keyboard hesitating to type the words, because … I disagree.

I won’t argue for a moment that there are a lot of bad managers and leaders out there. Just look at another Gallup statistic: at least 50 percent of all employees will quit because of a bad manager at some point in their career. And another: 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement is directly related to the manager.

And I also won’t argue that individuals are all-too-often promoted into leadership positions when they don’t really want to be there. As I said in a recent blog post (“Why be a leader?“), if you don’t enjoy leadership, don’t do it: you’ll be miserable, your team will be miserable, and your management will probably be miserable as well.

But – and here’s where Gallup and I diverge – if someone truly wants to be a leader, and they get the training and support they need, and they really work at it (leadership is not easy), there’s no reason why they can’t learn and, yes, become a good manager and leader.

Leadership involves skills and knowledge that individual contributors aren’t taught: effective communication practices, strategic thinking, coaching and mentoring, and more.

The individual team member is expected to perform the tasks and projects they’re given; the leader is expected to manage the people doing the tasks. It’s a drastic and disorienting shift from doing the tasks to managing the people, from black-and-white answers to fuzzy, indeterminate subjectivity.

Add in strategy (yikes. what’s that?!) and the challenges of delegation, feedback, development, conflict, and the endless gray-area nature of leadership, and it’s small wonder 60 percent of new leaders fail in their first 12 months.

First-line managers and leaders have a direct impact on the vast majority of any organization’s individual contributors. When they’re not given the training and support they need, how can they possibly be expected to do a good job?

The average corporate environment can be brutal for everyone. Why are we doing such a lousy job of making it better?

gljudson Leadership

Why be a leader?

Photo of red paper boat leading the way for blue and green boatsIf you don’t want to be a leader, then don’t.

Seriously. Find some other way to excel in your profession, career, and life.

Leaders who don’t enjoy leading – what with the stress, endless subjective gray areas, and quirky people – aren’t ever going to be good leaders. More to the point, they (not to mention the people on their teams) will be miserable and much less effective and successful than they could be with a different career choice.

If you truly want to be a leader, great.

Now understand why.

What impact do you want to make? How do you want to influence people? What sort of recognition do you want?

If it’s your boss’s acknowledgement that matters most, be careful.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked with two leaders who are fed up and frustrated with their bosses and their companies’ culture. They don’t know each other, and they work for two different organizations in entirely different industries – manufacturing and marketing services.

Despite the differences, they have a lot in common.

They have a similar complaint: unclear strategic direction. (Do I hear you rolling your eyes? Yeah. It’s a common problem.)

Both have tried to help their managers and leaders set direction, use data and facts to guide decisions, and provide clarity on values and objectives. Both have concluded that their efforts are falling on deaf ears.

And now both have turned to their teams to find meaning and inspiration.

That sometimes means protecting their teams from the whims of senior leadership. It definitely means providing opportunities for growth and career development; delegating authority and responsibility where appropriate to help their people stretch; and making sure that their teams feel acknowledged for the quality of their work and their results.

What these two leaders have discovered is that recognition from the people you lead – their appreciation for your efforts on their behalf, and their willingness to take on the challenges you offer them – is the sweetest recognition a leader can receive.

gljudson Leadership

It’s February. How are those goals coming?

A red and white target with a red dart hitting the center.We start out with a bang in January, all revved up by the sparkly clean untouched New Year.

I don’t know about you, but by the middle of February, I’m usually a bit stunned by (a) how can it already be mid-February?, and (b) yikes. I’m not getting done what I meant to get done.

This year, I’m happy to say, is different. Why? Because I took a hard, long, and very honest look at where and why things went astray last year. And that led me to realize what I need to stop doing so I can start doing the things that matter – the things that have a real impact on what I want to achieve.

But enough about me!

What about you?

What are you stopping so you can start to focus on what matters?

Where are you taking greater responsibility for your career and your goals and your life?

Because no matter how great your support system may be; no matter how wonderful your family is; no matter what a fabulous boss you might have; no matter how loving and enthusiastic your partner may be … in the end, you are the person responsible for what happens in your life.

So … it’s February. How are those goals coming? Are you on track? Do you need help, support, re-commitment, a course correction?

Get what you need. And get going. Because – seriously – no one else is going to do it for you. And you deserve to have what you want and achieve what you dream about.


gljudson Career development

Interview: Asking for Money!

Whenever I have a chance to talk with Beth Buelow, one of my favorite podcast hosts as well as one of my all-round favorite people, I’m tempted to learn how to turn cartwheels just so I can express my excitement more completely. (No, clearly I was never a cheerleader…!)

So yes, I was absolutely delighted to return to her show “How Can I Say This” to talk about that thing we all worry about: asking for money.

Whether you’re trying to get a work project approved and funded, seeking a well-deserved raise, preparing a proposal for an important client, or asking for donations for a non-profit that matters to you – whatever your “ask” is – there are steps you can follow that will make it much more likely to get a “yes” answer.

Listen here:

And you can find all my podcast interviews, with Beth and others, here:

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What’s the #1 problem for new managers?

A six-level pyramid: vision-missino-goals-strategy-tactics-actionIn an informal (but remarkably conclusive) survey I conducted last year, I asked a group of senior leaders, mid-level managers, and executive coaches one simple question:

What is the single biggest challenge you see for recently-promoted first-line managers and leaders?

The answers were 100% the same – and 100% not what I expected.

Without hesitation, every one of them said: Strategic thinking!

Oh. Of course.

These new, first-line leaders were, up until this point in their career, individual contributors: team members responsible for executing tasks. They’d never been asked – or taught – to think strategically, and in all likelihood seldom considered what “strategy” means or how it affects them.

For their entire career, they’d been rewarded (or chastised) for how well (or poorly) they completed their assigned tasks. And then they were probably promoted into this new leadership role because of their superior ability to execute on – you guessed it – those tasks.

But – oops! – this is no longer what their managers and leaders want from them, as evidenced by the clear notes of frustration I heard when I asked that question.

Strategic thinking is a BIG shift from task orientation. As you can see from the image included above, there are several steps between “strategy” and “action plan / tasks.”

And here’s the really sneaky bit: even senior leaders are often unclear or inconsistent on how they define “strategy” and “strategic thinking.”

It’s no wonder our fledgling managers and leaders are confused.

How do you define those terms? And do you teach strategic thinking in your organization?

gljudson Strategic thinking

Did you fall for “go big or go home”?

Bare footprints heading into the difference

The Internet wants you to set BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

Dream big or don’t bother. Shoot for the stars. Follow your passion.

It’s great to have a big dream.

But it’s not enough. It doesn’t stop there – because if it does stop there, you won’t get started, which means you’ll never get where you want to go.

The problem with BHAGs and big dreams and star-shots is that once the euphoria and excitement wear off, well, it’s kind of like the morning after a wild party. And the big-dream hangover can be vicious.

What’s the remedy?

Plan small.

Visualize and imagine and dream – but then understand what it takes to get there. Break it down. Consider what might go wrong. Think about the next steps. SMALL steps.

In fact, think about the smallest possible next step you can take. And then break that down into something even smaller.

It’s not that I think you can’t do it. I know you can. But I also know, from personal experience and from working with clients, that if you try to go too fast or too far at once, it won’t end well.

Take one tiny step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race. And overnight sensational success can take years.

gljudson Career development