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Posted: November 10, 2009

The mindful culture: creating passion

Show employees you care and unlock their energy and innovation

Scott Halford

I was in a client's company a few weeks ago and met a young executive who was very switched-on by his work. He couldn't say enough about how he enjoyed doing it, but I could also tell there was something missing.

When I turned the discussion toward his passion for where he worked, the light in his eyes died a little and I was met with, "It's okay" kinds of comments. Something was very disconnected, and at the crux of it is one of the most important things any executive should pay attention to in order to bring the heads, hearts and passion of employees to the organization.

I heard a colleague, Art Kleiner, comment about this phenomenon very recently and his words are perfect to describe it: "The willingness to care institutionally is very different than the willingness to care individually."

So why is it that people can care deeply about what they do but not for the company in which they do it? What does a leader have to do to marshal the energy and passion of hundreds of employees toward a common goal?

Brain science informs us about how we might tackle some of this. First, the brain changes by what you ask it to focus on. It starts seeing all the things you ask it to see. It's the experience you have when you buy a new car and then start seeing that same car everywhere.

Your brain missed seeing the care before because if it attended to everything possible, the brain would become overwhelmed and indecisive, confused and even bored. There are countless possibilities to choose from to get your company going in the right direction.

It's not so much that you have THE right direction, but that you have a direction that makes sense; that it can be repeated by everyone you want going in that direction and something that is tied to a little more than just filling the coffers of hungry shareholders - it has to have some basic meaning beyond money.

Let's take this last point first. Business purists argue that business is for just that - business; it's about creating profits for shareholders.

That is fine and good until you introduce human beings into the equation. They aren't human doings and they will eventually resent being treated as such. It's when that little engine that makes the whole ship run doesn't work so well because employee contempt leads to withholding discretionary effort, clock-watching and scorekeeping.

 We are human beings and that means we are a part of a family somewhere or another in our lives. Neuroscience shows that no matter how much you do or don't like people, we are wired to be social beings, to interact with others. Evolution did it to us.

A couple hundred thousand years ago when we were in caves, if someone was ostracized from the clan, they would die. We needed our tribe, and we still do.

 In our modern world, we not only need our tribe, but we want it to care. To help me get caring into perspective I think of it like this: people start out caring about you a little less than you care about them. This means, for a leader to unlock passion, you have to sincerely care about what is on the minds and in the hearts of employees.

You can't address every individual need, but you can create a culture that says we care as much about you and your family as we want you and your family to care about us. Whatever that means to you and your people is the right thing. It's different for every culture.

So, the first step to unlocking people's passionate energy that churns out innovation and efficiency for the organization is to care about them and to show them through company programs, policies and recognition.
The second element of tapping into employees' passion and focusing it is to be clear about where you want them to focus their attention.

People want the tribe leader to lead them, and that means knowing where you're going, because they probably don't in terms of the overall company.

You bring into your organization whatever it is you are clear about. When I work with a medical device client of mine, I can ask just about any of the 20,000 people who work for it what the company cares about and they'll almost always say the patient.

That's no small feat. I could easily hear snide comments. Other organizations I've asked the same question will be all over the board: "Shareholders, executive salaries; some will say their consumers and so on."

While all of those may be right at some level, it's not very focused when you have these very noisy disparate directions people believe they are following. The executive team hasn't done much to focus the brains of the organization in a few very important directions.

Jack Stack, the CEO of Springfield Manufacturing was responsible in 1983 for the "open-book" management philosophy that has been studied, copied and adapted. Regardless of whether you think it's the right way to lead, Stack did and he focused his 120 employee's attention on it.

He had every single employee trained in reading and understanding financial statements business trends and what would positively affect revenues. He turned his company into a start-up with an initial equity investment of $100,000 into one worth $23 million by 1993 when it was bought. The conviction behind his focus is responsible, he and others believe, for the great success of the company.

When people have a common language and a common direction, and everyone feels included in it, regardless of their station, they will usually rally behind it.

The questions to ask of you and your organization are:

1. How much do you want your employees to care about your organization?
2. How are you going to create policies and procedures that indicate that you care about them just as much?
3. Where are you focusing the attention of all the brains in your company?
4. Do you put your money behind that attention?

When you direct the considerable wattage of all of your employee's brains and passion, you end up creating the tribe that takes care of itself. And then, it's not just an OK place to work; it's a place where OK is heard when asking employees to charge up a hill they might not always understand. That's focused passion.

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Scott Halford is the president of Complete Intelligence™, LLC. His new book, "Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success” is available now. Contact Scott at www.BeAShortcut.com.

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