It’s the Culture, Stupid

It’s the Culture, Stupid

Want Engaged Employees Who Don’t Burn Out? Be a Great Place to Work

Lee Colan is an ideas man. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s always looking for the next big idea—he’s fine with small ideas, too. In fact, he argues that it’s the small ideas, and lots of them, that keep employees engaged and excited about their work.

“We use the phrase: What’s the small idea? Forget about the big idea—what’s the small idea that is going to improve your work, your process, your work environment?” he said. In creating a culture of ideas, it not only engages employees, he said, it empowers them, which in turn raises the competitive bar.

Colan, an industrial/organizational psychologist, is president of The L Group, a business consulting firm based in Plano, TX, and author of Engaging the Hearts and Minds of All Your Employees: How to Ignite Passionate Performance for Better Results (McGraw-Hill), Passionate Performance: Engaging Minds and Hearts to Conquer the Competition (CornerStone Leadership Institute), and a number of others. As the titles of his books suggest, he thinks a lot about employee engagement and its positive impact on an organization’s overall success. “The bottom line is that people support what they help create,” he said. If you empower people to participate in the creation of something, logic dictates that they will be engaged and give it their all.

For this to happen, leaders need to loosen the reins and involve their employees in the decision-making process. “As leaders, we sometimes think that we are supposed to know all the answers,” Colan said. “But the truth is, the best leaders ask more questions and listen more than they talk.”

This is where all of those small ideas—and lots of them—come into play. “You want to focus on quantity, not quality, of ideas,” Colan said. The most successful companies, he said, are those that have found ways to streamline the idea generation process so that ideas actually get put into place, and things actually improve. “One of the core ways of engaging employees is generating ideas from people and letting them implement them.”

Another aspect of engaging employees is continuing development; generally, people want to feel like they are growing and learning every day. Susan Fowler, senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Companies in San Diego, CA, and co-author of the firm’s Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation Programs, puts it this way: “When a baby falls down, you expect that. Have you ever asked yourself why the baby gets up? The reason he gets up and keeps trying to walk is because he has a need for competence. He wants to master his environment.” This is no different in the workplace, she argued. “The day you stop growing is the day you get bored, the day you start making mistakes, the day you don’t care if you’ve been empowered.”

Kelly McCarthy, president of Genesis Integration, an AV systems contracting firm headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is not such a big believer in employee engagement as a term or a strategy; instead, he said, it all comes down to building a purposeful culture. “If you have that base, it attracts people into your business who identify with that culture, and it repels the ones who don’t identify with that culture. I don’t know if it’s so much about employee engagement. I think people become engaged if that’s your culture.”

McCarthy points to The Genesis Way, a statement that presents the company’s team, purpose, mission, vision, and culture. It figures on the company’s website, and, according to McCarthy, is posted in every Genesis office. Notably, the section titled “culture” enjoys the largest word count. “As people become more sophisticated and have to grow their businesses and their business acumen, I think that culture gets to be up front and center,” McCarthy said. “Particularly as we’re moving away from product-based profit sales into service-based sales.” And, when they’re selling service, what AV systems integrators are really selling is their people. “We had better focus on having very good people in order to be successful, and the minute you start focusing on people, you really have to think about the atmosphere that you’re creating for them.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

Pressing Pause

Sometimes, staying engaged requires one to disengage. A number of companies have recognized this with the implementation of sabbatical programs for their employees. Oftentimes, this develops because the organization’s leader has gone on sabbatical herself and, after experiencing the benefits, wants to give the same opportunity to her employees.

Sabbatical programs, both paid and unpaid, aren’t just reserved for the large enterprises with thousands of staff members. Barbara Pagano, partner, YourSabbatical, an Atlanta, GA firm that works with both companies and individuals on the development of sabbatical plans, notes that when she worked with the networking site MeetUp on its program, the organization employed 75 employees, and she’s worked with companies with as few as 14.

So what, as it applies to the workplace, is a sabbatical? “It’s a strategic, purposeful pause away from your work,” Pagano explained. “By strategic, I mean that your work is being done while you’re gone, people are learning new skills, and you are going away for the purpose of achieving the one or two things that you have identified that are important to you to accomplish.”

Pagano notes that in fact, sabbaticals not only benefit the sabbatical taker, they also are advantageous for those that are left behind––especially those working in small to mid-sized businesses. “In a small or medium sized company, you don’t have a corporate ladder to climb, but you do have skills development,” she said. “When you’re going away on sabbatical and you’re in a small or midsized company, you have to break down your job, and then you can put pieces of that job out for bid, or you can huddle with management and say, ‘Who would benefit from learning this piece of my job?’” Very often, she says, it’s discovered that a lot of people would like to learn aspects of someone else’s role. “The whole talent development piece of it can be done so well, and it’s a big benefit for small and medium-sized companies.”


Carolyn Heinze has covered everything from AV/IT and business to cowboys and cowgirls ... and the horses they love. She was the Paris contributing editor for the pan-European site Running in Heels, providing news and views on fashion, culture, and the arts for her column, “France in Your Pants.” She has also contributed critiques of foreign cinema and French politics for the politico-literary site, The New Vulgate.