Thursday, February 7, 2008

If You Aspire to be a Great Place to Work, You've Set the Bar Too Low

As I write this piece, this is the close of a big week for me. This was the week when the much-anticipated annual Best Companies to Work For edition of Fortune magazine arrived in my mailbox. For an engagement geek like me, I suppose the excitement is parallel to, uhm, sports enthusiasts receiving their annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. With, what I can only presume to be the same focus and determination, I immediately go straight to the gate-fold, centerfold to look at the yummy table to see who is Number One, to see where my clients and friends have landed on the list, and to see who’s off this year.

But it’s the far-right column that has always held my attention longest – what I fondly call the doodads column, which lists the accoutrements of best companies to work for. These typically span the selection from the essential, like worklife/balance policies; health coverage; stock options; and tuition reimbursement to the frivolous, like the parties and the toys. I have to say, though, that this year everything seems to be shopworn and tired. Where once this column was the domain of the toys, special excursions to exotic lands, permission to bring one’s pooch, this year the column is listing things that people should be expecting anyway, for instance Number 22, American Century Investment claims bragging rights over the fact they give a rousing welcome to new employees.

The doodads have lost their va-voom. A sign of the times, I suppose.

But I think it’s also a sign that perhaps it’s time for the entire employee engagement conversation to undergo a 2.0 overhaul. We’ve done the doodads accounting for over 10 years now, and now we need to transform the topic of what makes a great place to work to what makes a culture where great people want to come to work.

This is not in any way meant to disparage The Great Places to Work Institute or call into question the authenticity of its intent and the quality of any individual company that competes to make the list. However, like any movement that starts out true and good and is fighting hard to keep its integrity, its core concept has also been high-jacked by those who want to feed of the original vision, those who just want to win – or companies and consultants that want to make money helping employers make the list. With the emphasis focused on making the list rather than truly creating a place where people voluntarily contribute their absolute greatness – what William Blake called the divine spark – we have shifted our attention to the finger pointing at the moon rather than the moon itself.

We’ve gotten too fancy. As a result companies have become slave to the methodology rather than the mission. The elaborateness of survey instruments, indexes, even the doodads dangled in front of employees like bait reveal a fundamental disconnect that persists: Employees – one by one -- are looking for a job (or life’s work) that they can truly pour their hearts into. The result? The company has an extensive, Byzantine metrics system set up to gauge how engaging its managers are. And it has a doodads list long enough to encircle the globe. But there is absolutely no understanding of what passions truly burn in the hearts of its employees. One very common tell-tale sign: The company has a web-enabled careers tab that may be state-of-the-art technology-wise, but it has the inspiring welcome of a flounder flat and dead on a platter.

Instead of aiming to be a so-called great place to work, employers should shift their emphasis to becoming the place where great employees know they can wisely invest their passion, creativity, hearts and smarts. Let’s take a look at what a great employee is.

Great employees passionately identify with the company’s mission and they’ll go to extremes to help the organization achieve its goals. Great employees don’t care about arcade games and free coffee; they care about customer service, innovation and making the world a better place as a general result from their daily efforts. Great employees can get very angry when they see evidence of their company’s purpose sliding off the rails; so in this sense they can be very uncomfortable to be around at times. Great employees love to close a sale, please a customer, find the solution, find an even better solution, and do all these things with coworkers who are as passionate about their work as they are.

This is what great employees want: They want to believe in the company’s mission. They want a clear line of site between their efforts and the company’s most essential goals. They want to know that trust and respect flow both ways between themselves and their managers – and among their coworkers, for that matter. They want to know that they’re heard and believed and acknowledged – not as aggregated statistics but as individuals with original, epic points of view of their own. They want to keep pushing the boundaries of their potential. They want to know that their tenure with their employer is an essential part of their own life’s saga. There has to be meaning in their efforts on a daily basis, but more than that, they want to be able to look back on their life’s career journey and see, “Ah, yes, I see exactly the reason why I was there at that time.”

To borrow a phrase from our metaphysical friends: Employees aren’t merely human beings having a corporate experience. They are individuals using their careers as one way to express the fullness of who they are in this life on this planet.

There’s that joke you’ve probably heard before: The narcissist says, “Well, enough about me, let’s talk about you. How do you feel about me?” That has been the essential driver of most of the conversations around best places to work. Tedious survey questions asking employees how they feel about the company. The company that truly attracts and keeps the great employees will find its own greatness as an employer when it stops to ask of its employees, “Who are you in your heart, mind and dreams? How can we help you make those dreams come true? Come. Sit. Tell us all about it.”

Shift your focus from becoming a great place to attracting great employees. And they’ll give you the moon.

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