Eric Chester is a leadership expert who uses some of his connections to bring us the kind of insights into leadership that you can only get from the very best leaders in the world. In fact, he claims to have gone “straight to the source” in an attempt to “uncover their best-practice strategies for getting employees to work harder, perform better, and stay longer.”
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It’s a pretty good elevator pitch, but it also cuts right to the heart of what On Fire at Work is all about. Better still, with over 25 different leaders included in there from companies like Marriott, Siemens, Wegmans, 7-Eleven and Ben and Jerry’s, you can rest assured that there’s plenty of knowledge here for you to tap into. And better still, while it’s only natural that the best leaders would end up at some of the biggest companies, the advice that they have to share can be applied to companies of all shapes and sizes. (Check out the latest price on Amazon)
And Chester is an expert and a thought-leader in his own right, with a career stretching over 20 years and a half dozen published books to his name. He’s delivered over 2,000 paid keynote speeches on three continents and brings all of that expertise to bear here. And while it’s true that the book is four years old by now, it has a sort of timelessness to it because the ideas and concepts are just as relevant now – and they’ll continue to be relevant in the months and years to come.
On Fire at Work
adj. 1 highly motivated to perform
2. feeling energised and joyful while on the job
3. extremely committed
4. determined to perform above expectations
5. the level beyond employee engagement
syn: productive, loyal, all-in, inspired, dedicated
ant: lazy, apathetic, careless, checked out, inattentive, lackadaisical, half-hearted, dispassionate
(see also: profitable company, employer of choice)
Employee engagement isn’t the ultimate goal: it’s just the starting point. That’s the main concept behind this book, and indeed Chester dedicates most of this book to some steps you can follow once you’ve already established a certain amount of engagement in the first place. But first, he needs to dispel a few illusions and to confront why his topic is so important in the first place.
“Today’s old school employers don’t place much credence in buzzword-sounding mumbo jumbo like employee engagement and workplace culture,” Chester explains. “For the most part, they’re fair-minded, practical people who pay wages in exchange for labour. So if you want one of their paycheques, dammit, just do what’s asked of you and keep your mouth shut. That’s ‘the deal’ as they see it.”
The problem with this approach is that these days, people go to work for much more than mere money, and if your only incentive is a financial incentive then it goes without saying that you won’t perform at your best. Fortunately for us, Chester shares the seven pillars of workplace culture, the seven things that employees are looking for from you:
The rest of this book is largely dedicated to individual chapters on each of those seven pillars, and so we’ll take a look at each of them in turn and give a brief overview of what they mean to managers, although there’s no way that we could ever go in as much depth as Chester goes into his book. You’ll probably want to use this as an introduction to the key concepts and to spend some time developing them further yourself, and if that’s not enough for you then you can always pick up a copy of the book, too.
Let’s get started with the subject of compensation, of which a salary is the most obvious example. Chester points to data from Gallup that suggests that between 31-44% of Americans would quit their job if they won $10 million in the lottery. He also notes that an employee’s paycheque and their engagement level aren’t joined at the hip and adds that while your employees don’t all deserve the same compensation, they do all deserve to be treated fairly.
The problem is that too many companies stop there, and if they do then they’re missing a trick. “Exchanging money for time is easy to calculate,” Chester says, “but without any additional incentives or performance bonuses , these time-based compensation models will disengage and demotivate your people faster than you can say ‘train wreck’.”
Alignment and Atmosphere
Chester points out that “a company’s core values mean nothing unless they’re embodied and displayed by the people who work at the company”. That’s where alignment comes into play, the idea being to inculcate core values from the C-Suite to the custodian’s supply room.
Here, Chester brings in one of the heavyweights, pointing to Kelly King, the Chairman and CEO of BB&T Corp., who said, “There’s been a shift in our society over the last 20 years or so where there’s more of a view toward values. Many universities are teaching that there’s no such thing as absolute honesty. Honesty is relative, which is totally contrary to our culture. We do our best to screen new people to see that their values are as aligned with ours as much as possible. We spend a lot of time teaching our beliefs because our culture is very solid, firm and thick. After some time, you’ll either find your place or you’ll leave.”
Next up, we have atmosphere, which Chester says is all about ensuring employees are safe, well equipped and, perhaps counterintuitively, that they’re goofing off. “The entire concept of workplace atmosphere can seem somewhat nebulous,” Chester says. “What one might consider a great atmosphere could seem dreadful or repulsive to someone else. Perhaps it’s all just a matter of personal taste. And while some cultures are playful and almost circus-like and others are stark and sterile, all work and no play, two key questions remain: Which cultures are the most productive and profitable, and what exactly constitutes an effective workplace atmosphere?”
