6. The Keystone of Organizational Excellence: Employee Engagement – Lead With Your Customer, 2nd Edition:Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence


The Keystone of Organizational Excellence: Employee Engagement

Internal, service-focused behaviors will make or break the employee experience. As Elizabeth Norberg (2009), senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Foot Locker, explains, “The internal culture gives the identity to the experience and the brand. Our culture is defined by our talent, who really are the ‘faces, arms, and legs’ of the brand.” Nurturing this human “resource” is a critical action for world-class organizations.

For instance, the Walt Disney Company has not only identified frontline service behaviors but also focused on behaviors expected of its leaders in dealing with cast members. Extending beyond the foundational cast member behavioral responsibilities, these leadership behaviors, called the Disney Leader Basics, align with the Chain Reaction of Excellence (see chapter 1). Let’s look at a few examples of these leadership behaviors:

• Demonstrate commitment to their cast members: “Actively listen to the cast, and follow up on their issues as quickly as possible.”

• Master the operational aspects and teach them to cast members: “Collaborate with partners from all lines of business to ensure a seamless guest and cast experience.”

• Lead improvement in cast and processes: “Examine practices, remove barriers, and identify improvements in the daily operation.”

Note that the Disney Leader Basics guidelines are not called “Disney Manager Basics.” This was not an accident. Disney recognized that to truly optimize its potential, it must strategically set the bar beyond the management skills to include the people-influencing skill of leadership (explored in part I of this book). The goal was to provide better guidance to align employees’ and leaders’ behaviors, while providing a foundation that guided employees toward personal leadership.

Consider the Disney Leader Basics and ask, “What if these guidelines were followed by all the frontline cast members?” That is the Walt Disney Company’s hope. Though there is certainly some management-like language included, an organization where every employee is practicing personal leadership behaviors creates a phenomenal culture.

In keeping with this approach to people for which Disney has become legendary, this chapter explores how to engage your employees and thus lead them to deliver service excellence through these behaviors:

• Serve your employees.

• Build your culture with selection.

• Onboard effectively.

• Focus orientation on brand and culture.

• Make training and development a priority.

• Leverage service huddles.

• Transform employees into leaders.

• Maximize the impact of rewards and recognition.

Serve Your Employees

Just as opportunities exist to individualize the branded customer experience, the same exists within the culture as well. Whether it is birthdays, anniversaries, or simply helping people who are down on their luck, seeking out opportunities daily to give time to others pays off—for the organizational ledger and beyond.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s 2017 devastation on Puerto Rico, JetBlue set up a care center for its crew members in San Juan. The effort, which was called “100x35JetBlue” (reflecting the island’s dimensions of 100 miles long by 35 miles wide), was established to provide immediate support to crew members and their families. Fellow associates in Boston, Fort Lauderdale, New York, and Orlando bought needed supplies, from water and diapers to batteries and generators, and shipped them to a ballroom at San Juan’s in-terminal hotel for months after the storm while the government worked to help rebuild the city’s infrastructure. JetBlue clearly demonstrated their corporate values by providing practical support for its crew members.

Building Your Culture With Selection

One of the most critical aspects of a successful business operation is hiring talent that has the right fit to build results and leadership within the organization. Once a company has established its values and vision, the way to bring these concepts to life is to ensure leaders and employees act on them.

Master Sommelier George Miliotes—former executive with the Walt Disney World Resorts, then Darden Restaurants, and current owner of the award-winning Disney Springs restaurant Wine Bar George—has shared his philosophy about hiring the right people with us over the years. One simple tactic is to ask a couple of questions. He asks potential hires what they like about the food and beverage business—and times them. After more interview questions, he’ll ask candidates what they do not like about the food and beverage business—and time them again. He says that comparing the amount of time they spend answering these two questions (and assessing the content of the answers) has been a great litmus test for determining which applicants have the passion required to excel in his demanding restaurant environment.

