From Employee Engagement Programs to Actually Engaging Employees - Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott

Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today - Susan Scott (2009)

Fierce Practice #4. From Employee Engagement Programs to Actually Engaging Employees

Connections are made slowly, and sometimes they grow underground. You cannot tell always by looking at what is happening. More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.


I know you consider me your equal. That’s what bothers me.


Acompany is like a huge power-generating station. Press your ear to the door and you will hear individuals talking, and underneath, you will make out the hum of the organization. Or the sputter and cough.

My own poll got off to an awkward start when I asked a woman in line in an employee cafeteria, “On a scale of zero to five, five being completely engaged, how engaged are you?” “You can put me down as a definite zero!” “Zero, wow …”

“Oh yeah. It’s gonna take a helluva man to beat no man at all!” Clearly I needed to refine my question.

“How engaged would you say you are in your work, with your team, your boss, what it is your company hopes to accomplish?” (No one has ever accused me of being scientific in my sleuthing, but answers such as the following don’t require a great deal of translating.) “I’m here, aren’t I?” said with exhaustion.

“You must be with HR. You guys got another waste-of-time poll going on?”

“I guess I’m as engaged as a person of color can be in a place like this.”

“Oh, I absolutely love my job and my boss and I’m just thrilled to be here!” Further probing revealed that this woman loves everyone and everything on this planet, has never had a bad thing happen to her, and has never entertained a negative thought. She is probably on major drugs. Or should be.

Are there highly engaged employees? Of course, but they are the minority in most organizations. Most people are just trying to get by. So what’s the big deal?

The State of Engagement

The big deal is that if employees aren’t engaged, your company will suffer. Good people quit, defect, disappear, or worse, show up every day—in body—but their souls are occupied elsewhere. They become disgruntled, disenchanted, disillusioned. And this affects your bottom line.

Yet despite all that companies are doing to promote employee inclusion and engagement, which go hand in hand, many still see this as merely something that makes people feel good—or at least better—about their jobs. Of course inclusion and engagement make people feel good. They also increase productivity, reduce turnover, and build revenue.

I think of it this way:

inclusion + engagement = execution muscle

… and without execution muscle, you might as well hang it up. Let’s define terms.

Employee inclusion suggests that people of every stripe—gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, aspiration, disability, position or title, and whatever other differences are possible in the human population—feel that they have a place at the table, that they are seen, heard, and valued and that given stellar performance, they have an opportunity to advance. That they do not feel marginalized, “less than,” left out, overlooked, invisible, made wrong, taken advantage of, disrespected, ignored, or mistreated.

At its heart, inclusion is about membership, belonging to a community, whether a family, a school, a company, a country, or the human race. I’m grateful that my granddaughters, Maizy and Clara, are in inclusive classrooms that resemble the diverse environments in which they will eventually work. They are in daily conversation and collaboration with Nishi, Santiago, Bora, Kaichen, Ayush, Alejandro, Garima, Enikö, and Lavente. And loving it. Children who learn together learn to live together, a requirement if we are ever to achieve that elusive concept known as world peace.

Children who learn together learn to live together, a requirement if we are ever to achieve that elusive concept known as world peace.

Employee engagement is generally viewed as the degree to which employees view the goals of the company as in line with their own lives so that when they have choices, they will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interests and vice versa. In Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, author Tim Rutledge explains that truly engaged employees are attracted and committed to, inspired and fascinated by, the work that they do.

It’s no surprise that “employee engagement” is a key initiative within many companies. After all, engaged workers are more productive, make more money for the company, and create loyal customers. They contribute to good working environments where people are happy, ethical, and accountable. They stay with an organization longer and are more committed to quality and growth—in fact, engaged employees outperform their unengaged counterparts by 20-28 percentage points.

Yet according to the Gallup Management Journal s semiannual Employee Engagement Index …

· 20 percent of employees are actively engaged in their jobs;

· 54 percent are not engaged; and

· 17 percent are actively disengaged.

To break it down further, BlessingWhite issued a report titled “The State of Employee Engagement 2008.” The study, based on a survey of more than 7,500 employees and interviews with forty human-resource and line managers on four continents, revealed that only 29 percent of North American workers (fewer than one in three) are fully engaged. Moreover,

· 27 percent are “almost engaged”;

· 12 percent are “honeymooners” or “hamsters” (new to the organization or to their role and not yet fully productive, focused on the wrong things, and contributing little to the success of the organization);

· 13 percent are “crash and burners” (disillusioned, potentially exhausted, sometimes bitterly vocal top producers who are not satisfying their personal definition of success and satisfaction and, if left alone, may slip into disengagement and bring down those around them); and

· 19 percent are disengaged (not getting what they need from work and, if left alone, likely to collect a paycheck and enjoy favorable job conditions but contribute minimally).

If companies are so committed to including and engaging their employees, why these dismal scores? Because inclusion and engagement can’t be feigned, trained, or forced. They can’t be mandated or taught in some dry management seminar. Because like the other fierce practices you’ve read about so far, inclusion and engagement start with you.

What Matters Anywhere, Matters Everywhere

A few years ago, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and I spoke in Washington, D.C., to an audience of women who were in positions of power within the government. Following our talks, someone asked, “Ms. Albright, if you could give only one piece of advice to those who are in positions of political power globally, what would you advise them?”

She answered unhesitatingly, “I’d advise them that what matters anywhere, matters everywhere.”

I’ve shared that comment with thousands of people because I feel it’s brilliant and applicable to the planet, to communities, to families, to organizations, and to every workplace. I’ve shared it because until we grasp this concept, we’re in no danger of enjoying the benefits of true collaboration—across borders, across teams, across functions, or across ideological lines drawn in the sand.

You will experience “inclusion and engagement” to the degree that you and others in your organization appreciate and act on Madeleine Albright’s advice.

Picture your organization. Does it look something like the graphic on the following page, a highly matrixed organization where everyone works within a “silo”?

Imagine that the CEO of this company asks everyone to answer the question “Where should we focus our resources over the next twelve months?” Chances are, the head of Finance & Accounting in North America would answer that quite differently from someone in Product Development in South America or Information Technology in India or HR in Europe.

What does your organization look like? To make this relevant and real for you, take a moment to fill in names, divisions or responsibilities, and locations—even if the location is simply a different corner of a small office—on the graphic on page 156.

As you look at your organization, consider how each area affects the others. Consider whom you talk with, who talks to you, who else they talk to. Who is left out? Whose voices and perspectives are missing? Who is not on this chart? What individuals and groups should be included and engaged, depending on the topic?

I came across something several years ago and wish I could remember where I found it, so I could attribute this properly. The suggestion was that in every organization, large or small, there are three basic units: in no particular order, the company, divisions of the company (large and small, geographical and functional), and the employees (the individual contributors, who come in every shape, size, and color). Each unit (company, divisions, employees) has its own identity—unique in all the world, deserving of recognition, celebration, guidance, support—with its own goals, its own pack to carry, its destination clear or unfolding. And all are connected, dependent on one another, affecting one another with every drawn breath, every missed deadline, every bit of work won, every new initiative.

where do you live?

where do you live?

What matters anywhere in your organization matters everywhere in your organization.

Or should.

