#609     Innovative Leader            Volume 13, Number 9                 September-December 2004

Treat Employees Like Volunteers
by Wolf J. Rinke, PhD

Dr. Rinke is a management consultant, executive coach and keynote speaker dedicated to helping organizations and individuals maximize their potential (www.WolfRinke.com).  In addition to his new book Don’t Oil the Squeaky Wheel … and 19 Other Contrarian Ways to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness (McGraw-Hill, 2004), he is the author of Winning Management:  6 Fail-Safe Strategies for Building High-Performance Organizations.

Stop and think, what would you say to your team members if indeed they were volunteers? How about: Please. Thank you! Can I count on you? I need your help. I really appreciate what you’ve done. Thanks for being on my team! Thanks for showing up. And now the one that blows the autocratic managers away: Could you do me a favor? That one I can tell you just doesn’t sit well with lots of managers. Here are some of the things they have said to me: What are you talking about? You’re paying them, they owe you a good job. Or You’ve got to be nuts. They are not doing you a favor, it’s their job, and so on, ad nauseum. All really good arguments, and all really, really incorrect. (If you agree with any of these, its time to wake up and read my book--Don't Oil the Squeaky Wheel. Because the only thing pay will do is get people to show up, and stay with you. Not bad, but certainly not peak performance.) And the fastest way to achieve peak performance is to treat all employees as if they are volunteers. Here's how:

• Give people something to be passionate about

People volunteer and devote inordinate amounts of energy, time and resources if they are passionate about a cause they believe in. You can engage the same passion in your employees by having them align themselves with the passion of the founder, think Jeff Bezos at Amazon, or the passion of the culture of the organization, think Recreational Equipment Incorporated better known as REI or the passion driven by the corporate philosophy, think Johnson & Johnson. (By the way the latter two are preferred ways of stimulating internal motivation since sooner or later the CEO retires or departs for less positive reasons, think Martha Stewart, Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, or Samual Waksal of Imclone.)

• Build a positive organizational culture

A culture where people want to come to work. Virtually all of the successful companies I have ever consulted with accomplish that by taking employee job satisfaction very seriously. Most measure it at least once a year, several tie compensation of managers to the level of employee satisfaction and virtually all utilize a wide variety of informal systems, such as “breakfast with the boss,” employee “town hall meetings,” schmoozing with employees, functional suggestion boxes etc. In short, do whatever you can to keep your finger on the pulse of how satisfied your employees are. Lest you think this is frivolous, studies show that there is a positive correlation between the level of employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. In other words if your employees are satisfied, your customers will be satisfied, your sales with increase and your bottom line will improve! Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airline, said it best: "If we ever lose our culture we will have lost our most valuable competitive asset."

Case in point. Dennis Madson started as a part-time employee stocking shelves 36 years ago at REI. Today he is the president and CEO of the 6,300-employee, $735 million cooperative that sells specialty gear to avid campers, hikers, climbers and others with a passion of the great outdoors. The same company that has shown up on the Fortune 100 list of the “100 best companies to work for” six years in a row. The secret, according to an interview with Dennis Madsen in the May 2003 Harvard Business Review, is getting the culture right. “Employees can get benefits and incentives anywhere, but it’s harder for them to find a place where they can totally immerse themselves in the culture. We attract outdoors-oriented employees who sustain the culture and attract even more like-minded employees. They share the same interests and values, they’re committed to the environment, to the community, to work-life balance, and to having fun outside."

• Take your mission, vision and core values very seriously

Companies that attract “volunteers” stand for something that employees can identify with and get passionate about. And only passionate employees will deliver consistently excellent service and improve the bottom line. This strategy is analogous to developing a “brand” that is identified with certain attributes. That brand has to communicate that what we do is important and we are special. This organizational brand—I refer to as the philosophy—is critical to attracting and keeping volunteer employees, because they are looking for meaning at work. This is especially true since many institutions that used to provide meaning to people such as government, family, communities, and even religious institutions, are crumbling.

• Make work fun

If it’s fun it gets done. So ask yourself, are your team members having fun yet? Better yet ask them. You see it’s hard to get employees to behave like volunteers when work is a big pain. Ask five of your team members to serve on a “Celebration Team.” Give them a budget. If money is tight, suggest that they contact local merchants who’d love to achieve greater visibility in your company. Ask those merchants to make donations to your Celebration Team. Example: movie tickets, a weekend for two at a local resort, etc. Just be sure to give those who donate lots of visibility. Now ask the Celebration Team to get together to identify specific things they are planning to do each month that are fun. Tell them anything goes, provided that they stay within their allocated budget and it does not violate any laws, rules or regulations.