The idea of growth being important is hardly a new one. Companies need growth if they want to become more profitable, and individuals need growth if they want to feel fulfilled in their role and keep coming into work with a smile on their faces. Part of this comes down to providing people with the opportunities, the tools and resources that they need to continue improving, but Chester has a little further wisdom to share on the subject.
“The more skilled and talented employees are,” Chester says, “the more likely they are to be motivated to learn new skills, develop their talents and expertise, and improve their perceived value both at your company and in the marketplace. A top performer who works for you wants to be better tomorrow than they are today. Moreover, those top performers may even be imagining the day when they themselves are in your job or at a similar level within your organisation or somewhere else. And that’s a good thing.”
Let’s move on to acknowledgement, the next chapter, in which Chester takes a look at what it really means to put people first. He points out that acknowledgement is basically a higher form of recognition. “To acknowledge something requires thought plus action,” Chester says, “whereas to recognise something is often a neutral, passive act. You recognise the distinctive human forms in a Picasso painting. You acknowledge the painting’s beauty and the artist’s mastery.”
Many employee recognition programmes are exactly that: they’re programmes. They don’t feel natural and can even backfire. Instead, you need to build not recognition but acknowledgement into your company from the ground up, putting your employees first and your customers second. One simple way to acknowledge people is to use their names, which Dale Carnegie said was the sweetest sound to any person in any language. “Imagine how one of your managers, franchisees or employees feels when you greet that person by name,” Chester says. “They probably walk a little taller the rest of the day just knowing that someone so high up the chain cares enough to remember.”
The idea behind autonomy is to build an army of intrapreneurs, internal employees who act like entrepreneurs by using their own agency to live that old cliché of being the change they want to see in the world. There’s a great little case study here on eBay founder Pierre Omidyar which we won’t go into detail about here, but which shares the overall lesson that you need to be smart enough to realise you’re not smart enough and then to hire someone who is.
“On-fire employees – the kind you’re looking to hire and keep – are looking for some latitude to make decisions in the workplace,” Chester explains. “The best kinds of employee training enable employees to build the confidence they need to face a variety of situations without freezing up.” That’s what the autonomy chapter mostly comes down to, and empowerment is the key word here. “Rather than micromanaging each task an employee performs,” Chester says, “spell out what the end result should be. Set boundaries and clearly articulate expectations while giving employees the latitude to figure out how to meet those expectations.”
And finally, we have communication, which you could argue is what’s needed to bring the rest of these elements together and which Chester refers to as “the inextricable link between transparency and trust”. He argues that poor communication is a culture killer, and separates information into three categories: what employees need to know, what employees should know and what employees want to know.
“No matter what the situation,” Chester says, “employees feel a stronger connection to their leaders and their company when they feel they’re kept accurately informed and continually updated with any and all developments.” To show just how important effective communication in a crisis can be, he talked to Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School. One of the ways that DeAngelis communicated was through his actions.
“Immediately following the tragedy that rocked the world in 1999,” Chester explains, “DeAngelis vowed that he would remain Columbine’s principal until the class of first grade students in the elementary school that fed into the high school had graduated. His goal was to prevent a mass exodus of faculty and staff and restore peace and stability to a deeply wounded community.” DeAngelis eventually retired in 2014 after completing his mission. Talk about actions speaking louder than words.
Now that you know everything you need to know to inspire your employees to be on fire at work, the next step is to put what you’ve learned into action. The good news is that the concepts themselves are easy enough to understand and to put into practice at your company. In fact, Chester gets the balance just right, sharing both the overarching concepts themselves and the practical advice you need to actually make a difference at your company.
There are also plenty of stories that are designed to show each of the concepts in action, and while it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself in exactly the same situation as some of the other companies that he mentions, there’s plenty of food for thought and you’ll find that the ideas you discover here will stick with you and make a real difference to the way you approach management both today and in the future.
Remember that igniting passion in your employees ultimately comes down to providing them with a spark. You can’t force people to be passionate about something, but you can at least provide them with the infrastructure and the encouragement they need. The good news is that Chester’s advice is tried and tested and that it comes from some of the best leaders in our modern world. Now you just need to provide your employees with plenty of support – the rest is up to them. Good luck.
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