The challenge is to impart this understanding across the organization, and to do that, we must expand the idea of “inclusion” beyond the usual suspects and expand the idea of “engagement” beyond that tired old phrase, “inspirational leadership,” as if reciting the mission statement or giving an inspiring pep talk will do the trick!

In Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, Marc Ian Barasch writes, “Einstein himself once referred to our sense of separateness as ‘a kind of optical delusion of consciousness’—a delusion that limits our caring because it ‘restricts us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.’”

Physicist Henri Bortoft wrote: “Everything is in everything. The part is a place for the presencing of the whole.” Fail to engage one of us and you lose all of us.

Fail to engage one of us and you lose all of us.

The point is, we’re all connected. Whether we work in the mailroom or the showroom or the corporate suite, whether a company has offices in Minneapolis, San Diego, or Dubai, any sense of separation is an illusion. You affect me, and I affect you—even if we never meet and have no idea of each other’s existence. Our thoughts, the makeup of our cells, our emotions, our beliefs affect others in ways more powerful and profound than we could ever realize.

I’ve mentioned that in scientific experiments, the mere presence of someone affects the outcome. And if you were that person, the outcome would be different than if I were that person or Yoshiko or Delaram or Fred or Sam or Catherine were that person. So something about you— something unseen by the naked eye—is keenly felt by everyone and everything with which you come into contact. And vice versa.

Here’s a favorite poem by David Budbill:

The Three Goals

The first goal is to see the thing itself in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly for what it is.

No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing as unified, as one, with all the other ten thousand things.

In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals, to see the universal and the particular, simultaneously.

Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

Let’s call him, shall we?

What matters anywhere literally DOES matter everywhere. But for now, let’s point the telescope at your company.

Organizations are webs of relationships, and relationships are forged one conversation, one meeting, at a time. Each conversation, each meeting, creates a chain reaction, like Rube Goldberg’s “simplified pencil-sharpener”:

Open window (A) and fly kite (B). String (C) lifts small door (D) allowing moths (E) to escape and eat red flannel shirt (F). As weight of shirt becomes less, shoe (G) steps on switch (H) which heats electric iron (I) and burns hole in pants (J). Smoke (K) enters hole in tree (L), smoking out opossum (M) which jumps into basket (N), pulling rope (O) and lifting cage (P), allowing woodpecker (Q) to chew wood from pencil (R), exposing lead. Emergency knife (S) is always handy in case opossum or the woodpecker gets sick and can’t work.

Likewise, your conversation with me (A) prompts my conversation with Rob (B), which shapes the tone of Rob’s message to the team in the meeting this afternoon (C), which is passed on to other associates (D-J) and customers (K-N) and shared that evening with every spouse (O-X) who dares to ask, “How was your day, sweetheart?”

You, all by your lonesome, are having an impressive impact on your world.

Your conversations with your assistant affect his sense of esteem and well-being and also his impression of what matters to you, which he conveys in every conversation he has with all of the people in your world.

Your conversations with peers affect their willingness to collaborate and cooperate with you when they really don’t have to. They pass on their opinions and experience of you to others in the company.

Your conversations with your boss move your career trajectory forward or backward or stall it indefinitely.

Your conversations with customers ultimately win or lose the day. More about those in Fierce Practice #5.

Depending on what you’re consistently putting out (thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, et cetera), you’re affecting everyone around you, who then affect everyone around them. So harkening back to “Fierce Practice #3,” who is the great mover and shaker in your world? That would be YOU. Your universe does, indeed, revolve around you. And you influence that universe one conversation, one meeting, one e-mail at a time.

To give you an example, below is my web of relationships at Fierce Inc. My conversations with Halley, our president and COO, influence her conversations with Aimee, our director of training, which influence Aimee’s conversations with everyone who is leading Fierce-related trainings around the world. And because I believe that a training course is only as good as the person who leads it, this is a big deal to me!

In your web of relationships, with whom do you talk? Play with the graphic on page 161, add arrows and lines, or just grab a piece of paper and begin doodling. The point of this exercise is not to capture an org chart, but to capture the web of people—your boss, your assistant, colleagues—that you directly influence and who then, given your influence, influence others.

As you look at this chart, whom have you been forgetting to include? Whom do you fail to engage? Whose input could be valuable, even though he or she is not in a formal leadership role?

While there have been many studies on employee engagement, the overriding theme, according to the Conference Board, which reviewed all of the studies, is “a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels to his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort.” And all studies, all locations, and all ages agreed that the direct relationship with one’s manager is the strongest driver of employee engagement.

It’s true that most employees want to do stimulating work that impacts the success of a company they’re proud to work for. They want opportunities to develop professionally and advance their careers. They want to make friends at work. Ideally, a best friend. But what matters most is their relationship with their leader. With YOU.

I don’t like to say “I told you so.” But I told you so. Employee engagement and inclusion isn’t a cognitive issue. It’s an emotional issue. As I’ve said earlier and will repeat, possibly risking your wrath, if you want to become a great leader, you must gain the capacity to connect with colleagues and customers—at a deep level—or lower your aim.

Employee engagement and Inclusion Isn’t a cognitive Issue. It’s an emotional Issue.

It’s understandable that most of us try not to think of, much less speak of, the prices we’ve paid because of professional relationships gone sad, gone bad, gone missing. So wouldn’t it be great if we could simply mandate employee engagement, deep pleasure in the work, the quality of our relationships, with the turn of a dial!

“John, your level of engagement seems to be hovering around 40 percent. I realize that 100 percent might be asking too much, so I’d like you to dial your engagement up to 75 percent during the next three weeks and hold it there. Okay?”

“Karen, I’d put your ability to generate innovative solutions at about a four on a scale of one to ten, ten being high. Would you please notch it up to a nine by the end of the day today? Our clients are expecting some original solutions. Thanks.”

“Candy, whenever you see me coming, you slam your door and jab pins into that voodoo doll you crafted from crumpled memos and rubber bands. I get the impression you don’t like me very much. So I’d like you to recognize that I am the finest boss you’ve ever worked for. That’s a directive.”

“Norm, every time I give you the benefit of my advice—and God knows I advise you all the time—you slip into a slack-jawed stupor. Yesterday you actually drooled, indicating a lack of appreciation for the brilliance of my thinking. I’d like you to increase your respect for me from its current level of zero to a five by the end of the month, with an additional increase to eight by year-end.”

“Team, I’m tired of you guys showing up late for meetings, leaving early, text messaging under the table, and offering no ideas or suggestions when I ask you what you think. So from this point on, you will show up on time, fully engaged, eager to tackle tough challenges. Ready, set, go!!”

I believe you’ll find this approach in the dictionary under “fat chance.”

Practicing Squid Eye

What might you notice if you were practicing squid eye that would suggest your organization’s initiatives around employee engagement and inclusiveness are ineffective? Check any of the following “tells” that apply to your team or organization. Or to you.

Employee-satisfaction survey scores haven’t improved significantly over last year’s troubling results. You see it in faces, body language, absenteeism, and performance, dramatized by exits. Gradually, then suddenly, employees absent their spirits from their work, followed by their bodies.

