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I was sitting in my office one day and the telephone rang. I picked up and said hello. A man replied. His first name was Mike. He told me a little about his company then he said, "I'm dealing with some employee problems." He asked if we could meet. When we did Mike told me that he felt that recent growth had strained his employees. He said that people still seem to comply, but he didn't believe they felt committed anymore. I asked Mike to tell me about the types of things they were doing to recognize and reward employees. He rattled off several programs they had used in prior years.
Each basically amounted to handing out trinkets from some sort of corporate catalog things like coffee mugs, stress balls, and golf shirts. Following each one of these efforts he described, he'd say, "Well, I think we did that for a few months, "but I'm not sure people felt very motivated "so then we tried," and he'd mention another program. As he was explaining what they'd done, he seemed to notice my disapproval since I'm not good at hiding my reactions. Mike smiled and said, "You don't seem very impressed. "Fair enough, but wait. "There is one thing we do that everyone loves." And I said, "Great, what's that?" "Well," he continued, "every quarter we have a company meeting." He said, "I get on stage and I do the big tap dance, "you know, revenues, margins, profits, "the whole state of the company speech.
"When I'm done, "I bring up a handful of employees "who've been nominated by their peers "as employees of the quarter. "These are folks who have really excelled "over the latest performance period." I responded enthusiastically. I said, "Nice. I've seen many versions "of these ceremonies "and they can be quite effective. "So what do you give them?" Mike sat back relishing the moment. Like a proud father he said, "I give them a ham." (chuckles) My enthusiasm disappeared. I worked frantically to supress my laughter.
I had just met this man and I knew that it would not be polite to laugh. Instead, I gathered myself and continued. "So how is that ham thing working for you?" He didn't miss a beat. "They love it," he said. "It's one of the few things around here "that everyone appreciates." I had my doubts. In the following weeks I conducted various interviews, facilitated a few focus groups, and chatted with folks by the water cooler and the picnic tables out back. I inquired about a number of topics especially the ham scheme.
Here's what I learned. The ham scheme was the biggest shared source of ridicule in the entire organization. Shared is a big word in my world when you're talking about things such as team and organizational culture. At this company, they didn't always agree about everything, but they sure did agree that the ham scheme was ridiculous. It had become the symbol for how disconnected management really was. Any time the employees wanted to make a joke about management, you'd better believe there was a ham involved. The fascinating part was how utterly disconnected the president was.
The ham was a widely embraced joke and yet Mike thought everyone loved and appreciated the quarterly ceremony. Soon after I learned the truth about the ham, the next quarterly meeting rolled around. I sat in the back of a massive auditorium watching the event unfold. The president took the stage and talked about customers, margins and profits. He did a good tap dance. The audience was filled with hundreds of employees and they seemed interested and appreciative until the tap dance ended.
Mike began the recognition ritual by reiterating the importance of hard work and achievement. People began to stare at their shoes. I watched them closely as Mike gave his introductory remarks about the importance of this ceremony. It was a nonverbal train wreck. People looked at their watches, rolled their eyes and shook their heads. The president then announced the names of that day's three victims. There was polite applause completely void of real enthusiasm. The three hapless winners who had been elected by their peers, took the stage.
Mike handed each one a ham, smiled and thanked them, shook their hand, and posed with them for a picture. To this day I don't know where Mike got the idea that hams would make a great gift. I do know that everyone hated them. The recipients were actually the butt of the joke twice; once while on stage receiving the ham, and once more when the photograph of them appeared in the company newsletter the following month. I watched carefully as the nonverbal hilarity unfolded. After their picture was taken, the three so-called winners walked calmly to the other side of the stage ham in hand and down the stairs leading back to their seats.
As I watched them exit the stage, I resolved then and there to learn the fate of those three hams. When the meeting was over, I quickly followed those three employees and I learned what became of the hams. When I did, I knew I had to do my job so I walked into the president's office. I said, "Mike, I need to tell you something." Before he could speak, I realized what I really wanted to say and added, "No, I think I need to show you something. "Would you mind coming with me for a minute?" He looked puzzled, but agreed.
He followed me out of his office, through the cubes out the front door and around the back of the three story brick building that was his company. In the back sat a very large industrial-sized dumpster. I knew that no words were necessary and I opened the top of the dumpster. Sitting inside were two of that day's three hams that had been handed out. Mike looked astonished, then appalled, then angry. There he stood in a $2,000 suit his hands on the rim of this massive dumpster angling to get a better look inside.
I honestly thought that for the first time in my career I was going to have to tackle my client. It looked to me like he was about to jump in and retrieve the hams. Instead, Mike began to rattle off a long list of off-color statements describing his feelings. It was ugly and kind of funny. Here's some good advice for practitioners of coaching. You can't coach extreme emotions. You must allow them to dissipate and then engage the person rationally when they fall back into a normal range of emotions.