Intuit CEO Brad Smith notes that candidates need to be willing to be “vulnerable and transparent.” In an interview with Business Insider (Cain 2017), he described three questions he asks:

• “Take me through your life journey—and highlight two or three moments in your life that shaped who you are as a human being.” This is Brad’s way to determine how transparent the candidate is willing to be.

• “What’s the single biggest business mistake you made in your life and what did you learn?” This is about the candidate’s willingness to admit to making mistakes while learning from those experiences.

• “Why not Intuit?” People often ask candidates why they want to work for a particular organization. But do they have the courage to share what is not working with the organization that is causing them to wrestle with the decision? It also allows Smith to address those concerns with the candidate.

Walt Disney World faced challenges to create growth during what was termed “The Disney Decade.” To provide the personnel support for such an expansion, a distinctive casting (employment) center was built—a castle-like structure visible from the freeway. When visiting the Casting (Employment) Center, prospective cast members are offered snacks and drinks and then shown a brief video highlighting the four nonnegotiable requirements for working at Walt Disney World—before they even filled out an application. These four criteria created an acronym supporting the term cast member:

C—compensation: The pay for frontline employees is set to a schedule. Disney doesn’t pay high wages—just a little above average for each job (about the 55th percentile).

A—appearance: Based on the customer experience Disney strives to produce, it demands very specific appearance guidelines that may require potential employees to look a certain way for their role.

S—schedule: Disney’s labor demands are reflected in its philosophy: “We work while others play.” Not only is its operation busiest during holidays and weekends, but any new hire will have the least seniority of more than 70,000 cast members.

T—transportation: Because Walt Disney World is located outside most public transportation networks, cast members must have their own reliable transportation to satisfy the ever-changing scheduling requirements of the huge entertainment complex.

Here’s the world-class difference: Instead of hiding the potential deal breaker issues, as do most employers, Disney leads the process with this information. Managing expectations at this juncture serves an important purpose in the relationship with the future employee. After the video ended, the doors of the theater would open, and participants would decide to interview or not. Ten to 15 percent of those who had watched the video would self-select out (saving company costs for processing labor and materials), leaving the rest, who were usually a better fit for the unique Disney culture.

Focusing Orientation on Brand and Culture

After the interviewing and selection experience, the new hire’s orientation is the first substantive experience with the organization’s culture. It is important to design an orientation experience that “brings your culture to life.” This experience sets the context for the employee’s entire relationship with the company. Approach this vital phase in the development of your new investment as if this was the only “handbook” they will ever receive about the company’s culture, values, and vision.

Any organization can create an effective orientation program by developing an experience that introduces the brand and culture in such a compelling way that employees will continually refer to it. Hospitals, couriers, government agencies, and even zoos have strategically aligned their own orientation to the brand and culture. For instance, Marriott Hotels has created an international brand-culture- leadership experience that introduces more than 177,000 employees at more than 6,000 properties worldwide in their operations. Though the Marriott orientation initiative spans all the company’s facets, the emphasis is firmly on establishing its culture. “All our research and data consistently supported the same findings—that designing a culture requires consistently linking everything together,” says Allison Barber (2010), former vice president of talent management. “Orientation is when our associates can start connecting the dots. If they understand our core values, our guest focus, and how to behave in an on-brand way, then our guests will be happy, our associates will be successful, and (the organization) will be successful.”

When developing your own orientation experience, consider the following:

Position at the beginning: Seriously consider requiring all employees to go through orientation before they can report to their work location. Many businesses will simply schedule a new employee to go through orientation when a class-sized number of new hires have been collected. This throws “unoriented” people “into the fire,” which means they start their work experience in a very confusing way. This damaging first impression is a key contributor to high turnover rates within the first few months. Postponing the orientation session to a later date also sends the message that the orientation information is not really that important.

It’s about the culture: Don’t repeat the common mistake that average organizations make by filling their orientation programs with tedious compliance information. The focus must be on making an emotional connection with your new hires. Creating inspired and passionately motivated employees is the most important strategic investment. The additional safety, ethics, and regulatory information is important, but that can be conveyed afterward.