The definition of diversity is narrow and limiting. “Diversity” is too often thought of as male/female, straight/gay, Christian/Buddhist, black/white, et cetera, and rarely moves beyond such distinctions. This is too bad, since within each group to which any of us “belong,” there are equally diverse views, opinions, beliefs, priorities, motivations, intentions, goals, and modes of operating in this world. No one speaks for all women, all gays, all blacks, allChristians. Diversity in all its forms deserves our attention and respect.

Having said that, there is little diversity around the table. No matter what the topic is, the same people attend meetings and make decisions affecting everyone—decisions that often fall short of brilliance and consequently meet with resistance. Diverse perspectives from those who will be affected and who will implement strategies are not actively solicited in the early stages and in some cases are not solicited at any point in the process.

Necessary conversations aren’t happening, because people are fearful of giving offense, of being considered disrespectful, insensitive, or politically incorrect. Let’s face it, there are always a few people in every “diverse” category who are loaded for bear, looking for a reason to be offended, and if you say something they don’t want to hear, you could be the recipient of their wrath, accused of insensitivity, discrimination, or prejudice! So you tiptoe around them. In the name of “respect,” you withhold your real thoughts. Guess who’s running the show!

You are a global company behaving like a local one. When making decisions that will affect colleagues and customers around the world, you fail to solicit input from your international counterparts. Consequently, you get major push back regarding policies, protocols, and initiatives deemed by international colleagues to be culturally unworkable—because they are.

The language of your organization is in no danger of engaging anyone. Your objectives include intensifying customer focus, valuing growth, ensuring ongoing productivity improvements, accelerating succession cycles, strengthening risk management, maximizing international leverage, emphasizing distinctive capabilities … Oops, sorry, I dozed off.

Leaders attempt to “engage” everyone in the same way. For example, many leaders work effectively with people in their own age group but fail to get through to younger or older employees whose goals and priorities are significantly different.

Your employee-satisfaction surveys are anonymous. Any form of anonymity is a huge tell that you’ve got an employee-engagement issue. If you doubt this, please revisit “Fierce Practice #1!”

Employee feedback hasn’t been translated into meaningful action. If there is consistent feedback regarding an area of dissatisfaction, and yet nothing is done to improve things, it would have been better not to have asked in the first place. To think that employees don’t notice the lack of an action plan focused on driving behavior change is foolish. Lack of action usually leads to even greater disengagement and apathy.

There is little employee enthusiasm for feedback. Why should employees spend time and energy filling in feedback forms when historically, feedback hasn’t produced significant change or improvement? Like a line from a Bob Dylan song, “I’m not saying you treated me unkind. You just wasted my precious time.”

There are very few women and minorities in positions of leadership. Look at the org chart. It’s a huge tell if everyone in the C suite looks the same.

Employee inclusion and engagement are not tied to executive compensation. In spite of embarrassing survey results, frontline managers aren’t motivated to change, because they are still rewarded for metrics tied solely to the top and bottom line. What’s interesting is that the top and bottom lines are affected by inclusion and engagement, but few leaders make the connection.

Headhunters view your organization as a source for job candidates, not a destination. Some of your best people have been recruited out from under you. Their exit interviews (assuming there were exit interviews) were telling, and yet little has been done to remedy the problems they revealed. Meanwhile, recruitment and replacement costs are excessive, and the loss of knowledge and experience suggests you can kiss growth and innovation good-bye.

What Were We Thinking?

An HR executive in a global company once told me, “The big lie we tell ourselves is that if we continue offering awareness training about inclusiveness, things will change. We launch programs focused on women and minorities. We broaden this to include LGBT—lesbian, gays, bisexual, and transgender people. And still, nothing changes, so what do we do? Offer more classes.”

Prior to joining Fierce Inc., Chris Douglas, who was an HR executive at Alaska Airlines for twenty-five years, told me, “We had mandatory diversity programs at Alaska Airlines that addressed ‘leading diverse teams’ and ‘performing successfully in a diverse workforce,’ and they were good—full of statistics, good information, good intent. And we did a good job of trying to address context, filters, et cetera.

“The unintended impact was that people felt the company was implying that attendees were biased or prejudiced, and since most people don’t believe they are biased or prejudiced, even if they are, the word diversity developed a negative context. In fact, companies all over the world are moving away from that term but haven’t changed tactics, so now the new terms are being painted with the same negative brush.”

Conversations such as these and many others led me to suspect that (a) most awareness classes don’t get through to people; (b) awareness doesn’t automatically translate into action; (c) we abandoned the term diversity and switched to inclusion, and it still turns people off; and (d) we make inclusion so complicated, it’s laughable.

Dr. Linda Twiname, with the Department of Strategy and Human Resource Management at Waikato Management School in New Zealand, researched the question “What might be the outcome of genuine employee voice and participation in organisational decision-making upon workplace well-being?” (The spelling is hers.) The question she asks is a good one. The problem is, her answer begins:

The co-option of employee empowerment discourses used by organisations seeking to maximise performance has been documented as contributing to the intensification of control rather than enhancing real employee participation in employment decisions. Through a participatory action research (PAR) programme in a medium sized internationally owned manufacturing firm located in New Zealand, employees sought to transform aspects of their workplace lives that they believed would enhance their well-being. Together we generated PAR processes designed to reflect a Habermasian notion of communicative action by striving towards “ideal speech acts.”

Did you catch all that? Me neither. You know you’re in trouble when something begins with “The co-option of employee empowerment discourses …”

I will not be enrolling in a course taught by Dr. Twiname. I’m certain she’s a lovely person, and I might enjoy her company if we were talking about exciting places we have been or our favorite recipes involving wild mushrooms. But the “Habermasian notion of communicative action”? Give me a break! And what, pray tell, is a “speech act”? Is this unintelligible jargon supposed to move us toward inclusion and engagement?

I want to yell at Dr. Twiname. I want to stand in front of her and scream, “What is the matter with you? No, really, WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?” In case you read this, Dr. Twiname, I’d apologize for taking a shot at you, but with stuff like this, you had it coming.

On the other hand, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, describes an inclusive culture as “the way you feel when you enter a building. It’s the people who take time to say hello and are interested in answering your questions. It’s about respecting the people you work with; about knowing they’re there when you need their support and that they’re willing to listen to your opinions.” This I can understand.

So what’s the real problem in most organizations? The problem isn’t out there. It’s in here. We want employees to be engaged and feel included, while we ourselves are detached, distracted, disengaged, focused on our to-do lists. We want others to bring that elusive, coveted “discretionary effort” in the door with them every day, but we don’t have time to engage in the conversations that would enrich our relationships with them. We are busy, not to be found. And even when we are willing to spend more time with people, we don’t want to get too close to them. After all, there’s a professional distance to maintain. Conversations and meetings that create actual intimacy make us nervous and uncomfortable. Besides, intimacy requires too much upkeep on an emotional level, and conversations and meetings that really engage and include take too much time. We’re kinda busy.

The fact is, not having those conversations will cost more in the long term. When you disengage from the world, fail to include it, the world disengages, too, in equal measure. It’s a two-step, you and the world, you and your organization. Your colleagues, associates, employees lose interest in you because you’ve lost interest in them. Calling them associates isn’t enough. If you want to engage and include the people who surround you at work, then gain the capacity to connect with them at a deep level—or lower your aim. I know, I know. I’m repeating myself.