• Position people to build on their strengths

Statistics tell us that 25% of the US population hates what they do, another 56% could take it or leave it, and only 19% love what they do. Typically people who love what they do—volunteers—are in jobs that let them build on their strengths. So find out what your team members love to do and do everything in your power to place them in those positions.

• Invest in career development

If you want your organization to get better, your employees have to get better. That may be common sense—however my experience as a management consultant demonstrates time and time again that common sense is not very common. The best of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work for in 2001 and 2002—Stockbroker Edward Jones of St. Louis—got this figured out. They provided 146 hours of training, 3.8% of its payroll, for every employee during 2002. And new brokers get—are you ready for this—four times as much. And in today’s economy where job loyalty has all but vanished, providing valuable training to your employees is about the only fail-safe strategy left to insure that people stay with you. Because employees who feel that they are growing on the job are much more likely to feel like volunteers and stick with you!

• Pay well and provide generous benefits

“But we can’t afford that”—is what I am told repeatedly, especially by managers who have high turnover rates. So let's do a little bit of quick math. Let's assume that your turnover rate is 40%, your average salary including benefits is $25,000/year/employee, and that you have 200 employees. Human resource professionals estimate that replacing an experienced employee costs—depending on skill level—an average of one to one and a half times the employees’ annual salary. Some of that cost is obvious such as recruiting, interviewing and training costs. The greatest proportion, however are hidden costs. For example, when you lose an experienced employee, customer satisfaction will be lowered, which may have a significant negative impact on your bottom line. And the new employee, even being properly trained, will not perform at the same level of competence and productivity of an experienced employee for at least several months. This too, costs you. Plus there are many other hidden costs every time you lose an experienced employee. Let’s be conservative, and use the one times annual salary estimate. That means that the turnover cost for this hypothetical case is $2,000,000 per year (80 employees x $25,000). If you are able to cut that turnover rate in half, you would save $1,000,000 per year. I bet, that even if you paid slightly more than the competition, tied additional compensation to performance such as customer satisfaction, and provided your employees with highly valued fringe benefits, you would have lots of money left over! Money that would go straight to your bottom line.

• Help employees succeed

You know the old saw: nothing breeds success like success. Well guess what, it’s true. Volunteers want to feel good about themselves and one of the best ways to do that is to help them succeed faster. So promote from within and do whatever you can to provide team members with highly challenging assignments. Provide tuition assistance, empower, coach and do whatever it takes to enable team members to succeed and while they are doing that they will just happen to make significant contributions to the overall success of your organization. That’s nice!

• Build a high trust workplace

High trust starts with telling employees more than they want to know, making sure that your word is as good as gold, and giving employees self-confidence so that they can become the best they can be. And it’s supplemented with a strong bias against layoffs. (Edward Jones and a great majority of the Fortune 100 Best companies have never had a mass layoff).

• Be positive and energetic

Attitudes, just like colds are catching. Positive attitudes are caught just as easy as negative attitudes. The only problem is that negative attitudes suck the energy out of your team members like a giant sponge—something volunteers are just not going to put up with. On the other hand positive attitudes are like the little Energizer bunny, it’ll keep your team members going, and going, and...(Well, you get it.) To build a positive attitude, become aware of your conversations including the ones that you have inside of your head. Recognize that positive language energizes you, and negative, cynical, “stinking thinking” conversations, de-energize you and your team members. Make it a practice to say positive things, especially about other people, or say nothing at all. Also recognize that your mind can hold only one thought at a time. It can either be positive or negative, it is your choice! So when you catch yourself thinking positive thoughts, congratulate yourself. On the other hand when you are thinking negative thoughts, catch yourself, change those thoughts, then give yourself credit. Remember your team members take their cue from you! You must be the role model for the kind of behaviors you want them to exhibit. (For in-depth strategies of how to make this happen read my Make It a Winning Life book.)

What’s all this add up to? My work with highly successful companies has shown me that treating your team members like volunteers means that you will have lower turnover rates, will be able to pick the cream of the crop any time you need to fill a vacancy and achieve massive improvements in your overall profitability.

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