Before Engagement Was Cool

All employees have an innate desire to contribute to something bigger than themselves.  —Jag Randhawa

M any years ago, I worked for a young, high growth company providing information technology services to corporations. I believe my employee number was 610. The founder of the company was a dynamic individual who had big dreams and serious determination. Like many high-powered founders, he floated between manic obsessive devil and charismatic angel – often able to cross the distance between the two within the same conversation. He inspired fear and awe while communicating a clear vision, a clear sense of value to our customers, and a clear understanding of what it takes to build a high growth company.

In today’s world of “engagement” and a host of buzzwords surrounding organizational development, I often think of my time in that company. Before selling, we had about 1500 employees who were very engaged, very focused, and very passionate about their work and their company. We didn’t know what a millennial was though there was a bit of talk about Generation X…or was it Y? It didn’t matter. We were on a mission and everyone was engaged.

Though it seems like a long time ago (now, over 20 years), much of the experience still resonates with me and I find myself repeating many of my former employer’s mantras in my mind. Today, we spend so much time trying to figure out how to engage employees, create meaningful work environments, and manage the newest generation (which is always different in a negative way from the one before) when things are really pretty simple. We confuse culture with purpose and get lost in a host of creative distractions to try and delight our workforce (pick your favorite Silicon Valley office culture gimmick: ping pong tables, oxygen bars, dogs-at-work, etc.)

How did that high growth company mentioned above do it? Our founder started with three guiding questions that all employees ask:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How will we get there?
  3. What’s in it for me?

Then, he answered them in a cohesive vision:

  1. Purpose/Direction: A five year window to a liquidity event and stock options for employees. 
  2. Focus: A set of highly differentiated services in a targeted niche. 
  3. Opportunity: The chance to grow, financially, personally, and professionally, along the way. 

Next, he provided a clear set of organizational values. What was important to us?

  1. Do the right thing, every time.
  2. Excellence in everything we do.
  3. The growth and development of our people.

Of course, the lists above are meaningless without execution. In this case, the company was able to execute. Not only did we speak in terms of the items above, we were measured on them, we were held accountable to them, and we believed in them. The expression “cult-like” comes to mind but it was quite effective and didn’t seem too terribly weird at the time.

I’m sure my experience was not unique. There were many successful companies before and many since. All with their own unique culture and path to success. Yes, market timing and service set made a difference in our ultimate success but the underlying principles fueled and reinforced everything we did that led to that success. It is still a good model for today when we continue to ask how to engage our employees.

As I look back, I see three key factors that truly stand out and they weren’t about pay, the appearance of our office furniture, or any other gimmick:

  • We all felt like we were part of, and contributing to, something bigger than ourselves. 
  • We all felt like we were on a winning team.
  • Leadership did what it said it would do.

We didn’t know anything about being engaged but we were definitely bought-in. Everyone in that organization had a greater sense of purpose. What we were doing was making a difference. Sure, we wanted to get paid and have fun doing our work, but the real drivers were much more profound. It was a true work hard, play hard culture and the fun came in daily steps toward the attainment of a shared vision.

My conclusion? Quit worrying about coddl…er, I mean, motivating millennials or any other generation with gimmicks or tchotchkes. Just give them something to believe in, a great team to be on, and a pathway to shared success. Then, follow through on the vision you paint. Every individual is called to make a difference in the world around them. Each of us is called to be the best version of our self. Then, as employers, business owners, and leaders, we are called to do our best to create an environment in which people can accomplish their basic purpose.


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