Our efforts at inclusion and engagement won’t be sustainable unless we shift beliefs that have kept us stuck. The beliefs on the left below are commonly held. Opposite each one is a contrasting belief that creates an entirely different set of outcomes. Which beliefs do you hold?

I believe that:

I believe that:

My plate is full, and my focus is on my department. If what we do causes problems for other departments, that’s their problem to solve.

What matters anywhere in this organization matters everywhere in this organization, so I should include and engage other parts of the company before I make decisions.

People who don’t look like me or who don’t share my religious and ideological beliefs do not merit my respect and inclusion.

There is more than one right way to live a life.

Only people in management roles should be invited to meetings about strategy, problem solving, and decision making.

I should invite to meetings people whose perspectives I need to understand and should involve them in the problems and strategies affecting them, regardless of title, role, or “rank.”

People who haven’t been here as long as I have should keep their mouths shut. This is a job for experts.

A new or young employee’s point of view is as valid as anyone else’s and critical to designing strategies that will be effective in the future.

It’s important that I convince others that my point of view is correct.

Exploring multiple points of view will lead to better decisions.

I don’t appreciate it when people question my view of reality and my suggestions about what we should do.

Since my goal is to get it right, rather than to be right, I want others to express differing, even competing, realities.

There are some topics no one should mention because they are extremely sensitive and might make some people uncomfortable.

It’s important to surface and address significant issues that are causing problems, no matter who might be implicated or upset.

As the leader, I need to share information and assign tasks. I don’t have time to listen to the opinions of people who just don’t get it.

I encourage candid dialogue during meetings, especially when others don’t see things my way, since we all might learn something and execute more effectively.

To be effective, I must maintain a professional distance from those who report to me.

I have genuine affection for and an emotional connection with the people who report to me.

My pedigree, title, income, experience, and achievements mark me as superior to and more valuable than others.

My education and experience allow me to bring value to my company, and at my core, I believe that we are all equals.

No organization wants low employee-engagement scores, high turnover, and the accompanying defection of customers to the competition, and none of us, apart from a few troubled individuals here and there, wants anyone to feel devalued or disrespected. Yet if you hold the beliefs on the left, your efforts at inclusion and engagement will falter. Remember, it’s not about whether your beliefs are right or wrong. It’s about whether they’re working for you. So how can you shift a belief that isn’t getting you what you want?

Try this. Choose a belief on the right that you find hard to embrace. Write it down:

Let this be your private mantra, so to speak, for the next twenty-four hours. Say it to yourself. Wear it, walk around in it. Repeat it. Think about it when you interact in person, on the phone, or via e-mail with others. Behave as if you believe it.

When twenty-four hours are up, debrief yourself. How’d it go? What did I do differently? What happened as a result? Were those results positive or negative? How did I feel about myself? Did I like myself more? Less? Did I feel happier, more effective, more peaceful? How did others respond?

If you like what happened and how it felt to you and others, then keep the belief as a mantra until you really do believe it. When you’re ready, try on a second one, then a third.

As your beliefs shift to the right side of the chart, and you are ready and eager to include and engage, chances are, your question is HOW!

The Fierce Practice: Include! Engage!

As with every fierce practice, the first step is simply to begin! Stop talking about inclusion and engagement and start including and engaging in every conversation, every meeting. And yes, there is a bit of serious business that will influence the outcome before you walk into a room or open your mouth. That bit would be your intention, your motivation. What do you want and why do you want it? We often forget to consider the “why” part, and it’s the more important of the two questions. For example, we can set a goal to include people, to engage them, but apart from the usual language on this topic, why would we want to? Really, why? Get this wrong and no amount of personal charisma or process and procedure will save us. Our answers will determine if our story ends with “happily ever after” or “was last seen wandering in the forest.”

For me, the poet William Stafford has a wonderful answer to the why part—why inclusion and engagement are so very important. Consider the first stanza of this poem.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

That pretty much nails it for me. Based on results, many of us have been following the wrong god home, especially the “what’s in it for me” god. We’re in a new, challenging time, and I don’t want us to miss our star. Given all the suffering so many have endured; all the prices paid; and all the personal, national, and global consequences of our flawed intentions, motivations, and behaviors, one would hope that most people would be eager to abandon old patterns, yet the gravitational pull of business as usual is strong. To break the pattern, we must show up in our conversations and meetings with the intention of getting it right for all of us, for the greater good. And to think of these conversations not as top down or bottom up, but side by side. Listening to each other, not to correct and instruct, but to truly understand. A genuine intention to understand cannot be faked. If people pick up even a hint of hidden agenda, condescension, or patronizing attitudes in any way, you’re toast.

And the final stanza:

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—should

be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

“A breaking line” refers to an earlier stanza about what happens if an elephant in a circus lets go of the tail of the elephant in front of it. The line breaks and the circus won’t find the park. If you or I wander off on our own, making decisions with no thought of how others may be affected, tuned only to our own self-interest, well, there are consequences. Sometimes, the darkness around us is not only deep, it is sad, ineffective, and unworthy of the organizations for which we work, the lives we want to live.

Given the darkness we’ve experienced, my hope is that we have grown tired of isolation, that we perceive old patterns and the prices we’ve paid, and that we will begin to seek connection and, through connection, the best way forward.

As Rūmī wrote:

Out beyond right doing and wrong doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

Inclusion and engagement take place in Rūmī’s field, not just when we’re exploring easy topics—safe topics with easy answers—but when we identify and tackle our toughest, most pressing issues. Leadership that is not practiced under fire is without value. Only by applying inclusion and engagement in trying situations do we have a genuine experience of them. So don’t hold meetings on a tiny, tyrannical lawn. Throw the doors wide open and invite many people to the conversation, so that you and others can act in unison to further what wants and needs to happen. Our power as individuals is multiplied when we gather together as families, teams, and communities with common goals. It will be your collective intelligence and strength that make positive change possible within your circle of influence.

In the book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the character Mr. Weasley gives Harry Potter a piece of advice: “Harry, don’t ever trust something that thinks for itself unless you can see where it keeps its brain.” Unless we can see where every one of us keeps his or her brain, we tend not to trust one another. Remember, trust requires persistent identity. When the right people—those who have line of sight to key priorities, who possess the ability to make decisions and allocate resources, and who will be impacted by those decisions and allocations—meet in order to interrogate everyone’s reality regarding an impending decision, surfacing built-in conflicts, and clarifying directions and priorities … well, we all end up seeing where each person keeps his or her brain.

At Fierce, we are often in conversation, and twice a year we come together formally to make sure we’re clear about where each member of the team keeps his or her brain. Each December, each of us comes to the meeting with a PowerPoint presentation answering the following questions (which ensures everyone has given considerable thought to the questions BEFORE the meeting). We ask that they not discuss their answers with other team members prior to the meeting. We are more interested in learning one another’s “first thoughts,” personal and honest thoughts, than in groupthink. Note: I will explain “my stripe on the beach ball” later.

When I look at Fierce from my stripe on the beach ball

· Within the next three months, it is essential that Fierce … (name three things, in order of priority)

· Within the next twelve months, it is essential that Fierce … (name three things, in order of priority)

When I look at my goals and what I am responsible for

· Within the next three months, it is essential that I … (name three things, in order of priority)

· Within the next twelve months, it is essential that I … (name three things, in order of priority)

My greatest achievement this year was …

My greatest achievement next year would be …

Our revenue goal for next year should be …

In addition to clarifying priorities and goals, we share our answers to questions such as

· What is the current chapter title in the book about Fierce Inc.?

