One of the most important lessons I learned about life came from my friend and colleague, Robert Maurer. He said,
“We learn nothing of value by studying dysfunction.”
He goes on to tell us that if we want a great love life, study people with long loving marriages. If we’re going to become successful in a particular industry, find someone at the top of that industry to help you.
Employee engagement continues to be one of the most frustrating problems in the world of work. The CEO tells human resources to fix the engagement problem. By the time the CEO hits the door, he or she has disengaged. The human resource executive announces, “We are fixing the engagement problem.” The employees look right past the H.R. executive to the CEO and they see business as usual.
Next, Human Resources issues an employee engagement survey, which only makes the managers feel more inadequate than ever. They are sent to a retreat returning with enthusiasm. The employees who were left out, shrug their shoulders. Unfortunately, human resources can now be blamed for a talent initiative that belonged to the CEO.
One of the more powerful ways to build engagement in an organization is to find the employees and leaders who personify engagement. Often, one person that has mastery in a particular area can teach us more in ten minutes than days with the “experts.”
In 1990, when we founded Inspired Work, I drove over to my bank with the articles of incorporation, proud to be opening my first business account. The “customer service” employee looked at the papers, frowned, looked up, and said, “I can’t help you. You didn’t bring another necessary paper.” Later in the day, I told my business manager about the experience, and he suggested that I move City National Bank. We have been there for 30 years.
Our branch is in Century City, and the manager for that branch is still there, always appreciated, generous, transparent, and kind. His business leads the bank with such issues as account sizes, customer loyalty, low turnover, and pride in their work.
The person that everyone ought to study was A.J.’s administrator, Jennifer. When I walked into the branch for the first time, she called out, “David? Are you David Harder?”
Jennifer had a kind of hearty enthusiasm that comes so naturally to Italians. She was a pretty brunette with kind sparkling eyes.
“Why would you know I’m David Harder?”
She let out a big laugh, “You’re the only person I don’t recognize!”
People like Jennifer treat the rest of us as their biggest assets.
After a few years of hard work and living hand-to-mouth, I decided to get a new BMW convertible. The financial paperwork was ready when I got there, and she was beaming ear-to-ear. I got a bit choked up and said, “Jennifer, you are the kindest person in the world. How do you do it?”
Her smile doubled in size, and she said, “It’s easy, David. You are my favorite customer.”
Later that week, I dropped by the branch for routine business. She called out from her desk, “Did you get it?”
“It’s outside!” I called back.
“Can I get a ride in it? Can you put the roof down?”
So, I took Jennifer in about a ten-block circle with the roof down, and the stereo cranked up. She kept putting her hands in the rushing air and letting out glee and laughter.
A few days later, I had a routine visit to the branch. Something was wrong. Everything seemed off.
“What’s going on?” I asked everyone.
“Jennifer passed away last night.” She had a heart attack.” She was only in her 40s.
They held the burial service at Hillside Cemetery in Culver City. It is a grand place behind massive gates, and it often becomes the final resting place for many of the city’s elite. I followed all the cars in and suddenly realized there were about 300 people. Most of them were clients.
A group of us began telling each other Jennifer vignettes. One closed his story with the words, “I was her favorite client.”
I interrupted, “No, no, no! She told me that I was her favorite client!
We looked into each other’s eyes and began laughing. Others chimed in and instead of undermining all of the goodwill she gave us, it only enhanced our respect for her. Because, when you were with her, there was no doubt. She cared for you with joy and enthusiasm.
When an organization has someone like Jennifer, they will do well to turn that bright light into a role model for everyone else. These are the role models that show us far more than doing a good job. These are the people who practice gratitude, kindness, courtesy, partnership, joy, heartbreak, whatever it is that we are going through, she found enormous joy when we shared that with her. She had made a commitment to lead the biggest life possible.
We cannot think our way into employee engagement. But a role model such as this remarkable woman, can give everyone else the benefits of gratitude, interest, learning, and turning life into all of its possibilities while others, in similar roles think, “It’s just a job.”
I will always remember her in that car. Hands raised in the wind, hair blowing and laughter, laughter so full-bodied that she celebrated with one client so thoroughly, I will never forget it. She could do that with everyone.
I miss her.
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