Model the brand and culture: When designing an orientation program (or any training program, for that matter), make sure the methods used mirror the company’s brand and culture. If you want a corporate culture of informal fun, then make the class informally fun. If you have a more formal culture, then the training should be appropriately formal. This is a great opportunity to have star frontline workers deliver this introductory information. The best advertisement for your company is a successful colleague who is living the work they are hiring for, and who exhibits a great attitude about making a difference. This reinforcing or modeling of your culture creates alignment and integrity from the very beginning.

Gather input: The best people to determine what information and experiences should go into the orientation program are recently hired employees, your human resources team, and star employees who do an excellent job of personifying the values and culture of your organization. The more relevant the experience, the better investment it will be in creating your culture by design.

Build on your heritage: An excellent way to arrange the flow of your orientation is to first explore your company’s big picture (the past: history, founder, values, culture), then continue with more detailed information (the present: current vision, mission, operations), and then growth plans and expectations for the future. This process provides a strong foundational understanding of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going—all communicated operationally so employees can orient themselves and be best prepared for the on-the-job training phase.

Many types of tactics can support the orientation and onboarding experience. For instance, high-end hoteliers like Four Seasons know that some of their new staff members have never enjoyed the quality of customer experience they deliver, so as part of the onboarding process they provide opportunities to experience the hotel from the guest’s perspective. This can include staying at the hotel for free, having their vehicle parked by a valet, dining at their restaurants—anything that will help the new hire truly walk in guests’ shoes.

As we noted previously, many employees of the United Services Automobile Association, or USAA, do not come from the military, yet their focus is on providing insurance and financial services to people in the armed services and their families. As part of its orientation, its new “recruits” are deployed with backpacks and military helmets. In an effort to understand the voice of the customer as part of the orientation, they eat military rations and read real letters from the troops deployed to “hot zones” around the world. For many, the experience becomes an emotional one.

Effective Onboarding

Onboarding describes the timeframe from the hiring of a new employee to the end of their probationary period. The common trend for organizations, according to decades of discussions with executives from a wide range of industries, is that the highest level of turnover occurs within a new hire’s first 90 to 180 days. Reasons why employees typically leave include a lack of fairness, positive atmosphere, feedback, autonomy, involvement in decisions, and rewards and benefits, as well as high stress and external market demand. Interestingly, the top reasons given by employees for leaving so quickly—across all industries—are that “the culture wasn’t what I expected” (or “was promised”) and “I didn’t feel like I belonged.”

Designing a supportive transition for all new hires will provide them with the sense of belonging and reinforce the culture at the same time. This will help not only focus the new employee, but also involve the existing employees and encourage a relationship while reinforcing the components of the culture for them. Shelby Scarbrough (2009), past board president of the international Entrepreneurs’ Organization, comments: “When you teach the ‘why’ behind the ‘what,’ you get better results—as it helps your team make better decisions in the future when they encounter similar situations.”

At JetBlue, because many crew positions require extensive travel, family members are actually invited to join orientation sessions for new employees. JetBlue has found that this investment in educating family members enhances support for both the employee and the employee’s family’s passion for and commitment to the organization—even from home. One interesting side benefit is that a high percentage of family members join JetBlue as crew members themselves. Acting innovatively and strategically has created a nice human resources benefit for JetBlue.

World-class companies find that what makes the difference are several best practices—many of which involve encouraging relationships between new hires and star players. Here are some examples of useful onboarding ideas:

• Each new hire receives an onboarding notebook, complete with handy tips for getting settled during the transition, including who to call for different questions—even local restaurants.

• Adopt-a-New-Hire program—create a mentoring partnership with a role model. (What better way to “imprint” desired behaviors in the new employee?)

• Arrange lunches with different related departments once a week for the first six weeks.

• Schedule one-on-one meetings with the department manager at regular intervals—first day, first week, first month, second month, third month.

• After 60 to 90 days, have the new hire teach the team about what worked well and what could be improved in the onboarding process.

Making Training and Development a Priority

The costs involved in properly training your workforce are significant. A story that has become common in human resource circles begins with this question: “What if I spend money on training employees and they leave?” The insightful response is: “What if you don’t train them, and they stay?” Unfortunately, the world is full of organizations that choose to limit training and then, curiously, remain confused as to why their results are subpar.