· In the coming year, what would Fierce do if we had no fear?

· Imagine images of us working together throughout the new year. What are our most common behaviors, values, virtues, and accomplishments?

· What values will define us in moments of truth during conversations with each other and with clients?

· Five years from now, I want Fierce to be described as …

We always have a brilliant two days and begin implementing the resulting action plan, which we revisit formally in June, sharing what has changed, what we’ve learned, and whether or not the plan is still sound. If it isn’t, we change the plan.

So to include and engage, invite people to a meeting, tell them you’re going to show them where you keep your brain around an important topic, and ask them to reveal where they’re keeping theirs. Invite the vetoes early; let the built-in conflicts surface. Tell people you want to be influenced by them. And mean it. In the process, you will not only make better decisions, but you will also enrich relationships with all those present.

The powerful tool you’ll use is the Beach Ball meeting, which is essential when you have …

· decisions to make;

· strategies to design;

· opportunities to evaluate; or

· problems to solve

… which for most of us, is every day! And you want to get it right for the organization and for the ultimate “call” to be implemented impeccably, willingly.


Earlier, I asked you to picture your organization as a web of relationships that are shaped one conversation, one meeting at a time. Now picture your organization as a huge beach ball.

Each person in your company operates from a different colored stripe and experiences reality from that perspective. People in marketing, human resources, manufacturing, accounting, out on the loading dock—and let’s not forget your customers—obviously have significantly different, perhaps competing perspectives. Blue, red, green, gold …

A Beach Ball meeting is an opportunity to uncover the perspectives that people share and don’t share—to connect to the real, personal voices and minds of others whose input is essential in order to make the best possible decisions for an organization. During Beach Ball meetings, what matters is not whose perspective is correct. What matters is that everyone in the room puts his or her brain on the table for all to see (assuming that attendees brought their brains with them).

“Harry, don’t ever trust something that thinks for itself unless you can see where it keeps its brain.”
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Rūmī’s field is where Beach Ball meetings take place. When we get this right, we leave a meeting with ideas no one person had coming in. Differing agendas are revealed, and consequently, even if we don’t all agree, we trust one another and gain a clear understanding of the multiple realities that will now influence the decision maker.

We begin to understand Madeleine Albright’s advice.

Let’s make this real for you.

Select a significant or recurring problem you wish to resolve.

The problem is:

Beach Ball meetings begin with clarity about the issue under discussion. Everyone’s attention and energy should be focused on the topic, not a hodgepodge of topics. This requires the person who has asked for the meeting to fill out an issue-preparation form before the meeting, an exercise that will force even further clarity for that person and will ensure that the meeting hits the ground running.

Please stop reading and fill in the form now. Remember, the problem named is the problem solved. What is the topic or problem you want to address? Don’t linger on the edges.

Now that you’ve clarified the issue, whose perspectives will be important for you and others to understand? Get creative here. Forget about titles. Who sits at the juncture where things happen? Who is impacted by the problem or will be impacted by the solution? Whose cooperation will be needed to implement the solution? Who is likely to resist the solution? Who often disagrees with your perspective? Who is the “customer”? Who has nothing to do with the topic but, though he or she would be very surprised to be invited, might bring something unique to the table?

Write down these people’s names.

I will invite to this meeting:

Prior to this meeting, send out any material others will need to review. If you start the meeting by passing out a bunch of statistics for people to review, you will kill the energy in the room. If you want to hit the ground running, ask that everyone review whatever information you’ve provided before the meeting and come prepared to share their perspectives.

Materials I will send out ahead of time:


In your invitation, let everyone know

1. The topic to be discussed;

2. Its significance;

3. Your desire to understand their perspectives about how to solve it; and

4. Your expectation that they will come to the meeting prepared to focus their energy and attention on the topic.


Hold the meeting. Here is how it should go:

1. Begin by thanking everyone for coming, and urge them to unplug. That means turning off their cell phones and any high-tech distractions that are likely to ring, hum, or vibrate. If anyone has a laptop open, ask them to close it and go laptopless. Tell them that you want eye contact in this meeting, deep listening, and, in fact, that you would prefer that no one take notes, so everyone should set aside paper and pens. This includes you!

2. Give everyone a copy of the issue-preparation form, and talk through it quickly to focus attention and resources on the topic.

3. Tell your team members that you want to hear the perspective from each stripe of the beach ball, especially if it differs from what you see or the direction in which you are leaning. You could even put a beach ball on the table or draw one on a flip chart or whiteboard. Say something like:

We’re here to solve the problem of … (or operate as a think tank on the topic of …). I will tell you what I think needs to happen and why. My view is based on my position on the beach ball. I’m standing on the blue stripe, so that’s what I see. It’s hard to see other colors from where I stand, so I need you to tell me what it looks like from your stripe on the beach ball. That requires that you push back on anything I say that doesn’t match your view of reality. Tell me what I’m missing. That’s how you’ll add value to this meeting. My hope is to be influenced by you. I want to be different when this meeting is over.

And mean it!

4. Ask for clarifying questions about the issue preparation form and answer them.

5. Make sure that you hear each team member’s thoughts, concerns, ideas. I usually tee this up with humor: “While you have the right to remain silent, I’ve noticed that some of you don’t have the ability, so be reminded that I want to hear from everyone.” (This usually gets a laugh and sends a clear signal to those who talk too much.) Your goal is not to persuade them to your way of thinking, not to defend your position, but to understand theirs. If you disagree with a comment or don’t understand, please don’t say, “Yes, but …” That’s a surefire way to indicate that you’re not really asking. Replace but with and. “Yes, and …” will keep all the doors and windows open. If someone says, “I don’t know,” ask, “What would it be if you did know?” If someone says, “I have nothing to add,” ask, “What would you add if you did have something to add?” Don’t let anyone off the hook. Everyone must show up in this conversation, and if you get this part right, no one will show up unprepared at the next one.

6. When you have heard from everyone and the conversation is losing steam or people are starting to repeat themselves, ask each team member to write down a concise answer to this question: “Having heard from everyone here, what is your strongest recommendation?” (or “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” or whatever question fits best).

7. Have each person read his or her advice aloud. Do not respond, except to say, “Thank you.”

8. After everyone has read his or her advice, tell the group what you’ve heard and ask, “Did I miss anything essential?”

9. Thank everyone for his or her contribution and tell the group what action you are prepared to take and when you will take it. If you don’t know yet, tell them you need time to think and that you’ll let them know your decision.

10.Ask them to sign their recommendations and give them to you so that you can follow up with them if you’d like more information.

Conclude by saying something like, “Thank you for your time and intelligence. Well done!”

START AND END YOUR MEETINGS ON TIME. I’ll say it again. Start and end your meetings on time. I confess that I am seriously turned off when the person who called the meeting is late himself or says, “Let’s wait a few more minutes so more people can get here.” And then there’s the frequent comment, “It’s always like this. We never start meetings on time,” said as if describing a mildly irritating but endearing trait in a child.

