Career Development

If people are your greatest asset, what are you doing to engage and motivate them?

How to create an atmosphere where a high-performing team can take root and flourish.

By Phil Beelendorf, Roquette America Inc.

Much has been written on the subject of employee engagement. But few articles give practical advice on how to create an atmosphere where a high-performing team can take root and flourish. While most organizations devote a great deal of time, energy, and resources developing strategies to improve the health of their physical assets, they spend far less time and are less strategic when it comes to motivating and empowering their greatest asset: people. So if you believe the old saying, “People are your greatest asset”, my question to you is this: “What are you doing to improve the health of this, the greatest of your assets?”

To truly become a world class maintenance organization, one must have engaged and motivated people. Maintenance and reliability principles and practices cannot produce results by themselves; results come from talented people coming together with a common sense of purpose. Organizations cannot motivate people with speeches and slogans. As the leader of your reliability excellence effort, you can only hope to create an environment where people feel safe, cared for, and valued – and then provide a compelling vision that they choose to be part of.

In the stress-filled environment of today’s workplace, where improving productivity and lowering costs are daily expectations, reliability leaders often lose sight of this, their most important responsibility. The reliability leader must be both intentional and strategic when it comes to employee engagement.

Step 1: Develop an environment of caring

In his Fast Company article “Why Engagement Happens in Employees Hearts, Not Their Minds,” Mark C. Crowley said, “Without exception, bosses predominantly concerned about their own needs create the lowest levels of employee engagement.” To see whether you really care about people take this simple self-assessment quiz. What is more important: (1) Finding the root cause of a critical machine failure?  or (2) Finding out which projects one of your key people is most passionate about working on?

If you answered (2) then ask yourself this follow-up question: If you came in Monday morning not knowing the answer to either question, which would you tend to work on first?

You cannot fake concern; people will see right through your lack of sincerity. Leaders who genuinely care for their people possess a servant’s heart; position and title are not used to lord over or manipulate those they supervise. Genuine, deep compassion and empathy for people’s well-being, growth and development motivates their decisions.

Are you the type of leader who would never ask anyone to do something you would not be willing to do yourself? Having this mindset does not mean that you need to do everything. Leaders should delegate many tasks to those they lead so they can concentrate on leading and guiding those they serve. Ironically, if people believe you would never ask them to do anything you would not do yourself, they will gladly volunteer to take the load off your shoulders when they see you are overburdened. You will not even need to ask them to do so. Many of the people I lead routinely ask me what they can do to help me. But when you do ask them to do something, don’t forget to say please and thank you. Common courtesy goes a long way in demonstrating that you care and shows you appreciate their hard work.

My influence as a leader increased ten-fold when I looked in the mirror and reflected on whether I truly cared about the people I led on a personal level. Unfortunately, I found my personal ambition and career goals were more important than the needs of the people I led. When I committed to genuinely care for people, they took notice of this heartfelt change, and their personal commitment to me and the vision was reciprocated. To remind me of my commitment to care about the people I serve, the following message hangs above my desk. I try to read it every day when I come to work.

"Roquette cannot motivate people. As a leader, all I can hope to do is provide an environment where our people feel safe, cared for, and valued – and then provide them with a compelling vision that they choose to be a part of. I truly believe I am the luckiest leader in the whole world, because of the team I am privileged to lead. Have I demonstrated to my team that I love and value them today? Am I letting the stress of my circumstances keep me from this, my most important responsibility?"

You might think the word “love” is inappropriate in a business environment. The love I am speaking about comes from the Greek word “Agape”. It means to love selflessly or sacrificially. True leadership, the kind found in the transformational leader, involves placing the needs of those you serve above your own. It's a gut-check question; what are you really committed to?

Once you have demonstrated that you care for the people you serve, work on developing the same level of camaraderie throughout your team which exists between soldiers who have served together on the battlefield.

A few years ago, our maintenance organization was divided into two groups, maintenance technology and executable maintenance. The level of camaraderie necessary to align on a common mission did not exist between the two groups. A lockout the previous year had also created deep rifts between the salaried and hourly workforce. Complicating matters, maintenance, operation, and engineering were siloed.

I have spent a great deal of time and energy breaking down these barriers and creating what I call a "musk ox herd mentality" (Figure 1). Whenever a member of the musk ox herd is in trouble, or a threat exists to its well-being, the stronger members of the herd form a semi-circle around it. Horns bristling in defense, they form a protective barrier around that member of the herd who is vulnerable to attack.