So I waited. Two minutes later, Mike ran out of colorful words and stopped to take a breath. He looked at me exasperated and said, "Well, what do you think I should do, Doc?" I didn't hesitate. I said, "Here's what you do, Mike. "You call a meeting next Tuesday at 2 PM. "Tell everyone in the company to meet you "in the parking lot in front of the building. "All hands on deck. "No exceptions. "Be there or else." But you don't tell them why just tell them to be there. Now when 2 PM rolls around next Tuesday and everyone is gathered in the parking lot, I want you to show up on the roof three stories up looking down at them and I want you to bring a ham.
I told him to give some version of this speech. Hi, everyone. Can I have your attention please? Look, I found the hams in the trash. I can't believe it took me this long to figure out that you folks don't like the hams. I'm frankly a little embarrassed. When I figured this out, I realized that you guys probably know each other better than I know you which is why from now on I will not be passing out hams. I'm going to put together a cross-functional group someone from each department, give them a little budget and let you guys own the process of coming up with the criteria and the awards for the Employee of the Quarter Program.
I look forward to seeing what you come up with. No more hams. I told him to give a speech something like that one. Of course, you can't advise a man to get on a roof and give that speech while holding a ham without also advising him to end the speech by chucking the ham. It just seemed appropriate to me at the time, but he looked at me a bit stunned and said, "I'm paying you how much?" I didn't tell him. Instead what followed was a great conversation about the need as a leader to be human, to be real, to laugh at yourself, and to make it okay for others to laugh at you too.
Confidence and competence are spectacular, but so are humility and a little self-deprecation. You have to find a way to use your mistakes. I told him that no reward you give, ham or otherwise, will have much effect if they don't view you as an interesting real person. After a small amount of arm twisting, he agreed to my plan. The following Tuesday finally arrived. At 1 PM I was with Mike in his office working on his speech. He was nervous.
I knew this had to work or my tenure as an advisor and coach to this organization would be over. We could hear all of the employees moving through the office. They were beginning to assemble in the parking lot in front of the building. Minutes later I stood on the roof behind Mike and out of sight of the employees below. He looked at me said nothing, but his facial expression screamed you'd better be right, pal. I smiled and handed him a ham. Mike turned around and stepped closer to the edge.
The crowd of employees gasped at the sight of their tough guy leader on the roof of the building. Then he did it. The speech was short, funny and honest. He delivered it with sincerity and energy, and he ended by chucking the ham. Now when I coached him to do this, I suggested he just drop the ham safely over the edge of the building. Instead, Mike got all excited and decided to throw a Hail Mary right into the middle of the crowd. I nearly had a heart attack. After Mike threw the ham off the roof, how do you think the gathered hundreds responded? They cheered.
There was a massive outpouring of shared positive emotion the likes of which had never been seen before in the history of the company. In an instant this man who had always seemed distant, now seemed real. He was three stories removed from them, but for the very first time, he didn't feel removed from them. He had crossed over that rarest of leadership hurdles. He was still the leader, but for the first time he was also a member of the team too. Mike raised his hands above his head in victory as the employees laughed.
I finally sneaked a peek down at the parking lot and saw a crowd of people dancing around an awful mess of ham. Everyone was laughing. The only person not laughing was the kind janitorial fellow who knew he was going to be asked to clean up the mess. At the next quarterly meeting, I once again sat in the back of that massive auditorium. The president took the stage and began his tap dance about the state of the company. When he finished he said, "As you know there will be no hams today," and he hesitated while mild applause and giggles broke out.
He then introduced the team that had been appointed. I had been asked to advise them, but they decided to ignore all of my advice. They basically decided to once again hand out trinkets from a corporate catalog. I thought their decision was lacking in creativity and stood no chance of motivating people. I was a little right and a little wrong. As I watched the audience react as they called up the quarterly winners and handed out silly gifts, I recognized something. While the crowd might not have been enthralled with the gifts being presented, they clearly lacked the looks of disinterest and outright disgust I'd seen before during the ham presentations.
I thought about it and realized it made complete sense. They owned the process. Their voice had been heard. Making fun of the trinkets being handed out would be the equivalent of making fun of themselves. After the meeting, I hung out in the cafeteria by the smoke break area and out in back by the picnic tables. There were no ham jokes as had been the case so many times before. Instead, I heard employees talking about how they could tweak the process and make it even better next time. I heard people taking ownership.
I also heard many folks making positive, supportive comments about the president. With one flying ham, Mike had become more approachable and real, a leader and not just a figurehead. He had learned to admit when he was wrong, laugh about it, and use his mistakes. Everyone loved it. Because he realized they could own part of the process, and because he realized that he'd be smart to occasionally make fun of himself, he got their attention. He seemed honest. Under those conditions, he laid the groundwork for a recognition program people would take seriously.
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