Starting meetings late has consequences beyond just inefficiency and inconvenience. A poll of 360 workers, including senior management, conducted by the Workplace Intelligence Unit, found that turning up late for meetings was considered by many workers the height of disrespect, with four out of ten feeling that colleagues who did so or canceled at the last minute were simply showing that they did not value the respondents’ time.

People feel disrespected when they show up and others don’t. The message received is that those who arrive late value their own time more than that of their colleagues—an attitude that doesn’t exactly foster inclusion and engagement. Don’t waste anyone’s time, either at the beginning of a meeting or at the end. If you start on time and stay focused, you’ll be done when you said you’d be done. The meeting will end on time.

Early in my coaching relationship with Will (not his real name), a wonderful, seriously evolved chairman of an organization in Los Angeles, I asked his assistant what advice he would like to give his boss. This is what he said:

“It’s always like this. We never start meetings on time,” said as if describing a mildly irritating but endearing trait in a child.

“I’d like him to clean up his behavior around meetings. He’s created a monster by scheduling meetings and keeping people waiting. For example, if a meeting is supposed to start at 10 A.M., I can guarantee you that no one will be in the meeting room at 10 A.M. Except me. So I start calling people who are supposed to be there, and they ask, “Is Will in the room yet?” And of course, he isn’t, so the waiting continues. Until he’s in the room, they won’t leave their offices. Part of it’s a power dance—who’s more important?—but mostly these are busy people who can’t afford to sit in a conference room waiting for who knows how long for Will to show up. And sometimes, he’s not there even when he’s there. He’s distracted.”

Will cares very much about every one of his executives, and yet his meeting behavior sends the opposite message. Sadly, maddeningly, this is a dynamic that exists in many organizations, a huge time waster.

Here’s another example.

I traveled with Chris Douglas, who handles business development for Fierce, to spend a day with a dozen decision makers in a global pharmaceutical company. The purpose was to walk them through a Fierce training course for their sales managers and then collaborate with them to customize the course. We were to meet from 8:30 A.M. to 5 P.M.

Chris and I weren’t bothered by the 6 A.M. call requesting that we arrive an hour earlier. The trouble began when we were met by an outside consultant who had been working with the organization for a year. Let’s call him Jim (not his name). Actually, let’s call him Dr. Jim, as that’s how he prefers to be addressed since he has a PhD. And let’s call the person spearheading the sales training initiative Steve.

Dr. Jim: I need to prepare you for the day.

Chris: Terrific. What do we need to know?

Dr. Jim: It’s about the culture, what it’s like around here. I need to warn you so you won’t take it personally.

Me: Sounds ominous.

Dr. Jim: It’s just the way things are. Let’s start with … you don’t have a full day.

Me: Has something happened?

Dr. Jim: Nothing that doesn’t happen every day. People have to attend other meetings. They’re double booked. Very common here.

Chris: Lay it out for us, please.

Dr. Jim: Well, Steve won’t be here until noon. (Chris and I barely stifle a dual gasp.) And he’ll need to leave around 3 P.M. A couple of people, including the head of sales training, will be here for the first hour, then out for an hour or two. Four people have to catch planes, so they’ve got to leave at 2 P.M. Others, I don’t remember who, told me they’ll need to step out from time to time to take phone calls.

(Chris and I look at each other, our eyes starting to glaze.)

Dr. Jim: It’s nothing against you or Fierce. It’s the culture here. You just have to work with it.

What I didn’t say is “And exactly how long have you been consulting with this company? And what part of ‘totally messed up’ haven’t you noticed? Did they hire you to build a case for dysfunction?” I was thinking it, but I kept my mouth shut because I have matured a bit (just a bit) over the years and recognize my tendency toward expressive compulsive disorder!

We stayed and did the best we could, given that people were constantly in and out of the room, but looking back, we should have made an immediate, courteous exit and offered to return when they could guarantee the presence of those we had agreed on.

Do you know this culture, live in one like it? Everyone always checking their BlackBerrys and cell phones to see if “something” has happened while they were in the meeting, in the subway, in the bathroom, on the plane, uneasy at the thought of being out of touch, thinking someone may need to tell them something, may need them for something?

What is this “something” we anticipate? And do we really imagine that, if we, personally, are unable to show up and intervene or provide input immediately, all will be lost? If so, this signals someone who does not hold others able. How’d you like to work for her, for him?

If you are enabling this culture, modeling this kind of behavior yourself, STOP IT! Thank you.

I understand you’re busy. Who isn’t? So shape your schedule to suit you, rather than the other way around. What depth of involvement do you want, and what is appropriate, in what areas?

Pull your assistant into this conversation. He or she can help you organize your days better, so that you are not letting your schedule or other people dictate too much, but instead are focused where you need to be, so that everything isn’t a crisis, a priority, and so that you can make better use of your time and not keep people waiting. The fierce conversation needed is one in which you clarify the best use of your time and stop accepting that things are this way because things are this way.


You can do this at the conclusion of the meeting or informally later on. Ask,

“What insights did you gain from this meeting?”

“What could we do to improve the next meeting?”

“What did we do well?”

“Looking back, who else should have been invited to the meeting?”

“What valuable perspectives did we miss?”

Get back to people once you have made a decision or taken action based on their suggestions, and let them know the results and/or next steps.


Get increasingly creative about who is invited to meetings. Support staff. People from other parts of the company. Customers. Vendors.

Recognize and correct any missteps on your part. Did you talk too much? Did you catch yourself being argumentative? Did you use the word but?

If someone was disruptive during the meeting—made others feel diminished or wrong, took too much airtime, withheld his or her view—bring it to that person’s attention privately and say that you hold him or her able to do better next time.

To sum up, Beach Ball meetings should be well thought out. The right people should be brought together to share diverse perspectives on a clearly defined topic of importance and operate like an ad hoc think tank. Each person’s thoughts should be solicited and listened to. Reality should be interrogated, learning should be provoked, tough topics should be tackled, and relationships should be enriched. The meeting should be focused and fairly fast paced and should start and end on time.

When this is the case, you are facilitating connection. Respect is deepened with understanding. Most of us are happy to let leaders lead, yet we’d still like to feel that each of us has a place at the table, that when we are asked for our perspective about bet-the-farm decisions, we’re really being listened to. This should be a regular occurrence, part of daily life as we know it, rather than a rare event. In fact, failing to show respect for other people’s views is a major problem within many workplaces.

Respect is deepened with understanding.

Because Beach Ball meetings are far more productive, provocative, and engaging than the kinds of meetings most of us are used to, the idea tends to catch on. Those who attend your beach ball meetings will behave far better in other meetings and will encourage others to do so, as well.

Taking It to the Organization

In addition to Beach Ball meetings, there are several highly inclusive, engaging team exercises I strongly recommend that you take to your organization. The first is called Lifeline. It allows people to see one another as more than their jobs, their roles. To see one another as human beings with lives that include work and extend beyond work. Here’s how it works.


Gather your team together and give each person a sheet of flip chart paper and a marker. Tell them you’ll give them fifteen minutes to draw their lifeline, starting from as early in their lives as they can remember. They should start by drawing a flat line across the center of the page. This line is neutral, neither good nor bad. Then ask them to mark the major highs and lows in their lives—personal as well as professional—with Xs above and below the neutral line. Each X should be labeled with the event, the year, and the primary emotion they felt at the time. Then they’ll connect the Xs, so that their lifeline looks like a sales or stock price history. When they’re finished drawing their lifelines, ask for a volunteer to go first. Have him or her stand in front of the room, put up the lifeline chart, and talk the team through the key events of his or her life. Encourage the team to ask clarifying questions along the way.