In difficult times, most businesses make the critical error of cutting the development of the very (human) resources that determine the status of the customer relationship and loyalty. The consequence of viewing training as an expendable support function is critical vulnerability. World-class organizations acknowledge the development of their people as not just an obligation but also an investment in gaining a competitive edge for a successful long-term future.

Many world-class leaders claim that effective training is the key to generating sustainable bottom-line results. The increased effectiveness of the employee’s skills, knowledge, and attitudes toward customers and job functions far outweigh the initial investment, especially when it comes to the increased morale and loyalty that the company gains by implementing a strong training and development strategy.

If we again consider the framework of the Chain Reaction of Excellence Model (see chapter 1), world-class organizations know that the quality of the leader dictates the quality of the employee, which dictates the quality of the customer experience and the business results. Creating a competitive edge by optimizing the talent of the organization’s human resources doesn’t happen by accident. Growing your organization’s capabilities is possible only by growing your employees’ abilities. It’s that simple.

For example, at the Container Store, professional training for first-year, full-time employees consists of more than 240 hours, a stark contrast to the industry average of just eight hours (Container Store n.d.). According to their operations and finance executives, the return far surpasses the investment.

Essentially, it comes down to a matter of integrity. Although almost every company claims that “our people are our most important resource,” the investment of time and training dollars at the vast majority of businesses doesn’t validate this claim. Employees hear and see these kinds of claims, but they also observe the contrary meager investment, and this can undermine their faith in their employer—and undermine the company’s effort to achieve World Class Excellence.

One important truth to consider is that training and development do not have to be expensive—or even be conducted in a formal classroom setting—to be effective. World-class organizations find low-cost or no-cost ways to develop employees. Consider the following:

Lunch & learns: Generate a list of important topics and skills employees are interested in and then identify employees who are role models of excellence for each topic or skill. Invite the star employee to prepare a 10- to 20-minute presentation of insights with an opportunity for questions and answers. Not only will the team have a free opportunity to learn something it has determined to be important, but your model employee will also have an opportunity to experience a time of genuine appreciation from colleagues. (Another version of this idea is to have everyone meet for lunch once every week or two and ask attendees to talk for five minutes on a topic they have encountered that week, in a book, magazine, on TV, or the like. This will be followed by a discussion period.)

Multimedia series: Use the same format as described but utilize media from a range of established training videos out on the market. Videos can be borrowed from the library or other sources. Invite a manager to host the video and to facilitate a discussion afterward.

Free local seminars: Arrange to have selected employees attend a local development opportunity and report back (for example, at a lunch & learn) on the insights they gained.

Expert sharing: Partner with other local businesses in a quid pro quo sharing of experts. Schedule a leader or expert from outside your company to come in and present information to your employees. Arrange to have a leader or expert from your company return the favor.

Book reviews: Distribute a book or an article to your team. Give them a week or so to read the book, and then meet to discuss how the information could make a positive impact on the operation.

Leveraging Service Huddles

One action taken by nearly all successful organizations is that they gather work groups together to get on the same page—often called a pre-shift meeting or a team service huddle.

By using a service huddle, in very little time everyone on the work team can be made aware of current circumstances (for example, special things happening that day), focus on challenges facing them (setting goals for sales, behaviors, and so forth), and create an opportunity for two-way communication.

Additionally, the best organizations often use some sort of toolkit that introduces company concepts and commitments (related to its values, vision, the six Ps, or a current initiative), and provide employees with the opportunity to practice behaviors and give and receive feedback during the team huddle. When teams are consistently focused on core nonnegotiable aspects of the company and engaging employees on ways to bring those elements to life every day, they not only improve their service behaviors and performance, but also become a more engaged workforce.