Build your team into a herd of musk oxen, where no member feels vulnerable or alone. But remember, operations and engineering are not the wolves. Once you have built your team into a herd of musk oxen, break down the defensive silos which exist between the functional groups within your organization; invite other groups to join the herd. No maintenance strategy is successful, or survives to fight another day, without enlisting operations and engineering in the battle for asset health. Common goals breed common purpose.

Step 2: Articulate a compelling vision

Creating an environment of care is the first, but far from the only step you need to take to build an engaged and motivated workforce. The very next thing all great leaders should do is to cast a vision for their maintenance organization. Without a compelling vision to unify people around a common purpose, an individual’s motivation and enthusiasm will wane, and the group’s efforts will be disjointed and lack focus.

Do you have a vision for your organization and does it include a statement of purpose for your people? Our vision describes, in the simplest of terms, the future world we hope to create for our people: "Highly skilled people working together to embrace proven maintenance and reliability principles and practices. Join us in our commitment to excellence!"

A powerful way to create engagement is to give people the option to choose whether they are committed to the vision. If they say they are, ask them to make a public declaration showing their support. I am not a psychologist, but it seems logical to me that people who volunteer for a cause are far more motivated than those who are coerced into joining one.

The group picture shown in Figure 2 hangs on the wall of our SAP training center. Our vision is written above it and again on one of those flip chart sheets of paper taped on the wall next to the picture. Whenever we meet in this room, regardless of the audience, we start the meeting by reminding everyone in attendance of our vision. At the end of the meeting, we ask those present whether they are committed to this vision. If they say they are, we say thank you, and invite them to sign their name to the flip chart sheet as a declaration of their commitment. Few may make such a bold declaration, but this is OK. For those who choose to do so, bonds are strengthened and forged. Just as signing the Declaration of Independence demonstrated a true commitment by the Founding Fathers to the cause of liberty, the signatures of the people who have signed our vision statement, serves as a powerful reminder of their commitment to our mission.

Also, you will notice that I use the term people instead of employees. While you might feel this is a subtle distinction, I ask you to reconsider. "Employees" sounds like a collective group of nameless individuals; using the term “people” helps you see employees as individuals. When you start seeing employees as people, you start to discover their hopes, their concerns, and their aspirations.

So, how do you get people to choose to follow you? You can always play the boss card and tell people they need to do whatever you say because you are the boss. But I suggest you will never produce sustained results with this approach. I talked earlier about inviting people to be part of the strategy and mission. This is just the first step in leading through influence rather than authority. Start conversations with the people in your organization. Spend a great deal of time listening to their concerns. Explain your position, and try to win them to your way of thinking.

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People,  Dale Carnegie illustrates this idea with his fourteenth principle, “Get the other person saying ‘Yes, yes’ immediately.” And his Principle #17 also holds timeless value: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.” And do not forget Principle #12: “If you are wrong, admit is quickly and emphatically.” Do not be afraid to change course if the wisdom of the team indicates there is a better way.

Step 3: A culture of appreciation

Once you have created a caring environment and a compelling vision, start creating a culture of appreciation. People who routinely feel valued and appreciated also will feel that their work matters, and consequently they will feel that they matter. At our monthly department meetings, right after a safety moment and a review of our vision, mission, and guiding principles, we take a few moments to check-in and show appreciation for each other. This comes before we review any KPIs or financial performance. Our priority is our people, without them financial performance would not be possible.

Remember the four S’s of appreciation: be Specific, be Sincere, Say it often, and say it Soon. Also, appreciating people does not mean you should shy away from coaching opportunities. If you shrink from this important responsibility, you are doing the people you lead a disservice.

I have a friend and colleague who graduated from the Naval Academy. He took a training class that discussed effective leadership styles. The instructor contrasted two leadership styles “Gunship Moral” and “Soda Fountain Moral”. A commander stationed in Norfolk was known throughout the fleet for the taut ship he ran; he was tough on his officers, and referred to his style of leadership as “Gunship Moral”. He instilled a certain pride in his men, and gave them high expectations to live up to. And when they did not live up to his expectations, he did not remain silent. His men did not always appreciate his “tough love” but they were known far and wide as the best crew in the fleet. They walked around Norfolk with a swagger; a smart step, uniforms neatly pressed. Wherever they went, people knew which command they belonged to.

