Science Fiction? Employee Engagement in the Near Future
A shout-out to the many people that helped crack-the-code around the employee engagement challenge including Mary Campbell, my colleague, editor and former partner from USC; Adam Miller, Engagement CEO role model and founder of Cornerstone on Demand; Kim Shepherd, CEO of Decision Toolbox; Linda Sivertsen, Book Whisperer, and best selling author, as well as a legion of bright and dedicated contributors.
The following chapter is science fiction and takes place in the near future. I tried using this as a scenario of a fully engaged organization that has matured using all of the principles outlined in The Workplace Engagement Solution. Our publisher preferred present-time actionable truth and I eventually concurred.
This is how I envision the future ideal workplace:
Jennifer’s a bit late for work but she resists the urge to update the speed of her driverless BMW. Jen, as most call her, usually prefers to direct-drive the car but this morning she is awash in thoughts and emotions. The car gently winds its way through traffic on Coldwater Canyon towards Century City. The early morning sun pops over a crest on Mulholland Drive lighting the Los Angeles valley for miles. She lets out the same inner gasp similar to her reaction over Manhattan’s skyline whenever she flies back home.
This morning marks five years. She had joined AJMedia fresh from her first big success in New York. She had come to Los Angeles ready to conquer the world. AJMedia, how could you say no to them? They were the HBO of the virtual world. Last year, they walked off with eight Emmys and three Academy Awards. Jen’s team even accepted one of the statues. At first, she was intimidated by their culture. It had a reputation for being open and hard-charging. Their mentors were the best in the industry. If you worked there, your only options were to grow or to leave. Indeed, one of the reasons she snapped up the opportunity was for the chance to become a mentor at AJMedia. Their mentors were consistently developing tomorrow’s studio chiefs, award winners, and industry innovators.
It took two years. John Anglin, a story editor in development, became Jen’s mentor a week after she arrived. When she told him of her desire to mentor others, he laughed kindly laughed and suggested she first pour energy into her own development. As civilly as possible, he said, “You have direct reports who can give stronger professional presentations than you. Fortunate for you, we have an extraordinary training resource that can help you progress through several levels of mastery in this area. It will take about a year but I can also promise you will be glad that you did it. Jen took John’s advice and engaged in the highly focused process to become a master at presenting. The experience gave her an entirely new sense of ownership with her work.
All that Jen learned led up to that beautiful pivot point almost three years ago. Wang Jianlin, the CEO of the world’s largest movie studio heard her presentation on emerging camera technology and it proved to be the tipping point they needed. He proposed a joint venture. As a result, last year AJMediaand China’s Wanda Group co-produced over a billion dollars worth of content.
The car had passed the crest and it was now all stop-and-go in Beverly Hills. Large estates from a long ago era seemed to manage the lineup of traffic into a disciplined and respectfully slow march. Jen thought of yesterday’s events and became overwhelmed with emotion once again. Not long after she became a mentor, a project manager from across the hall hired a young coder named Greg. To say he was unlike typical hires at AJMedia was an understatement. Greg was very shy, had difficulty looking you directly in the eye and wasn’t the most presentable of individuals. After a few days, she walked into Karen’s office and asked,“What’s the story with Greg? Why did you hire him?”
Karen leveled her gaze at Jennifer and said, “One of the reasons I brought him onto the team is you.”
“OK, there’s a story here.”
Karen continued, “Greg is one of the most gifted software developers in the next generation of BathSound. He is brilliant, but he hates drawing attention to himself and is very uncomfortable with communicating generally” Jennifer frowned, “What do I have to do with this? Do you want me to help defend the hire?” “No, Jen, I want you to mentor him. His work DNA report indicates he is indeed one of the smartest people we have ever hired. The report also indicates strength of character and I believe this could actually help him overcome whatever is holding him back. When we looked at his core intelligence numbers and overall potential, it seemed more than worth the risk to have him join the team. But, I need your help and you are currently one of our best in this area.
He stuttered. This was a trait that was unnerving to Jen. She didn’t even know why. Stuttering bothered her so much that it came up on three different bias reports. She had little exposure to it and didn’t understand it. Although she wondered whether this was going to work, she asked him, “What do you want to accomplish with mentoring?”
Greg was sitting bolt upright in the chair on the other side of her glass work table. He was in his mid-twenties, rigidly still with the exception of two fingers on one hand seemingly pulling a finger off of his other hand. He said, “I, ah, want, to get better, with other, uh, other people.” Somehow, instantly, all thoughts of time vanished, her heart melted and Jennifer became his mentor. She had one other new person and that relationship was progressing along effortlessly. Greg was something else. She worked behind the scenes to build a specialized support system for him as they worked on his growth areas. In addition to the regular communications processes, Jen found a speech therapist and got a quick approval from the talent development folks.