How have these events shaped who you are? … How have these events shaped how you lead?

When the person is finished, ask, “How have these events shaped who you are?” When he or she has answered this question, ask, “How have these events shaped how you lead?”

You’ll need about twenty minutes per person, so this may be a long exercise, depending on how many people are on the team, but I assure you it’s worth it. Participants will learn things about their teammates that they didn’t know before and will better understand not only what they do, but why they do it. And there will be considerable self-generated insight along the way.

Be aware that there may be a surprising level of disclosure. I remember listening to a team member whose presentation was punctuated every sixty seconds by the sound of the pump on his portable chemotherapy drip. Another team member had been present when his father accidentally fatally shot his mother on a hunting trip. Another had lost his entire net worth after Eliot Spitzer knocked on his former employer’s door. We also learned of great successes, magical moments, wonderful accomplishments. And wouldn’t Eliot Spitzer’s lifeline be interesting …

When this exercise is given its due, whoever is in the room will be far more connected, included, and engaged with everyone else in the room than they were when they walked in the door.


Every Monday morning, the Fierce team meets at 9 A.M. for “Ducks” (short for Ducks in a Row) to touch base about what’s on everyone’s plates, the status of projects and work with clients, any help needed, et cetera. But before we dive in, we take time for “Significant Events,” an exercise in which each person tells us—briefly—about his or her most significant personal and professional event since last we met.

Since we meet on Mondays, on the personal side, people often talk about what they did over the weekend. Sometimes it’s news of relatives or a child’s recent accomplishment, or the latest chapter in a house hunt, or a paragliding thrill. Then they add any late-breaking work-related news. Significant Events usually takes about sixty seconds per person, and that’s all that’s needed, really. Still, that’s valuable time, so why do this when we’re all so busy? Because it allows us to get a sense of how and where each person is, emotionally as well as intellectually. It gives us a chance to congratulate and commiserate. It helps us get to know each other better when we’re all present. To see the person, not just the job.

Significant Events was standard procedure with the think tanks that I ran. It brought the CEOs closer together, reminded them that each CEO had a family, outside interests, a personal life, and it reminds me of a question I’ve heard in England: “Who is he when he’s at home?”

I am not suggesting that you begin every meeting with Significant Events, but it’s a good thing to do periodically with a team that works together regularly and a good way to engage and include those who may be new to the team or only visiting before kicking off almost any kind of meeting. It levels the field—we are all people with accomplishments within these walls and vivid lives outside these walls—and it allows us to “see” each other as more than our jobs or titles. It facilitates connection.

If your team is too large for this (more than twelve to fifteen people) and/or you’re truly pressed for time, there are other variations you could use. Just do a quick version, including only personal significant events: “In fifteen seconds or less, please tell us your most significant personal event in the last thirty days.” Or have people share their significant events in groups of three.

Or just start your meetings with something to make people smile, something to break the ice. When Cam Tripp led teams at SPU (Seattle Pacific University), he says, “We always started out with something fun—even if it was a silly border on the agenda. Sometimes we laughed so hard that people down the hall wondered if we got any work done. Indeed we did. We performed at very high levels; in fact, because of our work, out of 250 other universities, ours was number one for student leader satisfaction, likely because it was a connection-rich culture.”

In another example, Peter Lynch of AIMCO starts meetings with “ZenMo”—a Zen Moment—usually some funny YouTube video or cartoon that gets people laughing and produces high connectivity levels and high performance. People NEVER show up late, because they don’t want to miss their ZenMo.


This isn’t a team exercise. This is just for you. I once witnessed a wonderful opening welcome at a conference. One of the senior executives stepped to the microphone and said, “Welcome. Benvenuto. Huan ying. Salaam. Buenos días. Guten Tag. Bienvenue. Goddag. Irashaimasu. Karibu. Hola. Jambo. Tervetuloa …,” continuing his extended welcome in all of the languages spoken by the organization’s employees. No notes, no teleprompter. He looked directly at people’s faces as he welcomed them in their native tongues.

Welcome. Benvenuto. Huan ying. Salaam. Buenos días. Guten Tag. Bienvenue. Goddag. Irashaimasu. Karibu. Hola. Jambo. Tervetuloa …

His greeting showed that he valued the diversity of the audience, and it signaled his respect for them. This was warmth, human connection at its best. The applause was enthusiastic, and everyone was smiling broadly.

He grinned and confessed that the hardest and most important thing he’d had to do in the last twenty-four hours was learning and memorizing all the greetings.

If you have employees from other countries and cultures, I hope you will follow his lead.


It would be a grave mistake to put each “generation” into a box labeled “This is who you are.” Most people are delighted and relieved to discover that people of all ages share many core values and priorities. In fact, we are more alike than different. At the same time, there are differences among generations that you should take into account if you want to create a truly engaged workplace.

In The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, John Zogby says that Gen Yers, also known as First Globals (born between 1979 and 1990), consider the notion of generous pensions and lifetime job security laughable (“While you’re at it, tell me about Santa Claus”), which it is these days. First Globals are ready to go anywhere, experience everything, and work and live in exotic places, and for them, family life takes priority over work life and a flexible, diverse, collaborative, fun learning environment is key. So if you run a company or lead a team or have a customer base that includes members of this generation, you’ll do well to create an environment that offers these things.

Boomers, whom Zogby calls Woodstockers (1946-64), also value work/life balance and hope to achieve it after they retire! Zogby suggests that to engage members of this generation, you’d do well to offer jobs or positions that allow them to have a second act—”something with more social utility than an endless obsession with self.”

Gen Xers, or Nikes (1965-78) made “Just Do It” their mantra, but as they age, they are going to spearhead the search for what they believe to be the real American dream—greater spiritual, rather than material, fulfillment. So they are less likely to be engaged and motivated by loftier job titles and high salaries than by work they find fulfilling.

And we should not write off the Veterans or the “Private Generation” (1922-1945). They’ve got decades of healthy living ahead of them, and they’re going to fill those golden years with volunteering, mentoring, and lifelong learning opportunities.

When working with people of a different generation from yours, until you appreciate the similarities and the differences, you may find that your best efforts are not appreciated, are not striking a chord. At Fierce Inc., all generations are present and play well together. Our differences are hugely valuable. We provoke one another’s learning, and our similarities are deeply reassuring.

Many organizations offer training (like our Fierce Generations workshop) on this topic. A quick search will turn up multiple resources, which, as a leader committed to engaging employees, I encourage you to consider. But simply attending a training course or running a workshop is not enough. If you want to expand and implement a practice of inclusion and engagement throughout your organization, you can follow my personal action plan.

Personal Action Plan

1. Stop talking about leveraging the diversity of ethnicity and talent within your organization and start doing it. Build a diverse team and focus that team on something tough, important. One of the quickest, most powerful ways to bond people for life is to bring a group of people together and ask them to accomplish something significant and difficult in a short period of time.