Kerusso, a leading clothing company selling to more than 100 countries and over 5,000 retailers, has instituted a daily huddle attended by all department leaders to share any “core values sightings” or examples of how their corporate values were demonstrated by members of the team. They also sync up on what each leader is working on (including the top priority for the day), communicate the previous day’s result on each department’s daily operations numbers, and discuss if any function or person needs help with anything to improve. Following this department leader huddle, department leaders have a separate huddle for their teams. They have elected to stand during these meetings, so they don’t get too comfortable, emphasizing the purpose of the meeting: to quickly share information and expose issues that matter most. This has reduced the need for pop-up meetings, unscheduled interruptions, and unnecessary emails.

The more relevant and powerful benefits arise when companies actively cater to their employees’ needs. Some of the best organizations have modeled this by providing their management with a toolkit that centers on a larger number of critical topics. Like a recipe box, managers can take from that toolkit those topics that best fit the needs of their employees.

The president of the Container Store delivers a weekly message in which the preceding weekend’s sales are discussed and that week’s new initiatives are emphasized. Beyond that, each morning the employees discuss the day’s objectives as well as the previous day’s results, which are posted for all to see.

Nordstrom stores often have a pre-opening “pep rally” meeting that borders on a game show format. There is much celebration and recognition attached to the previous day’s sales. Games and prizes are awarded, and music is often blaring. Attendees read customers’ letters, and acknowledge milestones. The interesting thing is that the employees, most of whom work on commission, voluntarily attend these sessions, even though they are not formally compensated for doing so. Not only is the information relevant to them on a daily basis, but the team building and camaraderie also makes for a great start to the day. To accommodate the second shift, the manager holds a smaller-scale version for the late afternoon team out on the loading dock in the back of the store. One wonders what every other store in the mall is doing to focus its employees on results before the doors open and the customers come in.

Transforming Employees Into Leaders

It has often been said that a business’s success or failure depends on leadership. World-class organizations support this philosophy 100 percent; however, they approach leadership a bit differently than do other businesses.

First, leaders approach leadership development as an investment, regardless of the position—just like any other mandatory commitment for growth and success. Second, they understand that the responsibility of all leaders in the organization is to develop other leaders. Not only does this approach develop leadership skills and abilities throughout the organization, but it also fills the pipeline with a wealth of viable options for succession planning.

Though leadership development is, on some level, the same as any other development effort, there are some differences particular to the leadership role. These differences usually appear under the category of strategic skills and span every aspect of an organization’s activities.

Maximizing the Impact of Rewards and Recognition

Although intrinsic motivation is always the best reinforcement of positive behaviors, external forms of rewards and recognition are a way of showing that you care for employees who contribute to the realization of company goals.

When it comes to rewards and recognition, world-class companies have one thing in common: They clearly connect the reward with the behavior getting the results (and the results are defined by the values and vision or goals). Reinforcing behaviors and employee contributions will show that the company is “walking the talk” with regard to what it values, increase the likelihood that the rewarded employee will repeat the desired behaviors, and provide an incentive for other employees to model those same behaviors—all of which is beneficial in guiding the team toward the common goal.

One intriguing pattern shared by these successful businesses is that their primary source of rewards and recognition is not monetary. Unfortunately, an opposite approach has taken hold in mainstream businesses whereby money becomes the sole reward system; as a result, employees’ focus tends to be on the money and not the customer, and they will likely spend it on forgettable items. Employees eventually come to see consistent monetary rewards (again, if money is used as the primary reward) as an entitlement—the power of the reward itself is negated, meaning wasted money, wasted time, and an active undermining of the behaviors desired for success.

A far more effective way to approach rewards and recognition is to focus on delivering symbols of value—like certificates, service pins, and statues—that represent a value much higher than the cost of the actual item given. For example, a small gold-colored pin may cost $5 if bought in bulk. But if this same pin is used to reward a peer-nominated Employee of the Year, suddenly its value (measured by the contribution and esteem given with the honor) becomes priceless. The key component is to purposefully connect the positive behavior (what is being rewarded) to the positive impact in helping to move the company toward its goals (why it is being rewarded).