Contrast this to “Soda Fountain Moral”, a leadership style where the manager spends a great deal of time and energy trying to make everyone happy. There is a difference between happiness and fulfillment. Happiness is fleeting; if you chase happiness you will always want more. Creating an atmosphere where greatness can flourish, setting high standards, and giving people the opportunity to be part of it through their contributions, will produce engaged and fulfilled team members.

Once the people in your salaried maintenance workforce are aligned and committed to the vision and mission, take the message both vertical and horizontal throughout the organization. Spend time with the hourly workforce. As I stated earlier, the lockout which occurred a few years ago, damaged an already tenuous relationship between the salaried and union workforce. Large meetings with the entire group resulted in most people standing silent, arms crossed and a scowl on their face, while a few complained loudly about everything under the sun.

I have found it is easier to get meaningful conversations started with the craftsmen in small groups, or through one on one encounters. Before you worry about communicating your agenda, listen to their frustrations, and quickly resolve the ones which are easily resolved. For those issues which require more time, effort, or investment, communicate status updates as often as practical. Ask them to participate in problem resolution, and explain your position on why you feel the course of action you are choosing is important. Do the same horizontally with your peers in engineering and operations. And in both cases, horizontal and vertical, remember Dale Carnegie's Principle #17: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.”

Step 4: Plan for employees' personal growth

As stated earlier, the transformational leader cares more for the needs of the people they serve, than for their own. And foremost among most people’s desire is an opportunity to contribute; to be part of something bigger than themselves, and to grow their contributions over time. A personal growth and development plan, tailored to each person’s desires, ambitions, and talents, increases the likelihood that your people will take on greater responsibility and make greater contributions in the future.

The formula for success, like many facets of “best in class” performance, is quite simple. Achieving the result, like most forms of excellence, is where the difficulty lies. M y simple formula for best practice growth and development planning is:

PASSION + APTITUDE + SKILL DEVELOPMENT + BUSINESS NEED = BEST PRACTICE RESULT

The key is linking people’s desires, passions, and aptitude to business goals. Part of everyone’s job is doing those mundane tasks that just need to be done. I call it taking out the trash and doing the dishes. But if you cannot find rewarding and meaningful work for your people, they will not stay engaged for very long. This takes active listening, and sometimes reading between the lines. Pay careful attention to body language, you can tell when someone enjoys their work. Getting people to volunteer to lead the program elements found in your written strategy is a great way to find out what your people are passionate about. But, before accepting their offer, determine whether the individual has the aptitude (or potential) to lead the activity they volunteered for. The quickest way to squelch engagement is to set people up for total and abject failure. People, especially younger employees, may never fully recover from a huge setback.

When it comes to skill development, I suggest that you create a written plan. Be strategic and intentional, do not assume that if you expose your people to information, that skill development will automatically occur. There is a huge difference between training and applied learning.

Do not assume people will work longer hours to learn new skills, as their plates are already full. Look at their commitments and agree to free up time in their workload for growth and development. Whenever I create a personal development plan for one of my team, I start with a time study of their workload, and I make a commitment to offload a portion of their responsibility to make room for the time it will take to develop their skills. An example employee development plan time study is shown in Figure 3.

Finally, be intentional about people engagement. Don’t treat it as an afterthought. Our strategy has key program elements that specifically focus on the well-being of our people, engagement, and their growth and development. I budget a full 30% of my time on taking care of the needs of the people I serve. A true measure of commitment is the attention you place on a particular activity.

Seven simple rules

In conclusion, if I had to distill employee engagement down into a few simple rules, they would be the following:

  1. Create an environment of care. Genuinely care about the people who work for you and teach them to care about each other.
  2. Lead through influence not by authority.
  3. Create a compelling vision for the organization, so people are aligned and committed to a common purpose.
  4. Create a culture of appreciation.
  5. Engage all stakeholders in the effort. Don’t leave anyone out.
  6. Truly care about the growth and development of the people you lead. Find out what they are passionate about so they can truly enjoy their work.
  7. Be as strategic and intentional about engagement, motivation, and the well-being of the people who work for you as you are about maintaining the health of your physical assets.

We at Roquette have a saying: "Energy follows attention." Be intentional about engagement and pay attention to your people. And the health of this, your greatest asset, will provide the impetus needed to catapult your program to best in class heights.