2. Bring together the best thought leaders within your organization. Make sure that all the different departments, teams, and perspectives are represented—from the mail room on up. Get them to think out loud about a problem that needs solving, a decision that needs making, a strategy that needs designing, an opportunity that needs evaluating.

3. Don’t fire and forget. When a person leaves, do exit interviews to find out where you went wrong. And act on what you learn. And make it easier to fire people who aren’t right for your company or the job or who think that just coming to work each day is enough. Don’t let them get away with anything less than their “A” game.

4. Select a generations workshop that doesn’t simply point out generational differences, but also reveals their similarities. I have found that each of us is a surprise for everyone else. The “card game” that kicks off the Fierce Generations workshop results in the wonderful surprise that we are more similar than different. This realization helps to connect us.

5. Work with HR to make it easier for people to say what they really want to say about why they want to hire or fire someone, rather than what is judged politically correct. HR should be helpful, not a hurdle.

6. Focus on creating consistent, enduring connections everywhere you go—connections that highlight and focus the unique capabilities of individuals on your business model and on employee and client relationships.

7. Have a Beach Ball meeting focused on resolving a problem or designing a strategy. Invite to the meeting two people who have absolutely nothing to do with your team or the topic—people whom no one would expect to see sitting at your table—and include them as equals. It could be someone who works in an entirely different area of the company. A maintenance person. An intern who works in the building across the street. The EVP of another division. Your favorite barista or sales clerk. A customer. A prospective customer. If you’re a small company, invite someone from another small company in the same building. Or someone from a large company that you admire. Ask for their thoughts and listen hard.

8. If you have a relatively new team, do the Lifeline exercise with them.

9. Start a meeting with Significant Events.

10.When you ask people how they are, don’t be satisfied with “fine.” Fine is a four-letter word. Help employees and customers articulate the true answer. Keep your tone encouraging, not fear inducing.

11.Ask people where they want to go careerwise and why they want to go there. Tell them the truth about how they’re doing relative to their goals. Did you get the “Tell the truth!” part? Advocate for your top performers moving up in your organization even if a move might have a short-term negative impact on your progress. Too many leaders will only support someone’s advancement if it’s both good for that person and in the best interests of the leader. This is shortsighted and will win you zero points. If you see a natural move for someone and would like him or her to stay with you to complete a particular project or initiative, then make that clear. Part of a leader’s job is to build a stellar bench.

12.Add names to your “Conversations I Need to Have” list, and have those conversations. Who deserves your praise? Who deserves an apology? Who deserves your support? Who deserves the truth? Who might have a thing or two to teach you?

13.Have these conversations in person. Technology is marvelous, but inclusion and engagement require that you get up out of your chair and spend time with people, face to face. Don’t send an e-mail when you could talk with someone. When all a person has are words on a screen, he or she will likely attach a tone and meaning that are a far cry from what you intended.

14.Delegate more, and don’t usurp responsibility. Support as opposed to command. Coach as opposed to convince. This is not about your “winning,” looking good. It’s about developing others. Come from a place of goodwill.

15.Tell a family member how much he or she means to you. When I asked a friend why she chose the man she married, she said, “Because he knows how he feels about me.” Who needs to know how you feel about them?


In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, a supersmart twelve-year-old, Paloma, describes her response to the annual performance of her school choir in Paris:

Every time, it’s a miracle. Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and laughter and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck—it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion. Even the singers’ faces are transformed: it’s no longer Achille Grand-Fernet that I’m looking at (he is a very fine tenor), or Deborah Lemeur or Segolene Rachet or Charles Saint-Sauveur. I see human beings, surrendering to music.

Every time, it’s the same thing. I feel like crying, my throat goes all tight and I do the best I can to control myself but sometimes it gets close: I can hardly keep myself from sobbing. So when they sing a canon I look down at the ground because it’s just too much emotion at once: it’s too beautiful, and everyone singing together, this marvelous sharing. I’m no longer myself, I am just one part of a sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of being an exceptional moment, during a choir.

When the music stops, everyone applauds, their faces all lit up, the choir radiant. It is so beautiful.

In the end, I wonder if the true movement of the world might not be a voice raised in song.

I understand what Paloma feels and imagine you do too, when music takes you someplace you’d like to stay and you want to gather everyone you love around you, gather everyone you don’t love, too, so that maybe we could see beyond ourselves and truly meet one another. When these emotions strike me, wash over me, I vow not to allow the sense of connection and goodness and joy and love and longing that was mine for a moment to slip away. And then the music is over, the phone rings, the dogs bark, the news headlines announce another preposterous event or horrifying outcome, a deadline looms. Poof, there it went, all that connection. To get it back, I often return to music.

I wrote much of Fierce Conversations while listening to the music of Kelly Joe Phelps. As I explained, “I am in love with his sound, a cross between Springsteen, Dock Boggs, and someone from somewhere on the banks of the Mississippi. The lyrics are lovely but secondary. It’s simply what this music evokes in me. Unbidden. Dropping me into a funky, smooth, and groovy place where I want to pour a glass of red wine, light a fire, and reminisce. I remember evenings with friends, playing our guitars and singing by the Missouri River my freshman year of college. I can see Kelly Joe Phelps’s music with my eyes. He’s tapped into an artery somehow. You can’t get that just anywhere.”

Many pages of Fierce Leadership were written while listening to Trio Mediaeval, three gorgeous voices who sing traditional ballads, hymns, and lullabies from Norway. Days and days were also spent writing to the sounds of Pete’s Pond at the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa, via the National Geographic WildCam. The cameras are focused on Pete’s Pond. As I wrote, a bird with impossibly long tail feathers sang a gorgeous aria in the dead of night. Hyenas patrolled, hoping a small animal would find itself without protection. Moths the size of dinner plates floated across the camera lens at night.

Hamish, my cairn terrier, spent a few minutes in my lap each morning, watching the goings-on. It was part of our morning ritual. The frogs in Pete’s Pond sound like the frogs in my pond, only more exotic. All these sounds—birds, animals, insects, water, wind—have an effect on me. They transport me to a state of mind in which there is the possibility of a deeper intellectual, emotional, or spiritual dive.

Why am I telling you this? Because I believe that part of being engaged is amassing a diverse collection of thoughts, ideas, emotions, and worldviews through the words, songs, and actions of others.

Part of being engaged is amassing a diverse collection of thoughts, ideas, emotions, and worldviews through the words, songs, and actions of others.

It isn’t easy—this connecting, this looking beyond hardwired assumptions and beliefs, this seeking out people and seeing beyond. Some people have given up trying to meet others, completely missing those who are not from their world. But these people will never grow, because they just meet themselves over and over, because they are only looking in the mirror, entranced with their own form, their own face and ideology.

Seeking out people with different views, different perspectives, different ideas is often challenging, because it requires us to set aside judgment and open our minds. But we have to remind ourselves that to get beyond where we are, where I believe most of us are, we would all be well served to choose our music carefully, to stop talking and listen to one another.

Employee engagement, inclusion. A worthy goal that will remain just that—a goal—unless and until, here and now, we create deep connection in this moment, this one, with this person, the person across the table in the meeting, the one holding forth or sitting quietly, the one cooking dinner, the one with whom we disagree, the one we haven’t valued, haven’t really seen. Until now.