Everyone that worked with Greg told her that he was throwing himself into the work even though he often had almost crippling difficulty with his fears. But he progressed so quickly that even the learning and development center was holding him up as a role model. Despite this early success and validation, his sessions with Jen continued to confront him. He often found himself reverting to shyness and stuttering. When Jen asked why, he would often respond, “I don’t really know.” And, then one day he looked her in the eyes and said, “I get frightened around you because you are a ‘big deal’ around here and yet you set aside time for me. I so want to please you and make you proud. I so appreciate what you are doing for me.” That was the moment she fell in love with her company. It was the critical moment when her life’s work and contribution became more than what was already a wonderful job.
Jen reminisced about her own start and the words of the CEO just before she moved to Los Angeles. Cheryl Epperson had taken over just a few years after AJMedia became a well-known entity. Every new employee would have a five-minute virtual session with Cheryl and on that beautiful spring morning, the session opened with this prophetic message.
“Jen, you have joined a unique company. We are not only dedicated to producing the best virtual content in the world, we are dedicated to developing the best people in any industry, well-rounded, growing, competent, cutting-edge professionals with the capacity to reach their full potential and enjoy life to the fullest. From this moment forward I am holding you responsible to be your best, to help others become their best and to do whatever it takes to make our company the one that sets that standard. Are you with us?” Of course, she said “Yes” in the moment, but the truth is that Jen didn’t have a clue how true and meaningful this would actually show up in her experience.
Earlier this year, her communications pod device indicated she had a POP call holding from the CEO. Cheryl Epperson had been one of the first executives to install the system which uses artificial intelligence and sophisticated filters to prioritize the day’s activities and make automatic connections to critical stakeholders. Jen slipped on her headset and there she was. Cheryl was immaculate on every level. She had a gift for appearing at the leading edge of style without giving up her innate dignity and accessibility. Jen broke into a broad smile. “Cheryl, what brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Jen I’m not calling with a problem. I am calling with an opportunity. You are mentoring a young man named Greg Baker. Early last year, Karen Brooks hired him after securing an override on certain characteristics from our talent management group. From all indications, Greg is advancing toward a breakthrough solution that will produce a revolutionary new sound system. No outsider technology. The advancements are based on his own innovations. Tell me how he is progressing with your mentoring.”
Jen responded. “You are probably aware of this already, but Greg came to us with significant communications challenges yet he is pushing through those challenges by doubling up on his efforts to speak clearly, present concepts powerfully and communicate more effectively overall.”
Cheryl continued. “Well, not only do I want this young man to stay with us, I want him to grow and develop so much that he doesn’t even think of ever leaving us.” Jen agreed, “Cheryl, I am so taken with his initiative and I am 100% with you, I never want him to leave. He came to us with such difficulties. He’s has not only made me a believer in our mentoring program, he has made mentorship one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of my life.”
Cheryl smiled, “He is no ordinary coder and you are no ordinary mentor.” Months then passed and Jen heard nothing else about it.
Yesterday, Cheryl led the annual AJMedia conference at the Century Plaza Hotel. The ballroom was filled with over 1,000 strategic partners, shareholders, community members and industry leaders. Everyone expected a spectacular experience because that is the trademark of these events. Jen was sitting next to the mayor of Los Angeles. The room changed color from white to red to crimson to pitch black. The most beautiful, enveloping sounds from perhaps a forest or out deep in the woods started to trickle into the space and seemingly pour out of her own skin. Music wrapped around her and gently squeezed, like a hug. It was an incredible experience. Suddenly Cheryl and Greg appeared inches from Jen’s nose and began dancing and singing, “We did it!” The cool music wrapped even tighter around her.
Greg broke away and a virtual screen dropped down right next to him. “When I joined the AJMedia team, I was asked to develop a new form of sound that would set an industry standard for our customers by literally allowing them to experience the events we portray with our unique content and give them living sound coupled with artificial intelligence that advances personalization to a whole new level. Friends, colleagues and customers, we present to you, Crescendo!”
With that Jen and everyone else in the room was surrounded with constantly changing scenes of auto races, storms at sea, a mother cooing to her child, an inauguration and finally she was on the head of a firework rocket speeding into the sky only to explode. People gasped. The sound quality was more than lifelike, it was better than real life. People were actually shouting and screaming with delight. Jen was crying. As the rocket exploded the lights came up and Greg was standing on the stage with Cheryl.
The audience rose to its feet and roared with applause. As the room finally quieted back down, Cheryl stepped forward to speak.
