The Alchemy of Great Leaders—Turning Pewter into Gold

29 Aug

I used to work for a company that had a monthly recognition program for employees in my particular role. To be recognized took a lot of work. Although all of us were eligible each month for the award it wasn’t likely you would be recognized every time. But any of us who achieved the specified level of production were publically acknowledged at a monthly celebration.

There was also a tangible gift for those who achieved this level of performance—a pewter goblet.

The goblets are gorgeous. When you pick them up they feel heavy, substantial, like a goblet you might see on King Arthur’s table. And after you got twelve of these goblets you also received a silver serving tray, suitable for use with your nicest china on those special occasions when such finery is required.

Sounds pretty nice, right?

The pewter goblets are impressive, truly. Here’s the problem with pewter goblets around my house… we have gold ware for our fine china. Pewter goblets look great with silverware, but they look horrible with gold ware. For my extraordinary efforts I was awarded a dozen of these beautiful goblets, but have no use for them. Mind you, I’m not Amy Vanderbilt or Martha Stewart, but they just don’t look good together. To enjoy my pewter goblets, I need King Arthur’s pal Merlin to wave his magic wand and turn the pewter to gold.

I need an alchemist.

But, alas, no such luck, so we never used the pewter goblets. Last I checked they’re sitting in a box in our basement, twenty years of dust their only companion. Beautiful as they might be they are of little use to us, so are stowed away with sentimental baby clothes and old family photos.

I’ve witnessed hundreds of stories just like my goblet dilemma. A former client had an outstanding salesperson, who consistently was the number one producer in the organization. The manager thought the best way to recognize him was with an ornate, nicely engraved plaque. It would say “Salesperson of the Year”. The salesperson could hang it on his office wall so everyone could see what a remarkable producer he was, thought the manager.

Turns out the guy doesn’t like plaques.

The plaque never made it onto the office wall. It’s stuck in a drawer somewhere. I don’t need pewter goblets, and this gentleman doesn’t care for plaques. Getting recognition right can make all the difference in the world. It doesn’t take all that much effort, but great leaders are up to the task. The best leaders recognize their employees based not on what they might like but what would be meaningful to the employee. They know:

  • Some people like plaques, others don’t.
  • Some folks like public recognition, and there others (including yours truly) who would rather receive recognition in private.
  • Some employees would appreciate even more contact from their manager as a result of their success, while others would prefer to be left alone.
  • Some whose work has been outstanding would like to be considered for promotion opportunities, while others have more of an interest in finding ways they can grow in their current role.
  • Some of us like pewter goblets and some of us just throw them in the basement.

We are motivated uniquely; we have our own “definition of success”, if you will. What means a great deal to one person can mean nothing to another. Here’s one employee who doesn’t ask for much, but even a simple form of appreciation is lacking:

“I feel that my position does not get the credit it deserves. I would like more personal recognition for a job well done from our team leader. Just verbal praise would be fine but it just does not happen. I’m basically ignored, even though my fellow team members say I’m the most competent project manager in the firm.”

Contrast that with this employee, who is interested in further career opportunities:

“My manager encourages employees to reach out of their departments and grow in other roles if they would like to do so, which is what I want to do. She’s happy with those who want to stay in this role, but is very encouraging and supportive if we have other career goals.”

We spend so much time at work. Most of us work very hard, trying to do a good job. We certainly can, and should, take satisfaction from our efforts, even when they are not noticed by others. Having said that, each of us is wired a bit differently when it comes to how we feel most appreciated. If we’re going to spend all this time working, why not let folks around us know how we like to be recognized? And if we have the privilege of leading others, why not spend some time learning how to best recognize each of the folks that work for you?

So what happened to the salesperson who didn’t like plaques? He truly didn’t like plaques. He did, however, have two daughters who were very important to him, so when he won ”salesperson of the year” yet again the next year his manager surprised him with a professional photograph of his daughters, which the manager had beautifully framed. To this day, that photo hangs on the mantle of the salesperson’s home. He was so taken by the award he told the manager that the day he received the photo was “one of the most important days of my life”. The manager told us the photo didn’t cost much more than the plaque, and has paid for itself a thousand times over.

When this manager took time to learn about what really motivated his colleague and presented him with that photo he did something very special. He proved that the alchemists of old were right. He did something that chemists say you can’t do. He took something of little value and made it precious. He recognized an employee in a way that touched his very soul. That turned an ordinary, predictable task into an unforgettable experience.

He turned pewter into gold.

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