Creating an Energized Organization: Re-Energizing Our People

“I want my orchestra members to say that I play their crescendos.” – Ben Zander, Conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

LEADING organizations in the long term is a complex task, because as time goes by people become less and less energized. One of the keys for effective long-term leadership is our ability to renew the energy and morale of our people and teams in the organization.

When we do this well, the eyes of our staff will light up in what Ben Zander calls ‘shiny eyes’. The question I frequently ask myself is: “What kind of leader have I been if the eyes of my staff are not shining?”

Renewing vision and building hope – communicating meaning to everyone

My good friend Shirley Chen is a former Assistant Managing Director of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). She shared how she was energized at work: “My Chairman always reminds us that the vision of EDB is providing jobs and finding employment for Singaporeans! That propels me to do my very best.” Most people find meaning beyond the tangible and the bottom line. They need to be fired up with a vision.

To energize their teams, leaders need to create and nurture a culture of learning and openness.

At a leadership conference, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz shared how Starbucks exists to build trust and hope. He explained that in 1958, trust in advertising was at 90 percent; today it is 7 percent. Each consumer is inundated with 3,000 messages promoting products every day but how effective is this, in the middle of a lack of trust on the part of the public?

He feels that Starbucks must restore trust by keeping promises in its products and services. Hence, their vision is not serving coffee to people, but serving people with coffee.

I also heard a story of his deep compassion. When one of his store managers was fatally shot at a Starbucks store, Schultz flew out to be with the grieving family for a week. He later announced that the profits for an entire year from the store the deceased had worked in would be donated to his family for his children’s education. While that endeared Schultz to his employees in general and to that family in particular, it also won my loyalty to his product. That is building hope.

Reconstituting organization culture – promoting an open, accountability and nurturing culture

An IT manager once told me, “I enjoy my job but the work environment sucks. There’s so much politicking and backstabbing in my office! It kills my spirit.”

A close, hierarchical, fear-inducing culture can inhibit energy. Worse still, a culture that encourages nepotism, jostling and politicking for positions can be a devastating energy-sapper.

Some cultures promote fear and guilt, fault-finding and scapegoating. Instead of concentrating on their work and joining together in teams, staff members are constantly worried about their peers, and what they will say and do to undermine them; they also lack trust in their leaders to be fair and objective.

Mistakes are swept under the carpet until they are exposed, which then make for more punishment and fear-inducing measures. Staff will then feel demoralized and disengaged. Joon Wo, a Korean leader in a pharmaceutical company, rules his department with an iron fist. Those who are loyal to him obey him unquestioningly. His word is law.

Not only are his people not being developed, but the more questioning and creative ones leave the organization in droves. And he wonders why people are not staying!

To energize their teams, leaders need to create and nurture a culture of learning and openness. In other words, they must encourage their staff to share both successes and failures. They schedule time for mutual learning, on-the-job coaching and forums for sharing of experiences. When they do these, they will enhance creativity and break down the walls that form between staff members and themselves.

Reconstructing work schedules and meetings – making space for rest, repose and reflection

Pilots and flight attendants are given compulsory rest times during long flights. Those working in flight operations understand that the human mind and physical capacity cannot be over-stretched.

Pushing staff beyond their limits, having no buffer and spare capacity, may seem good for the short term but will take a toll in the long term

It is important that companies give priority to these times. Pushing staff beyond their limits, having no buffer and spare capacity, may seem good for the short term but will take a toll in the long term, resulting in burn-out and high turnover. Leaders must recognize that it is okay to give staff time for regular breaks.

They must also plan for ‘strategic pauses’, whereby leaders can conduct intermittent purposeful debriefs done in a less formal environment. Jane, a leader in a non-profit organization, always makes it a point to provide refreshments at all senior executive meetings. They make her meetings ‘informally purposeful’ (a term she coined).

Providing refreshments and allowing humor puts people in a more relaxed mood and creates a contributive atmosphere. Laughter reverberates through the room whenever there is a meeting. Also, she designates one person to tell a joke at each meeting. People enjoy coming, but they also get things done!

Instead of going straight to the agenda, a time may be given for everyone to share one good, positive thing that has happened to them in the past week. The idea is to counter all the bad news they may hear and see around them.

The atmosphere in these meetings will become relaxed yet focused. In this regard, I believe leaders set the tone. If they come in just wanting to get the job done and/or to focus on problems, it will then create an energy-inhibiting culture.

Reprioritizing staff development programs – developing their competence and capacity regularly

From my own experience as a consultant, most organizations don’t make staff development a priority. Staff development programs include formal training, informal on-the-job training, peer coaching, mentoring, cross-functional sharing, leaders’ forums and others.

Human resource management must take on a more strategic role in human-power planning.

These must be intentional, systematic and relevant. However, in this tight-scheduled work environment with no spare human-power buffer, managers and supervisors are reluctant to release their staff for training. To them, meeting the bottom line and their department’s KPIs come first. The end result: people are not systematically developed.

Human resource management must take on a more strategic role in human-power planning. It has to actively work to train, develop and manage talent. Unfortunately, for most organizations, the HR department is often reduced to performing policy enforcement and administration.

However, much is still up to individual motivation; leaders simply provide opportunities. Potentiality does not imply actuality. In fact, some people enjoy themselves and get energized wherever they are, while others stay bored and disengaged even with the most creative and conducive learning environment.

Consistent upgrading of skills for employees pays off, as shown by top organizations like Singapore Airlines, Nordstrom and the Singapore Ministry of Education. They invest 8-10 percent of their employees’ salaries, and chalk up 80-100 hours per year in training and development. These are firms that recognize the need for constant input, motivation and re-energizing.

In conclusion, leaders create the right climate, lead by example to encourage feedback and prioritize the development of people. When these elements are in place, staff will be engaged and energized!