If you are like me you love reading about companies that have employees that always seem to be miles ahead of everyone else with regard to engagement and customer service. For example how many times have you heard stories about a certain airline staff going the extra mile and turning a potential disaster into a marketing coupe? One story that stands out for me occurred while there was a storm in Toronto and all flights were mired in delay and frustration. Now there were several carriers operating in that part of the airport but not one stepped up like this airline. Seeing the long lines and sensing the growing frustration this staff went into over drive to address every passenger concern and need. Someone even went so far as to order a huge amount of pizza and pass it out to all of their customers while they waited. It did not speed up the delay but it sure made everyone feel as if the airline cared.
That wasn't the best part! After handing out pizza to all their clients they realized that they had lots left over. And guess what? That's right they walked across the floor to their competitors and began handing out pizza to their customers! If it had not been for all the jaws hitting the floor you could have heard a pin drop!
We might be tempted to think that this sort of thing is a one off or that this can't happen in most places and that is where we would be wrong. This kind of engagement does not happen by accident and it is possible to have that sort of engagement in your company or on your team.
I might not be able to say which airline it was (although I am sure most of you have guessed by now) but I can tell you who they learned it from. Southwest Airlines pioneered this approach that has been so effective in creating employee engagement. In their excellent book "Maximum Leadership" Charles Farkas and Philippe De Backer spend some time plumbing into the mindset of Southwest founder and then CEO Herb Kelleher. With an airline that was the envy of the industry when they asked Kelleher what made Southwest so different his response is informative; "...the intangibles." By that he meant the employees. He formed his airline around a clear set of principles that put their people first and profits next. He wanted a company that would be fun to work at and he wanted people to know that they respected, valued and who could be trusted with a degree of independence in performing their roles. While this may seem counter-intuitive at first blush (after all without profit it won't matter how happy a company's people are) it turns out that this was pure genius.
It would be years before the research would catch up to Mr. Kelleher but when it did two things stood out; first - happy and engaged employees actually make for a better client experience. I know this seems obvious in hind sight and yet why was he the first in that industry to do it? Second, people who are happy in their work are actually happier in their home life. Research done by Gostic and Elton and published in their book "What motivates me?" discovered that creating a sense of happiness at work actually had a side effect of increasing overall enjoyment in other areas of life. That,s right, the whole work/life balance equation had always started with the home side but as it turns out its the other way around. A happy work place actually has a big impact on home life.
So here is what we can glean from Kelleher and the Southwest experience; start with people, make the effort to get to know your people and don't be afraid to give them some independence and support. Don't be afraid to lean on them and don't be afraid to give them all the room they need to grow. Who knows? You may just discover how much you like coming to work each day too!