“We are a company that exceeds expectations and we are an organization where the world’s greatest talent joins us to be inspired, to grow, and to achieve their ultimate goals and dreams. Greg Baker is one of those talents. In three years, his team has developed what you have just witnessed, a sound technology so lifelike, so mesmerizing to the listener that the virtual experience has ascended to a new level. And today, we can do it without a headset! Spatial breakthroughs can allow us to place not just a mother’s voice into the user experience, it is a voice that feels inches away and perhaps even more all- encompassing than the real thing. But, the biggest breakthrough of all is that we can make that your mother’s voice.” Once again, the room went dark and quieted to an anticipatory silence. Jen heard a voice so familiar and so clear that she went into shock. “You know honey, I discouraged your decision to go into film school and I apologize for that. I couldn’t be more proud of you. Look at what you have done with your life.” The lights came back up and the auditorium was filled with awe and wonder. Someone began clapping, a few more joined, and, the room came alive.
That afternoon, Jen found her way to the office and pulled the door shut. She had never witnessed such a transformation of one individual as in Greg Baker, now the head of a new division within the company. She reached for her cell and called her husband. Grant’s wonderful face filled the screen and he asked, “How was the conference?”
Tears flowed. “You remember my mentee, Greg?” Grant quickly responded, “How could I not? You love helping him.” “Greg introduced a new technology today that is going to change virtual entertainment. It is profound and moving.” “Wait a second,” Grant interrupted, “you said he introduced it.” Jen’s voice rose, “He was on stage with Cheryl!” Grant was moved. He said, “You have called that place a world of wonders. You must be so proud.” “I’m stunned I got to be a part of that,” Jen said. “I get to not only do my best work here, I get to impact other lives.” Grant reached towards her, “Wish I was there to hug you. This is one of the many, many reasons I love you so. Shall we celebrate tonight.?” Jen simply nodded her head in agreement.
After Grant’s face vanished from the screen, more emotions flooded in. She had come to Los Angeles alone and while her mentor, John, was helping her build a support system, she met Grant. He was at an industry function and the two were looking down at their communications pods. They literally ran into one another and never pulled away since.
About an hour later there was a knock at the door. Greg stuck his head in. “Have a moment Coach?” Jen laughed, “I am so mad at you. You didn’t give me fair warning.”
“You know how it is. These presentations are top secret,” he said. “Did I make you proud?”
Jen looked him in the eyes and said, “I view helping you grow into the person you are today as more important than any of my business accomplishments to date. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Greg sat down in front of her. “I have something to show you.” He reached for an envelope out from his jacket and pulled out a check. It was made out to him for $800,000.
“A minute before we stepped out onto the stage, Cheryl gave this to me. She said, ‘this is a small token of our appreciation. Tomorrow, we are setting up a new sound division and I would like for you to assume the presidency.’ Of course, I responded yes.”
Jen’s genuine joy was overwhelming. “I couldn’t be happier for you. What are you going to do with the money?”
“I don’t really need much of anything,” Greg responded. “So, I’m going to use a portion to get a small sailboat down at the Marina and start learning how to be a mini-boat captain. I’ll also be putting half into the company’s Foundation. This place gave me the life I have today and I want to help young people emerge out of their difficulties, perhaps help a few more stand in the light.”
Jen intuitively spoke. “You were abused as a child weren’t you?”
For the first time, it was in front of them. Greg was willing to say it. “I was. I had an abusive dad who beat all of us regularly. One of his beatings led to my mother’s death, right in front of me. I couldn’t speak for years after that. I dug into my schoolwork. I lived with my ‘aunt from hell’ who wasn’t much better. School was my redemption and, ultimately, work became the place where I remade myself.”
“Greg, I’m so sorry that you went through that.”
“Jen, I am a different person. In fact, much of the man I have become has come out of your generosity and kindness.”
As she remembered those words, tears of joy were coming down. Despite being late, she realized she now needed something to freshen her face.
“Andy, please pull into the drug store just ahead.” “With pleasure Jen.”
The car seemed like one of her best friends. She excitedly walked through the door and her favorite store employee, Carla, was waiting with her signature smile.
“Oh my God, Jen look at you! You’re getting so big. Another month?”
“Six weeks,” Jen responded.
Carla was genuinely excited. “You’re going to have a new life.”
“Actually, everything in my life feels new.”
On the fifth floor of AGMedia, a young employee who had just been hired out of the intern pool was sitting outside one of the top execs in the studio. He was hopeful that this particular mentor candidate would take him under his wing. An assistant approached him with a gentle smile, “Daniel, we are ready to begin.”
She brought him into the executive’s office. Greg looked up, with his heavy signature glasses and half-smile. “Please, sit down and make yourself comfortable.”
The door closed. Greg looked up and asked the same words he heard four years before.
“So, what do you want to accomplish?”
Brought to you by David Harder – Founder & President, Inspired Work, Inc.
(C) Copyright, 2017, David Harder – (All Rights Reserved)