@Leadership / Motivation

How Leaders Can Unlock Their Team’s Potential

Photo by Danica Tanjutco on Unsplash

Several years ago when my two sons were in elementary school, we formed the Secret Ice Cream Club. Their cousin was the same age so of course he became a member as well. The first rule of the Secret Ice Cream Club? That’s right, you don’t talk about the Secret Ice Cream Club, especially with Mom.

We held our regular meetings, usually weekly, at McDonald’s. The first (and only) item on the agenda was having an ice cream cone. Of course, as a full-fledged member, I had to have an one as well.

For one of our meetings, we entered our local McDonald’s. The three boys (ages 6–7) were pretty excited as boys that age tend to be. That means being loud and jumping around aimlessly with lots of arm-flailing and maybe a karate kick or two.

We approached the counter. The young woman greeted us in a dull monotone voice without eye contact, “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?” There wasn’t enough energy in her voice to catch a snail. We ordered four cones and waited not-so-quietly.

She prepared two and handed them over, and then two more. As she handed the boys their ice cream, they shouted, “THANK YOU!” and bolted for the seats in front of the TV.

I hung back a moment. “That’s pretty cool,” I said to the woman. She was about 19 and looked like what many people see as the stereotype of a young McDonald’s employee: listless, no ambition, uncaring. Slowly, she raised her head to make eye contact for the first time.

“Wha-a-a-t?” she dragged out the question in her dull monotone.

“I said, ‘That’s pretty cool,’ what you did there.”

I could tell it wasn’t sinking in. “Did you see those big smiles on their faces? They lit up when you handed them their ice cream. You did that. You made them that happy.”

I thought I saw a spark of life but the meeting was starting so I hustled back before all the good seats were taken at the television.

At our next meeting, she was there again. Secret Ice Cream Club meetings were a pretty big deal and the enthusiasm of the members ensured we didn’t enter quietly. The reality is you don’t sneak up on anything with three young boys unless it’s a stampede.

She heard us enter, looked up from the register, and greeted us with a smile. It wasn’t a million-watt smile, but it was a smile.

She moved on shortly after that. While I don’t know for certain, I think we made a little difference in her life. I just had the feeling no one had ever told her anything she ever did mattered.

That’s what purpose does. It lets people know what they do matters. When done well, employees will understand how they impact the world. That’s the first purpose and leaders need to ensure their people know and understand it.

I recently wrote purpose “provides the catalyst to make everything go.” Purpose is an increasing topic in leadership for good reason. Ignoring it is like driving a Lamborghini only in first gear.

If you think the primary reason for a business is making money, you’re living in the wrong century. A “normal” 40-hour workweek means the employee is spending about 25% of their life at work. 25%. That includes sleeping and weekends.

We’re talking about a big chunk of your life. And there are plenty of people who work more than 40 hours a week. If you’re in charge of people at work, you need to give them something more than a paycheck. As a leader, you need to help them find something even more valuable. You need to help your people find meaning in what they’re doing.

It’s there already. I’ve yet to come up with a job that isn’t meaningful to someone in society. Sadly, most people don’t seem to realize that what they’re doing matters to the world. They just go about their business on a daily basis, many of them with minimal effort. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Sometimes older people laugh when I talk about the second purpose. At first. As I go on and elaborate, you’ll see heads start nodding in agreement. The nods spread across the room like a slow-moving wave as the message sinks in.

The second purpose is helping employees understand how their specific work, their actions, impact the other workers around them. The salespeople need to understand that when they write up the orders, they need to do so in such a way that operations can understand them.

Things like quantity and delivery date are obvious but also the special specifications, packing needs, delivery means, point-of-contact name and phone number — all those things impact the next steps. As the line preps the order, they’ll know up front the changes they need to enact for their processes. The delivery folks get it up front and won’t waste time driving the truck around the building 2–3 times trying to deliver to the wrong door.

When the delivery is made on-time and to the right place the first time, the customer is much more willing to entertain the sales folks next time. This cycle often seems obvious to older employees.

For some reason, it isn’t to some younger employees. Some people like me call it teamwork. When the supervisor takes that shipping clerk and explains how those forms he’s filling out matter to the delivery driver and how the customer relies on them to check the order, the clerk realizes he’s not just shuffling paper. He’s setting up the next steps in the process for success. Just like the person did in the steps before it came to him.

When employees realize they’re part of a bigger process and other employees are relying on them to do their part correctly, they take it more seriously. This type of purpose isn’t some grandiose thing. It isn’t the “flying with eagles” type of inspirational motivation. It’s simply making sure each employee understands how they can help the next person in the chain have a better day or a worse day.

This is what I call Purpose x2. The first purpose answers the question of what your company contributes to the world. Why does it exist? Saying a company only exists to make profit is like saying a person only lives to breathe oxygen. A company cannot exist without making a profit but that isn’t why it exists. It needs to be more than that.

The second purpose is helping your employees understand how they work together, how they rely on one another to get the job done. People don’t like to let other people down. They just don’t. If you have a few who seem indifferent about it, you need to help them understand why it matters. If they still don’t get it, then encourage them to find employment elsewhere.

These two purposes will build teamwork, esprit de corps, and increase productivity. They’re invaluable to any organization. It’s the responsibility of the leader to make them readily visible and understood. It’s how leaders unleash their team’s true potential.

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, taught at West Point, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Amazon pubs.

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