For over ten years now, I’ve been writing, lecturing and thinking about the great things that can happen to companies when they decide to build an “employee satisfaction” culture. So, as I get started with TownSquare Delaware, I thought I’d give some background as to why I am so passionate about this topic.
I can easily trace my interest in the power of employee engagement back to two very different work experiences I had in 1986. These experiences clashed so violently that the sparks that were created lit this philosophical fire in me which continues to burn today. As you might guess, one of the experiences was completely amazing, and one was an unmitigated clusterf-ck.
The amazing experience was working at the High Street Youth Hostel in Edinburgh, Scotland. That job provided a great example of what a business could be like and SHOULD be like. It had just been opened by Peter McMillian, who now owns the largest youth hostel chain in Britain, but at the time, he was just bootstrapping his first venture.
He poured everything into that business – all of his meager saving from working as a carpenter and every scrap of his creativity. Peter’s live wire energy made working there more than a job. It was a mission. He leveraged everyone’s unique talents by delegating freely and rarely insisting that his idea was the best. For Peter, creating employee satisfaction wasn’t something that he set out to do. He came by it naturally. Peter empowered everyone to make sure that his guests had a great experience, and despite the fact that his workforce was usually not paid with money, but with comp’d room and board, his staff was energetic and motivated to do so.
A youth hostel that hasn’t made it into the guide books yet can live or die on its reputation alone. Backpackers trust the word-of-mouth recommendations and reviews of other backpackers, and Peter’s goal was to turn everyone who passed through the hostel into a salesman. He wanted customers to leave talking about the hot strong showers, clean bedrooms, and friendly staff.
I left that hippie paradise of a job in love with the excitement of business and entrepreneurship, and went directly into the worst job of my life. Days after returning from Europe, I found myself in a workplace hell. From making no money and loving it, I went to making a lot of money and hating it. In order to earn enough money to pay for my last two years at the University of Delaware, I worked as a temporary member of the United Auto Workers Union in the General Motors corporation parts distribution warehouse where I was literally the smallest of small cogs in a huge machine.
I came from a situation in which I was helping build a new enterprise, where my creativity and energy mattered, suddenly I was nothing. I was a speck. One day I finished a job early, and I asked, “Don,” the manger that I was working for if should help “Mitch” in another department. Mitch’s people were not close to finishing an assignment that was stretching into weeks overdue. Without pausing Don replied, “F-ck Mitch!” That was pretty much the attitude throughout General Motors.
There was no creative problem solving at General Motors. The employees made great money, but they hated every minute they were there.
General Motors employees were so unhappy compared to those at the youth hostel where I had just been working, that the contrast was dizzying. I tried to figure out why GM was so bad, and one day I asked a friend who was long-term employees if there was ever a time when she liked working for GM. I’ll call her “Donna”; her eyes lit up, and she considered the question. She told me a story about a time she was assigned to a team to figure out why a door panel was coming through the production line with a scratch on it. The engineers and managers had deconstructed the process and could not explain where that scratch was coming from. She was put on a multidisciplinary team to figure out what was causing that scratch. She said that it took them about a month and that was the one time that she really enjoyed coming to work.
One month. One happy month in a crappy thirty-year career.
That General Motors survived this period is a miracle. That American companies survive today with so little consideration of employee engagement is a miracle. My time at GM was just as miserable as everybody else’s, but I treasure the experience because of what I learned.
These two jobs turned me into the employee satisfaction evangelist that I am today. We spend most of our lives at work, so we shouldn’t tolerate bad, dysfunctional workplaces. I’m absolutely convinced that any company can use employee satisfaction to create a competitive advantage in today’s tough business climate. That’s why my goal is to use this space to spread the word about Delaware companies that “get it.”
I’ll be seeking out those companies and talk to those people who really love their jobs . Why do Delawareans love working for the companies they work for, and why are hated companies hated? American business is a frenetic laboratory in which theories are constantly being tested and retested. Good ideas win and bad ideas lose. Every company produces piles of quantitative evidence of success and failure in the form of rising and falling sales. I want to talk to those business owners who are tinkering with that employee engagement formula for the benefit of all of their stakeholders.
We’ve just exited an age in which technology was a competitive driver. Now, technology is nothing more than a commodity. The computing miracles of the 1990s are now as ubiquitous in businesses as electricity and telephones. Employee satisfaction is the next frontier. Companies that can win the race to employee satisfaction will win the future, and I want to find those companies and talk to those people.