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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.

The Scarcity Mindset

21 Mar

We read a lot these days that some of the natural resources important to our economy and way of life are becoming scarcer. With this scarcity the price of these commodities will increase as supply outpaces demand. Good stewardship suggests that conservation of these precious assets would be in our best interests.

We don’t doubt the veracity of these claims and the associated mindset when it comes to managing the world’s natural resources, but this scarcity mentality has crept into the thinking of many leaders when it comes to an important tool at their command– recognizing employees for their contributions.

Here are the voices of two employees from an engagement survey whose leaders apparently see recognizing and listening to employees as if it were the planet’s last barrel of crude oil:

“If employees try to help in the growth of the firm and they were listened to by the authority of this place it might be something more and they would not need to be changing employees frequently. Along with that everyone should be recognized for the good they do.”

“Company does not recognize you for hard work and a job well done.  They do not value loyalty.”

Many of us know how demoralizing a work environment like this can be, where employees work hard and nobody seems to be paying attention. When it comes to hoarding recognition like a scarce resource we hear feeble dodges such as these from less-than-effective managers: “You don’t want to recognize people because it will just go to their heads.” Or “if you recognize people this time they’ll expect recognition all the time.”


The philosopher Cicero said “We are motivated by a keen desire for praise, and the better a man is, the more he is inspired by glory.”  The employees whose comments we present below obviously respond to leaders who understand what Cicero was saying. As a result, they see their workplaces in a much more positive light, and are no doubt far more engaged:

“I knew that I wanted to work here when I first visited this office.  The atmosphere is young, exciting, and full of energy.  It is an amazing mix of fun and hard work where creativity is encouraged and accomplishment recognized and celebrated.”

This place has great energy. It truly functions like a family of people who really care about each other, respect their work but also challenge their peers. The bar is set quite high but it’s an incredibly healthy work environment.  And hard work is recognized and rewarded.”

These last two comments are common at highly engaged employers, and we don’t believe it’s by luck or chance they often use phrases such as “full of energy” when describing their place of work. Leaders at these companies know that recognition, properly used in an engaging culture, actually generates more vigor, more pride, and more of the get-up-and-go our places of work so desperately need.

Recognition– a leader’s plentiful, non-toxic, renewable energy source.

High Praise???

28 Aug

Yesterday I posted a video from a company called Rackspace, where highly engaged employees providing “fanatical service” is the norm. I’m sure they wouldn’t endose this approach to praise…

“He’s Been Sleeping On The Job Longer”– Unfair Pay

5 Feb


I just had a conversation with a client who was trying to address a high level of unfavorable ratings in their annual engagement survey to employee perceptions of “fair pay”. It’s a question that frequently does poorly, but the scores were particularly low here.

There are instances when perceptions of “fair pay” relate to external equity– employees are upset that others down the street at another company are making more than they do in similar jobs. But more often I’ve seen more significant problems with internal equity– that employees see marked differences in pay amongst peers. Often the perception of internal inequity can be summed up by a comment I heard from an employee:

That guy in our department has been around forever. I’m just getting started here, but I’m working twice as hard as he is. He’s been sleeping on the job for a long time, but because he has more tenure he’s paid more. That’s just not fair.

No, it’s not fair. More importantly, that perception led this employee, and many others, to report lower levels of engagement in many other areas. Said another way, employee perceptions of unfair pay impact overall employee engagement.


  • Are there areas where internal inequity in compensation exist in your place of work?
  • In some cases, are poor performers getting paid more just becuase they have more tenure and, if so, what can be done to address their lack of performance?

“Suffering From Too Much Recognition?” A Tale of Two Bosses

30 Jan

A conversation I had with a former boss came to mind today. The thought of offering praise to an employee, including yours truly, was not in his “management style”.  There were certainly lots of good things to celebrate– new customers, growing revenues, a sound bottom line. He thought that people “doing their job was no reason to get all excited, plus if you start praising people it will just go to their heads”– thus the dearth of praise, even when things were going well.

Another former boss, Dr. Donald O. Clifton, used to ask audiences a question when it came to this topic of praise: “If any of you out there are suffering from too much recognition, please raise your hand?” Never was a hand shown.

In fact, if we ever error regarding recognition, it is too little and without sincerity. The chances that we would “over-praise” someone are slim to none. In my case, the first boss never got the best out of me, and I would have walked through fire to please Don Clifton if he would have asked– have you felt this difference in your life? Our studies of outstanding workplaces indicates this is a critical driver of employee engagement.


  • What can we do to dispel the myth that we should worry about “over-praising” our associates?
  • Can we do a better job of celebrating the successes of our associates, particularly in these difficult times?
  • How we can we help all our leaders be more effective at recognizing their staff in a meaningful way?