One tool becoming more popular is to begin a team database, collecting employee performance and personal information about how they like to be rewarded. An executive with a leading corporation shares the story of how he “didn’t have a clue where to start” to recognize his employees, so, based on a mentor’s suggestion, he obtained a set of 3″x5″ index cards. On one side of each card, he wrote an employee’s name and all the value that they brought to their team (special projects they were working on, a particular trait that had helped the day-to-day operations). The executive then spent time with the corresponding employee—such as finding out about their hobbies and favorite foods—recording all the information on the card after the discussions. The final steps were to identify a positive behavior worthy of recognizing, link it to a way that person liked to be rewarded, and then actively start recognizing.

For example, if Employee A liked movies, then the executive would buy two movie tickets, mention that he noticed how the employee was working a lot of overtime to make sure a certain project was on target, and suggest that the employee take his wife to the movies as a special thank-you on behalf of him and the company. Other options could be plants or pizza—depending on what low-cost or no-cost “treats” the employee liked. This approach personalizes the reward and transforms an inexpensive token into a significant symbol of values-based meaning—sure to leave a motivating impression.

New York City’s Department of Finance made recognition a focus in its leadership programs with managers. When participants would discuss recognition, they would start by venting about how little control they had to provide raises and bonuses. However, when asked to brainstorm all the formal and informal ways to recognize others, they immediately came up with scores of creative ideas they could easily implement. One outcome for them was a “Cheers for Peers” intranet website, where anyone within the organization could go online and recognize the work of a co-worker connected to the agreed-upon behavioral criteria. Each recognized individual would be presented with a small memento and then put into a monthly drawing for a gift certificate. The message is simple: Empower everyone to recognize others for the real results they produce.

High-Tech Empowerment

This brings us to one of the great things about technology. It can not only improve the customer experience, but also add so much to the quality of the employee experience. With this comes some great opportunities, but if tech is left in a silo it may end up failing to deliver its intended value. Consider Table 7-1.

Table 7-1. High-Tech HR Opportunities

HR Opportunities Technological Advantages Technological Concerns
Selection Online recruitment systems can save you considerable effort when trying to post and review potential candidates. Make sure that making things easier for yourself as the employer doesn’t result in making things longer or more complicated for the applicant. SHRM notes that 60 percent of prospective applicants quit the process when it’s too arduous (Zielinski 2016).
Onboarding Learning management systems can guide hired employees through a solid first 90 days and beyond. Make sure you combine technology with both formal and informal high-touch moments.
Training and development Mobile learning offers in-the-moment access to knowledge, ideas, and tools that are available. Sometimes the best critical thinking skills are built and explored in a classroom experience.
Telecommuting and collaboration Tech tools allow you to share ideas from anywhere. Be wary that the accommodation of working from home doesn’t result in a gradual slump in results.
Work and task support The use of technology from office software to chatbots makes jobs less arduous and mundane. In creating efficiencies, those same technologies can make employees wary of losing their jobs.
Performance improvement Gamification offers a virtual motivation that Millennials in particular buy into. The natural desire to compete can sometimes become an obstacle for pulling people together.
Recognition High-tech tools make it easier to recognize great employees in fair and equitable ways. Again, individualizing recognition is also as important as providing formal and informal high-touch moments.

Summing Up

Any serious effort to build your organization’s culture requires intense focus on the most important resource of any organization: its employees. Far too often, companies spout marketing campaigns about how they value their employees that are, in reality, mere lip service. Talking about valuing employees without doing it can be worse than saying nothing at all about the issue.

As proven by every consistently successful organization, treating your internal customer with the same care and effort as your external customer pays tremendous dividends. Although relationships can be one of the most complex and difficult aspects of running a business, they are also one of the most critical to get right.

Next Steps for Building the Culture Through People:

What criteria do you use to hire people? How important is it that they have the human relations skills to do the job? Is it required that they reflect the organization’s values and standards?

What appearance guidelines are in place to ensure that your organization makes the right professional impression?

How can you empower your employees to be accountable for the entire service experience and not just their specific area of operation?

What low-cost or no-cost ideas can you use to reward others?

What can you do to make recognition genuine and personal?